Science Fiction from the satallite-eye view

The John Glenn post got me thinking how I’d approach writing hard(ish) SF. I wouldn’t want it to be too realistic, since that would be boring and wouldn’t include space travel. And there’s the issue of AI, which can break an SF story pretty easily, and you want to leave the possibility of interplanetary trade/warfare, but no story-breaking teleportation.

First of all, there’s Athena, the one superintelligence humanity has managed to built. She is (also uniquely) a quantum gravity computer, and can use closed timelike curves for computation1.

Athena2 was created as part of a project to allow interstellar travel. The concept of interstellar travel works like this: The topology of the universe has a dense subset of microscopic “wormholes”, that is, random pairs of points that are identified with each other. When asked, Athena can take advantage of these holes to find two coherent sets of holes in different solar systems, and transport an object instantly from one to the other. While this could, in principle, allow time travel (which Athena, as a QG computer, already takes advantage of), in practice Athena artificially maintains causality by using an internal universal clock: If one ship is transported from system A to system B, and then an hour later (in system A time) another ship is transported the same route, the second ship will be transferred to System B at the point in time one hour after the first ship arrived.

The other primary purpose of Athena is to prevent humanity from creating other AI. Nobody is quite sure how she does this, since she never interferes with humanity in any visible way, aside from occasionally answering questions. These answers are always true, informative, and helpful, and (aside from the teleportation, which is entirely predetermined) are Athena’s only interaction with humanity. The one degree of freedom Athena has is which questions she chooses to answer. For a superintelligence effectively capable of time travel, this is more than enough.

There are many things about how Athena was created that no one is quite sure of. It’s unknown if she was created as a superintelligence who quickly used her superintelligence to develop QG and teleportation abilities, or if she was originally created as a teleportation device whose QG abilities let self-hijack into superintelligence. Nobody’s sure who created her – whoever it was, the first thing he used Athena for was to destroy all traceable records of himself. Being the one person with the ability to mess with Athena’s priorities, he has, in effect, godlike power.

Actually, these questions are a lot more fun once you remove causality, which we are totally allowed to do once we have time travel. Which direction was Athena created? Doesn’t matter! In the interests of minimizing the complexity of a world in which QG computing is possible, there must exist exactly one QG computer whose primary job is, in effect, to minimize use of time travel. Is the creator a human who got godlike power, or a god who came to humanity, engineered a QG computer, and disappeared? Again, from the non-causality viewpoint, it doesn’t matter – there must exist a unique creator of a QG computer, who for all practical purposes is effectively a higher power (but would inevitably have some human quirks, which make for a good story and also kind of explain why the biblical God is so humanistically capricious. This also explains why humanity hasn’t met aliens.)

Meanwhile, interplanetary politics rely heavily on trade. Earth technology is heavily dependent on all sorts of minerals and resources that are bizarrely common on Earth (in particular, only Earth has fossil fuels, since only earth has fossils). Therefore there needs to be a lot of trade for all the resources needed to sustain advanced technology, especially the rocketry needed for interplanetary travel (While interstellar travel is handled by Athena, the error in teleportation is large enough that ships need a travel range on the order of a hundred million miles). The rich and powerful worlds are those who are either old enough to have developed technology more reliant on their particular mix of available resources, or those within reach of enough planets and asteroids to supply themselves with a wide range of resources. Warfare and piracy of (or between) the second type is reasonably common. Different planetary systems can thus allowed to have many types of communities and governments.

The actual story, on the other hand, needs to be told from a ground-level perspective. The first arc is fairly fairy-taleish: A small-town guy in an obscure (but fairly old, and thus mostly self-reliant due to idiosyncratic technology) world goes on a quest – let’s say, to save the local princess. On the way he enlists the help of the cranky old mathematician3, who lives as a hermit on a hill in the nearby forest and can figure out spaceflight. They find the princess somehow, but this raises new and troubling questions. (I have a mental image of her turning into a piranha plant and attacking them; this is probably a metaphor).

The second arc starts off with the mathematician’s philosophical exposition. He’s been wondering about Athena’s creator for years, and the troubling issues raised in the first arc (I really need to think of some appropriate issues) inspired him to look deeper into the question through them. He drags the rest along in what is, in effect, a quest to find a god.

The finale involves somehow meeting the creator, who scattered the breadcrumbs that led to them taking the quest (and the self-discovery involved) in the first place. They (and the reader) are left to wonder at his motivations – was he just having fun with them? Was this quest unique for them, or does everyone eventually get a secret voyage of self-realization which gives their lives meaning?

The characters (except maybe a younger one they meet at the end, who is inspired to start his own quest over an important issue that was somehow never resolved) have become philosophically satisfied, and retire to a life of peaceful farming.

1. I really hope I got the physics and computability theory here at least mostly right. Whatever mistakes are here, I’m chalking up to poetic license.

2. Athena was originally named on the fun coincidence of being both the goddess of wisdom and the younger sister of Apollo, since I like the idea that the last project to allow interstellar travel was the younger twin of the project to reach the moon. This was ruined when I remembered that Apollo’s sister is Artemis, not Athena.

