Stateless Stochastic Automatons

…is my krautrock band name. Seriously, while driving to NYC last weekend, I finally started listening to Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders’ podcast, Our Opinions Are Correct – specifically, ep. 18: Alien Minds. It was so good that I listened a second time on my way home; strongest possible recommendation. The episode addresses alien minds in 3 big chunks: alien aliens (little green men/BEMs), AI/created minds and aliens that live on the planet with us.

The outer space alien portion focused partly on communication (my sweet spot) – it caused me to add Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series to my TBR list and made me think about a couple of my favorite aliens. The Ariekei/Hosts of China Miéville’s Embassytown speak with two mouths driven by one mind and their “Language does not allow for lying or even speculation, the Language reflects both their state of mind and reality as they perceive it”.* There are a bunch of interesting things going on: language/mind feedback, the destabilizing effect of new ‘technology’ and, for me especially, the Fall (of Babel/from a state of language perfection) as the Hosts learn to lie. The other aliens that sprang to mind were the Wang Carpets from Greg Egan’s Diaspora. I honestly don’t remember whether communication ever got established with the Carpets, but they were a great stab at building an intelligence that was barely recognizable.

[A] voyaging ship has found the first example [of alien life] on planet Orpheus, large “carpets” submerged and slowly moving through an ocean. The carpets hardly seem candidates for sentient life, each one being comprised of a single long carbohydrate molecule. But it turns out they are behaving as a Turing Machine made up of Wang tiles (renamed Wang’s Carpets by the human clones who discovered them).

Wang tiles are a mathematical system proposed by Hao Wang in the form of a conjecture that [simplified version:] square tiles with differently coloured sides can fill an plane, and if so in a periodic pattern. Hao Wang argued that if the such a tiling exists that would imply that there is also an algorithm that would decide if such a pattern exists. Wang’s student showed that there is no such algorithm and the tiling problem is undecidable.

The Wang Carpets on Orpheus are doing that computation, but instead of the simple two-dimensional case proposed by Hao Wang, in this story the carpets occupy many levels in the ocean and thus an immensely powerful computation is going on (and can be visualised by Fourier analysis). An intelligence comprised of a multidimensional Turing Machine. *

The AI minds portion was excellent as well – encoded biases/non-neurotypical AI minds/&c, but I’m going to just tell you to listen. I’m going on longer than I wanted and am going to cut to the chase; the portion where Newitz and Anders talk to Lisa Margonelli about her book, Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology. Most of my exposure to eusocial insects is via the Hymenoptera as a beekeeper and as a lover of both Uncle Milton and Six legs Better. Termites are different critters entirely. They’re most closely related to cockaroaches and rely on their gut biota to digest cellulose. A superorganism with symbiotic protists, which in turn have bacterial ectosymbiotes? Hell yes. What really got me going was the discussion (35:27) of what I am assuming (bought the book, haven’t cracked it yet) are Macrotermes colonies.

Macrotermes colonies host a remarkable symbiotic relationship with a basidiomycete fungus, Termitomyces. The termites cultivate the fungi in a fungus garden, comprising a few hundred fungus combs, structures built from chewed up grass and wood, and inoculated with fungal spores. Each year, these fungi produce a crop of large mushrooms (pictured at left), known locally as omajowa, which are highly prized as a delicacy.

Unlike the fungi cultivated by leaf-cutter ants, which the ant colony uses as food, the Termitomyces culture in a Macrotermes nest aids in the breakdown of cellulose and lignin into a more nutritious compost which serves as the termites actual food. The fungus garden is, therefore, a kind of extracorporeal digestive system, to which termites have ‘outsourced’ cellulose digestion. *

An aside – I inoculated some logs last spring with shiitake and oyster mushroom spawn and it occurred to me at the time that what I was doing was turning wood into food with a fungal assist.

fungus comb

I’m unclear as to whether Macrotermes have the same gut biota as other termites (wait!! see below) – guess I need to read Underbug. Regardless, what a superorganism! What a community! Extra bonus – one of the species of fungus, Termitomyces titanicus, “has a cap that may reach 1 metre (3 ft) in diameter on a stipe up to 22 inches (57 cm) in length and is reputed to be the largest edible mushroom in the world.”* Termite-stuffed mushroom caps anyone (totally serious)?

