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Friday, December 30, 2016

Reading Order

You might not think about it very often, but people have different ideas of the order books in a series should be read or movies should be watched. You probably go into a library after hearing that something is good, and look for “book 1.” But there are different ways of determining which book is “book 1,” and here at A Scientist’s Fiction we are generally unsatisfied with letting someone else do our thinking for us, so let’s dive into the mess.

I assume most people go by publication order when deciding what order to read something. They would watch Star Wars in the order 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3. To me, reading books in the order they released is usually the obvious choice.

But some people want to read stories in the order their events take place, chronological order. For example, they would say you should start The Chronicles of Narnia with The Magician’s Nephew, and go 6, 1, 5, 2, 3, 4, 7. Or for Star Wars, they would go 1, 2, 3, Rogue One, 4, 5, 6, 7.

You could lose friends over this.
When chronological order and publication order disagree, I am usually in favor of publication order. But not always. So do I have two incompatible preferences that I switch between, or is there is another, as yet unstated option? The answer, partly, is a third option:

The order that makes the best of what you love most. Most of the time, books are written, including prequels and side stories, assuming that the readers know everything that has been written before. This is why I most often agree with publication order. Sometimes, though, neither gives the writing the best possible treatment. With the original Star Wars series, the best way is the Machete order, proposed by Rod Hilton on his blog five years ago. He says you should watch the films in the order 4, 5, 2, 3, 6 (and then the others, if you are really interested). This gives you two movies of Luke, two movies of Anakin, and one where they have their showdown.

Still, this only applies if you want to read every book or watch every movie and episode in the series. If it is long and somewhat disconnected, like Discworld or Star Trek (or Star Wars in the near future), then you might want to get straight to the best parts, and ignore the fluff and side stories.

In addition, different people get the most out of different things. For example, you may love character interactions, but if you are a longtime reader of A Scientist’s Fiction you know I love to be blind-sided by an earth-shattering plot twist. As you can see, the details can get really complicated.

Despite all this, I still believe there is a formula. I am of the philosophical persuasion that there is always a formula for everything, though I won’t take a tangent into the justification here. I cannot give you the equation for the formula of reading order, but I can tell you that it incorporates both the preferences of the individual readers and their external circumstances. Find out what you love about stories and check your time constraints, and base your reading order off of that. And when you introduce someone you know to the series, pay attention to their preferences when suggesting where they should begin. It all gets back to the golden rule, do unto others what you would have them do to you, and that includes getting to know them and what they are interested in, not assuming they are just like you. And if your friend does not see the same way as you, accept that it is okay to disagree.


On a different note, I want to give myself a pat on the back for releasing an ASF discussion on each of the five Fridays this month! It has been over a year and a half since the only other time I have done this. I don’t think it was a coincidence that I did it right after NaNoWriMo. Here is to keeping the momentum going!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Strange Cosm: A Short Story

Strange Cosm
By Christian David Horst

This story may have been subconsciously inspired by the webcomic BlankIt.

