The Moore’s Law Express Hits the Great Ceiling: A Possible Hitch to Alien Contact

Amid the discussions of the potential for contact with extra-terrestrial civilizations, there’s one big buzzkill I don’t recall ever hearing posited as a possibility for why we haven’t made contact yet: Because it can’t be done.

We are used to the idea that technology advances exponentially, that we are all riding the Moore’s Law Express to the Singularity, and that as long as we don’t destroy ourselves via world war, climate catastrophe, or extermination by the artificial intelligences we’ve created, we will be capable of wonders that we can’t even image today, just as our nomadic ancestors of 100,000 years ago could never have imagined a steam engine, library, vaccine, or iPhone.

It follows that any other species on another world that has developed intelligence will get to hitch a ride on the same train. The details will differ, what they figure out first, what they emphasize, and what they’re physically capable of manufacturing will be different, but given a clear path, they too will achieve unimaginably advanced technologies that will, among many other things, allow them to voyage the galaxy and make themselves known to its other inhabitants.

There are lots of reasons to think this won’t happen, or if it does, that we won’t ever be aware of it. In an excellent piece by Tim Urban that I found via John Gruber, several reasons for our ongoing celestial loneliness are offered, all pretty sensible (except the one about the government cover-up, which he also thinks is silly). Some examples:

Super-intelligent life could very well have already visited Earth, but before we were here. In the scheme of things, sentient humans have only been around for about 50,000, a little blip of time—if contact happened before then, it might have made some ducks flip out and run into the water and that’s it.

Getting the sole experience of First Contact is so like the ducks, you know?

Another follows the metaphor of ants trying to comprehend a nearby highway (one presumes they cannot):

[I]t’s not that we can’t pick up the signals from Planet X using our technology, it’s that we can’t even comprehend what the beings from Planet X are or what they’re trying to do. It’s so beyond us that even if they really wanted to enlighten us, it would be like trying to teach ants about the internet.

That’s very much in line with the Moore’s Law Express, where it just so happens that the Planet X-ians are so much further down the track that we can’t even see them.

Urban also puts forth the idea of a “Great Filter,” a kind of universal civilizational buffer zone that extraordinarily few species ever cross. Maybe it’s because of planetary or astrological cataclysms killing off entire biospheres before they can evolve, or maybe it’s a near-inevitability of intelligent species destroying themselves, but either way, there may be some Rubicon that finishes off nearly all civilizations before they can become space-faring, let alone Type II or III.

(A side note about Type III civs, the kind that harvest an entire galaxy’s energy: Urban talks about how there might be a relatively small number of them that can inhabit any one galaxy, and I’m thinking, if they’re defined by their ability to eat up the energy of a whole galaxy, I have to imagine it’s a “there ain’t room for both of us in this one-horse town” kind of thing, where it’s not 1000 Types IIIs in a given galaxy, but one, ever. But I digress.)

And he posits many other possibilities, and you should read the whole piece, because it’s really good.

But my thinking, which again is a real bummer, is that we need to consider the possibility that we haven’t made contact with alien civilizations because it simply can’t be done. The Moore’s Law Express actually does have a final stop at which technological advancement more or less halts because of the limits of physics, or even just the limits of any intelligence (natural or artificial) tomanipulate physics.

It might just be that traversing light years in a span of time that allows for survival, proliferation, or communication is simply impossible. It may be that there is no way to send communications signals of any known kind across the vast stretches of nothing that would allow another intelligence to receive them, let alone understand them.

Maybe there can and will be no warp speed, no folding of space, no teleportation, no subspace communications, no navigation of wormholes, no uploading of consciousness to interstellar servers, no Dyson Spheres, and no Singularity. As opposed to a Great Filter that finishes off civilizations on the way up, there may instead by a Great Ceiling, a lid on reality that says we (meaning we on Earth and any other species in the Universe) can go this far, but no further.

Now look, I know that thinking this way sucks, and it’s no way to get kids excited about science and exploration, or to rally the public to support more investment in scientific research. It is in our interest as a species and a civilization to cheerfully ride the Moore’s Law Express as though it has no terminus. But if the conversation about why we haven’t made contact with aliens is going to be an honest one, I think it has to at least acknowledge this sad possibility: Not that “they” might not be out there, but that they are, and we simply can never know for sure, and nor can they.