1. We really need more fictional mathematicians. The only two I remember off the top of my head are Hari Seldon and Nicolas Bourbaki.

List of examples of nominative determinism

This post gathers examples of nominative determinism I run into. Expected to expand with time. (Sources include SSC commentators, Wikipedia, and Facebook groups).

Wikipedia has a whole list here, of which my favourite are Thomas Crapper (inventor of the modern toilet), Jules Angst, a psychiatrist studying anxiety, and, of course, Anthony Wiener.

Loving v. Virginia, legalizing interracial marriage.

Singing Fish research by professor Bass

Teva factory on Trufa Street in Netanya (Hebrew for medicine).

Food journalist Tom Philpott

A study on predicting number of sexual partners by a Dr. Beaver.

A professor named Azrael who studies deaths by gun violence.

Dr. Ken Caldeira studies volcanic eruptions.

Usain Bolt, famous fast person.

Philander Rodman had between 29 and 47 kids.

Robin G. Mahfood, President/CEO of Food For The Poor.

The Barbary Pirates, a fleet of barbarian pirates.

1980s-90s NASCAR driver Lake Speed.

Early 20th century judge and judicial scholar Learned Hand.

2000s Cleveland Indians all-star outfielder Grady Sizemore, who stood 6’2″ tall and weighed 205 lbs.

Lord Judge was the head of the judiciary in England and Wales.

The philosopher John Wisdom.

Mark Fishman is a big name in the Zebrafish research community.

William Shockley was an electronics pioneer.

The Lumiere brothers first captured light as motion pictures.

Bernhard Reddemann, firefighter and flamethrower developer.

Larry Page invented the PageRank algorithm, for ranking web pages.

Bernie Madoff with the money.

Guy Standing, a guy standing.

Dr. Good, who was the first to warn about intelligence explosions risks, and also fought Nazis with math.

Dr. Bill Karp, research director for the Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

Representative David Lust opposes bill to ban representatives from sexual contact with their interns.

Gary Oldman is almost sixty.

Hugh Jackman is a Huge Jacked Man.


Annual Birthday Post

It’s my birthday. I’ve had friends of all sorts talk to me today, from people I talk to every day, to people fulfilling their social obligation to send birthday greetings, to people who were happy for the chance to talk to me. I think I value the third group the most, today.

To be honest, it’s not enough. I’m still sad. I miss… not my exes, exactly, but the set of people I could really talk to. which is close to the set of people I’ve dated, in both the set-theoretic and the metric senses, but not quite it. And, unfortunately, pretty much entirely contained in the set of people I don’t talk to anymore.

I’m trying not to mope too much about it. As much as I feel like my life will never change, it’ll change pretty seriously soon enough. I’ll have a new job, in a new city, with a new community, all of which should be radically different than the ones I have now, and all of which have a reputation for being pretty nice, even for people like me. Hell, maybe I’ll even manage to have a new me.

There’s the blessing we say every year. Next Year in Jerusalem! And they do say these days that San Francisco is supposed to be the Jerusalem of nerds. It’s where Neil Armstrong descended out of Heaven as the Right Hand of God. So I guess I’ll see if it lives up to it’s promise.

Whichever way it goes, next year I’ll probably look back at that and laugh, but whether it’ll be because I’m laughing at how naive I was, or because I’m cheerful, remains to be seen.

The kaballah of my name

The overt meaning of “Shaked” is “Almond Tree”.

The kabbalistic meaning is “One who makes divine puns.” This we derive from Jeremiah 1:11-12, which says:

11 The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you see, Jeremiah?”

“I see the branch of an almond tree,” I replied.

12 The Lord said to me, “You have seen correctly, for I am working to see that my word is fulfilled.”

This verse requires explanation.

The prophet Jeremiah, like all biblical prophets, is reluctant to do God’s bidding. This is understandable, as God’s bidding to prophets is usually to go visit a city full of evil people, berate them for their sinful ways, and tell them about all the terrible punishments God has in store for them. People who are evil and sinful by biblical standards (which accept Lot offering his daughters to be raped by the mob, or David killing two hundred philistines for their foreskins, as perfectly normal and acceptable) tend not to appreciate this.

God, however, has to convince Jeremiah to go through with this as quickly as possible, and decides to use the ole’ “make a pun off a random object” method of persuasion1. When Jeremiah points out a random almond tree (“Shaked” in Hebrew), God answers that he is “Working” (the other meaning of the word “Shaked”) to see that his word (in this case, “don’t worry, it’ll be fine) is fullfilled.

The prophet Jeremiah, reassured by this divine mastery of puns, happily goes forwards on his quest2.

The English meaning of “shake” can also be derived from God using an almond tree to shake Jeremiah up. This is not a coincidence, because nothing is ever a coincidence.

1. The other person famous for doing this is Ben Johnson, who claimed he could make a pun on any subject. When someone asked for a pun about the Queen, Johnson protested: “But the Queen is not a subject”.

