Category: space

a ‘belief sphere’, induction, and stained glass flarf

April 11th, 2013 — 12:46pm

There is plenty of promise held in the future’s tightly clenched fist, and I look forward to prising those surprises from its grasp as the years unfold glorious and slow.

I want to explain a concept i have had lately. I would like to introduce a thing I call a “belief sphere”, which occupies the space beyond the horizon of our understanding. This unexplored vast space is by definition unknown, and so is able to contain any idea or thought that you can posit. It contains all the crazy Flying-Spaghetti-Monster type theories, the amusing thoughts and mental daydreams which do not seem to belong to reality. It is of course infinite in size, as there is nothing that cannot be fitted into it. In fact what i am describing simply resembles the imagination. I have been thinking about how to define it for a long time, because i think it has its own ‘reality’ and is also composed of a few different elements.

Anyway the first point is that even though this space is continually encroached upon by progress in knowledge, the accrual of ‘new knowledge’ it always remains whole and intact. It cannot ever be lessened or dissolved, for even if every possible phenomena was known, that knowledge cannot ‘know’ itself, so there remains a bit of ‘left over’ knowledge still to discover (a bit like several paradoxes such as godel’s theorem make clear). Also, if theories obey the law of Occams razor and so must take the most efficient route in explaining phenomena, it implies that something is left out. So perhaps the only complete theory is also the most complex, and in fact occupies the entire fabric of the reality it explains – and so is in fact that reality (I wrote a poem about Occam years ago).

Image courtesy of t.abroudj on flickr

I tend to think that reality is fractal, so that it is possible to grab a small part of it and generalise upwards, but it gradually becomes imperfect the further up you generalise. So you have to grab a larger chunk of it to make a better generalisation, a better theory. Ultimately though, the only perfect way to describe reality is to grab the whole thing. This explains why theories are getting more and more complex generally – there is nothing wrong with that – it is just the same as how our tools and technology are getting more complex and operate at finer and finer tolerances in order to do their work for us. Theories are like tools – in fact they are inseparable from the tools of experimentation. Fractals have simple equations underlying their complexity, but chaos theories explain that if you want to find the reality of a precise location you need to do a lot of computation – you basically need to a computer as big as the universe to do the whole thing, and it will take all of time to run the program. We need to somehow step out of the system and just observe it as it is.

The problem of induction seems to be a problem with time, and the fact that our brains don’t experience it completely, but rather are drip-fed the reality of it day by day. So we can never know what is just around the corner – even if we recognize a pattern and can make guesses about the future, it is never certain, because patterns can change suddenly and chaotically. This is not a problem in the natural world because we can see a shape in its entirety and say “that is a circle” – end, i suppose, of story. But when we want to say ‘the sun will rise tomorrow’ even though we have a fairly established pattern, there is no knowing because we have not experienced tomorrow. If on the other hand we were eternal beings that could step out of time as freely as stepping out of a river, then there would be no problem with making such a statement – the knowledge would be there simply by looking at the reflection in the water.

I read an interesting article in the Guardian yesterday about the work of Sam Parnia in resuscitation, and his thoughts about the nature of mind as distinct from brain/neronal activity. He states that “Even prominent neuroscientists, such as Sir John Eccles, a Nobel prizewinner, believe that we are never going to understand mind through neuronal activity”.

This clicks with me. To clarify, I believe that mind is something that is eternal and can experience the past and future, as well as different life trails (see this earlier post for a bit of a mashed up description of this idea). There are lots of people who believe this in some way or other (read some of the comments on the Guardian article to get a few). The problem is that these days, unless we are ok with being crazy, we need to justify our beliefs in terms of scientific truths. But does this take us back to the first paras of this article, where the justification of such justification is itself a belief, and one built through flawed inductive reasoning at that? So there is a problem here, if we want to put an eternal mind inside the same ‘system’ as ordinary reality. I don’t think it can be resolved through simple scientific proofs.