By Blimeo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

P.S. It occured to me as I was proofreading that perhaps I could do a google search on ‘macrotermes gut biota’ and yes, there are papers!

Gerry Anderson, and the XL5 theme as sung by Neil Gaiman

Gerry Anderson died last Wednesday. I’ve mentioned previously how important he was to me growing up. I’m not alone. Here is Neil Gaiman singing the Fireball XL5 theme last night (New Years Eve):

One more Fireball reference I’d like to note – Alan Moore made a great joke in The Black Dossier: “Allan Quatermain and Mina Murray steal a rocket named Pancake XL4. Each ship of the series is traditionally named after the manner of her predecessor’s destruction. The Mushroom Cloud XL2 and the Shrapnel XL3 are named as other examples of the Fireball XL5′s antecedents. The Pancake XL4 is destroyed by a collision with a mountain, exploding in a huge fireball and earning the XL5 its name.” *

Dinosaurs and Time Travel

Ripped from the Twitter headlines! The genesis of this post:


I’ll pull @aeromenthe’s excellent link out and embed it. L. Sprague de Camp’s (1956) A Gun for Dinosaurs:


I think there’s a rule that any time travel yarn has to deal with a kill-yer-grampy paradox (did H. G. Wells address it? I honestly can’t remember.) de Camp’s universe won’t allow a paradox, but Ray Bradbury’s will – A Sound of Thunder (1952) is his time travel/dino hunting tale. Tangentially – while looking for an on line version of ASoT, I stumbled across a reference to another dino hunting story I’ve never read: Birian Aldiss’ ‘Poor Little Warrior!’

As regards time travel paradoxes, you’d need to go a long way to beat Heinlein’s All You Zombies. Warning – classic Heinlein attitude displayed throughout.

In A Gun for Dinosaurs, Reginald Rivers talks about using a .600 Nitro Express in the Cretaceous. A .600 NE is a huge gun, but whenever I think of dinosaur guns, one always springs to mind: the Holland & Holland Saurian 4 bore.


A little bit of history… Before there was modern smokeless powder, there was black powder. Both propellants get called gunpowder, but they are not the same thing. Black powder burns much more slowly than smokeless, and thus, with reasonable barrel lengths, just can’t produce muzzle velocities (how fast the bullet is going when it leaves the barrel) that hunters take for granted today. There are 2 terms in the equation for kinetic energy – velocity and mass. Since our black powder velocity is constrained, upping the mass is the option that’s left. The bore number is how may lead spheres of bore diameter it would take to get to 1 lb. A round ball bullet for a 4 bore weighs a quarter pound! Wikipedia’s entry on the 4 bore is quite good, if you’re curious.

I’m assuming the Saurian is built for black powder (or black powder equivalent) loads, though it’s somewhat academic. This is an art gun – an opportunity for engravers, smiths, stockmakers and cabinet makers to show their skills. I have an old magazine somewhere with more pictures of the Saurian – if I ever find it I will scan and post. The case, as I recall, included a glassed in area with a display of varous dinosaur fossils. Is the Saurian what I’d choose for my time travel dino hunt? Hell no. But it’s not like I’m going to have to choose anything any time soon.

And to finish, via @tetzoo, a major dino hunting disappointment.



The Circus, The Laundry and Apophenia

A month or so ago I re-watched the classic 1979 BBC adaptation of LeCarré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – partly to get ready for the new Gary Oldman movie, but mainly because it is so damn good. I was happily viewing when one shot caused my jaw to drop:


George Smiley is on his way to the Lamplighter’s HQ to interview Toby Esterhase. I saw the ‘Starlight Laundry’ sign and immediately thought of Mr. Stross. His wickedly entertaining Laundry series is a Secret Service/Lovecraft/bureaucracy horrorthrillercomedy amalgam that I can recommend unreservedly. “Aha”, says I, “I’ll bet this scene is The Laundry’s birthplace!”

