Convergent thoughts about mortality at different scales

A thing I ponder frequently is the ultimate fate of the universe and the life within it. The universe is full of beauty and elegance, but those things are useless without minds to appreciate them. Therefore sentience should be maximized in duration and variety.

But we are unsure whether it’s possible for sentience to exist forever. We still don’t know for sure how the universe will develop over long time scales. Most of the current theories imply that the universe has a finite useful lifetime after which sentience is no longer possible; for example, even if the universe itself continues forever, it is likely the case that protons decay and that no new matter is created, and therefore the matter inside the universe will not exist forever. No matter, no minds.

Therefore it behooves all sentience to study this problem and try to find some means of indefinite survival.

A new thought occurred to me today: Suppose it were eventually proven that sentience cannot exist forever? Suppose this universe will eventually reach zero utility, suppose it’s impossible to move to another universe, and even suppose we can’t even leave a permanent record behind.

Well, then sentience itself would collectively face the same decision that young individuals have (mostly unconsciously) faced until recent generations: Live with this depressing and uncomfortable truth, or develop some sort of systematic insanity to make it more palatable?

When I was young, I learned that death exists and that despite best attempts, nobody has yet managed to avoid it. Thus far, living has been 100% fatal – what a rip-off! Perhaps this problem might be solved in the future, but at the time that was a far-out science fiction idea and there was no hope of it happening in my expected lifetime.

Many people of my generation and previous generations found this a pretty bitter pill. Some dealt with it via various forms of insanity: Denial by ignoring the problem entirely; the softly suicidal acceptance of death’s inevitability; the misanthropic (or even murderous if it inspires activism) belief that death is a good thing and should be preserved as is, or the baseless assumption of various kinds of immortality that don’t require bodies.

After ignoring it for a while, I chose to throw in with the group that faces the existence of death without accepting it. The Something Must Be Done crowd.

Fortunately, younger generations are less bound to make this choice. We have now realized that “death by old age” is not actually a thing; it’s just a term of convenience that means someone was killed by some combination of diseases that were incurable at the time and often too complex to bother sorting out precisely after the fact.

We’ve also realized that we are made of software-controlled microscopic protein factories, that these cells and their DNA programs are bloated and inefficient due to their evolutionary origin, and that we should therefore be able to both improve them and improve their aggregate products (us). We’re currently reverse-engineering the software that makes us and learning to improve it and write our own new versions. I am certain that, barring interference, this will lead to radical life extension and eventually a solution to the problem of finite expected lifespans (in the absence of accident, murder or suicide, of course). I have no idea when though; some generations, including mine, may be disappointed.


So here’s where the interesting parallel exists: At the individual level we’ve had to wrestle with the difficult problem of mortality in the face of the certainty of its existence so far, but now science is starting to give us some hope of a reprieve.  At the level of sentience itself we, as the only example thereof we’re currently aware of, don’t know if mortality is certain and will have to do the science to find out. It’s not a perfect dovetail since at the small scale we’re moving from an assumed certainty to uncertainty and possibly to the opposite certainty, whereas at the large scale we know we’re uncertain and are trying to establish either certainty.

But if it does turn out to that finiteness of mind is certain then we’ll have to make that same choice between insanities collectively. I wonder what that will look like; I suspect it will result in large sections of the civilized universe living wastefully and dangerously.

Overlooked gems: The Monolith Monsters (1957)

(IMDB link) (Wikipedia link – contains spoilers)

A meteorite delivers silicate crystals with a composition not found on Earth, that grow at alarming speed when exposed to water and then fall over and shatter, advancing them across the terrain. Essentially a simplified ice-9 problem.


I like this film for two reasons. For one, it’s a science fiction with an unusually credible alien threat.  The only presumption that falls outside known science is that such a substance could exist, and that’s enough to build a potentially world-threatening danger from. And given the amazing properties of some chemical reactions, it is easily believable.

Secondly, there are no stupid or venal characters. Everybody in the film behaves rationally and civilly and makes reasonable decisions based on the information they have. When someone needs convincing, it’s done easily by showing them the evidence. Nobody acts contrary to anyone’s best interests out of greed, vengeance or evil.