However there might be a test – if we become able to read images out of the mind (and there are already successful attempts out there at doing this) then it might be possible to pick up something from this ‘belief sphere’ – of course there will be loads of stuff from the past, i.e. memory. loads of stuff that is just ‘imagination’ but there should also be stuff which turns out to be from the future. Sifting it all out is the problem. I personally have had impressions of future events which strike me as being sound and true – but proof seems hard to attain through metrics. Instead, it might come through capturing images, if these can be resolved out of the mind somehow. It might not be ‘proof’ in an ordinary sense, but if it could be shown to resonate sufficiently deeply, then we might have something tangible for people to accept as true.


Flarf has got a bit of press lately with the inclusion of some flarf poems in Norton’s 2nd ed of Postmodern American Poetry. There is a really gratuitous and amusing discussion going on about it on htmlgiant. I was reading this at the same time as i was reading a paper about the Devonian Hodgkinson Formation in Norther Queensland, and imagining Conodont faunas swimming in ancient red sandy bottomed lakes (my Ettrema trip was primarily to visit a contemporaneous Devonian reef on Jones ck). Anyway the whole lot got smashed up in my mind and all evening i had this sensation like I was observing things through a blue stained glass window, like a petrographic thin section, a matrix of intergrown materials which do not exactly coalesce or form a solid solution but have to live alongside each other somehow in my brain. Like a flarf poem cut and pasted together, or winnowed down through selective deletion.

And this sensation, of chaotic interlinking but distinct objects forming a translucent window, this to me is what a slice of time looks like when you hold it up to the light of eternity. That is when events and ideas have distinct shapes which can be mapped and known for what they really are. It’s just an image but it captures a truth for me.

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stupid news

February 22nd, 2013 — 1:23pm

.back at ANU studying latin, greek, and rocks. I nearly bought somerset maugham and graham greene from a bookstore trestle table but found myself in electric shaddows bookshop buying frank moorehouse and geoff page instead, modern boys. I discover and like that greeks wrote mainly in lowercase. also like that meteorites are in the news re DA14 close shave and that other one that hit us the other day. I hope that Rob McNaught at siding springs gets his funding now.

da14 asteroid by radar courtesy jpl
da14 asteroid by radar courtesy jpl

had a thought about how maybe if we define our own past and future only by holding specific beliefs & thoughts, maybe we are actually sorting the multiple threads of time in a sort of mentally driven survival-of-the-fittest game. Imagine that my future depends on my state of mind – well that’s no shocking news – but that all the other possible threads of future (which still exist regardless of whether i travel them) are being weeded out, cast away, out of my life, by my thought processes. Who are the denizens of those other threads? Other me’s who thought differently? All those who got caught up in other things.

From the point of view of a citizen living in this other reality, i am a distant god, waving his thought hands over their reality, and plucking from it the possibilities which are used in this reality. They get the cast off thoughts, the hand me downs, the second best. Somewhere there lives another me who is more neglected than the me in this world, evolution is pushing him towards extinction.

We need to make sure we are living in the right world, the successful world, not one of the many worlds that are headed towards an early death (by the bad mental habits cultivated by their weary inhabitants).

does that sound crazy to you? it does to me a bit.

Comments Off on stupid news | inchiki news, space, whimsy

walking on mars

December 19th, 2012 — 10:50am

Mars is so kinky. I like mars. We all need to move there right away! Mars is a cool neighbour to have in this dusty dry old galaxy.

I had a dream that I was on mars the other morning.. I think it was partly from all the lovely drugs I have been taking since having my wisdom teeth out. Mars dust stuck to my spacesuit like paint as I constructed drystone walls of pumice-like stone, foil houses and clear plastic herbaria. Later I skidded across long roads in an electric vehicle with giant wheels. I imagine food deliveries falling from the sky, container towns growing like in the arctic, explorations going suddenly wrong as with a cave diving, where there are ‘no accidents only fatalities’. Harvesting ice to breathe, growing cabbages and leeks. I take my hat off to Elon Musk who may in my lifetime make these adventures possible, he anyway seems to have dreams like these.