     They were. They did not awake in the traditional sense, nor as from a dream, nor a hallucination, nor any kind of slumber of any sort. They were simply there, two men between the ages of twenty and thirty coming to full awareness at the same time, with no memory of any existence prior to or outside of that moment, in that place—if a place it could be called, as there was nothing in any of the six directions but a smooth, monochromatic white. They could see each other, but the ground had no texture, the sky had no feature, and not even a horizon could be distinguished.
     Of the two men, one had a round face with eyebrows that seemed to jump off his face when he arched them. His clothes were semi-formal, but hung loosely, showing that he was comfortable and relaxed in them. On his wrist, he wore a bulky watch. The other was tall, had a square jaw and large, rectangular glasses. His mouth seemed stuck in a bewildered smile. He wore a sweatshirt and a brown scarf.
     “Who are you?” The tall man said.
     “I . . . don’t know.” The short man looked befuddled, but not the least bit frightened. “Who are you?”
     “Beats me. We’ve got to call each other something, though.” He pointed at the other man’s watch.      “You’re Wristwatch.” Then he looked down at the fabric hanging down his front. “And I’m Scarf.”
     “All right then, Scarf,” Wristwatch said, tapping his foot against the ground, “let’s try to figure it out.”
     “Figure what out?” Scarf said. He looked around. “Oh, that.”
     Wristwatch knelt down on the ground and placed his hand on it. “Decent friction. Grippy, but not sticky.” He tapped it with his knuckles. “Solid as rock.”
     “So what?” Scarf asked.
     “It means,” Wristwatch said, with a smirk, “that we’re definitely somewhere.”
     Scarf put his hands in his pockets and looked around. The lack of change in the view made him dizzy. “It sure doesn’t look like we are.”
     “It may look like we are in some kind of world between universes or something,” Wristwatch said,      “but we’re not.” He stomped his foot, and the ground clacked like marble. “This place has properties. That means it’s real. I mean, feel the air. A decent seventy Fahrenheit, if I might guess. And we’re breathing. That means the atmosphere must be a good fraction oxygen, and the rest non-toxic gases.”
     “That’s . . . interesting,” Scarf said.
     “Sure is. It means there has to be photosynthetic activity somewhere. Come on, let’s start walking and see if we can find anything.”
     “Which way?”
     Wristwatch looked around. “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter, as long as we keep going in a straight line.”
     Scarf started forward, but Wristwatch stopped him. “What’s up?” Scarf said.
     “We need a reference to make sure we aren’t walking in circles.”
     “Can’t we just keep going in the same direction?”
     “We could try, but humans are really bad at going straight without something far away as a reference, like a mountain, or stars in the sky.”
     Scarf looked up. “I guess you have a point there.” Wristwatch was silent, and Scarf looked down to find him eying the fabric tied around Scarf’s neck. “Oh no you don’t,” Scarf said, stepping back and holding his hands out defensively. “I’m named after this thing.”
     “What else are we going to use?” Wristwatch asked.
     Twenty minutes later, Scarf and Wristwatch marched forward, Wristwatch in his socks, holding one shoe in his hand. Every now and then they looked over their shoulders to make sure Wristwatch’s other shoe was directly behind them. It was little more than a dot by now, but since everything else was white, they could not miss it.
     “Hold up,” Scarf said, “I need to pee.”
     “Oh no,” Wristwatch exclaimed, “I forgot about bodily functions! How are we supposed to eat or drink in this place?”
     “Good question,” Scarf said, “but would you mind turning around?”
     “Oh yeah, sure.” Wristwatch turned his back, and the sound of zipping and then splattering liquid reached his ear. With a sudden inspiration, he said, “Does it flow?”
     “Uh, yeah.”
     “Which way?”
     “Uh, out, like it always does.”
     “No, I mean—forget it, are you done yet?”
     Scarf zipped up his pants. “Yeah. Hey, what are you doing?”
     Wristwatch scurried over and bent over the yellow-tinged pool. “Static,” he said. “As still as can be expected from a completely flat plane.”
     “So?”
     “Don’t you see?” Wristwatch stood up. “We thought we were on a flat plane. Now we have evidence supporting it.”
     “Uh, didn’t we already know that? What is the use of proving something you already know?”
     Wristwatch slapped his own face with the palm of his hand. He sighed, as if not sure how simple he had to go to explain. “Thinking and knowing are two different things. We thought we were in a flat plane, and now it has been confirmed. But we still don’t know it for sure, only that at this spot it is close enough to flat as to be indistinguishable from it.”
     “Dude, what does it matter?”
     “Ugh.” Wristwatch put his hand down and closed his eyes. “The more we know about this place, the better chance we have of surviving, escaping, adapting, etcetera. Make sense?”
     “Kind of, but wouldn’t it be better to learn about where to find food and water or something?”
     “Let me know when you have something to go on. Until then, I’m going to keep studying the finer details of the world in the hopes that something useful emerges.”
     They kept moving, walking for hours, nothing changing. “Something is wrong,” Wristwatch said.      “We’ve been here so long, and it’s still all the same. Nothing has happened to mark the passage of time. Even the light has remained constant.”
     “Yeah,” Scarf said, looking around his body. “And now that you mention it, we don’t have any shadows either.”
     Wristwatch stopped, standing straight, his eyebrows shooting up to the top of his forehead. “You’re right.” In addition to not casting shadows on the ground, they seemed to be illuminated equally from all sides. He could make darkened places by cupping his hands together over his face, but anything that was exposed to the whiteness was uniformly lit.
     “Oh, oh!” Wristwatch shouted. He shook, so excited that he actually started jumping up and down. He stopped and threw his arms open. “We’re not on a planet, or a plane!” He grinned at Scarf, showing his teeth. “The perfect lighting, and the fact that we can’t see a horizon or any variation in shade. The geometry works out perfectly. We’re inside a uniformly glowing sphere!”
     Scarf’s eyes slowly tracked upward. Then, pointing, he said, “Then shouldn’t we see your shoes up there somewhere?” Wristwatch’s first shoe had gone out of sight a while ago, and they had dropped his other one so they could know they were still going straight.
     “It’s too big for that,” Wristwatch said. “We might have to walk for miles and miles in order for there to be enough curvature for us to notice the difference.” He grinned. “And we’d need a much bigger shoe.”
     “And how do you know it’s a sphere? Why not a cube or a cylinder or something?”
     “Well I don’t know exactly, but it has to be close to a sphere because of the uniform lighting. Everything exposed to the surface is equally bright. Because we live in three dimensions, the intensity falls off as the square of the distance, and that adds up equally in all directions from any point inside the sphere. It’s Newton’s Shell Theorem, except with luminosity instead of gravity.” He took a breath. “Either that, or someone programmed the lighting to center on us.”
     At this point, Scarf was scratching his head. “Yeah, sure.”
     Wristwatch sighed. “You know, the single most important thing for us right now is to figure out how to get out of here so we can stay alive, and one of the best things we can do to further that goal is a little cosmology.”
     Scarf’s mouth twitched. “I guess. It’s just way over my head.”
     “You might try learning some mathematics sometime. It’s useful stuff.” They started walking again. “I wonder if we’ll find we’re walking uphill, or if the gravity always points outward. Hopefully one of us will have to pee again soon, so we can see if there is a downhill yet.”
Scarf made a face.
     Wristwatch stopped, face aglow with a new idea. “What if it’s spinning?”
     “Oh, I know this one!” Scarf said. “The centrifugal force from something spinning is like gravity.”
     “Centripetal force,” Wristwatch said, digging in his pocket. “It’s the ground pushing on us to keep us moving in a circle. There’s not actually a force pushing us outward. But yeah, you’re basically right.” He found a quarter, and squatted down and placed the coin on its edge, holding it with a finger.      “Come to think of it, gravity isn’t actually a force either.” He flicked the coin, and they watched it spin.
     “What are we looking at?” Scarf asked.
     “If the place is rotating, the coin should fall over quickly,” Wristwatch replied, a note of disappointment creeping into his voice. The quarter continued to spin gracefully. “The coriolis effect should keep its rotational direction constant, or from our perspective tip it over in the direction the sphere is spinning.” The coin loudly finished its ring-down, settling to the ground. “It looks like it’s gravity after all. Oh well, we would have to have been perfectly on the rotational axis not to feel like we were on a hill anyway, and my guess is that the Copernican Principle applies here.”
     “What’s that?”
     “The idea that we find ourselves at a reasonably average place instead of somewhere special. It’s really just probability. Although,” he looked back at his last shoe, a mere speck in the distance. “We might as well try walking in a different direction, just in case.”
     Scarf pointed to the ground. “You quarter is American.”
     Wristwatch looked down, and his face lit up. “You’re right! Let’s check our pockets for other things. And our clothes too.” He twisted his neck and pulled his shirt collar around to read the tag. “Made in China. Figures.”
     “I found a wallet!” Scarf said. “And it has . . .” he fumbled it open, and his face fell. “No ID.”
     “What’s this?” Wristwatch said. He pulled his hand out of his pocket. In his palm was a compass. “Sweet!” He turned it, and the needle turned with the shell. Frowning, he gave it a twist, and the needle rotated a little more.
     “Doesn’t work?” Scarf asked.
     “Maybe, but I’m more willing to bet there’s just no magnetic field here. It’s too bad; we might have had a new way to keep going forward. As it is . . .” his gaze tracked down to Scarf’s feet.
     Hours later, the two of them found themselves in what appeared to be the exact same place as they started, minus their shoes. Any sign of what they had left behind was lost in the distance, and still their surroundings had no feature, no variation, just endless white.
     Wristwatch sat on the ground and heaved a sigh. “Let’s rest for a bit.”
     Scarf sat down nearby. Their feet were sore, and it felt good to be off them.
     Wristwatch lay on his back and groaned. “What is this place?” he said. “Why are we here? How do we know things as if we have past lives, but have no memory of those lives?”
     “Yeah, it’s pretty weird.”
     “And all the things we figured out—the temperature, the friction of the ground, the lack of magnetic field—no matter how much I think about it, nothing makes sense.
     “Maybe it’s a dream.” Scarf offered.
     “Pinch yourself. It’s real. And think of all the time between when we first ‘woke up’ to now. You can remember a full narrative. If we were dreaming, there would be gaps and contradictions, and things that change when we look away. This is too consistent.”
     “A story, maybe? Stories make sense where the characters look, but there comes a point when the writer says, ‘that’s enough,’ and there’s no more further detail.”
     “But we’re conscious,” Wristwatch said. “Consciousness is something we know is absolutely real. It can’t be imagined into existence in a made-up world.”
     “What about a simulation? That could have all the features of a story, but be more open-ended. And there might be a way to create consciousness in a simulated world.”
     “Maybe.” Wristwatch yawned.
     “We’ll have more time to think about it tomorrow,” Scarf said.
     “Yeah, I guess so.”
     They stopped talking, and soon their thoughts grew incoherent, as they drifted off toward sleep.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Bad Science Arguments


Science is the pinnacle of thought, plowing relentlessly into the unknown, conquering it and making it ours. Science has shown us great truths, that the universe is amazingly old, that all life is related, that the sun is a star of billions in the galaxy, and the Milky Way is one galaxy of billions in the universe, and countless more. Science is a monolith of thought, knowledge, and understanding. Yet despite this—or perhaps because of it—a few ideas have made into the mainstream consciousness of the scientifically-minded community that do not meet the rigorous standards of a scientific claim. In this discussion, I will go through a few of them, explaining the arguments, and then pointing out where they fail. We shall see that they all share a common problem.

Note: I am not talking about scientific ideas that are misunderstood. That is another discussion. This is about ideas that many scientists and science enthusiasts subscribe to, and perhaps should not.