In short, deliberate stupidity and malevolence are contrivances not needed to artificially drive the plot. I am hard pressed to think of a movie made in the last three decades that didn’t rely on those things to create plot points. I am increasingly driven to review science fiction movies from the 50s and 60s because of this – it’s refreshing to see some actual competent writing that expresses confidence in humanity rather than the cynical mistrust so common today.

Oh, and for the era the special effects in this film are amazingly good. The sound design is excellent too.

What I’ve Been Watching

Europa Report – Above average science fiction, delivers what you want from this type of movie.  Decent effects.  Good acting and story.  Slight over-reliance on simulated video transmission glitches.

Contagion – Not knowing what actual contagious disease control protocols are, this seemed a pretty reasonable dramatization of a new plague to me.

Dark Space – You know all those movies where some teenagers go off to a cabin in the woods for a weekend of partying, and mostly get killed by something there?  This is that, in space.  The nature of the danger is different from what I expected, and that made it a little more interesting.   This is one of those “Nouveau B” movies that has decent CG effects that are undermined by bad compositing (typically the CG lighting doesn’t quite match the live footage) and what might be competent acting obscured in some scenes by bad foley (sound timbre or echoes that don’t match the setting).

 Last Days on Mars – Pretty much the same as all the other zombies-on-Mars stories I’ve seen.  Good production values.

 Cargo – You know when someone signs on for a long haul on a corporation-run space ship, that corporation will turn out to be up to no good and it will cost a lot of lives.  But this standard-trope tale was more well told than usual.  Good effects, good acting, and best of all no reliance on blood and gore or spring-loaded cats.

The Haunted Palace – Another entry in my project to hunt down HP Lovecraft stories. This one claims to be based on both a Lovecraft story and an Edgar Allen Poe poem, though which specific ones are unstated.  The main character’s name, Charles Dexter Ward, is taken from a Lovecraft story but there’s no strong correspondence with any of the Lovecraft stories I’ve read.  Generally this is a pretty good flick though, as are most featuring Vincent Price.  The only place it falls flat is in the creature effects department – using optical effects to try and suggest movement in what is clearly a statue.

Slime City Massacre – Pretty much what you’d expect.  It starts out like a modern B-movie with bad effects, then turns into typical stalking monster fare.

The Hybrid – Quite enjoyable.  The first half is decently suspenseful cloak & dagger stuff, and the rest is a science fiction splatterfest.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief – Documentary about the CoS.  It’s well known that they’re dangerous crazies, but there is a lot of stuff covered in this film that I wasn’t aware of, that makes it even worse.

Avengers: Age of Ultron – Reasonably entertaining, though I don’t like how divergent it is from the mainstream origin story for Ultron.

Mad Max: Fury Road – Oh hell yes! I was looking forward to this so much I went back and re-watched all the previous Mad Max movies.  I thought I might not like this one as much because it had a different lead actor, but he pulled it off satisfactorily. Though really it was Furiosa who was the star of the show.  Rollicking good post-apocalyptic road warrioring fun!

Ex Machina – Entertaining and has a nice happy ending, but I wish it were possible to write this sort of story in such a way that it was entertaining AND made sense. The problem with this one, as is too often the case, is that some of the main characters (the two human ones) are morons, and have to be stupid for the plot to work. We’re let to believe through exposition that they’re both super geniuses, but they both overlook some rather basic flaws in their planning, and are very careless.

The Machine – Similar theme to Ex Machina but in a different setting and with different motivations. Still some stunningly stupid blind spots, this time on the part of the organization running the show.

Age of Ice – In the budding “father tries to save family from natural disaster” genre, and as seems typical of the genre the uptight, domineering, stupid asshollishness of the father proves to be more of a menace than the disaster itself.  I tend to be pretty forgiving of bad movies but this is one of the rare ones that makes me resent the waste of time spent watching it. There is so much stupid and inexplicable dialog it feels like the script was written by a committee of infinite monkeys, and I wanted to strangle many of the characters much of the time. The CG effects are poor – no attention to detail (I spotted multiple copies of the same tree in some scenes, not even rotated relative to each other), and terrible compositing and lighting.  Oh, and predictably the little kid’s video game obsession turns out to be a survival skill. That always happens when there’s a game-obsessed little kid in an adventure movie.