Okay, now pretend you never read this.

By the way, one potential way to travel the stars is by way of a Bussard Collector, and I just happen to have written a song about one. See? I have hope.


Your Unique Amalgam: On the Fluidity of Geekhood

Geek in training.

Geek in training.

I had assigned myself* the task of writing a post about what it is to be a “geek.” It’s obviously not the same as it was when I was in school, as geekhood no longer implies utter alienation from the mainstream, but being part of a kind of cultural elite, a kind of priesthood that knows the Most Holy Secrets of computers (once nerdy, now cool), comic books (same), science fiction. So am I a geek?

The easy answer is yes. I’m into a whole slew of traditionally-geeky things like Star Trek and Macs and Monty Python and the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. But while I check many of the geek boxes, I can’t help but feel like the label still doesn’t suit me. And not because I’m too “preppy” or conformist, but because I don’t feel like I conform sufficiently to the geek’s clique.

I like Star Trek and some superhero movies, but I never got into comic books. I like science fiction generally, but I’ve never gotten deeply into that genre of books. I love my Mac and my iThings almost more than my children, but I don’t know anything about coding or software development, or even really how the damn things work.

And beyond some of the cultural (or pop-cultural) differences, there’s a class barrier as well, at least that I perceive. Being a geek, or so it seems from the tech blogosphere, is getting expensive. You not only need to have expensive devices (which I barely manage), but clothes and glasses and bags and notebooks and pens and coffee-makers and spirits and cameras and sometimes even cars that meet a certain aesthetic, and cost more than they probably ought to. Do I not qualify as a geek if I can’t see my way to purchasing $300 headphones or a $500 computer bag?

No one’s told me I can’t call myself a geek if I don’t meet all these criteria, of course. But I do feel outside the circle when I can’t match all these references, when I can’t afford the right paraphernalia, when I can’t speak the whole language, but just get by with a phrasebook (a moleskine phrasebook of course). It all makes me recall the old King Missle song that stirred me as a sophomore in high school, “It’s Saturday,” where John S. Hall says, with wide-eyed eagerness:

I want to be different, like everybody else I want to be like
I want to be just like all the different people
I have no further interest in being the same
Because I have seen difference all around
And now I know that that’s what I want
I don’t want to blend in and be indistinguishable
I want to be a part of the different crowd
And assert my individuality along with the others
Who are different like me

What I’m perceiving, I suppose, is really just a popular modern conception and generalization of geekhood. But if you broaden the definition to mean “someone who is passionate about niche subjects,” then I still qualify. Not just on Star Trek and the more consumer-centric aspects of technology, but about things like media criticism, secularism, politics, acting, songwriting, and prose writing. I even still retain some geekiness around certain small policies around electoral reform! Allow me to go into detail about why you should be into instant runoff voting.

And I reserve the right to get geeky about things down the road. I’m rediscovering a love of drawing (dumb cartoony things), and I may yet delve into Dr. Who one day, which would make my dad happy. Other things, like guitar playing and theatre, I’ve gotten less geeky about as other things in my life have left little room for them.

But geekhood needs to be fluid, I’d say. Especially if we want it to refer to something other than the relatively small circle of technological elites on the west coast. I’d like to think of geekhood, then, not as a description of a group that’s into a certain, prescribed set of things, but as the state of being deeply into one’s own unique amalgam of interests. That hodgepodge of perhaps-unrelated passions is your geekiness. That’s different.

_ _ _

* It’s not so much that I assigned myself, but that I was asked to write about geekdom by the folks at Singlehop, who do private cloud hosting, and are doing a whole thing around what it is to be a geek. If you’d like more info about SingleHop, check out their new private cloud hosting page. Thanks, guys!

The Old School Transformers Movie You’ve Been Wishing For

There hasn’t been a Generation-1 Transformers animated movie since Transformers: The Movie (discussed in depth on my podcast) in 1986. As excited as many folks my age were that the Transformers were coming to live-action film in 2007, despite the return of Peter Cullen as the voice of Optimus Prime, the Michael Bay versions clearly aren’t quite what a true fan was hoping for.

