Natural Science Fiction

I recently saw a movie with the following basic plot. A mad physicist has been working on a groundbreaking android, a humanoid robot, in the form of a beautiful young woman. He refers to her as his daughter, and names her “Olympia”. Just as he is putting on the finishing touches, a lovelorn student arrives at his laboratory, and learns of this “daughter”. The student is lonely, and very interested in meeting Olympia, but he catches only a glimpse.

The physicist’s former collaborator, lurking outside the laboratory, bumps into the student, and agrees to sell him a pair of augmented-reality glasses that offer superhuman visual acuity, night-vision, etc. The student starts wearing these glasses around, amazed at his new perception of the world. Unbeknownst to him, the glasses have special features connected to the android, making Olympia appear to be a living human girl. At her debut performance, Olympia sings and dances beautifully, and the student falls in love with her, although the rest of the audience can see the mechanical malfunctions and battery life issues. Eventually, the student dances with Olympia, and confesses his love to her, but her “father” takes her away before he can get a reply.

That night, the physicist and his former collaborator fight over the ownership of Olympia. They cannot agree on who is the rightful owner, and by morning they have destroyed the android rather than share credit for its creation.

The student arrives the next day to propose to Olympia, and is horrified to discover that she has been destroyed, and was never real after all.

You might reasonably complain that this movie seems somewhat derivative. It sounds an awful lot like the plot of Her, or especially Ex Machina, or probably half the episodes of Westworld. It’s practically cliche, except for one thing.

This is not a movie. This is Act I of Les Contes d’Hoffmann, a French opera from 1851. The plot is a slightly simplified but mostly unaltered version of Der Sandmann, an 1816 short story by E. T. A. Hoffmann. (We saw it at the Met, in a grand production featuring Erin Morley as an amazingly robotic Olympia.)

This story is 200 years old. OK, the original libretto doesn’t use the words “android” or “augmented reality”, but how could it? The original libretto is in French!

Today we tell these stories because they are almost plausible. We have early prototypes of all the relevant technologies (humanoid robots, augmented reality glasses, realistic rendering of human faces). We already have hints at the kinds of social problems that might result from young men obsessing with simulated women, rather than actual people.

But this tale is from 1816. ├śrsted had not yet discovered that electricity is related to magnetism. There were no passenger trains, and no trains at all outside of England. The best concrete in the world was still not nearly as good as the Romans’.

Maybe some people are just far-sighted … or maybe there is a trick to predicting the future: focus on flawed human nature. Human nature is unchanging, and technology advances as needed to enable our worst vices and expose our deepest faults.


I saw Jonathan Coulton live! Somehow I came into possession of a couple of comped tickets to his show during New York Comic-Con, and we decided it was worth the trek out to Brooklyn.

I was a little surprised. Jonathan Coulton’s studio tracks are often backed by intriguing electronica or heavy rock beats, but live he was purely acoustic (almost…)

Like a lot of people, the first JoCo track I heard was Code Monkey. It was the first time I heard a song for nerds that wasn’t entirely a joke. That turns out to be JoCo’s specialty. The other JoCo songs I knew well (apart from Chiron Beta Prime, a scifi Christmas Carol) were IKEA, Re: Your Brains, All This Time, Still Alive, and First of May (which I’m not going to link; you can find it on your own if you must).

I figured that like most established artists, JoCo would play some old songs for the fans, and some new ones to promote the new album, and indeed that’s what happened. What I didn’t expect is that he would sing every single one of the songs I knew. The audience sang along, being full of people who, like me, have been listening to them on repeat for the last 10 years.

Of the new music, the one that really stuck with me was Brave, which he described as being about “an internet troll who lives in his mother’s basement and is really broken inside”. (Well, that and Mr. Fancypants, on a bat’leth Zendrum LT.)

As always, Paul and Storm opened the show. They’re truly musical comedians; JoCo seems sincere and plaintive by comparison. I think my favorite song of theirs was Opening Band, which might also have been their least jokey number.