What I’ve Been Reading

Incandescence by Greg Egan

Pretty decent hard-SF first-contact story. A lot of it details the reasoning process of figuring out the nature of movement under gravity using natural observations, and some of the experiments described I found a little difficult to visualize.

What I liked most about this story is how the two threads almost sailed right past each other. Often in first-contact stories there are two narrative threads, usually one from the “explorer” perspective and one from the “native” perspective, and at some point they meet and usually combine into one thread or two parallel threads after that.  This book follows that model, except for the meeting part – basically the two threads are only joined together by one sentence near the end; no characters from either thread ever meet any characters from the other thread, but one thread still depends heavily on the other.


Halting State by Charles Stross

A pretty fun spy vs. spy mystery-thriller with a strong nerdish bent and good plot twists near the end.  It had a lot of near-future Scottish slang that I couldn’t figure out, but that’s acceptable in stories where the author is making up a future regional slang.

I like how the three narrative lines were arranged in such a way that two of them almost merged to provide quick gratification of some of the end-of-chapter cliffhangers.

Stross was wrong about facial recognition software being a hard problem though.



Manta’s Gift by Timothy Zahn

Pretty much what it says on the cover: Political maneuvering between human with shadowy, presumed-evil overlords and aliens with unclear motivations in an exotic environment, with a little bit of adventure thrown in.  It was a pretty decent read and kept me going from chapter to chapter.


JavaScript: The Good Parts by Douglas Crockford

A friend recommended this when I expressed an interest in learning JS, and I’m glad she did. This book makes sense out of a potentially very powerful programming language that gets a few things wrong in very confusing ways.  Getting a tour of the language features from someone who can explain what’s good and what’s bad and why they’re good and bad is the perfect approach.  Highly recommended.



Courtship Rite by Donald Kingsbury

I’ve had this book on my inbound shelf for decades. I tend to have a habit of being slow to getting around to this sort of classical science fiction, but I tend to find it rewarding to read when I get around to it.

This book was definitely rewarding; seldom have I read such a well-written story. Kingsbury manages to weave an engrossing tale of a historical event in a slightly bizarre human society on a far-flung colony world, without any narratorial exposition until the very end. It gradually expands from the very small scope of one familly, to the machinations of a few small societies, and then at the end very satisfyingly zooms out to put it all in the context of a suddenly very fascinating galactic diaspora.

I now want to read more stories set in this universe.


Lethe by Tricia Sullivan

A reasonably interesting post-apocalyptic adventure with an unusual vision of the grim meathook future. Some interesting plot devices and characters, but although the minor plot points of the ending were not predictable, the big revelation was telegraphed far ahead of time.


507 Mechanical Movements by Henry T. Brown

Exactly what it says on the title – patent diagrams and descriptions of 507 mechanisms for performing different kinds of transformations on mechanical power.

I’m not disappointed, but I did find some of the diagrams and descriptions difficult to follow, partially because more views would have been useful and partially due to use of opaque and archaic language.

There was one mechanism that I had a hard time believing would work, but all attempts to search for it online lead back to this book.




Language Really Is a Virus

I’ve always bought into the idea that language shapes our thoughts and enables us to do more with our brains, but there is evidence that it is much more profoundly true than I ever suspected. Have a listen to this great Radiolab episode:

What we think of as humanity is language, not genes. Thanks to genes we have brains that can process complex languages and spread the language virus to other brains, but without the language we might not even be people at all – just clever animals. If you had never learned a language, not only would you not be the same person but you might not even be aware you exist.

Humanity is self-replicating, self-modifying software running on an independently self-replicating squishy hardware platform.

I think this explains why infants undergo a radical mental restructuring in their first couple of years, and tend to not remember anything before that.  They’re going from native, animal processing mode to being driven by an interpreted language.

This also contributes some explanation to why there can be such radical cultural differences and lack of understanding between peoples who speak different languages.

I hereby require everyone to learn a computer programming language. Then we can be the same species.

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