A Little Desipience

My (and other contributors) musings on my writing or any other topic that suits our fancy of the moment.

Desipience

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My blog title came from a desire to have an unencumbered blog, as well to have a blog title that wasn’t in the Microsoft Word dictionary. So, in honor of my title, let’s have a relaxed dally while enjoying foolish trifles.

As a preamble, I take a break from the dreary sameness of Houston to visit the beach community of Port Aransas in the off-season, to relax and to write. For the past several years, I’ve been staying in the same place, and while relaxing on the beach, I’ve gotten to wonder – what are all those tall buildings lining the beach? After a while, I got bored with calling them ‘next beach condo’, ‘next plus one beach condo’, etc., etc. Worse, some of them didn’t even look like beach condos. I didn’t do anything about it, though, until one day at home, while looking at some beach pictures, I again got the urge to name them. Name them without having to go up and down the Port Aransas roads, that is. The trick was finding pictures taken when the normal beach haze wasn’t present (that is, after a cold front has blown through) and the beaches weren’t crowded with people. I did manage to find usable pictures, though my best south-looking picture was too people-cluttered for use, so I had to use one with lower quality viewing conditions.

I looked at this as a challenge. I’ve been trying to get a handle on the weekly ‘View From Your Window’ contest at The Daily Dish for months (such as this), and have gotten nowhere. Very frustrating. Grrr. I originally thought identifying random pictures might be in my skill set, as I’m good with maps and general identification puzzles, but I’ve been proven wrong. Repeatedly. I find myself cheering when I guess the correct continent, but I’m not sure I’m doing better than I would if I always guessed ‘North America’. Sigh.

In any event, with a little help from my dear friends Google Earth, Google Maps and the Google search engine, I’ve managed to identify everything on my beach pictures. More or less. I hope.

Looking north, I have:

The curve of the beach puts several of these out in the water, and the last two proved to be severe puzzlers. Here’s a blown up view of the last three:

The Dunes was easy to identify, and is as almost as large as it appears (compared to the other tall buildings), but the Bathhouse and Caldwell Pier gatehouse are not. All three of these are vertically magnified and distorted by the same light-bending trick that makes mirages. The Sandcastle (the next tallest building – see first picture) is only 3.5 miles away. However, The Dunes is 5.7 miles away, the Caldwell Pier Gatehouse is 5.8 miles away, and the county park bathhouse is 6.1 miles away.

Looking south, I have:

I found two annoyances with this. First, that some of these turned out to be distant near-beach homes. Second, that one of the large beach condos, the Sandpiper (the twin of the Sea Gull) is hidden in this view (the Sea Gull is in the way). The leftmost two were a big challenge. They are fuzzy with distance even on the crispest day, and there’s little in between. The reason there’s little in between is Mustang Island State Park, which keeps a decent stretch of the distant beach uncluttered by buildings. Here’s a magnified picture of last these:

Both of these leftmost and hard-to-see buildings, 8 stories tall each, turn out to be 12 miles distant, on the other side of Packery Channel and thus on North Padre Island proper. For reference, the Lost Colony Beach Homes are only 2 ½ miles away. There’s also a moderately tall beach condo complex, the Mayan Princess, that’s lost in the haze just to the left of the Lost Colony Beach Homes, about 3 ½ miles distant.

These are not perfect pictures. On the clearest days, I’ve also seen the Caldwell Pier itself (to the north) and the pier in the State Park (to the south). The Gulf in this area is dotted in this area by distant oil platforms, sailboats, and commercial traffic going into Corpus Christi via the Port Aransas channel, enough to annoy someone who wanted pure nature.

For the sake of completion (and nothing else save completion), here’s a picture of the place I stay (the Royal Caribbean), taken from the same place the above pictures were taken. The place is quiet and unassuming, but has killer beach views from the room balconies:

Extraterrestrial Life Fallacies

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In my reading (fiction and non-fiction) and viewing (fiction) I’ve encountered quite a few fallacies in the arguments about life outside the solar system. I’ve also encountered quite a few examples of low probability speculation. All of which tempts me to speculate, myself. Warning: this is not my chosen field of study.

Still, my subtitle for this article is “Where’s a geologist when you need one?”

1. Although the natural laws (and chemical reactions) don’t vary from place to place, chemistry does. The chemical species we are familiar with, in our air, water and ground, are not a given for any extraterrestrial planet, even those in the life-zone of another solar system, even if this is an Earth-like planet with water in its oceans. Earth chemistry depends on not only temperature and pressure, but the abundances of the chemical elements on Earth (and in the Solar System), abundances varying wildly from stellar system to stellar system (link). These compositional differences change what chemical reactions are possible in the air, water (if any) and ground – and in life forms (if any). Finding an exact match to our terrestrial chemistry, and our biochemistry, even at the simplest level of microbe metabolism (e.g. whether any alien microbes on an alien planet can consume Earth microbes, or vice versa) might be impossible.