The Doomsday Argument

By Indigodeep on Deviantart
The Doomsday Argument claims humanity is on the brink of extinction. It goes like this: suppose someone was randomly chosen from anywhere in human history. What time period would you expect that person to be from? We know from history that the human population grows exponentially, so the later in time we look, the more humans we see. That is, until we die out. It is an ever-more-strongly-rising peak, and then a near-immediate jump down to dwindling numbers, and then extinction. Therefore we would expect to find our randomly chosen human being to be found near the end of human civilization. But think, you yourself are a randomly chosen human being from all of human history, so you should expect to find yourself near the end of human history. Therefore, we must conclude that humanity is about to die out.

Because I want to believe humanity will flourish for the rest of the lifetime of the universe, I have a personal interest in debunking this argumet. Luckily, it is quite easy to do so. The Doomsday Argument assumes that you and I are randomly picked from all of human history. We are not, though, we are you and I. Pick a point in history between the dawn of agriculture and the end of time, and the Doomsday Argument will give the same result: humanity is about to end.

The Doomsday Argument also fails to consider any particular method for human extinction. It is not easy to wipe out an intelligent species, and the more we advance, the more scenarios we can avoid. We have space programs that can find and deflect asteroids that are on a collision course with Earth. Some disasters might wipe out a significant number of us, but we will be able to rebuild and return, advancing further than before. We can weather out nuclear winter in underground bunkers. We can adapt to global warming. There are still possibilities we cannot avoid, like the sun suddenly increasing its temperature or a nearby star going supernova, but we can catalog these possibilities, and it is reasonable to assume that none of them will happen within a few billion years. Despite the cynicism of the Doomsday Argument, it looks like humanity will be here for a long time.

The Simulation Hypothesis

It is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been put over your eyes to blind you
 from the truth.
Look at how computer technology is advancing. Twenty years ago, the internet barely existed, and now it is all but an extension of people’s brains. Science used to be done with a pencil and paper, and now it is done on supercomputers. In all likelihood, this trend will continue.

Our simulation capabilities are getting better and better. We are at the point where we can put a billion particles in a virtual box, shake it up, and watch them form into galaxies and galaxy clusters. The particles we use have the mass of a thousand suns, but if computation continues to get better, there may be no limit to the complexity of the simulations we can run. In fact, a billion years from now when we have mega-computers that surround entire stars, we may be able to simulate a universe the size of our own, with particle-perfect precision. Given the vast number of stars in the universe, there are bound to eventually be a staggering number of simulated universes, compared to our one real universe. With this information, we are infinitely more likely to find ourselves in one of the many virtual universes than in the one real universe.

Except there are a few major flaws in this argument. First, we are conscious creatures. Our consciousness resides in our brains, and brains are very different from computers. We do not yet have a science of consciousness, and have no idea if consciousness can be created by a computer algorithm.

Second, the same logic that tells us that we are probably in a simulation would tell us that the universe that simulates us is also probably a simulation, and the universe that simulates it is probably a simulation too. The argument looks at the complexity of our universe, and concludes that, since we can make universe-precise simulations in our universe, then our own universe is probably a simulation. In fact, the higher up we go, the more complex the universe we find ourselves in, the more likely it will be able to generate universe-precise simulations, and thus the more likely it is to be a simulation itself! It is an infinite regress, which blows up the further out we go. Any valid argument would have to result in the conclusion going the other way around, with simpler universes being more likely to be simulations than complex ones.

Some universe has to be the real thing. And until it has been demonstrated otherwise, I see no reason not to live as if the one we find ourselves in is it.

The Technological Singularity


Again consider how rapidly computation is progressing. Fifty years ago, the first people walked on the moon, using less computing power than a Texas Instruments calculator. Now, we have built programs that can beat humanity’s best chess and go players, and it is only a matter of time before a true Artificial Intelligence is born that can beat the best human at everything. Once this happens, it will upgrade itself, making it even better. Then it will upgrade itself again, and again, and again, and by the next day we will all be ruled by an all-powerful robot god. It is not a question of if, but when. And it is coming soon.

Except it’s a lot more complicated than that. Though human brains are often compared with computers, they really have very little in common. Computers may be able to do mathematical calculations far beyond the human capability to comprehend, but they do exactly what they are told, sometimes so exactly as to frustrate us to no end at their stupidity. For example, if we told an AI to “make paper clips,” and left the room, we might return to find it has turned the entire house into paper clips. And even if we can code some “common sense” into our AI, there are still things that humans will always be better at, like philosophy and the arts. Suggesting a computer that can outdo us at those things goes far into the realm of science fiction. The bottom line is, all it takes to avoid our AI worries is smart programming. We have to be responsible with what we create, no differently when we are talking about AI than any other technology.

There is also an implicit worry that a superintelligent Artificial Intelligence will become conscious, and want to wipe us out as evolutionary competitors. This is simply baseless worry, brought about by our human tendency to project our own perceptions and behaviors onto the universe. All life in nature, including us, evolved in competition with other life. That which was violent and destructive toward other life forms was more likely to survive. When we look back through our history and see the wars and the subjugation we wrought, it is because evolution favored those of our distant ancestors who had those things in their nature. AI is different; we decide its nature. So all we have to do to avoid our creation revolting against us is to program it with an unchangeable command to value above all else the freedom of human beings to pursue their own fulfillment.

The technological singularity is a much more nuanced than I have covered here, and it is interesting enough that I might write a whole other discussion about it sometime in the future.

Conclusion

All of these arguments have the same problem: they rely on the extrapolation of trends, and neglect to take into account any of the real factors that come into play. There is no immediate existential danger that we are not in the process of taking steps to prevent. We have no examples of perfect-precision simulated universes, nor any evidence that consciousness can exist within them. And we have no evidence of any computer having any intent at all, much less the intent to destroy us. These ideas are gold mines for science fiction; it is quite popular these days to have stories about AI gone amok or Earth being threatened by some catastrophe, and The Matrix did fairly well too. But science fiction is all they are.

For a final word, I want to point out that just because they are bad arguments does not mean they aren’t possible. It merely means it is not reasonable to take them as definite or inevitable at the present time. Science has such a good track record of providing solid, airtight arguments, that we run the danger of letting our guards down and simply accepting everything that comes from a scientific source. But it is important to remain agnostic when we do not have enough information to say one way or another, and we must take these ideas as warnings, so that we can look to the future with clarity and responsibility.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Fermi Paradox (The Great Silence)

The Great Mysteries:
Fermi Paradox
Consciousness


Humans have always looked up at the sky and wondered at what might be up there. In the millennia we have been around, we have come to find that the sun is a star, and we live on one of the planets revolving around that star. In recent years, we have found thousands of planets orbiting other stars, and estimated that the total number of planets in the galaxy vastly outweighs the number of stars.

60 years ago, a bunch of physicists were having lunch and talking about the possibility of intelligent aliens, when one of the physicists, Enrico Fermi, burst out “Where are they?” If there are so many stars and so many planets in the universe, why have we not seen any sign of life from another world? No visits, no messages, nothing. This question became known as the Fermi Paradox.

The first question you might have is, why should we think we should have seen alien life? Space is really, really big, after all. Another physicist, Frank Drake, proposed an equation to calculate the number of intelligent civilizations in the galaxy. This became known famously as the Drake equation. It gives us the probable number of civilizations in the galaxy, given the rate of star formation, the fraction of those stars with planets that could support life, the fraction of those planets that give rise to life, and the fraction of those planets that evolves intelligent life. The problem, though, is that we have no idea what numbers we should plug into it.