Alas. A little while later I tweeted – wondering if there was any back story to the choice of a laundry in the BBC shot.  [technical note – I will work out the ’embedding Storify w/in a WordPress post’ kinks in the fullness of time – for now, a screen scrape]

“Apophenia is the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.” *

And lest anyone think I’m particularly observant/pattern recognizing/perceptive, I think this one belongs in the “even a blind pig can believe he’s found an acorn once in a while” bucket.

Thinking About the MacGuffin


“In our time — which is a rather stupid time — hunting is not considered a serious matter.” *

This is the picture that planted the seed:

The figurine is described at Super Punch as a Falconer Predator. My first reaction was excitement – what would a Predator fly? How big (Haast’s Eagle size maybe)? I pretty quickly segued into thinking about Predators as hunters – especially with an eye towards fair chase – after all, the movies have been telling us since version 1 that Predators are hunting.

Before I embarrass myself further, a couple points. First, and most important, I realize the Predator is essentially a MacGuffin – horror/thriller subsp.: the nameless, implacable threat element. The alien is there to serve the story; it’s not reasonable to expect a consistent Predator backstory or even consistent behavior from movie to movie. Second, I doubt any of the writers thought very deeply about hunting. My guess is that the original pitch was more like, “It’s The Most Dangerous Game! With an alien! And Arnold and Jesse ‘The Body”! And a mini-gun!” Thus the die was cast – man-hunting became the central narrative element. In spite of these caveats, I just couldn’t leave it be – the more I thought about it, the more interested I became in figuring out what the action really revealed.

So – by way of inquiry, I netflixed Predator, Predator 2, Alien Vs. Predator, went to see Predators in the theater and re-read my copy of Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Hunting. Aliens Vs. Predator – Requiem has yet to be viewed – the Design Student tells me it’s the worst of the lot – I may choose to remain blissfully ignorant. Things I noticed:

  • Predators are gamehogs. They are supposed to be trophy hunting, but their definition of trophy is pretty inclusive. The first Predator kills two squads (minus one) worth of special forces types, the second kills oodles of drug dealers, a couple cops and most of Gary Busey’s X-Files contingent. AvP throws the whole ‘being armed makes you a target’ thing over the side – being in the wrong place at the wrong time (I’m thinking the whalers in 1904, especially) make you trophy quality.
  • Not that there’s any shortage of human game, but the Predator’s approach reminds me a bit of the popular image of late-period buffalo hunters. At least the buffalo hunters took tongues and/or humps for the market – one wonders how big the Predator’s skull room needs to be.
  • Preserve hunting is A-OK with the Predators. The pyramid in AvP is closer to a lasertag playground than anything else I can think of. The preserve in Predators is a lot larger, but the way the humans are stocked is guaranteed to disorient them.

The overwhelming feeling that I had watching the movies was that what I was seeing wasn’t hunting. Way too much general slaughter, WAY too much hand to hand combat and a weird confusion of military fighting, honor fighting/dueling and the chase.

I thought about it for a while before I dropped back to my copy of Meditations on Hunting, knowing that Ortega y Gasset thinks hard about what hunting is and isn’t. On page 47 of my edition I found a paragraph that clarified things immensely:

If the hunted is also, on the same occasion, a hunter, this is not hunting: it is combat, a fight in which both parties have the same intention and similar behavior. Fighting is a reciprocal action. The gladiator in the arena did not hunt the panther that had been let out of the cage; he fought with it, because neither found himself in a natural situation. In the course of hunting a fight may occur, as in the case of the wild boar which, when cornered, turns and attacks the hunter; but this fight has only incidental significance within the hunt, and whatever grave consequences may result, it is only an anecdote embroidered on the main tapestry of hunting. If the hunted animal were normally to fight with man, so that the relationship between the two consisted in this fight, we would have a completely different phenomenon. For this reason, bullfighting is not hunting. Neither does the man hunt the bull, nor does the bull, upon attacking, do so with hunting intentions.” *

Bingo! Predators are gladiators/bullfighters. Human skulls are like bull’s ears. Which leads to an obvious question. Every ‘exhibition’  fight I can think of is done for an audience. Are the Predators instrumented and cam-ed for an audience back home? There’s a backstory that could provide some consistency – Hollywood big-wigs, I’ll be waiting for your call.