When I started this blog, it was 2004, and I was heading to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where bandwidth that didn’t go through the college’s proxy was charged by the megabyte. I started running WordPress on my laptop, but for efficiency I would scrape a static copy locally, rsync it to my home directory at MIT, and serve it statically there.

Since then I’ve gone through a number of hosting solutions: sometimes a box hidden somewhere in my parents’ house, sometimes a computer that was also serving as the DVD player and sound system for my roommates and me. For the past four years, it’s been an Atom-powered desktop wedged into some dusty corner, and doubling as my wifi router. A couple years ago the power supply fan died, and I fixed it with duct tape.

Amazingly, it’s still working, but part of maturity is recognizing when to put away childish things before they really become a problem. In its latest location, perched over the stove in the kitchen, sucking in oil vapors, this arrangement was likely to go up in flames, possibly literally. We already found ourselves needing two wifi networks due to Windows compatibility issues, and that was creating its own headaches. When living alone, this was an annoyance, but now that I’m responsible for two people’s internet access, sometimes for work purposes, it’s critical.

So starting today, this blog is hosted on an honest-to-goodness cloud server (on Google Compute Engine). In a way, this is the end of my campaign for a decentralized internet, and the beginning of grown-up-style website deployment. I still hope that We of the Internet will figure out how to decentralize the internet some day, but for now, for me, the overhead of hardware operation and the risk of data loss are too high. (It doesn’t hurt that Compute Engine has a free usage tier that is fine for this purpose.)

Of course, there have also been some major changes in my life over the past few years, with the result that I increasingly have better things to do with my time than maintain flaky hardware and write backup script cron jobs. So this change marks a wonderful turning point: a life too full of joy and excitement to make everything into a high-maintenance hobby project.


I saw the eclipse!

It wasn’t easy. I flew out to Colorado to meet my brother, and then we all drove up to the middle of nowhere, Wyoming, through endless pastures and fields of sunflowers, plus plenty of empty land and the occasional geological portent. On an average Monday it would have taken a bit over three hours; it took us six, along with all the countless thousands of other enthusiasts winding through those two-lane roads.

We got there with half an hour to spare, in perfect sunshine. At half-eclipse, it still felt like any other bright summer day, but around 90%, things began to change. The shadows grew strangely sharper, and the light felt oddly blue compared to normal dusky twilight. Insects really did begin to chirp as if at nightfall.

Then, in a moment, totality. The horizon was ringed by impossibly pink sunset, planets were visible, and the moon appeared as a perfect black circle at the top of a navy blue sky.

People say it’s just sheer luck that the apparent size of the sun and moon are so nearly the same, so that eclipses are possible but exceedingly rare. There’s another lucky coincidence of sorts that’s less discussed: the solar corona is exactly the right brightness for appreciation by the human eye. Too bright, like the sun, and you wouldn’t be able to even look at it; much dimmer and it might be hard to see.

From Goshen County, Wyoming, just north of Lingle, the corona looked like a four-tailed white flame, frozen in time. Through standard binoculars, laminar striations were visible, reinforcing the sense of fire. A candle flame taller than a hundred earths, in perfect lily white.

And then, it was over. Two minutes of shock, and then back on the road.

Pictures here, including a spherical VR timelapse movie(!), and the grand finale courtesy of my brother.


I haven’t seen Hamilton, and at this rate I’ll probably have to wait for another 5 years or so, but I’ve heard the soundtrack all the way through multiple times, and I’m a big enough fan to appreciate a parody, like Spamilton.

Spamilton seems to float around, but at the moment it’s playing at the (confusingly stationary but otherwise fitting) Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, which is right by our house. The theater is like Broadway in miniature, two tiers but only ten seats across, with brick walls that look like this might have once been an alleyway.

At the end of an awful week, on a rainy evening, Spamilton was just the thing to lighten the mood. Ostensibly, it’s a story of the rise to fame of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton’s creator, set to the tune of Hamilton. That ends up being about 30% of the show; the remainder samples and skewers every Broadway hit (and a few flops) since Rogers and Hammerstein, with a breadth of commentary to match.