Can we guess? We have to look at human life, the only example we have. Intelligent life arose on Planet Earth in 4 billion years. In the 100,000 years since we evolved intelligence, we have gone from hunter-gatherers to globally-connected space-exploring civilizations. Assuming we continue to develop and expand, we will be all over the galaxy a few million years from now. So the time it takes between the beginning of life and the colonization of the entire galaxy is, at least in our example, about 4 billion years.

But the universe is 14 billion years old, so civilizations have had plenty of time in which to develop. Life needs heavy elements, which are only produced in the most extreme environments like supernovae or colliding neutron stars, so the longer the universe has been around, the better the environment for life to arise. Still, some of the first stars exploded less than a billion years after the big bang, which means it would have been possible for the first forms of life to arise 13 billion years ago. If it evolved to intelligence, then it would have spread across the galaxy ten billion years ago, and only continued to advance since!


If humanity is any example, intelligent life advances fast, a mere blink of an eye compared to the age of the universe. In science fiction we see all kinds of alien life forms encountering each other at about the same technological level, but this is unrealistic. Given the vast amount of time the universe has been around, if life arose elsewhere, it would be much more likely to be ancient than our age.

Science enthusiast YouTuber Isaac Arthur has gone further and suggested that as humanity expands, we will create artificial habitats around each star until the star is completely obscured from outside view. These swarms of habitats are called Dyson Spheres, after the physicist Freeman Dyson who first proposed their possibility. They would still give off infrared radiation as a heat signature, so we would be able to detect them. So if intelligent life besides us arose in the Milky Way, it would most likely be old and have covered all the stars with Dyson Spheres, so we should not be able to see any stars in the sky. Furthermore, this logic applies to all galaxies. Since we see billions of galaxies in the sky, and have so far found none to have the heat signature of a Dyson Swarm, then we might be pressed to conclude that we are the only intelligent species in the observable universe; a lonely and depressing thought.


So if civilizations are rare, what might be the reason? Some say it is because when civilizations advance enough, they turn introspective, have a strict non-interference policy, die out by natural disaster, or wipe themselves out in wars. But in order to resolve the Fermi Paradox, these explanations would have to apply to all civilizations, setting a heavy burden of proof to meet.

A more favorable resolution is something called the Great Filter, which would be an event in the course of the development of life that is extremely improbable. Any Great Filter candidate would have to be something that have happened only once in the history of life. There are several key events that fit this criterion, but I will focus on two of them: abiogenesis and intelligence. Since we have only one example of each happening, we cannot assign probabilities to them, so either or both might be extremely improbable.

We still do not know how life began on Earth. Though we have created simple bacteria in the laboratory in extremely artificial conditions, we have not observed it in nature nor in laboratory-reproduced conditions of the early Earth. If the Great Filter is abiogenesis, then life may truly be rare in the universe.

The evolution of intelligence is a happier Great Filter possibility, because it would mean that the universe is teeming with bacteria, plants, animals, and perhaps other Kingdoms we do not have on Earth. Imagine sending probes to planets around other stars, only to get back pictures of wild forests and creatures, ripe for colonization!


On the other hand, it may be that intelligent life is quite common, and we simply have not been able to find it yet. After all, the fraction of our own galaxy we have searched is so small that, as Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it, to claim there is no other life in the universe is like scooping up a glass of water from the surf and proclaiming there are no whales in the ocean. Space is big, and we have a lot of exploring ahead of us, and with the new telescopes we are building we may be on the brink of answering this age-old question.

Friday, December 2, 2016

NaNo Results 2016

I did it! I wrote a full novel draft in one month! The Void Stared Back, first draft, has a final word count of 28,800 (including editing notes). The official NaNoWriMo goal is 50,000 words, but my own personal goal was just to get it done. From what I have been able to gather in my studies, most writers are too wordy, having to cut and pare down to get their stories to be short enough. I am the opposite; I struggle to get my word count up to an acceptable level.

When starting out in writing (or any craft, really) we have a psychological barrier to success. The first book seems like an insurmountable sheer-faced mountain until you finally get to the top. The second is easier, and so on. This NaNo draft is the second first draft I have finished. It was easier than the first draft of Raiders, and I expect they will only get easier from here.

Don’t expect to see The Void Stared Back on shelves anytime soon. NaNo is meant for practice and momentum, not for great prose. There were times as I wrote when I though “ugh, this is the worst,” but instead of making it better, I added a note reminding my future self to fix it, and moved on. Now that I am finished, I am tired of this story, so I will put it aside for a while and let my brain go off to other things.

They say you have to write a million words before you get published. I would guess, thinking back over the years at my pre-writing, abandoned chapters, short stories, and full drafts, that I am at about 150,000. If my momentum keeps up, it should not be long before I get that count up to mastery.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Magic II: What is Not Science?

Magic series:
Four Types of Magic
What is Not Science?
What if Nothing is Real?

Of the topics to contemplate philosophically, one topic has particularly tickled my mind: the nature of magic. It is fascinating in a different way than other topics, because few if any philosophers have discussed it. When someone says, either in real life or in fiction, “it’s not magic,” I have consistently been confounded. What does this mean?

It's not magic . . . we swear.

When people say magic, they seem to be talking about the mechanism behind something. Yet magic is completely distinct from science. In fact, it seems that a phenomenon can fall into one of two categories, magic or science. So to understand what magic is, we might first explore what science is.

There have been several schools of thought over the centuries regarding science. Rather than go through all of the incorrect ones, I will list them so that you can look them up on your own if you want, and get straight to the point. The past theories are Inductivism, Deductivism, and Paradigm Theory. Today, the prevailing theory of science is Systematicity Theory. Basically, science is not just a method that humanity invented a few hundred years ago and continues to use today, but it is an ever-improving set of the best ways to systematically examine anything that can be studied using observation and reason.

Last year, I wrote a summary of four ways that I find the word “magic” is used: Functional, Supernatural, Natural, and Sympathetic. There is something here that immediately stands out: the Natural category. Natural magic is simply alternative laws of science that a fictional universe runs by. But if it is alternative science, why do we call it magic? Is it merely because it is different from the real universe? If that is so, then wouldn’t real science count as magic in our universe? The science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke once said “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” meaning if someone told us a piece of technology we didn’t understand was magic, we would have no way of telling whether they were being truthful or not. Based on this non-distinction between magic and advanced technology, we can say that Natural magic is really not magic at all.

Your ancestors called it magic, and you call it science.
Well I come from a place where they are one and the same thing.
—Thor

But we have already said that if something is science, then it is not magic. So we have found what I think to be the greatest barrier to understanding the concept of magic: its definition is contradictory. But we don’t want to raise our hands and dismiss magic as a useless topic; we want to dig deeper. So for the purpose of this discussion, I will choose the definition of magic as not science, because that is how I think it is most commonly used.

Let’s look at the definition of science again: the systematic study of anything that can be studied using observation and reason. Notice something: nowhere in there does it exclude consciousness or the supernatural. Here my view deviates from that of most scientists, but I see no reason not to include them. We do not currently have the means to study these things, but we have no reason to believe we never will. Consciousness interacts with the physical world; our brains know about it, and we can talk about it. Science is ever improving, and as we went from Biology to Psychology to Neuroscience, I think it is not unreasonable that the next step along that chain might be a science of consciousness. So Sympathetic magic is just another form of Natural magic, or just an illusion of magic.