But why? Aside from terrible writing, which even the best iterations of Transformers were always plagued by, what about the Bay Transformers movies doesn’t work? Too many humans, for one. Sorry, but Spike never will be interesting enough to carry a movie.

But I think the biggest problem is that in the live action movies, the Transformers don’t look like Transformers. Now, the bots never sported svelte, Jony Ive-approved designs, and much to my disappointment, as the years passed, newer versions of Prime and other characters had so many guns, blades, spikes, and other protrusions glommed onto them, that they looked like big mechanical jumbles.

The Michael Bay movies take that into the stratosphere, and make the Transformers all so busy-looking, so, well, messy, that they no longer resembled the robots we used to know. They were now robots in disguise in disguise as, well, junkyards? If shape-shifting robots were to emerge from Saruman’s forges, I think they’d look a lot like Michael Bay’s Transformers.

This is part of what makes this video so great. Harris Loureiro of Malaysia has taken what look to be the “masterpiece” versions of Generation-1 Transformers toys (so-called because they are built to mimic their platonic ideals from the cartoons and comics, articulating and transforming just as they would), and using stop-motion animation to create his own short Transformers films.

He’s using sound and music from the 1986 animated film for this, a battle between some latter-day version of Optimus Prime and the Constructicons, which of course form Devastator. (They apparently have different names in different parts of the world, but it’s them.)

But it’s tremendous. There’s nuance, there are graceful moves, suspense and surprises, and yes, they look like Transformers. Loureiro’s done an excellent job with this. He has some others on his YouTube channel, which seem more like experiments and expositions of what he’s able to do, but they’re worth checking out too. But this is the one with an actual conflict, and it’s rather bad-ass. Hollywood may need to hire this man.

Many thanks to Len Sanook for pointing me to this.

Stuck Outside of the Comic Books Multiverse

As a nerd, it really does seem that I ought to be into comic books, but it just never happened. As a pre-teen, eventually I became devoted to The Transformers comics, but that had more to do with my love of the bots than any inclination toward comic books. I also dabbled around that age with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (pre-Archie) and Usagi Yojimbo, because they seemed safe, graspable, and I think also not overtly hyper-masculine. I briefly had a subscription to Web of Spider-Man, but even then I felt alienated by the idea that this was one version of a franchise that had multiple incarnations, with no sense of where I was in the story’s arc, or whether this arc even “counted.”

Now, all grown up and no longer in need of a ride from my parents to a store that actually sold comic books, and with the vast trove of comic knowledge now available on the Internet, it seems a ripe time for me to try again. And yet I pause.

(Let’s presume for the sake of this post that we’re just talking about big, established franchises, your Batmans, your Supermans, your Avengers, etc. I know it’d be easy for me to pick a more recent and independent universe, but goddamn it I want Batman.)

First, there’s the whole fact that money doesn’t grow in my carpet, and these things ain’t free. But mainly, I know that I’d have to choose a franchise and then pick a spot, more or less arbitrarily, to start from. What will I be expected to know in advance? What will it be assumed I have read already? If I haven’t been sufficiently saturated in the mythos of the given superhero, will I reap the full experience?

It’s all too much stress for what’s supposed to be fun.

Andy Ihnatko just wrote about this very thing, and it carries weight for me because a) Andy is awesome and b) he’s a comics-nerd’s comics-nerd, a true blue fan of the art form, and even he is now ready to throw up his hands:

My obstacle with Marvel is that I have no idea how to get a single unit of story from them. Stories start in the middle and they’re resolved later (sometimes after months) in another book entirely. Marvel’s “Avengers” books are such a mess that they often include a little chart of what books you need to buy and what order you need to read them in. Good lord! [ … ]

I rarely get to the end of a Marvel comic and feel like the curtain has closed and the lights in the theater have come up. It’s frustrating and unsatisfying. And Marvel isn’t entirely immune to DC’s troubles, either. Marvel’s story continuity is deeply contaminated with characters who are someone’s son in an alternate-reality, but a future alternate reality, from an Earth that’s a parallel-Earth to the Earth of that alternate reality, who traveled back in time to reach this character who turns out to be a clone of a robot of…


I know, right?!? It’s my understanding that what Andy is describing here is a somewhat recent phenomenon, such that the situation’s complexity dwarfs the one I faced in the late 80s and early 90s. So if it’s crazier now than it was then, I really have no hope, and should settle for enjoying the movies (when possible – Transformers is even now split into a thousand sub-incarnations, and the movies are terrible).