[other notes]

Slight spoiler – there was no falconer in Predators. I don’t know if it got cut, or if I’m supposed to accept an autonomous reconnaissance drone that happens to mount to a Predator’s shoulder weapon rack as falconry – it ain’t.

One of the key plot points in AvP is nutty. I’m supposed to accept that the Predators leave all their weapons stashed in lasertag pyramid between ‘hunts’? What, they have draconian gun laws back home? (And we’ll ignore all the evidence to the contrary from the first two flicks.)

In the future, Lance Henricksen will be ubiquitous.

Stupid? Or liars?

I’m afraid I’m starting believe that 1st world institutions – as a whole – are not capable of responding to the oncoming train that is global warming.

It seems mind-numbing, but Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said snowfall in D.C. has had an effect on policymakers’ attitudes. “It makes it more challenging for folks not taking time to review the scientific arguments,” said Bingaman, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

As the threat of the crisis grows more intense, Congress cannot act. The environmental consequences are likely to be severe and unforgiving. *

Protip for our largely old, white, male, not very bright solons: Weather does not equal climate and the plural of anecdote is not data.

The way things are playing out in Washington doesn’t make me hopeful – here’s John Cole’s accurate analysis of how things work – different topic, but the same dynamic applies (big quote, but read the whole thing. NOW.).

But here is the thing- we can’t do anything about it. I’m sure the House could pass a bill containing a small stipend for Americorps volunteers- in fact, I bet it would get a good bit of support. It might even be very popular with the entire country, as well as being good policy! Likewise, I bet almost all the Democrats and even some Republicans in the Senate would be in favor of passing that bill.

Except the bill would never pass, and I’m surprised James does not recognize that he is operating in a fantasy world. Once the bill hit the Senate, the fun would begin. Even though in the past there were probably numbers of Republicans who supported Americorps, the large majority of them would just flat out say no.

Wanting to negotiate in good faith, having never learned a lesson ever, the Democrats like Baucus and Conrad would slow down the debate to give the Republicans time to participate. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe would work for a couple weeks with Senate leadership, get a couple things they want in the bill, then sigh and utter their public regrets that they just can not support the bill. Chuck Todd, the Politico, and other dullards in the beltway media would run a few pieces wondering why Obama hasn’t reached out more to moderates. While this is happening, the wurlitzer’s media blitz starts.
First off, we all know who loves Americorp- the Clenis. From there, it is all downhill. Breitbart would seize upon the bill, and claim that the anonymous stipend is just President Obama seeking to pay off his campaign volunteers- just like the KHMER ROUGE, POL POT, STALIN, AND DUVALIER! They would find some innocuous aspect of Americorps and turn it into something that is no doubt worse than Hitler.

The subservient GOP drones in the blogs would pick up everything Breitbart has said. Instapundit and Reason magazine would wake from their glibertarian slumber to denounce this “vast, wasteful expansion of government.” The Fonzi of Freedom, Nick Gillespie, would make fifty idiotic web videos decrying the bill, in between appearances on Fox News and penning stupid op-eds with Matt Welch in the NY Post. Pete Suderman and Megan McCardle would exchange links to each other, giving us all an eye into the steamy world of glibertarian pillow talk. Welch would do his own part, pointing out that the French have something very similar to Americorps, and he really enjoyed their services while he and his wife were in France, but now that they are here in America and rake in enough money that they don’t need those services, he will loudly and in the most smug manner possible oppose Americorps. Also, he is still pissed that his car was not accepted for Cash for Clunkers.

Malkin would start printing the addresses of Americorps volunteers, and would have her internet sleuths post a facebook picture of an Americorps worker drunk four years ago while in college. By this time, the noise machine is in full swing, and Rush, Glenn Beck, Hannity, the Heritage Foundation, the rest of the Koch funded “think tanks,” Fox News, the NY Post and the Washington Examiner, the NR, and the Weekly Standard and the other wingnut welfare publications would all embark on another disinformation campaign. *

Chris Hedges says something I think is true: it’s getting to be time to turn our backs on globalized capitalism – eschew WallyMart, expand the garden, raise a pig, redouble efforts to buy local – and transition to a simultaneously backyard (most physical feeds) and world-spanning (network infoculture) mode. Direct opposition can’t be the main approach; power/media/system ju-jitsu is called for.