Mars Melange:
Mars, cut open tastes like a lemon. This lemon inserted into the sky becomes the sun prick. This is the gin eye – or a vodka fridge (grin*) – however you can take it, mars can give it. Pipeclay creek near Cooma is redundant if we go to mars. Plant trees on mars. Cut rocks. Make gin cocktails and grin*, grin*. Like a hopeless marble bathroom filled with cut bits of people, mars is the dye that cuts into space rocket tinfoil parts. Pieces of half molten chocolate buried in cinnamon dust. rubber hoses and power lines sparking.

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Open Democracy, and also, an idea for a floating space port

October 27th, 2012 — 11:02am

I often find myself speaking enthusiastically about Open Democracy to someone online or in person, only to discover that their attention seems to be focused on a little fleck of foam on my lip. At least, it seems as if that is the case. So I am faced with an uphill battle to first prove I am not a nutter, and then talk a bit more about how Open Democracy will change the world.

spaceish view (30km up)

Putting the possibility that I really am a nutter to one side for a moment, there seem to be a few core arguments against Open Democracy which need to be put to bed. First of these is that it will never catch on, as it requires too much engagement from the general populace. Second, that it is too difficult to design a system that is secure, powerful and easy to use. And third, there is the argument that people can’t be trusted with true democracy anyway.

The first objection, that people aren’t engaged in democracy, seems reasonable enough when you look at the world today for sure enough, no-one really seems to care who is in charge most of the time. Decisions made in government are only of concern to ordinary people on rare occasions. It is often said that these are times of political malaise in the west, in comparison to the situation in say the 60’s or the 30’s. Apart from a few of us who are active in political parties, we are either too jaded or too comfortable to care about it. But I think this situation is a result of the way democracy is currently run and that the antidote to it is Open Democracy. People would engage far more if they thought their engagement mattered. Open Democracy is all about empowering the people to be involved in decision making about how their country and planet is run. I think even a small taste of that power would lead to much greater engagement. But these are just suppositions. The fact is that even if most people remained disengaged – it wouldn’t matter. Open Democracy would be designed to allow decisions to be made without every person actively taking part all the time, or ever. This is through the ‘proxy’ mechanism described below. Open Democracy provides the means to be engaged when one wants – and can continue to operate with or without much voter engagement. However I do believe more voters would become more engaged if decision making in politics became ‘open sourced’. You only need to look into the effort that goes into something like wikipedia to see how engaged people can be when they can see the results.

The second objection, that is too difficult to design a system that is secure, powerful and easy to use, can really only be answered by the demonstration of such a system, which doesn’t currently exist. But I think there are no insurmountable hurdles to it existing. The first concern, that a voting system that worked through the internet could never be secure, is the one most often raised. And yet every day billions of dollars, and terabytes of sensitive information move around the globe through the internet. Indeed there are security glitches and I don’t think every one of these could ever be completely removed from a system that is that complex. But the point is that the financial system works. Security works on the internet already. A fully fledged open democracy system would have to be well resourced by government and continually monitored by security experts for hostile attacks. Numerous safeguards would have to be in place. I do not doubt the task would be difficult but it is not beyond our ingenuity to do it, especially when we already have a lot of experience in keeping data safe on the Internet. I do not think the few electronic voting experiments which have taken place around the world, accompanied by many controversies, are a good example of such a system. They seem to have been generally one off ventures poorly resourced and poorly executed. An open democracy system would be many orders of magnitude greater in scale and power, a more equivalent system to something like the network of an intelligence agency or very large financial institution.

Obviously such a complex system could not come into existence overnight. I think any shift to a completely Open Democracy would have to go through several stages. That is why parties like the Pirates are so important (as per a previous post). They are the test beds – Pirate Parties around the world are already using Open Democracy software to conduct internal party votes and discuss policy. The basics of such a system are falling into place. In fact, voting and commenting on issues are integral to web 2.0, and these technologies are already becoming refined and familiar to us all. It is no big step to craft this into a tool for debating and voting on legislation.