Maybe there’s some self-contained storyline I can get into and be content with. But even then, you know, them comics get expensive. So I dunno.


A Ravenous Insistence on Having an Opinion

Andy Greenwald, in a post that’s really about the show Louiediagnoses the tweetosphere:

“We live in an era of opinions. In the Internet economy — in which I am a loyal and grateful participant! — loud voices are more than just currency, they’re coal. The Outrage Industrial Complex burns all day and all night with Twitter as its blistering engine room. A constant stream of fuel is necessary to keep the entire enterprise afloat, and so any event, be it the collapse of a government or the cancellation of a sitcom, is greeted with a near instantaneous torrent of reaction. Though the appeal of the virtual yawp can be undeniably intoxicating, I’m gradually finding it less and less tolerable. It’s no secret that nuance and doubt are rarely retweeted, but as Twitter has metastasized, its vaunted panoply of voices has grown more strident and, oddly, more unified — not in their positions but in their ravenous insistence on having one. It’s become less a conversation and more a crusade. Being silent is far worse than being wrong.”

This is my experience as well, though I’m not so sure about that last bit. I stay silent on a lot of things, partly because of my job, and partly because I don’t necessarily want to burn along with the rest of the coals, or whatever Strong Feeling I have about something has already been expressed by someone else, and better than I would have. And I don’t feel judged for this.

The one kernel of truth I find is that, if anything, having been silent, it makes it all the more apparent when I’m not. And then it’s not so much that I’d be coal, but something far worse: fresh meat. To some group of folks or other, I’d have the Wrong Opinion which would instantly render me a Bad Person, and they would let me know. A lot.

Freddie deBoer, in a post that’s really about reading, seems to get at this:

“You’re doing it wrong” is the internet’s truest, most genuine expression of itself.  For whatever reason, the endless exposure to other people’s minds has made the vague feeling that someone, somewhere, is judging you into the most powerful force in the world.

Silly, isn’t it? I know it’s real people behind those tiny avatars, but they’re so removed, there’s no real idea of who they are. And even if you also know them personally, the Twitter experience is so ephemeral, yet perceieved sins seem to last forever.

Twitter Tsunamis of Desperate Signaling

Alan Jacobs on the swarm of me-too righteousness online, in the form of “Twitter tsunamis.”

This kind of thing always makes me want to flee Twitter, even when I am deeply sympathetic to the positions people are taking. It’s a test of my charity, and a test I usually fail. To me these tsunamis feel like desperate signaling, people trying to make sure that everyone knows where they stand on the issue du jour. I can almost see the beads of sweat forming on their foreheads as they try to craft retweetable tweets, the kind to which others will append that most wholehearted of endorsements: “THIS.” I find myself thinking, People, you never tweeted about [topic x] before and after 48 hours or so you’ll never tweet about it again, so please stop signaling to all of us how near and dear to your heart [topic X] is.

Here’s one of the things I love about Jacobs. Even when he hates what you’re doing, he gives you so much benefit of the doubt.

Likewise, Freddie deBoer:

Indeed: sincerity, in these instances, is in abundant supply. What’s lacking is the understanding that good people being publicly sincere makes nothing happen. But what else are you going to do? What am I doing? What can I do? I don’t know. I don’t know.

I don’t know either, but I am more cynical, and while I agree there’s sincerity behind these tsunamis, I also suspect that the impulse to act on them en masse to no other end than to add a “+1” to what has been said innumerably is a true expression of vanity in the digital age; not much different than dressing in-fashion, only here it’s done with text rather than fabric, it’s joining the in-group via a conviction instead of clothes. It’s the yellow ribbon gaudily displayed by those who have never done anything to support a troop.