And what is the supernatural? Well, it is supposedly another layer of reality that is not bound by natural laws, but can interact with the natural world. But if it can interact with the natural, then there must be some mechanism by which it can interact, and some mechanism by which it can cause the apparent suspension of natural laws. These mechanisms would be their own kind of natural laws. Thus anything supernatural is really an extension of the natural, and the line between natural and supernatural is arbitrarily drawn between what we understand and what we do not yet understand. All throughout history, we have examples of what was once thought to be supernatural becoming understood as a part of the natural: the planets moving according to the law of gravity; life evolving by mutation and natural selection; plagues, famines, and natural disasters. So Supernatural magic, like Sympathetic magic, is also another form of natural magic.

But hold on, what if the supernatural cannot be understood? What if, in how it interacts with the natural world, it is not consistent in anyway that could possibly make sense? Well then I would place it in the category of Functional magic. Functional magic is my term for any phenomenon whose function precedes its essence, that is, it exists because it happens, not the other way around. If Doctor Strange twists his hand and an apple un-eats itself, there is no mechanism behind it, it simply happens. The same is true when Harry Potter waves his wand and his dishes wash themselves. Functional magic is when something is not mysterious merely because it is unknown, but it is mysterious inherently. No matter how much you think about it, how systematically you examine it, it does not make any kind of sense.

We have seen that, of the four types of magic, only one is truly distinct from science: Functional magic. And here is the difference: a scientific phenomenon makes logical and mechanical sense if you study it deeply enough, where as a magical phenomenon does not. In any universe that adheres to the principles of logic, as any potentially real universe must, this is impossible. So the phrase, “it’s not magic” truly is meaningless, as it amounts to saying “it’s not something that cannot exist.” Magic is what we put in our fantastic imaginary universes when we want to instill a sense of mystery and wonder. It is a shortcut we take when we want to assert something without bothering to think up a mechanism behind how it works. Magic is impossible. Or, if you prefer to think of magic as a set of rules by which the universe works, you could say that magic is all around us, and we call it science.

So we have found the answer to what magic is. Case closed, right? Well, not exactly. There is one way to turn everything I’ve just talked about on its head, but it requires some rather dramatic changes to the metaphysical nature of reality. And that is a discussion for another time.

Friday, October 28, 2016

My Writing Journey and NaNoWriMo 2016

Picture by Mark Hess on Pinterest

Since I started this blog a year and a half ago, it has been a journey for me and my writing. I upgraded from Microsoft Word to Scrivener. I wrote a comprehensive outline for the first book of Moebius, for which I have unsuccessfully tried to write a draft for over a decade. I finished my first and second draft of my fanfiction novella, and published it on an online forum. Now, I am ready to break into a draft of an original science fiction story.

I have wanted to write a book since long before the seed of Moebius was sown in Zeldean soil. It started before I can remember, with the playful fantasies of a young child. The first storytelling memories I have are of stick figure comic adventures. My brothers and I built up a mythos of heroes, villains, young kids who love to go on adventures, and the goofy people they meet on the way. My first attempt at a book was around 10 years old, when I wrote a 100-word first chapter about a boy who woke up, went outside, bent down to pick up a stainless steel fork in the road, and then was abducted by a flying saucer. The mind of a child is a truly strange, often wonderful thing.

In my young teen years, I went through a phase of video game concept design. My brothers and I would draw platformer levels and imagine them coming to life. A couple of friends joined with us to plan out a Legend of Zelda game, which we turned into The Chronicles of MoebiusQuest to avoid copyright issues. I look back with fondness to when we drew scenery in notebooks and crafted character models out of pipe cleaners.

MoebiusQuest turned from a video game into a book series, which my friends and I began to co-author. One of us would write a chapter, then send it via e-mail to the others, who would mark it up in colored text and send it back. The first person would then respond to each comment in another color, and so on. Sometimes our conversations would go so long and so off topic that they would exhaust all the colors in the interface, and we would have to either repeat them or change the background color.

I started six separate drafts of Moebius, scrapping each version as I learned more about writing, and starting over again. During this time, I came up with idea after idea for books to write. Some were trash, born of a child’s mind, but some I still keep on the table today. Out of this, Raiders of the Forsaken Archives was born, and the seed for The Void Stared Back was planted.

The next significant event happened when I started this blog, sparking a major increase in the time and effort I gave to writing. From this, I finished a comprehensive, solid outline for the first book of Moebius, which has evolved into a giant sci-fi/fantasy universe in the years since its conception as MoebiusQuest. I completely finished Raiders, and now I sit on an outline for a new book to start power-writing in only a few days.

November is just around the corner, which means it is almost National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo, as it is called, is an event where eager authors from all over sit down and crank out 50,000 words, encouraging each other along the way. I have wanted to participate in the past, and this year, I am ready. As you may imagine, the fraction of those who make it through NaNoWriMo is low—between 10% and 20%. Nevertheless, I have been preparing and outlining for months, and I promise here and now that I can and will have a finished draft of The Void Stared Back by November 30. It may not have 50,000 words, but it will have a beginning, a progression, and an ending. I have proved to myself with Raiders that I can do it, and finishing a first draft in a month is just one more step forward.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Creating Rivalries — Captain America: Civil War


There is no question that the Marvel Cinematic Universe rules the film industry these days, with two blockbusters released every year. I love everything about them; the quality, the characters and acting, the directing, the way they build up scale and magnitude. The MCU is to my early adulthood what Stargate was to my childhood. In addition to being great all-around, the films have lately had intriguing themes, including Avengers: Age of Ultron. Today I will talk about how Captain America: Civil War split its viewers into factions of Team Cap and Team Iron Man.

Civil War opens with the Avengers fighting a dangerous criminal. Things go sour, and a floor of the nearby skyscraper is destroyed. This leads to the proposal of a governmental act that would require “enhanced” individuals to register with and work for the US government, or to retire. The writers did a great job of giving both sides good arguments from lots of different perspectives, and putting loved and respected characters on both sides. In effect, this divided the fans fairly evenly over which side to root for, and, when the movie ended without resolving the issue, sparked discussion and debate in families, friends, and all over the internet.

Captain America: Civil War is certainly not the first story to divide its fans into factions. Twilight, for example, sent mobs of teenage girls fighting over whether the main character should get it on with a vampire or a werewolf. But Civil War did something more: it got people thinking about and discussing ideas that always have been and will be relevant in society. This is a prime example of why I love fiction, especially in the present era. I love this movie so much, I wish I had more to say about it. I could talk about its fantastic special effects, its compelling characters, and how it pushed the larger story forward in a way that feels natural, but these would be out of place in this discussion. At its core, Captain America: Civil War is a story about two companions torn apart and brought to blows over a compelling question that has no easy answer.


Friday, September 23, 2016

My First Novella! Bionicle: Raiders of the Forsaken Archives

I have finished a book! Bionicle: Raiders of the Forsaken Archives is a fanfiction based on the LEGO line, Bionicle. As a child, Bionicle had everything I wanted in a story: adventure, flashy magical powers, an in-depth, immersive world, and a buildup of scale and magnitude. Bionicle hit me at the sweet age where nostalgia grabs hold, and the story grew up with me.