2. One common and annoying fallacy is: the existence of life implies the existence of intelligent life. Intelligent life on Earth has lasted about 200,000 years, or .005% of the lifetime of the Earth. A simple odds calculation of finding intelligent life on an alien life-bearing planet of our tech level or less (assuming we are typical) would then be approximately one in 40,000. Another often-made assumption is the idea that planets bearing alien life will have multi-cellular life. With multi-cellular life being roughly 500 million years old, and Earth life being 4 billion or so, the odds are only about 1 in 8 you would find multi-cellular life on a life-bearing planet (I suspect the odds of finding multi-cellular life are much worse than this, given the gyrations involved in going from single-celled life to multi-cellular life). Such calculations get more complicated if you start factoring in stellar lifespans, of course; the odds go up if dimmer (and longer lasting) stars than ours can have life-bearing planets, and they go down if life more often forms on planets with brighter (and shorter living) stars than ours.

3. As a thought experiment, consider how the Romans of the late Roman republic era might have visualized an off-world alien. Would they even have thought ‘alien visitors imply more advanced technology’ (for just one example of something we find essential to such speculation)? Would they even have thought of the concept of ‘other world’, as the Romans thought of planets as nothing more than lights in the sky, and had no idea that other solar systems (not to mention galaxies) existed. The obvious visualization the Romans would make would be ‘deity’ (or ‘deities’). How close to our time (in human history) does an alien visitor need to be, to our time in history, for us to conceive of an intelligent extraterrestrial lifeform as a person (as opposed to ‘deity’)? (The answer is: likely closer than any of us would want to admit.) Why bring this up? Well, how confident are you about our current visualization of what an extraterrestrial visitor might be like is? I’m not very confident at all. I suspect in our envisioning of intelligent alien life forms, we are likely missing one or more concepts (or things) that lie outside of our mental visualizations of the possible. For instance, requiring an intelligent alien visitor to need a spacecraft to visit us might be flat out wrong.

4. Even beyond my earlier points, speculation about alien civilizations does not pay enough attention to time. We think in terms of alien civilizations travelling via spacecraft because we have spacecraft, yet we’ve only had spacecraft for 60 years (errr…paddle wheeled steamboat to the stars, anyone?). We think in terms of alien civilizations possessing computers because we have computers, yet we’ve had them for only 70 years, and what we think of as a computer changes about once every two years or so. We think in terms of soldiers in alien civilizations armed with blasters, because we’ve had firearms for 600 years or so. Think, instead, of our specific technologies, or even some families of technologies, as nothing more than instantaneous flashes of light (on the only real scale that matters, the geologic time scale). The absolute worst of these fallacies I find associated with the SETI project, because these come from people who should know better. Radio? You’ve got to be kidding me. Science may be eternal, and we may be far closer to figuring out all of science than we realize (and that’s only a ‘may be’), but technology? Analogize science to ‘the alphabet’ and analogize technology to ‘the novel, made out of words, made out of the alphabet’. Technology isn’t something you can discover everything about (no more you can write all the possible novels). The technology of any meaningful alien civilization able to visit us will be beyond our understanding, even given equal levels of scientific advancement, unless we too are able to visit alien civilizations in some fashion, and would most likely be beyond our understanding even if we are also able to visit them and they are able to visit us. Another time issue involves slower-than-light-speed travel – without any form of FTL travel, civilizations are limited to travelling short distances (on a galactic scale – a few hundred light years is tiny) because of economic and social issues (machines, as well as people, break down over time – as do societies).

5. Lastly, not enough attention is paid to atmospheres, both density and composition. What is the typical atmospheric thickness / volume of a life bearing Earth-mass world? Based on Earth microbes, we haven’t found any hard limits. Crushing pressure? No problem. Nearly boiling water? No problem. Thin air? Hard radiation? We’ve got a microbe for that. The real limits appear to be heat and cold – Venus being too hot, Mars being too cold (though I can also argue that we just don’t have enough data yet on this, for even mild speculation). If I were to hazard a guess (based on the hundreds of known exoplanets), I suspect most life-bearing planets are going to have significantly thicker atmospheres, and with atmospheric compositions we cannot breathe.

6. The most common stars are less massive and cooler than our sun, and have longer stellar lifetimes as well. The exoplanets we’ve found are, perhaps because of our limitations in detection technology and perhaps because of real commonality differences, more massive than Earth and closer to their star than Earth. I suspect the environment of the typical life-bearing planet will likely be a terrestrial planet heavier than Earth, around cooler stars than our sun, in an orbit far closer to their star, tidally locked – and, to allow life, thick atmospheres to buffer the effects of their close-in orbits and tidal locking. Think of more massive, cooler, wetter versions of Venus – places we wouldn’t be able to colonize, terraform, or even easily visit.