And lord do I hate it when people just type “THIS” and then a link. As though by doing so they have presented the final word on a subject, and can thereby bask in the glow of having delivered it to the rest of us.

Worse, is “THIS. SO MUCH THIS.” It’s the triple-dog-dare of conviction-bearing tweets.

DeBoer again:

The trouble with talking about right and wrong in the age of the internet is that our communicative systems are oriented towards communicating only with those whom we wish to.

There’s no risk in taking part in one of these storms (unless you’re a woman, in which case you’re going to get a lot of shit from assholes, because you always do no matter the topic), because you know in advance that everyone shares your opinion. I of course can’t read anyone’s mind and can’t prove anything here, but my deep suspicion is that hand in hand with the vain in-grouping of these tsunamis is the pose of courage, that by expressing such and such an opinion, which I know is shared by everyone who will read it, I have somehow really put myself out there in a vulnerable position, but dammit, I can’t remain silent about this any longer. Never mind that no one else in this 48-hour period is being silent about it either, and being not-silent in the exact same way.

Oh, except for this writer from a favored partisan journalistic outlet, who really nailed it, beyond all dispute. This. So much this.

We Are All Short Now

Reihan Salam writes on short men’s failure to collectively reject heightism, and it’s a piece so good I found myself highlighting more than half of it for potential excerpt here. Rather than do that, let’s see if I can get to the meat of it.

First, a good description of the problem:

As I go through life, I will occasionally say, “well, as a short person …” before making some observation. And I’ve found that my interlocutor will often interject something to the effect of, “Hey, you’re not that short,” as if to reassure me. But why would this be reassuring if there were nothing wrong with being short?

And there’s not, of course. One thing I particularly like about Salam’s take is his acceptance that the preference for taller men in certain areas, such as in women’s choice of a mate, is a totally understandable, if regrettable, vestige of our biology. There’s no point in tying one’s guts in knots over an instinctive preference, which, thanks to civilization, can be overcome. (My wife is a bit taller than me and she likes me just fine.)

But there’s no reason to extrapolate that archaic preference into presumed height-based superiority. Being short is not an affliction, and it’s not a modern-world physical disadvantage. (Salam addresses the societal disadvantages, which of course all spring from these erroneous perceptions.) There’s nothing “better” about being tall. But we all behave – really, almost all of us – as though being short is bad, something to be ashamed of, and indeed, something to fudge.

And that’s the problem Salam wants to tackle here. Heightism is aided and abetted by short men themselves. They perpetuate the false idea that being short is a bad thing by doing things like rounding up their heights, or making fun of men who are shorter than they are. This must not stand, says Salam:

To be sure, rounding up is not the worst thing in the world. I’ll tell you what is the worst thing in the world. It is that short men who have internalized heightist attitudes are more likely to stand by as those shorter than them are casually mistreated. In our culture, men who are 5-foot–8 don’t see men who are 5-foot–1 as comrades. They treat their shorter brothers as strangers, or perhaps even as objects of pity or contempt. … To the short men among you, I’d like to ask: Have you ever poked fun at someone for their size? Have you done so to delight your taller friends, and to establish that you are truly one of them? If so, I’d like you to think hard about the place in hell that is reserved for your ilk.

Like many other accidents of biology such as skin color or sexual orientation, the stigmatization of shortness is arbitrary and baseless, and humans would do well to discard it right along with all of its other stupid prejudices. Of course, this particular stigma is not nearly comparable in severity to those based on race or sexual orientation (no one tries to ban short people from marrying each other, or from marrying tall people for that matter). But that only makes a call for short men to back each other up all the more compelling and sensible: Relative to other struggles, it’s just so damn easy. All we need to do is not buy into the myths and prejudices about height, and reject them out loud when we hear them, and things could change. We could start to make a lot of people’s lives easier and less filled with shame about something for which none should be felt.

For the record, I used to say I was 5-foot–6, when technically I measure 5 feet and 5 and a half inches. I rounded up. (My feelings about my height are a major focus of one of my songs as well.) But many years ago I decided it was absurd to try and eke out an additional half-inch for…well, for what? I’m 5-foot–5, and while there are many, many things wrong with me, that is not one of them.