The show’s writing is clever, sometimes too clever for me to understand (like the deep references to second-tier Sondheim shows). The funny thing about this show, though, is that the jokes are not the best part; it’s the cast, whose impressions of the Hamilton songs, even with silly lyrics, are good enough for understudy roles at the very least. They’re so good that their parodies of sad songs will make you cry anyway. (Nicole Ortiz, who plays all three Schuyler sisters, is particularly amazing.)

A theme throughout the production is Broadway’s inescapable arc of popularity: a meteoric rise, and then a long slow slide from today’s hot ticket into yesterday’s fad. Much fun is poked at neverending “tourist trap” productions like Phantom and Wicked, but Spamilton itself might be a bellwether, airborne only while Hamilton is stratospheric.

At our Friday evening show, the small theater was much less than half full, not a positive sign. If Spamilton is running out of steam, it might be a sign that Hamilton is falling back to earth.

Net Positive

To find out what to do in New York City, I usually follow The Skint, which is full of fun cheap cultural stuff that’s happening around the city. Usually it’s Just Weird Enough, and sometimes it’s spot on … like last night, when it mentioned Net Positive, a screening of independent short films relevant to the politics of and on the internet.

It was held at Industry City, a pair of factory buildings that have been renovated into a lively and artistic space for startups and other hip companies. To get there, we had to walk through a pretty gritty stretch of Brooklyn and under an elevated highway, but once inside, the restaurants and courtyard were gorgeous at sunset.

The films were largely dystopian, in different ways. Somehow dystopia is easier than celebration, in a short.

The highest-budget production was probably HYPER-REALITY, which seems like an all-too-believable vision of an Augmented Reality future, for the sorts of people whose phones are full of crapware because they can’t afford a Pixel (or an iPhone). I feel like I might need to watch it again, more than once, to catch all of the stuff that’s going on; its incredibly high information density matches its vision of an overloaded future.

Conversely, the least expensive production, and probably the most ethereal, was Project X, a movie about a building that was also the subject of a blog post I wrote in 2011. Of course, in 2011, we didn’t yet know that this building housed not only AT&T networking equipment but also NSA wiretapping gear, which is the subject of the film.

Summer in the city … it’s amazing.


I’m in Prague! For the first three or four days I was just around the conference hotel, which is nice but not especially Czech. But then last night I walked around Real Old Prague.


It’s … I have no knowledge of Prague or Czechia, no associations or cultural connection. All I can do is sort of boggle, and compare it to places I’ve been before. It feels kind of like the old sections of Paris but … bigger? Wider streets, bigger plazas. Maybe it’s actually not that old, just built in a very beautiful old style?

I really know nothing, but it’s pretty! And full of tourists, but I can’t very well complain about that.

Is Biology the only Von Neumann machine?

People have been talking more lately about Moon Bases. Maybe it’s because of the world’s most expensive luxury cruise, or the Google Lunar X Prize, or Newt Gingrich, or Japan. Doesn’t matter.

If you want a moon base, you probably want to build it before anyone has to live there. This creates a double bind: who builds the moon base? Someone has to show up and start shoveling, and then there’s nowhere to sleep.

What would really be great is if we could send some robots up there to build a moon base for us. Then it would be comfy when we arrive. No shoveling required.

Of course, we’re probably talking about robotic bulldozers and such, heavy stuff to launch into space. And they only work so fast; it might take a long time. We might have to send a lot of them if we wanted, say, a city on the moon, and then we’d have to keep sending them from earth when they broke down. Annoying.

What would really be nice is if we could just send up one of these things, and then tell it to build another one. You know, melt some regolith, refine some metals, grow some silicon crystals, carve out all the parts, stick them together. Now you have two lunar construction robots. Do that a few times and you could really build something big, fast.