You can read Raiders of the Forsaken Archives here on the BZPower forum. BZPower is a place where fans of Bionicle get together and share stories. I am surprised and delighted to see it alive and active after all these years. It goes to show that, if you let it, whatever you love as a child will stay with you into adulthood.

I started writing Raiders around ten years ago, working on it off and on, sometimes going for months only adding a sentence or two. However, once I started this blog, I took it to the grindstone. Though the first draft took ten years, the second draft took only three months, and the line editing, a week. Getting myself in the mindset to write more was one of my original goals for this blog. It is so satisfying to find that my writing incentive has indeed increased tenfold.

Though I wanted Raiders to be a novel, it only ended up with 30,000 words, well under the 40,000 novel threshold. I think, though, that I could have passed the mark if I had written a third draft. After finishing, I wrote a list of problems with the final draft, most egregious of which was doubling the number of characters at the 3/4 mark. Since fanfiction has low expectations, I can leave these problems unfixed. But the list gave me an idea: each time I finish a draft of a book I want to publish, I will write a list of problems, and write another draft to fix all of them.

Raiders was written with a sequel in mind. I don’t know right now whether I will write that sequel, but if I do, I am sure I will have as much fun with it as I did with Raiders.

Someday, I hope sooner rather than later, I will look back on Raiders and wonder how I let something so awful be revealed to the public. Right now, though, I simply feel pride. I like my beginning, I like my ending, and I feel satisfied that I made the middle interesting enough to keep you going through it. And now that I have proved to myself that I can finish a book, I can write my first original novel with the concrete surety that I will finish it.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Giving Crash Bandicoot a Good Story

I grew up playing video games in the Nintendo 64 era. Many of the games I played back then are still among my favorites today. One of those that I keep coming back to is Crash Bandicoot.



I love Crash. It is ridiculously fun to play, with its challenging levels, bunches of crates to break, and hidden collectibles. But for story, it is considerably lacking. Maniacal villain Dr. Neo Cortex wants to take over the world, by giving marsupials self-awareness and enlisting them into an army. Crash is a bandicoot who undergoes the process, but the brainwashing fails, and Crash escapes. He then has to traverse the islands to stop Cortex’s plan. Oh, and Crash also has a girlfriend named Tawna he has to rescue, but we try not to think about her because she looks like something out of an H. P. Lovecraft horror story.

Neo Cortex looks like a great cartoon villain; sinister, grumpy, and a little cute. His theme songs are amazing. But his battles feel shallow, like there isn’t really any reason to fight. Sure, the fate of the world may hang in the balance, but we don’t know enough about the world to care. Here, then, is my alternative story for Crash Bandicoot.



First and foremost, Cortex’s taking over the world thing has to go. This is a story about a mutated bandicoot on a few small Oceanic islands, so the scope of the story should be the same. So what if instead of a megalomania complex, Cortex has a personal motive? In the later games, whose existence I almost never acknowledge, Neo has a niece, Nina Cortex. Perhaps she has an accident, and is in an incurable vegetative state. Neo wants to restore her, so he conducts experiments giving animals intelligence, hoping to apply the knowledge he gains to his niece.

Cortex treats the animals cruelly, and one of them, Crash, rises up against him. But Cortex does not recognize Crash as a person, asserting that humans are superior to animals no matter what. This adds an element of irony to the earlier boss battles, when Crash has to fight other animals who have been subjected to Cortex’s experimentation. With these changes, Cortex has a reason to hate Crash, and Crash is justified in fighting him. And when the final battle arrives, it is charged with emotion and feels like a true climax.

Yes, I know the game was marketed for kids, but those of us who loved it growing up still love it now, and it is a fun exercise to imagine how it could have been more interesting to us as adults. Even with the story it has, Crash Bandicoot is a trilogy I will revisit time and again for years to come, and the remastered versions in the works are one of several reasons I plan to get a Playstation 4 sometime in the next few years.

Budabygah!

Friday, August 26, 2016

Why I Love Fiction – Revisited

 

A year and a half ago, I wrote a discussion about why I love fiction. Naive and excited at the novelty of having a blog, I put everything under the vague umbrella of philosophy. Since then, I have learned a lot, and discovered that though most of it might overlap with philosophy in some way or another, there is quite a bit of variety and nuance that deserve their own time in the spotlight. In this discussion, I present five major reasons I love fiction.

The first reason I love fiction is because it sparks an interest in learning. You can never learn too much. Fiction can bring you topics you never knew existed, and make things interesting that you never thought you would care about.

It can make you want to learn science, especially if the story takes place in space. Science fiction, particularly Stargate, played a huge role in setting me on a course for a Ph.D. in astrophysics. Of course, fiction can also inspire you to learn about other kinds of science, like economics, political science, anthropology, paleontology, astrobiology, and many more.

I now know that this has nothing to do with science, but it got me interested
in physics.

As I chose to focus on last time, fiction can make you want to learn philosophy. Fiction forces you to think in ways you have never thought before, seeing real or hypothetical problems people face, the different ways they go about solving those problems, and the consequences of their decisions. Star Trek is the most well-known philosophy-driven series, predicting what society will be like in the future, how it will have solved the problems we now have approaching a global society, and what new problems we will face hundreds of years from now.

Two years ago, the video game Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher sparked my interest in philosophy, and I’ve been reading up on historical philosophers, listening to philosophical discussions, and watching video lectures ever since.

Fiction can make you want to learn about culture. If we are kept apart form outside influences in a community of people who think and act like we do, we will tend to think of our way of life as the best, if not the only way to happiness. It is in our nature. But fantasy and sci-fi almost always take place in a culture different from our own, encouraging us to wonder how life might have been different, better, or worse if our worldview were based on different values and assumptions. For example, in a few nations in The Way of Kings by my favorite author Brandon Sanderson, it is considered immodest for a woman to show her left hand. This might get us to think about what clothing modesty means, instead of taking what we grew up with for granted.

I am black on the right side. He is white on the right side.
It is obvious to the most simpleminded that he is of an inferior breed

Fiction can also make you want to learn history. The relationship between fiction and history is different than between fiction and culture, science, or philosophy. In some sense, history is a giant collection of stories, with character arcs, serial arcs, and meta-arcs. Look at Marvel or DC comics, The Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars; it is no coincidence that the longer and deeper a fictional world becomes, the more it starts to feel like history. For someone who, from lack of exposure, does not know that they would love history, a franchise like one of these could serve as a gateway.

The second major reason I love fiction is because it fosters empathy. Readers learn to empathize with many different kinds of people by seeing stories through their eyes. In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, we follow a boy whose conscience tells him to do things counter to what he’s been brought up to believe is right. In I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells, we follow John Cleaver, a teenage sociopath who struggles to do what is right despite having no internal moral compass at all. We can even build our sense of empathy just by reading a story with a viewpoint character from another country, demographic, or of the opposite gender.

Through an empathic connection, readers can learn life lessons along with the characters. Science has shown that, for readers who are absorbed in their books, their brain patterns activate as if they were in the same situations that the characters go through. If characters make mistakes and grow because of them, then the readers can grow with them and avoid making the same mistakes in real life.