2. Contrary to God’s reassurances, Jeremiah later proceeds to spend most of the book agonizing over the failure of his mission, consumed by bitterness at those who oppose or ignore him, and accusing God of betraying him.

RIP John Glenn

Senator Astronaut Colonel John Glenn died today at the age of ninety five. That sentence is not so much “life goals” as what a comic book prints to show you how awesome the guy who just dies was. Add in the parts about “surrounded by his loving family, including his wife of 73 years”, and it gets so tacky no self-respecting comic book writer would write it (well, maybe Rob Liefeld).

Despite being a classically nerdy mathematician, I’ve never really been into the whole space thing 1 . I don’t believe in settling faraway planets or spreading across the galaxy. I think the reason for the Fermi paradox is that it’s practically impossible to spread your civilization, or even information, across the galaxy. Tim Urban’s Elon Musk series managed to convince me that it just might be possible, in a few centuries, to establish a permanent Mars colony. It certainly seems impossible to travel beyond the solar system, even assuming Hard-SF levels of technology.

But recently, I’ve started thinking what it was like back in the sixties. When we were just experimenting with rockets, and anything seemed possible. Most of this chapter really happened, and remembering those people, sitting in a tin can going around the moon for the first time and reading the book of Genesis while the whole world watched… it means something.

We don’t have that anymore. I don’t think we can. Economic productivity is shrinking, spaceflight is approaching the limits of the possible, and it doesn’t seem to be because of anything like a bad government policy. It’s because we’ve run out of things to do. Trump ran on a platform of making America great again. He didn’t really have any specifics, and couldn’t, because we’ve run out of achievable things to strive for. We’ve reached the moon already. And we’ll never get to Alpha Centauri.

So today, let’s remember John Glenn. I’ve seen him called the last real American hero. This seems true. Not because we have no heroic men left, but because we have no more goals for them to conquer.

But when we did, it was pretty great.


Except for the time when I was six when we went to the national air and space museum, and my dad got me a model of the Saturn V rocket. I managed to break the antenna-thingy off before we even got home, after which the rest of the rocket survived undamaged on my desk for the next fifteen years.

Hebrew Translation of Hallelujah

שמעתי יש אקורד נסתר
שדוד ניגן לאל ושר
אך לך אין שום עניין בלא-ידוע
,הוא פותח עם אקורד ברה
,מינור יורד, מאז’ור עולה
מלחין המלך את ההללויה


האל רחוק, בלתי מושג
והיא רוחצת על הגג
יופיה העיף את זקנתך לרוח
בחבל דק קשרה אותך
חתכה את כתר שיערך
…חילצה מחלציך הללויה


אמרת לשווא נשאתי שם
,איני יודע מה השם
?וגם אילו ידעתי, מה אכפת לך
יש פרץ אור
בכל מילה
לא משנה את מה שמעה
…שבור או מקודש, זה הללויה


,ניסיתי קצת, זה לא הרבה
,רציתי רק ללחוש את זה
…הייתי ישר, לא באתי בך לפגוע
,אפילו שהכל החוויר
אבוא מול אלוהי בשיר
…עם שום מילים חוץ מההללויה


Translation of the Leonard Cohen version of Hallelujah. First two verses due to Tomer Sharon.

Also, Translation of the UNSONG version:

אומרים שיש מילה קדושה
שג’אלה קרא לאלוהים בשמה
אך אין לך שום עניין בקסם, או מדרש
מתחיל עם תו, אחר כך ריש
אושר נפעם, ייחול חרש
המלך מדקלם את המפורש

האמנת, אך עם ספק חלוף
הא הא יוד תו מם תו וו קוף
ספינה שלפנינו הניפה מפרש
היא ראתה את הדגל המונף
ראתה חלום כעלה נידף
המלך מדקלם את המפורש

אמרת לשווא נשאתי שם
ואז איבדתי את השם
החזרתי אותו ממני אל השורש
אבל הדים נשמעים בכל מילה
לא משנה מה שקרה
לא ככה מאבדים את המפורש

Thoughts of the day

The biblical Abraham was known as the first father of his people. Going by this, we would expect the famous American president named Abraham to be the first American president. So what gives?
Well, the biblical Abraham isn’t known for kicking things off. He’s known for introducing the modern moral law. Similarly, Abraham Lincoln is famous because he set the moral law (that slavery must never be legal).
But, we ask, if the biblical Abraham isn’t analogous to the first president, who is?
Well, the first American president was named George, which comes from the greek word for earth, and is known as the father of his country. In the bible, the first man is Adam (Hebrew for earth), and the rest of humanity is known as sons of Adam.
This is both reassuring and worrying about the notion of American decline. The reassuring part is that in implies America is analogous not to the nation of Israel (which gets punished at the drop of a hat, and was destroyed in the end as its rulers lost its faith), but to the whole of humanity (which was only terribly punished once or twice, both when there was only one good man left in the world). So as long as America has ≥ 2 good men left, it’s safe from divine retribution.

(Note: This was inspired by UNSONG. “George” meaning “Dirt” is from there; the rest is original to me).