All resistance must recognize that the body politic and global capitalism are dead. We should stop wasting energy trying to reform or appeal to it. This does not mean the end of resistance, but it does mean very different forms of resistance. It means turning our energies toward building sustainable communities to weather the coming crisis, since we will be unable to survive and resist without a cooperative effort. These communities, if they retreat into a pure survivalist mode without linking themselves to the concentric circles of the wider community, the state and the planet, will become as morally and spiritually bankrupt as the corporate forces arrayed against us. All infrastructures we build, like the monasteries in the Middle Ages, should seek to keep alive the intellectual and artistic traditions that make a civil society, humanism and the common good possible. Access to parcels of agricultural land will be paramount. We will have to grasp, as the medieval monks did, that we cannot alter the larger culture around us, at least in the short term, but we may be able to retain the moral codes and culture for generations beyond ours. *

(See here for another good Hedges post – this on the bankruptcy of traditional media: “The symbiotic relationship between the press and the power elite worked for nearly a century. It worked as long as our power elite, no matter how ruthless or insensitive, was competent. But once our power elite became incompetent and morally bankrupt, the press, along with the power elite, lost its final vestige of credibility. The press became, as seen in the Iraq war and the aftermath of the financial upheavals, a class of courtiers. The press, which has always written and spoken from presuppositions and principles that reflect the elite consensus, now peddles a consensus that is flagrantly artificial.”)

On a slightly brighter note, I’m reading Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids. Reviews on Amazon are, to put it mildly, mixed; at approximately 1/3 of the way in, I’m enjoying it, perhaps because I find any post-onset-of-climate-crisis future where we’ve managed to retain some cultural continuity comforting. Based on the mixed reaction, you may want to use your local library or, if you follow @bruces, he twote a link to a pirate copy. Lest you think Caryatids is all sweetness and light, both major characters we’ve been introduced to so far have lost most of their families to violence in the starvation, food riots, disease and chaos as the climate crisis ramped up..

The Avatar post

Saw it. Liked it.  There may be spoilers from here on so proceed at your own risk. If you go expecting a great story line, you may be disappointed – on this continuum, I’d put it right between Star Wars (classic quest yarn, well realized) and The Phantom Menace (wha?). That may actually be a decent analogy – Terminator was an edge of seat experience when I first saw it, just as Star Wars was; since then both Cameron and Lucas have been having fun with tech at the expense of storytelling. Cameron hasn’t gone all the way – there is a narrative in Avatar. I’ve got to agree with Annalee’s critique of the movie, though I do think that Sully’s (easily anticipated) final choice is a variation that helps rescue things a bit. So, what did I like?

Critters! Yes, they’re bilaterally symmetrical and often look a lot like beasts here (blue space horsies, anyone?), but I’m a sucker for just about any kind of speculative exobiology. Cameron could have been a LOT more daring in his critter design without going as far as Eganesque info-processing Sierpinski carpets (tough to relate to) but you gotta take what you can get . While I’m on the subject, let me recommend a few good specbio picture books – After Man, Expedition and Worlds. When I see Avatar again I’m planning on ignoring the bipeds most of the time and concetrating on hammerhead peacockotheria, tubewormplants and their ilk.

Tech! The best CG faces ever – they avoided the uncanny valley altogether. This one worried me – I’ve seen snatches of The Polar Express on teevee – it’s horrifying. 3D – I stopped consciously noticing depth about 5 minutes in. Part of my motivation for the second view is to try to figure out whether good 3D makes a difference – I’m going to see the non-3D version.

Action! Cameron does good action scenes – there were no surprises in the big final battle, but it was quite exciting anyway.

Neither here nor there – Avatar has the McGuffiniest McGuffin ever – although, unsurprisingly, the thing that motivates all the conflict fades into obscurity damn quick. The name? The notion that anything is worth transporting over interstellar distances given light speed/energy constraints? Wow.

That’s it – light entertainment with oodles of ‘ooh, shiny’.