A key concept is the one of the proxy vote. Obviously not all members of a democracy can participate in everything that is happening all the time. But assuming all votes need a quorum to pass, it is essential to gather votes from offline members. This could occur by members pre-determining their voting intention, and it seems the safest way is by nominating a proxy, who is a member who participates in all votes. These ‘super’ members make their general policy stripes well known and seek to gather the trust of ordinary voters, so as to strengthen their own vote by accumulating proxy votes. They are similar to senators and delegates of the current parliamentary system but the fluidity of an open democracy means that there can be an unlimited number of them, and they can gain or lose our proxy vote at any time, for we can vote directly on any issue and are not forced to use a proxy. Also they are less likely to attract such a specific type of person as is attracted to politics today.

A system similar to this seems to already be in use in Germany by the Pirate Party there. I have no direct experience of it, but only know what I have read. In any case, it seems to me like this is a good basic system for enabling everyone to vote on an issue. The next step is for this vote to mean something in our Democracy. For this to happen, a Pirate Party member needs to be voted by conventional means into Parliament. Once this occurs, Open Democracy can really come into action. All that is required, is for the Pirate Party member to promise to vote in parliament in accordance with a vote that is concurrently held online using the Pirate’s Open Democracy system. In this way, all people using such a system will directly control the vote in parliament. This step would unleash the power of Open Democracy and would also be the point where maintaining confidence in the security of the system would become essential.

I think that seeing this tool in action would be the moment the penny would drop for the ordinary citizen. The moment we see a party member voting as a direct result of our wishes, is the moment we would realize the sham that is democracy today. For when does parliament vote in accordance with our wishes otherwise? Only if they have made an election promise, or it is convenient, or it is as a result of pressure from the press (which is hardly a mouthpiece of the people).


Once this realisation sunk in, a change would begin to occur in the way parties went to election. For what can be their excuse for not enabling direct participation in democracy once it has been proved to work? I can imaging a number of political parties springing up at this point each giving their own version of Open Democracy. There would be a lot of innovation, then a tipping point would be reached when the government would need to look at instituting a nationwide system. This could all happen very quickly, and I can’t really imagine what path things might take. I do think there would be resistance from those who benefit from the current system. Resistance might also come from the final argument mentioned in the start of this post, that people can’t be trusted with true democracy.

This is the hidden truth behind the longevity of the existing system. It works. We don’t go to war too often. The structure of society is preserved year to year. People generally benefit from the status quo. Problems have been ironed out over more than a century of use and critically, the general populace are kept at a safe distance from any real decision making. This is because as a rule, it is generally agreed that people can’t be trusted to make the right decisions. And I agree that most of us act self interestedly most of the time, and making decisions for the public good does not come naturally. This is democracy’s fundamental weakness, the threat of ochlocracy (mob rule). Once established, democracy is brilliant at keeping tyrants under control and allowing commerce to occur, but it must protect itself from itself, by obscuring decision making behind closed doors and being unaccountable in a detailed way to the voter.

And on this last objection I don’t really have an answer. I do think that most people are actually capable of behaving sensibly when they really are given the power to change things. I also think that there has to be some way of setting the scope of certain things – we may need to be protected from easily voting up a measure that would give us all 365 holiday days per year. I am sure that such a shift of power would be destabilising to our society – one can only imagine how international markets would react – the whole nation based system of governance could be thrown into disarray. But once the genie is out of the bottle there will be no putting it back, people are not going to hand their vote back to a piece of paper to have it shut away for four years. We will simply have to find a way to make it work – and when we do it will be so invigorating for human society, we will look back at the current times and wonder why such societies considered themselves democratic at all. We have become blind to the inefficiencies of the current system, but once the shutters are opened a sliver by a taste of Open Democracy, there will be no turning away from the light.

Oh and I also had an idea for a floating space port made of thousands of balloons 20-40km above the south pole, but I think I will have to save that story up for another day.

