Why Nick Bostrom hopes SETI finds nothing

From Technology Review:

The next decade might see a Mars Sample Return mission, which would use robotic systems to collect samples of Martian rocks, soils, and atmosphere and return them to Earth. We could then analyze the samples to see if they contain any traces of life, whether extinct or still active.

Such a discovery would be of tremendous scientific significance. What could be more fascinating than discovering life that had evolved entirely independently of life here on Earth? Many people would also find it heartening to learn that we are not entirely alone in this vast, cold cosmos.

But I hope that our Mars probes discover nothing. It would be good news if we find Mars to be sterile. Dead rocks and lifeless sands would lift my spirit.

Conversely, if we discovered traces of some simple, extinct life-form–some bacteria, some algae–it would be bad news. If we found fossils of something more advanced, perhaps something that looked like the remnants of a trilobite or even the skeleton of a small mammal, it would be very bad news. The more complex the life-form we found, the more depressing the news would be. I would find it interesting, certainly–but a bad omen for the future of the human race. (Technology Review)


An outstanding New Yorker article about “the woman behind the camera at Abu Ghraib,” by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris:

She liked to look. She might recoil from violence, but she was drawn to its aftermath. When others wanted to look away, she’d want to look more closely. Wounded and dead bodies fascinated her. “She would not let you step on an ant,” Sergeant Davis said. “But if it dies she’d want to know how it died.” And taking pictures fascinated her. “Even if somebody is hurt, the first thing I think about is taking photos of that injury,” Harman said. “Of course, I’m going to help them first, but the first reaction is to take a photo.” In July, she wrote to her father, “On June 23 I saw my first dead body I took pictures! The other day I heard my first grenade go off. Fun!” Later, she paid a visit to an Al Hillah morgue and took pictures: mummified bodies, smoked by decay; extreme closeups of their faces, their lifeless hands, the torn flesh and bone of their wounds; a punctured chest, a severed foot. The photographs are ripe with forensic information. Harman also had her picture taken at the morgue, leaning over one of the blackened corpses, her sun-flushed cheek inches from its crusted eye sockets. She is smiling—a forced but lovely smile—and her right hand is raised in a fist, giving the thumbs-up, as she usually did when a camera was pointed at her. (The New Yorker)

A very friendly and snappy tip of the hat to the inimitable didactique…via Facebook.

New Ecology of Things

The NET publication includes essays, a glossary, forums, interactive works, and videos. Writing from Bruce Sterling, Brenda Laurel, Phil van Allen, Anne Burdick, Holly Willis, and Nik Hafermaas is joined by NET projects designed by Art Center students, friends, and faculty.

Each of the four media components – book, dust jacket / poster, website, and wap – relates to the others: place the book on the poster to see additional imagery; point your mobile phone camera at barcodes on the poster and watch videos; browse URLs in the book and move to a dialogue online. (New Ecology of Things)


Seeking recourse to jellyfish as a source of inspiration for powering gas-filled balloons is an obvious thought; after all, a jellyfish consists of water to 99%. Its weight-to-volume ratio is approximately 1, and the figure is similar for a gas-filled balloon. Jellyfish fossil finds indicate an ability to survive dating back more than 500 million years. Jellyfish have thus repeatedly adapted to various environmental and living conditions and have become veritable survival artists; the diversity of jellyfish species suggests a high degree of adaptability. (Festo – AirJelly)

Gin, Television and Social Surplus

From Clay Shirky‘s speech at the Web 2.0 Conference, April 24, 2008. In this excerpt, Shirky responds to an oft-asked question about participatory culture and “surplus cognition”:

I was being interviewed by a TV producer to see whether I should be on their show, and she asked me, “What are you seeing out there that’s interesting?”

I started telling her about the Wikipedia article on Pluto. You may remember that Pluto got kicked out of the planet club a couple of years ago, so all of a sudden there was all of this activity on Wikipedia. The talk pages light up, people are editing the article like mad, and the whole community is in an ruckus–“How should we characterize this change in Pluto’s status?” And a little bit at a time they move the article–fighting offstage all the while–from, “Pluto is the ninth planet,” to “Pluto is an odd-shaped rock with an odd-shaped orbit at the edge of the solar system.”

So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, “Okay, we’re going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever.” That wasn’t her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation. (herecomeseverybody.org)

Gary Settles’ Schlieren Films

Prof. Settles grew up on a farm in eastern Tennessee. His interest in fluid dynamics, optics, and experiments began in his teen years with the construction of miniature subsonic and supersonic wind tunnels, the latter of which won awards at the 1967 International Science Fair and was featured in the Amateur Scientist section of Scientific American magazine. He gained industrial and laboratory experience through summer appointments at the US Naval Ordnance Lab, NASA’s Ames Research Center and the Boeing Company, where he worked on both 747 and SST aerodynamics. He studied at the University of Tennessee under an Alcoa Foundation scholarship, receiving the Bachelor of Science Degree with honors in Aerospace Engineering in 1971. Settles book, entitled Schlieren and Shadowgraph Techniques, was published by Springer-Verlag in September 2001. (PSU Gas Dynamics Lab)

Vertical Farms for NYC

New York magazine asked four architects to dream up proposals for a lot on Canal Street and Work AC came up with this. “We thought we’d bring the farm back to the city and stretch it vertically,” says Work AC co-principal Dan Wood. “We are interested in urban farming and the notion of trying to make our cities more sustainable by cutting the miles [food travels],” adds his co-principal (and wife) Amale Andraos. Underneath is what appears to be a farmers market, selling what grows above. Artists would be commissioned to design the columns that hold it up and define the space under: “We show a Brancusi, but it could be anyone,” says Wood. (treehugger)

Absolut Quartet

The Absolut Quartet is essentially a marimba played by rubber balls that fall on to the keys after having being shot into the air by 50 miniature robotic cannons. You can “interact” with the quartet using an on-screen keyboard.

But if you think that sounds cute and no big deal, think again.

First, the quartet doesn’t just reflect back what you keyed in. It “creates” its own music based on your composition, and plays that back.

What is more, the music you and the rest of the world hear and see on screen isn’t just the video and sound of the marimba being “played” by flying rubber balls – the quartet’s other no less bizarre instruments are also played at the same time.

They include a number of percussive, drum-like sound-producing devices, and a set of spinning wineglasses rubbed by robotic fingers.

Dan Paluska and Jeff Lieberman are the two US robotics, artificial intelligence and contemporary music developers who built the quartet for Swedish vodka company, Asbolut.

They are seriously off-beat characters, both previously postgraduate students at MIT’s famous artificial intelligence and media labs. Since graduating both have been involved in projects blending art, music and technology.

Paluska, for example, attracted attention with his Holy Toaster, a device that is said to “miraculously produce a perfect imagine of holiness on every piece of toast that emerges from it.” (smh.com.au)

[The Absolut Quartet is available for interaction and viewing online between the hours of 9AM and 11PM EST at http://www.absolut.com/absolutmachines.]