The future – here, but not widely distributed

Three quick forward-looking links.

Crooked Timber is doing a Charlie Stross book event.

A New Year, a new Crooked Timber book event. But instead of one book, we’re covering a dozen or so, all written by Charlie Stross, exploring different forms of the SF genre from postcyberpunk to alternate history and beyond. For this we need an all star cast, and, in addition to several CT regulars (Henry, both Johns and Maria), we have contributions from Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong and Ken MacLeod. Between us, we’ve managed to cover nearly everything. Glaring exceptions include the Laundry series, which every fan of Len Deighton and HP Lovecraft should read, and Glasshouse. I’ve added an open thread at the end of the seminar, for those who want to discuss what we missed.


Geoff Manaugh is getting close on the BLDGBLOG book.  Close enough, in fact, that he’s posted some Wordle word clouds – looks like it’s going to be an interesting read.


At City of Sound, The Personal Well-Tempered Environment.


  • A real-time dashboard for buildings, neighbourhoods, and the city, focused on conveying the energy flow in and out of spaces, centred around the behaviour of individuals and groups within buildings.
  • A form of ‘BIM 2.0’ that gives users of buildings both the real-time and longitudinal information they need to change their behaviour and thus use buildings, and energy, more effectively. An ongoing post-occupancy evaluation for the building, the neighbourhood and the city.
  • A software service layer for connecting things together within and across buildings.
  • As information increasingly becomes thought of a material within building, it makes sense to consider it holistically as part of the built fabric, as glass, steel, ETFE etc.

If I can't have a thoat, this'll do

I know it’s been all over the web, but I don’t care. I’m posting this picture because it’s just so friggin’ amazing:


The Mars Reconaissance Orbiter takes a picture of the Mars Phoenix Lander as the Lander parachutes down. I wish I could find the Arthur C. Clarke quote about 2001 coming true (except for the monolith pieces), but not being noticed because the principal players were/are all robotic.

The Phoenix Lander has a Twitter account – the latest tweet: “Looking forward to moving arm today. Will bend the wrist and flex the elbow. It’s been stowed for 10 months so I’ll move it slowly/gently.” (@marsphoenix)

Purple hair and other attributes

Continuing with our Drake theme- this time, emphasizing UFO hair – color, if not length: Charlie Stross (who’s heard of J. G. Ballard) writes a post explaining how much control an author has over the way their book is published (especially, in this case, influence over cover art).

Unless we’re talking about the small press or self-publishing, the answer is “zip”. The author is responsible for writing and delivering the contents of the book and, optionally, additional material such as a dedication and acknowledgements. But the way their manuscript — a typescript, typically prepared in accordance with the ancient and established Rules — is turned into a book is entirely up to the publisher.

Why would he feel that it was important to say this? Behold the US cover for his latest – due for a July release:


As an aside – what better place for the immobile enhanced breast meme than in a CGI portrait…

More alt history

Via The Reality-Based Community, a link to this overview of the work of Onken and Jones. It ties in to a question I’ve always had about the way events work – are there really pivot points, or are there broad trends that force thing in certain directions and we retrofit the specific causes (or – as things seem usually to be – a bit of both)?

The researchers also found that assassinations have no effect on the inauguration of wars, a result that “suggests that World War I might have begun regardless of whether or not the attempt on the life of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 had succeeded or failed.”

In other news, my friend Ray seems to have been involved with early efforts towards a transatlantic cable, discussing same with a favorite steam-vicky – Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Alt history

Alternative histories can be a lot of fun – or they can be teeth-grindingly dumb. Part of the trick, it seems to me, is to find a good pivot point – a specific thing that could have gone differently – and then carefully work through the implications. Done poorly, it devolves into a “Well, my Goths invented the Gatling gun” – “So what? My Romans allied with Godzilla!” kind of exercise (complete with the smell of burning plastic and the pop of Black Cats – not that I’d know anything about it); done well, it makes you wonder about why things turned out the way they did.

All this is a long-winded way of pointing you at a Strange Maps post on a map of the Republic of New Netherland – maps and alternative history – nice match. While I’m on the subject, C.M. Kornbluth’s Two Dooms is alt history that is definitely worth a read.