Saturday, October 29, 2011

Cosmic savages?

Imagine a prehistoric tribe of savages, who only recently became brave enough to get for themselves a fire that falls from heavens, bring it into their cave and domesticate. When it's cold and dark outside, they all huddle together around their helpful but dangerous protector, humming their proto-songs, fixing their proto-clothes and probably munching their proto-processed food until most of the tribe falls asleep and only the guards would spend their shift watching over the fire, lest it died or tried to spread too far around.

Now imagine that this tribe begins to be interested in establishing contacts with another tribes. May be they hope to kick the other tribe out of their territory and take their women and stocked mammoths, may be they are afraid that the other tribe would do the same thing to themselves, or may be they are just curious to meet new friends - who knows? In any case, how are they going to look for the new tribe? What would they be looking for?
I can only guess how the savages might think, but I guess that they would probably be looking for an inhabited cave (may be larger and cleaner than their own) with a fire in it (may be larger and mightier than their own). So any time they pick up some fire in the distance, they might send some scouts to find out, if there is any tribe gathered around this only possible source of energy.

Next question, what if somewhere nearby there is a little village where much more advanced civilization lives? (Let's not think how come that the more advanced civilization would not try to bring the savage one to their own level, if only for their own security, by tricking them into selling their savage freedom in exchange for cheap drugs and filling up the lowest possible niche in that other society, being simultaneously a recognized sore spot and a symbol of spiritual simplicity, etc). 

This other civilisation, in any case, doesn't need to live near an open fire. They have their fires far away, called electrostations (nuclear or otherwise) and although some people have still work in shifts to watch over the big fire, lest it died or spread out, the majority of these more advanced people gets the energy via almost invisible wires and uses it to power their TV sets, microwave ovens, refrigerators and other devices without which no true civilisation is ever thinkable of.

Imagine a savage scout entering such village at night, when all lamps are out. He (or she, may be it's a matriarchal society) would see strange forms which are impossible to place, occasionally here and there some tiny fires which seem to be too little to warm up anybody, no half-eaten carcasses lying around, no caves with entrances covered by bear- or tiger-skins, no people gathered around a shaman humming some story about afterlife, nothing at all. Only darkness and those spooky lights.

I can suggest that such scout would later tell, "I have come to some dark places. It looks like they take the majority of the territory around us. It's nothing there we could recognize. We might be utterly alone all the way to the end of the world." - end of the world being how far they can go and return before running out of food.

The funny question: what if we are the savages and whatever we now call the dark matter is the infrastructure of some super-civilisation which we can't ever comprehend?

So far, we tried to find the tribes dwelling near the fires of big stars, just like us. But what if there are only the super-civilisations around, and they no longer have to dwell near stars, just as we no longer have to dwell near the open fire, because it would be too risky?

In that case, naturally, taking into account how more advanced that other civilisation must be compared to us, we'll probably spend aeons before ever finding out, all this time possibly being watched ourselves without ever noticing it.

This is completely speculative idea, but so is dark matter at the moment :)

So much for dark matter, as seen from science fiction prospective!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Babylon 5, Vorlons and their riddles

One of random thoughts due to (re)-watching Babylon 5 (very decent SF series, thanks to Michael Straczynski, the author, keeping true to his policy of "no cute robots or kids" and having the arc of the whole story prior to starting the project - very recommended for those who are into this type of stories).

In the series, there are different alien races represented, some of them "good", the others "evil" (the notions of "good" and "evil" prove to be somewhat fluid). One of the most cryptic races are the Vorlons, who are always wearing space suits, looking like little moving fortresses, can take any appearance depending on who sees them (but would rather not to), do not talk a lot and when they do, it takes a while to understand what they actually meant to say. Every phrase sounds like a prophecy and most of the time the characters (and those watching them) are left to wait until time decodes the messages.

It may well be, that the Vorlons were speaking so little, and then always in riddles, because they haven't been supposed to be using spoken language while communicating with their own kind. From the series it follows that they were using some sort of telepathy to convey information not only between themselves, but also to those who were "enhanced" by them (like Lita, a human telepath; the human telepaths story, by the way, seem to be at least partially borrowed from Alfred Bester's book "The Demolished Man" and one of main human telepathic characters in B5 is also called Bester). Also, even the way the Vorlons looked doesn't suggest that they even had any organs capable of producing speech (which may be one of the real reasons for them always wearing space suits outside of their own quarters).

Therefore, when they used any language, they were literally struggling with the foreign media. Very clever of Straczynski to make the species who do not normally use language talking in riddles... one can imagine that if they were conveying information to each other directly, and if they all shared common source or generic knowledge (some Vorlon Wikipedia everybody could tap into?..), then almost the only issues they might be willing to communicate to each other would be their feelings and points of view. How else to describe the feelings but via metaphors? But how can the other understand, if they don't feel what you feel, and you are not accustomed to describing your thoughts?