1 comment » | essay, space, whimsy

Orroral Tracking station

August 26th, 2012 — 12:37pm

I was talking the other day to old Roger, at a Canberra Speleological Society trip to Wee Jasper, who was telling me about his first job in Australia working at the Orroral tracking station. I have long thought it is a tragedy that Orroral and Honeysuckle creek tracking stations, which were such an interesting piece of local history, were both left to be vandalised before being bulldozed by the National Park Authorities in the 90s. Orroral was a little overshadowed by Honeysuckle creek’s role in the Apollo 11 landing, but still had an important job in tracking and communicating with passing satellites.

orroral tracking station 1969

Roger was there at the commissioning of the station. He said that all these boxes of electronic bits and pieces arrived from NASA with no instructions for how to put them together. There was one very large machine which sent a very accurate time signal based i think he said on some crystal inside.

There were three shifts of 8 hours each, about 12 people on each shift. There was also a kitchen and a couple of cooks, and for every shift they used to make a good meal, a roast leg of lamb and mint sauce for instance. Roger said it was a bit weird when you were on the night shift and had a meal like this at 3am. Orroral valley is a beautiful place, i can’t imagine how good it would be to work there, and to be doing such funky space stuff in the 60s as well.

Orroral tracking station opening – Rog is there somewhere. (image courtesy )

Rog said they had to send messages to military satellites as well as scientific ones. One funny story he told was of a command that had to be sent to a satellite that was carrying a box of fruit flies as part of a scientific experiment on the effects of cosmic rays in space. Anyway the command was for the satellite to drop the box of flies and there was a plane waiting flying around somewhere to pick it up. Well anyway to send the command to the satellite, a punch card had to be inserted into a computer. Unfortunately the operator at Ororral inserted it the wrong way around, and by the time he realised his error, and put it back in the correct way, the satellite had moved on a couple of hundred kilometres. So no-one ever found the box of fruit flies.

2 comments » | canberra history, space

interstellar travel

August 7th, 2012 — 10:20am

Reading an article in the Economist, about more work done on the fermi paradox (that the galaxy should be teeming with civilisations so why isn’t it), and i got musing again about interstellar travel.

If we view the galaxy as being innately fertile, as i do, then the flowering of intelligence would be as necessary a consequence of its birth as is the birth of its suns. And it would happen spontaneously across the galaxy like the opening of blossoms on a tree.

But that doesn’t mean we know about other intelligences. The galaxy is 100,000 light years across. Even if it could be crossed at near light speed, that is still a relatively long time. The earth could be circumnavigated by ships in theory within a year or two ever since early civilisation, but it didn’t occur at that rate, it took hundreds of years. By extrapolation, even once near light speed technology became possible, it would take much more than 100,000 years to thoroughly populate the galaxy. The researchers discussed in the economist calculated perhaps 50m years.

I think it is reasonable to believe that the emergence of intelligence is occurring elsewhere, and may be ahead of us by some millions of years, but I believe it is not so far ahead of us that it has completely populated the galaxy and become ubiquitous. I think it would arise across the galaxy spontaneously and contemporaneously, once initial seed conditions were right. This is a deterministic view, as opposed to the contingent view of evolution of life and intelligence (where random events like asteroid impacts completely change the story). I view the galaxy as, if you like, an fried egg. It all gets cooked evenly – even to within a few million years. We should expect to know our closest neighbours first, and even they might be 100 light years away (i love the lists at solstation when musing about this). But there is no civilisation out there that has got a massive head start on us.

And if it turns out that near light speed travel is in fact impossible for material things like spacecraft, then the maths makes it even more difficult to populate the galaxy. I can’t even see humans boarding a ship which was not destined to arrive for much more than a single lifetime, without some kind of stasis technology. Even then, the thought would be “perhaps a faster technology will be invented whilst I am travelling, making my journey pointless”.

And all of this assumes that there is no shift in how we view reality itself. I discuss elsewhere my thoughts on alternate realities in our mind and how this is where all the aliens could be (the Orpheus idea). Distance in material space becomes of no consequence when we are neighbours on other planes.

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