7. Water is a powerful solvent. Fresh water, which we think of as essential, is rare even on Earth (compared to the volume of salt water in the oceans), and is only possible because of the temperature, pressure and circulation patterns in our atmosphere. In areas where the bedrock is close or at the surface, and is of igneous origins, dissolved toxic chemicals often contaminate the groundwater (such as in the Rocky Mountains). In fact, the water we do consider fresh water is often contaminated with dissolved lime and iron, but we have evolved to consider these contaminants non-toxic. Change the planetary composition or atmospheric composition, and what we think of as fresh water won’t exist.

I doubt I’ve covered all the fallacies and problems here. My speculative conclusion is that the Fermi Paradox (“If we’re on a typical planet, where is everyone else?”) isn’t a paradox, and the Drake Equation that guesses the numbers of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy (used by the SETI people) is currently useless because of the issues I’ve given, above. I suspect alien civilizations are numerous on a galactic scale, but essentially invisible to each other because of chemical, biological, technological and social differences, and that colonizable planets (matched to each civilized lifeform) are so spread out (even after factoring in the concept of terraforming, to abuse a word) to make interstellar colonization impossible. My speculation has one obvious large hole: I’m assuming no faster than light travel is possible. If FTL is possible, then my speculation changes radically…introducing quite a few other fallacies which I will write about, later, in a different blog article.

Adaptations (Hunger Games vs Game of Thrones)

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At times, I get fussy about movies and television. I’m a lot more judgmental about serious visual fiction than I am about popcorn fare, such as The Avengers, because part of the fun of popcorn fare is that such things are more entertaining than dramatic. Serious visual fiction is supposed to be better.

Both the Hunger Games and The Game of Thrones are adaptations from novels. I haven’t read “Hunger Games” (yet), and I read “The Game of Thrones” when it came out, 16 years ago, and had forgotten most of the plot (the amount of time between these books does make it difficult to remember what’s going on when the latest book comes out and I read it; I am planning on re-reading the series if and when it ever finishes). This allowed me to go into the movie theater (for Hunger Games) and watch on Netflix (Game of Thrones season one) with an open mind. I found these pieces instructive as far as the problem of novel adaptation is concerned.

The Hunger Games movie struck me as squeezed, and filled with undeveloped characters. Worse, what was shown of the characters’ backstories didn’t match the milieu and setting, the worst being the fact the chosen characters for the hunger games participation didn’t appear hungry. As far as dystopias were concerned, this was too mild, and far less terrifying than current real life examples such as Somalia, Sudan and North Korea. I know the creative crew tried to tell us this was an evil and decadent dystopia, but mild decadence, arch accents, plastic smiles and backroom skullduggery can only go so far. The two problems result from too much compression and too much watering-down. Compression: too much cut from the novel; too many hints that the creative crew was working from a ‘you’ve already read the book so we can get away from little insinuations and glimpses’ perspective. Watering-down (to get a good movie rating): the wimpy dystopia, never showing character deaths in what was supposed to be a death match, etc. On the latter issue, I consider the first released Star Wars movie, with its PG rating, hits far harder emotionally than the Hunger Games and its PG-13 rating.

The Game of Thrones HBO series (season 1) did not strike me as squeezed; nor did it give me undeveloped main characters and undeveloped important secondary characters, although their backstories were minimal. The milieu is harsh, medieval and quite convincing as a place no one in their right mind would want to live. The episodes were emotionally satisfying, and repeatedly drawing me in. The villains didn’t walk around with ‘villain’ tattooed to their foreheads, and the heroes were human and humanly flawed. This is all possible because of the length of an HBO season (10 hours versus just over 2 hours). As with Lost (which many in the Game of Thrones creative crew worked on as well) Game of Thrones has almost but not quite too many characters, almost but not quite too many plot threads to keep track of, and not as many strong female characters as I would like. I have to rate it as a far more satisfying viewing experience than the Hunger Games, though.

Yes, this is an apples-to-oranges comparison, but I find this instructive, in as much as both started as novels. In general, I believe modern novels should not be adapted into movies. They don’t fit well. How, then, did the Lord of the Rings trilogy work so well as movies? My speculative answer is that the Lord of the Rings books weren’t really modern novels – few modern novels (by my definition, Hemingway-style novels) are as long-winded and descriptive as Tolkien’s works. Imagine the Lord of the Rings done as a 3 season HBO series of the same length. You wouldn’t even get to Rivendell (and half of your main characters) until 5 hours in! Imagine, alternatively, the Hunger Games in HBO format. You would have time enough to show more of why this is a dystopia, likely through the other character’s backstories. Your favorite important secondary characters would get more screen time. You would also have more time to savor the tension of the manipulated-game situation. An improvement, in my mind.

   
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