Of course, Vorlons are imaginary subjects living in imaginary world, but one might start wondering, what would become of humanity if we will ever acquire ability to communicate with each other bypassing slow http speech protocol? Would we also, in the end, forget how to use speech properly? Would we have to translate old literature individually for every person, depending on his, her or _its_ neuron structure? Would there be any individualities left at all if everybody will always be connected to everybody, or the humanity will change into a sort of humanhill, superintelligent only as a whole?

Saturday, April 02, 2011

In English: "feeling blue" and "black dog"; in Russian: "green ennui" (тоска зеленая). What if the same book in different languages spawns different feelings, due to the different color perceptions of the readers - even if we assume 100% identical "to the letter" translation? (If one can talk about identical translation in this case at all)
It might be interesting to map the unconscious perception of the same text (e.g. from the colors mentioned in it and their associations) across different languages and see if that has any influence on how the book is received...
Speaking about positive associations: in Russian the word for "red" (красный) is also an ancient form of the word "beautiful" (прекрасный). "Красна девица" (literally: "red maiden") is a set fairy-tale phrase meaning "beautiful damsel". So everything which is "red" for a Russian speaker might unconsciously be perceived as positive, being associated with beauty. ("Light-blue" (голубой) has in fact several associations  - some of them I won't elaborate upon - but none of them is linked with sadness at all.)
Positive aura of red in Russian is also spread on other red-like colors: "малиновый звон" (crimson ring/jingle, literally in fact "raspberry ring" because the word is derived from the raspberry color) is an expression describing the sound of many church bells around the time when the sun rises or sets (yes, there is a special expression for that) and is supposed to bring into mind the image of peace and tranquillity all over the world. I am sure every language has such very special phrases which can be explained, but not directly translated. 
On the other hand, when you are called "white-handed" in Russian, you are accused of being too lazy (or at least, too cherry-picking).
The question is, in view of all that, is there any hope that one day two people speaking different languages and living in different parts of the world, would be able to understand each other fully, due to some arcane technology? As far as I can see, not without being able to place oneself in the other's mind... In any case: passive understanding of new or alien concepts, without any additional effort, seems to be very unlikely...

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Robots, robots...

Just imagine what sort of trouble might household robots bring to the real life, when they will be ubiquitous, connected to Internet and (very possibly) some of them running under Windows. Therefore, virus-prone. (Even if Windows will die under the layers of dust, some other OS might somehow become a virus farm).

Just lo and behold: some 14-year-old h@ck3r bullied by more physically advanced friends, as a revenge, decides to infect the automaton servants of the hostile household. Instead of vacuum-cleaning the carpet, one of the robots suddenly tries to vacuum-clean the kids of house owner, following them everywhere. A cooking robot sprinkles the steaks with 10 times the amount of pepper (let's assume it would not know where to get the laxative). And I would not even begin what the one armed with a lawnmower could do...

First law of robototechnics you say? Yes... only it might well be that the ubiquitous robots, when they arrive, would not be produced by clean and optimally conditioned Western enterprises. Instead, some snotty underpaid kids working their wits out on sweat factories in Eastern Asia (or may be, in Africa... no, that is out of the realm of science fiction already) will bless these devices with a gift of existence. What chances will be that no corners would be cut off in the all-encompassing race for profit? I remember myself walking around the electronic expo in Hannover several years ago. It was the time when navigation devices already started to become mainstream. There was zillion of Eastern Asian shops demonstrating the products which they have essentially copied, more or less well, from somebody else's work. They didn't like their stuff to be photographed, and some of these participants were kicked out after the holders of the original gadgets recognized their offsprings behind the turbid glass... Same happens now with tablets. You can buy a 7-inch sorta-tablet for sorta-money which will sorta-work. Robots will not be an exception.

Of course, the assumptions involving the current social structure are the most error-prone. Social changes are the most difficult to predict: most of fantasy or science fiction writers would rather desribe in as many details as possible the system of fancy clans in some parallel world or the structure of the spaceship having a warp drive at its core, than to go into details of how the society would change. (Stanislaw Lem is a great counterexample). May be in the future there will be no snotty kids providing the rest of the world with cheap devices, sweets and clothing. Or may be, spreading the virus working on robots would be considered a major crime, the graviest thing anyone can do. The human society quickly adapts to prevent itself from self-destruction, and until now it managed to survive...

Nevertheless... I have to confess, imagining the vacuum-cleaning prank made me giggle. Of course, I would rather not be hunted!