This notion is called a Von Neumann probe, after John Von Neumann, who first considered this kind of machine in an abstract way, shortly before computers and space probes started to become real things.

Von Neumann machines, or self-replicating machines, have a remarkable property: in a convenient environment, their numbers can grow exponentially. That can be very convenient for, say, colonizing an inhospitable planet. They also have a big problem: no one’s ever figured out how to build one.

It’s easy to see why it might be hard to build such a thing. Say you start with a bulldozer. Maybe you have a plan to use computer controls to carve molds out of sand and then fill them with molten iron, which will become parts for the new bulldozer. Great. (Drexler would call this a clanking replicator.)

This process is going to be complex, so you’ll need a pretty sophisticated digital logic system to drive it — a computer, essentially. But how are you going to make a computer? Current computers are made out of silicon doped with phosphorus and boron, so you’ll have to find those elements and purify them, a step which requires additional equipment that you’ll also have to carry around. Then there’s the lithography step, which currently requires a gigantic clean-room, an army of solid-state quantum physicists, and a bunch of very carefully tuned machinery that is nigh-impossible to build.

You have to carry all of this with you, and all the equipment required to build it, and all the equipment required to build that equipment … one might wonder whether any finite-size machine can actually achieve this.

Shortly after Von Neumann wrote his mathematical treatment of this idea, showing that it was possible in principle, in a bare mathematical sense, Watson and Crick published their analysis of DNA. Within a few years, it was clear enough: Von Neumann machines really are possible, because every living creature is a Von Neumann machine.

We can start from the simplest cell. A cell consists of (1) a DNA strand encoding some information, (2) a cell membrane (made of lecithin) and (3) some other stuff like ribosomes and RNA polymerase for reading the DNA. It’s abundantly clear that this thing is a self-replicating machine. If you don’t believe me, just watch The Inner Life of the Cell.

How does the cell avoid the limitless expansion of required equipment? I like to think that it relies on the discreteness of matter. Rather than build at macroscopic scale, out of chunks of solid stuff, cells are built atom-by-atom by ultra-miniaturized construction equipment. The simplest cells start to look distinctly digital, with countable numbers of atomic-level components that can be copied or deleted as needed. The problem becomes discrete instead of continuous, and therefore finite instead of infinite.

It’s really cool.

This seems like good news for Von Neumann machine enthusiasts. We know there’s at least one kind, so maybe there are more! But are there?

The thing about Von Neumann machines is that they copy themselves, which means pretty soon you have a lot of them. On earth, we see them everywhere, and typically refer to them by subtypes, like trees, people, mildew, etc.

But we only see one kind. All of these things are Life, which is just one kind of machine. They all have the same lecithin-based membranes, and DNA-based memory units, and closely related other machinery. They all formed from a single family tree.

When we look in rocks, we don’t see little rock-machines tunneling around making copies of themselves. There are no ice-robots, magma-swimmers, solar jellyfish, or moon men. We would know if there were, because once these things get going, they don’t stop until they run out of stuff, and then they start fighting for the remaining stuff, eating each other, diversifying into predator and prey, etc.

Instead, all we see is silence.

Life as we know it formed less than a billion years after the Earth itself, and maybe a lot faster than that. The universe has been around for 13 billion years, and there are countless billions of planets and stars. Where are all the strange self-replicating things? (This is a variant of the Fermi Paradox.)

I think we should entertain a possible answer: they’re here, and we’re it. We have exactly one known type of Von Neumann Machine, and some good reason to believe that if others were possible, we would be able to spot them. We also know that all the other types we’ve tried to design have some serious problems that smell like fundamental physics.

So maybe, just maybe, the laws of physics only permit one kind of self-replicating machine, and it loves cake and hates bleach. Or to be more precise, maybe the space of physically allowed self-replicating machines is connected and fundamentally resembles Biology.

If so, scifi fans are in luck: to learn much about the universe, we really will have to build spaceships, and colonies, and all the rest. The robots won’t get to have all the fun.