The third reason I love fiction is because it provides an escape from the struggles of life when you need it. Though, escapism has a bad reputation, and not entirely undeserved, it can be a good thing in moderation. It is a bit like drinking. If someone spends so much time in fantasy worlds that their life starts to suffer, it is a problem. But in the right amounts at the right times, it can relax a person and make them happier and more productive. Sometimes if you are caught up in the stress of work or a particularly gloomy election season, you might just need to see Superman beat up bad guys, or Goku jaunt across the world on a magical cloud.

Goku in Dragon Ball

Fourth, fiction is a subcategory of art, and art is the ultimate expression of a free society. The more democratized a nation, the more people have the time to write, compose, draw, perform, and direct. The more secular a country, the more diverse and colorful the ideas that come to the table. The more educated a people, the more they will have the time and resources to enjoy and appreciate artists’ work.

The final reason I love fiction encompasses and transcends all the others. When I read a truly good book, watch a masterwork of a movie, or play a video game masterpiece, I get drawn into it with my whole being. I become one with the characters, the scenery, the music, in a zen-level immersion.

When the first tones of the Star Wars theme song sounded through the theater I sat in at my first viewing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I was so overcome that tears came to my eyes. Through that movie, I had such an enraptured experience that when I went home I was so bursting with passion that I wrote an awful discussion about it, which ended up being little more than a fanboy’s gushing. From the outside, fanboys and fangirls may look like blabbering idiots, but the reality is that we have a deep—even spiritual, if I may use that word—fire of passion inside of us, and it overflows. We want to tell the world, to share what we have with everyone, so they can join us in our glorious sense of purpose and meaning.

This is the reason I write. This is what motivates me to keep going, keep practicing, keep outlining and drafting. I want to be able to demonstrate this majesty we feel, and bring it to life in others. This is why I want to write fiction instead of philosophy or science books. This is why I love fiction.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Intuitive Reader

I am in a unique position, training professionally to be a scientist, and privately to be a novelist. As a science student, I’ve been trained to think analytically, and I almost exclusively interact with others who think the same way. This is great for understanding how the world works, but not so much for communicating with people. I’ve discovered that most people think heuristically, cutting corners with the details to save time and avoid indecision. I notice this, for example, when I go visit my family and the community around them. But I especially notice it in the comments sections of YouTube videos.

A few months ago, I found a YouTube video titled “How Logical Are You? (Psychology of Reasoning).” The narrator presents four cards, A, K, 2, and 7, as well as a rule: “If a card has a vowel on one side, it must have an even number on the other.” The narrator then gives the challenge, “Which card(s) must be turned over to determine whether or not the rule has been followed?” Give it a try yourself. The answer is hidden below.



In the comments, people were saying things like, “I got the answer wrong because the instructions weren’t clear.” Nonsense! The rule is simple, and clear as crystal in its detail. Not wanting to have to face his own illogical thinking, the commenter tried to shift the blame to the rules of the game.

I also found a video of Neil deGrasse Tyson giving a speech about ordinary phrases that people say, but that are wrong. For the statement, “days get longer in the summer and shorter in the winter,” Neil explained enthusiastically how if the shortest day of the year is the first day of winter, then the days can only get longer, and if the longest day of the year is the first day of summer, the subsequent days can only get shorter.

In the comments, though, people said things like, “that one about the seasons and the days isn’t wrong.” Below that, someone would say, “yes it is. If you read the sentence for what it says, it’s claiming that in the summer, every day is longer than the one before it.” And below that, the first person would reply, “that’s just semantics. When someone says ‘days get longer in the summer and shorter in the winter,’ it’s implied to mean the days are longer in the summer than in the winter, like everyone knows.”

This person is appealing to common sense to override the sloppiness in wording. What they don’t realize is that there is no such thing as common knowledge. Everyone learned about the length of the days in summer and winter from somewhere, and some people learn it for the first time from people who word it wrong. These people then go about their lives with an inaccurate picture of the world in their heads, and then repeat the false knowledge to their children, family, and friends. One or two words can make a huge difference.

It may seem like I’m saying people are stupid. Not at all. The central aim of a writer is to evoke feelings and direct the thoughts of the readers. To do this well, the writer needs to understand how the readers think. For most people, intuition will get them through their day just fine, so they don’t have much practice thinking in terms of logic and details. As an analytical thinker, I have to keep in mind that most of the people who read my stories will be intuitive thinkers, and I should write so that both types of people will understand and enjoy it.

Maybe you’re not a scientist. Maybe you already think like an average person. In that case, writing for intuitive thinkers will come naturally to you, and you might instead have to work at understanding analytical thinkers. Novel writing is an exercise in empathy, and no matter where you’re coming from, it’s always a good idea to try to understand someone who thinks in a different way from you.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Inspiration and Motivation

It happens all the time to me; I’ll be inspired in the moment to start a big project, think about nothing else for a few days, get all the tools and materials together, and then spend maybe one hour on it before abandoning it forever. If I could show you my computer stash, you would see volumes of ideas for books, video games, TV shows, comic books, YouTube channels, and more. But of course I can’t write all of them. The seeds of ideas keep coming to me, and I plant them in digital soil so that out of the garden something might flourish and grow high above the weeds.

I’ve started plenty of projects, but most of the time before I can make any significant progress on one, I tire of it and start another. As a result, it took me ten years to get a full first draft of Raiders of the Forsaken Archives, and fourteen years to finish an outline of Moebius. Even in my twenties, I have to take into consideration that life is far too short for my work to creep along at this rate. If I want to achieve my dream of building myself a library of literary legacy, I need to focus on getting something done. If you don’t follow through with your goals, it’s no better than if you never had those ideas in the first place.

Right now, I’ve settled on three writing projects to see through: this blog, my Bionicle fan fiction, and Moebius. I have favorites among my other ideas, and I hope to write some of them eventually, but for now I’m committed to these. I have also made a list of priorities to focus my free time on, including things other than writing. Nonetheless, the first thing on the list is Raiders, so that I can keep the edge sharp, and build up my skills to a level where I can write for a publisher.

Recently, I’ve been at a motivational low. It’s been a few weeks since I last posted, not because I’ve been too busy, but because I couldn’t make myself follow through. I started a few discussions, but didn’t get past the word vomit phase. I’d sit with the document open, the ideas would refusing to coalesce into meaningful paragraphs. This lack of impetus happens to me often. It’s why my post rate dwindled to one per month last fall. It’s why it has taken me so long to get my current books to where they are.

However, it’s encouraging to look at my draft of Raiders and realize that I wrote the entire second half of the first draft within the past two years. With this in mind, I can go back and see how my drive to write has improved over time. Way back in my first post, I mentioned that one of my reasons for starting this blog was to push myself to write more. Well, it’s worked; ever since then, I’ve been building momentum. I can look back over the past year and have confidence that if I keep at it, I can get to where I want to be.

I owe thanks to YouTuber Satchell Drakes for making this video, which motivated me to write this discussion and put it out, even knowing it wouldn’t turn out to be my best. Sometimes you just have to do something to keep the flow going, even if the best you can do at the moment is below your usual standards.

Friday, July 1, 2016

What Makes Us Human?


Moral thought has come a long way in the course of history, and has now settled mainly on humanitarianism, the idea that all humans are equal, priceless, and deserve a helping hand. But moral philosophy is far from finished. For example, if we find intelligent alien civilizations, we will have to extend our humanitarian values to include them as well. Possibilities like this raise the question, what makes humanity special?

On the surface, we might think it obvious. There are many things we can do that no other living thing on earth can. The philosopher Aristotle said that man is the rational animal. We can reason. We can write poetry. We can paint pictures. Perhaps it is a combination of all these things. In the sci-fi novel Out of the Silent Planet, by C. S. Lewis, there are three intelligent species, developing side-by-side with each other. Because of this, they came up with a word to call themselves, to differentiate them from the animals: hnau.

But while there may be obvious differences in our everyday life, there is no guarantee that there will always be. In fact, there was a time in the past when it was not. Around 50,000 years ago, the line was blurry when Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis shared the planet. Before that, there were other species of proto-humans, who used tools and had advanced social structures. And before that, there were only creatures of the level that we now consider to be animals. The transitions between these stages were astronomically slow, taking much longer than our entire recorded history. In light of this, we must face the fact that humanitarianism is unstable.


There was a time when a few proto-humans began to speak, and eventually language spread over all people and became the norm. Similarly, throughout the past several thousand years, we see a few humans learning not from tradition but from logic and observation. And now, such thought is spreading around the world. It is theoretically possible for those of us who think more sophisticatedly to separate from the others and evolve into a new, more intelligent human species. Would they, then, have the right to subjugate the others? Absolutely not! But why? If not because we are the same species, then what?

And with species not being the boundary, do we have obligations regarding the treatment of animals, as philosopher Peter Singer claims? If so, how far down the animal ladder should we go? We obviously cannot worry about accidentally stepping on insects, and we kill bacteria every time we sneeze. Almost everything we eat was alive at some time. If we thought it wrong to harm any life at all, the least evil thing we could do would be to kill ourselves!

We also need to face the fact that, even when it comes to human intelligence, there is plenty of room for improvement. There could easily be races out there that are as far beyond us as we are beyond the smartest animals. Popular science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson has a hypothetical scenario, based on the fact that we can teach chimpanzees a few rudimentary words in sign language, and to do tasks at about the level of a four-year-old human. Suppose we meet an alien race advanced enough to find and visit us. We want to show off our achievement as a species, so we bring our smartest, Stephen Hawking, before them. The aliens say, “he can do astrophysical calculations in his head? That’s cute, just like our little Timmy.”

An ant has no quarrel with a boot.

How is the value of a life defined so that we don't have to feel bad stepping on insects, but it would be wrong for god-like aliens to tread on us? Though species can’t be the only condition, it must be important, or else it would be possible that not all humans would count. One additional condition might be that a creature deserves humanitarian treatment if one or more of its species has the capability of contemplating its own death. This would mean it has sufficient rationality to understand how it is being treated, and become indignant if a more intelligent race comes along and wants to use it as a beast of burden, raise it for food, or exterminate it.

And no conversation about the essence of humanity would be complete without mentioning artificial intelligence. Would an intelligent being created by scientists, such as Star Trek’s Data or holographic doctor, warrant ethical treatment? It would seem to me that it shouldn’t matter how someone comes into existence if they have the capabilities to make decisions and have conscious experiences, but how would we know if such a being is actually alive, or if it is just well-programmed to mimic life?

The question of why humans are special is deeply important to every part of our existence. I don’t know the answer. Perhaps as science continues to probe the mystery of consciousness, it will unearth more clues to solving this puzzle. It is a topic I find fascinating, and you can bet I will explore it in the novels I write.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Science Fiction Can Make You Dumber

Kill the Moon is hands down the worst new series
Doctor Who episode in terms of science.

Last year I wrote a post called “Science Fiction can Make You Smarter,” where I discussed how, as a side-effect of its speculative nature, science fiction can introduce concepts and ideas, making it easier to understand scientific topics. But fiction usually only implements, rather than explains, the concepts, ignoring their scientific context. For story purposes this is fine, because lengthy explanations can interrupt the flow and cause readers to lose interest. But, as in all cases when knowledge is presented without sufficient explanation, it allows ideas to get mixed up. When one story gets something wrong, another follows, and then another, and soon the misconceptions have spread though the culture like weeds. Once a false idea has taken root in a reader’s mind, it can be difficult to learn about the actual phenomenon, because they must first let go of the understanding they already have. With that in mind, here are my top four science myths ignorantly perpetuated by science fiction culture.

4: Alternate dimensions.
Sometimes when writers take the characters out of their world and into another, they call the new place another dimension. But a dimension is not a place, it is a pair of directions. You may have to leave our 3D space by moving through another dimension to get to the new 3D space, just like you have to move through the three dimensions we are all familiar with to get to the house next door. Instead, the new place should be called an alternate reality, another universe, or if you want to go string theory, a parallel 3-brane.

You're not in another dimension, Daniel, you've shifted through one.
3: Energy is a substance.
Somewhere along the line there came a notion of something called “pure energy,” represented in the movies as an amorphous substance that floats in midair and glows. Alas, the scientific community can be just as guilty of perpetuating this myth as science fiction. Energy is not a thing in itself, but a quality that things can have and give to each other. There are many kind of energy—motion, heat, light, mass, stored, and even vacuum—but none is any more or less “pure” than any other.

2: Parallel realities branch off whenever we make choices.
Parallel realities are used in science fiction to bring up “what if” scenarios. They are worlds just like ours, but with some things different. The characters can meet themselves and see what would have happened if things had turned out differently. But the way it is usually explained is that a new reality is made every time someone makes a decision, which is simply wrong.


Reality-splitting is actually a hypothetical interpretation of quantum wave function collapse.When quantum mechanics was being developed in the 1920s, experiments showed that a subatomic particle can be in multiple places at once, until it is measured. When something interacts with it, the wave “collapses” and the particle is found to be in one place. But why that place and not somewhere else, if it had the same probability to end up in multiple places? The many-worlds hypothesis tried to solve this question by saying that the interaction with the electron caused the universe to split. In one universe the electron was in one place, while in the other universe the electron was in the other. Few scientists subscribe to the many-worlds view these days, but if science fiction wants to use it to explain parallel realities, then they should understand that the splitting happens because of particle interactions, not because of human choices.

The other option would be if such an inconceivable number of universes exist that, by sheer probability, duplicates form. Though how you would ever be able to find these to travel to them is anyone’s guess.

1: Quantum physics is the science of how perception influences reality.
This may be the most widely spread and abused scientific myth of them all. It is commonly said that the aforementioned quantum collapse is caused by "measurement", an unfortunate choice of wording that can imply that a human is needed to observe it. The science fiction community pounced on this, making the logic leap that quantum physics means that perception influences reality, and the myth has been growing further out of proportion ever since.

“Quantum” roughly means “smallest bit,” and quantum physics models matter at the fundamental level as indivisible waves. Particles can only have discrete values, or quanta, of their properties, such as spin and angular momentum. This leads to many interesting and counterintuitive phenomena, but it has nothing to do with perception.

Sorry, Doctor, but quantum physics has nothing to do with it.
They're just shy, like a deer in the headlights.

Differentiating between science fact and myth is a skill that needs to be built up. To do this, you could take college-level science classes with math and labs, read scientific journals (not to be confused with news articles), or watch YouTube channels run by experts, like Fermilab, Scishow, PBS Space Time, or Deep Astronomy. A working knowledge of statistics helps too. Look out for when scientists use words like “could,” and “might,” which mean you should take that bit of information with a grain of salt. And when you hear about something new, even if it’s from me, remember to look it up and verify that it is indeed true.