The God Complex: a cracking short story about a machine that thinks it is God

Pseudopod is a weekly horror podcast. And, I’m afraid to say, it’s often fairly hit and miss, with rather more misses than hits.

But this one story, The God Complex, by English author Neil John Buchanan, more than makes up for it. If it’s eligible for a Hugo award next year and doesn’t win, it’ll be a scandal. I won’t give too much away, but this excerpt reveals our heroine’s first encounter with a small robot that claims to be God:

“She recognized an Echo drone when she saw one. Probably a scout sent to investigate the crash.

‘Pheromone discharge detected,’ the suit chimed, and the helmet slammed shut. A moment later, a tube expanded from the drone’s underbelly, and a thin spray of liquid splashed across Nadia’s visor.

‘I am God,’ it pronounced. ‘Do you come in love?’”

And just thinking about the little God-robot has my flesh crawling all over again. It really is a tremendous story. Go listen to it!

Brave

This weekend, I went to the cinema for the second time in as many weeks. I took my two daughters, aged 10 and 7, to see Brave in 3D.

Now, I must confess I did this somewhat under duress. I don’t really like the Scottish. Note: I actually do quite like Scottish people, who are generally lovely. But aggregate them into a nation and, Mcglashan-like, they seem to acquire a sense of entitlement and anti-English hatred that would be completely unacceptable if practised in reverse. I really didn’t like the trailer to Brave, which seemed to pander to the Scottishness of the characters. Surely this would be merely a prequel to an hour and a half of English-bashing. Braveheart, just without the heart, if you like.

In fact I only took them at all because it was vital that we did something together as they had been on holiday abroad, without me, for the previous ten days. Even though you’re completely in the dark and can’t talk to each other, there’s something nice about going to the cinema. The sense of anticipation on the way there and the way you roar at the cheesy adverts prior to the film itself are all great bonding rituals.

So, dear reader, I am delighted to admit that I was totally wrong about Brave. The film is a gem, and fully deserves to be join the ranks of classic children’s animated films.

I won’t spoil the film by unnecessarily revealing too much of the plot, but the core of the film is the relationship between a princess and her mother, the queen. Early in the film, they fall out and must spend the rest of the film doing whatever it takes to get back together. Because they realise that their relationship is worth saving. They grow to appreciate that they were so wrapped up in what they wanted that they weren’t listening properly to what the other was saying. And there’s a wonderful happy ending.

What really makes the film special is that the female characters are so strong. In one part of the film, the male characters are brawling. The queen tells her husband to sort it out. He does, but peace lasts only for a few moments before they start fighting again. The rabble only falls silent when the queen walks – speechlessly and imperiously – through the middle of the room. Later, the princess gives a rousing and deeply moving speech that has the entire, male, audience enthralled. This is a brilliant film for girls, as it demonstrates that the traditional female stereotypes in films are simply unnecessary. You can make a good film without having to have violent, dominant male characters and meek, submissive female ones. You just need a director with a bit of bravery.

As of the time of writing, the film is on general release. Go see it – at an independent cinema near you, if you can.

It’s the end of the world as we know it (a Hackney SITP review)

Last night, I returned to the Hackney SITP to see Guardian journalist Alok Jha talk about his new book The Doomsday Handbook: 50 Ways to the End of the World. The book, as you might expect, sets out 50 ways that civilisation might end in gruesome and catastrophic ways. Jha has aimed to use science to illustrate each one, in order to demonstrate just how fragile our modern existence is.

At Hackney, we got only a cut-down version of the book, with 5 ways the world might end:

  • An asteroid crashes into us. Jha pointed out that Hollywood loves this storyline but that the truth is much more mundane. Earth gets hit by asteroids all the time; it’s just that most of them burn up in the upper atmosphere. However, a large asteroid of greater than 1km across would make it all the way through and cause enormous damage. As well as the impact explosion, it would throw up clouds of dust that would obscure the Sun for years. Jha stated that this remains the best explanation of what wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
  • We all die of a deadly pandemic. Everyone remembers H1N1 and H5N1. And the film Contagion. But Jha reminded us that the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 killed millions and millions of people. Were one of the current deadly types of flu to mutate into a novel form, we could see similar numbers of deaths, not least because of the much higher global mobility today.
  • We get sucked into a black hole. Jha suggested that a black hole could wander too close to our solar system and we would find ourselves affected by its deadly gravity. We might be thrown out of orbit altogether, which would condemn us to a freezing winter on the vast emptiness of space, or we might be sucked inside. Nobody really knows what would happen to us there. Except people think we might get stretched like spaghetti, as those parts of us that are nearer to the black hole get sucked in faster than those bits that are further away. Or something. This section was amusing because Alice excitedly pointed out that the image he had chosen was more specifically a quasar rather than a black hole (which would be simply black, right?).
  • Aliens turn up and kill us. If aliens land on Earth, we hope that they might be nice. But they could turn out to be evil, like those nasty Mars Attacks! aliens and merely want to stick probes up our butts and kill us. He referred to the Drake equation, that aims to get its arms around the likelihood of there being alien life.
  • Strangelets. He finished with strangelets, which are definitely one to place in the “File under: Weird” category. Strangelets are (gross simplification alert!!) in such a low energy state that, on coming into contact with any other matter, would convince that matter to turn into a copy of itself. Within hours, everything on Earth would become strangelets. And we’d all be dead. Jha consoled us that the number of interactions that must have taken place in the Earth’s atmosphere over the years, we would expect a strangelet to have been created, were it possible. So the fact that it hasn’t happened so far might suggest that they don’t really exist. [As a side note, strangelets really reminded me of Vonnegut’s Ice-Nine in Cat’s Cradle].

image

And that was that. Jha took some questions, most of which were fairly mundane – “What’s your favourite?”, “What’s the most boring?” But TruenFairview hit the nail on the head with her question: why should we worry about things we can’t control that will kill us, when shouldn’t we really be worrying about things we can control that, if left unchecked, might severely impact our way of life? Sure, it’s fun to ponder the end of the world, but ultimately there’s really not a lot we can do about it.

I was also a bit unconvinced that the 50 items in his book form a coherent set, at least based on the five he chose to present. Unless we find a clever way to refuel the Sun, we know that in a few billion years it will start to run out. At that point, it will start to expand, consuming the inner planets – including Earth – as it goes. By then, we will need to have designed an enormous rocket or to have found a way to coax Earth into a more hospitable orbit around its (now bigger) sun. That’s a good application of our best understanding of science. By contrast, aliens coming and killing us is just science porn. There’s no real scientific basis underpinning it. Strangelets also feel a little bit the same.

Given that the Skeptics movement exists, in part at least, to counter the abuse of science by charlatans and showmen, I found myself unsure that Jha wasn’t sort of doing precisely that. OK, so he does know some science and is, at least according to the judgement of last night’s gathering, “a good guy”. But this isn’t a book that’s going to teach you a lot of science. It appears to be primarily an entertainment book that will titillate and thrill you, while leaving you not really any more enlightened about science than before. And that seems a bit of a lost opportunity.

Hackney SITP meets on the last Monday of every month at the Hackney Picturehouse from 7:30pm, and is, my slightly doughy reviews notwithstanding, a very good night out. I got to say hi to Alice and to chat to the lovely God_loves_women (I’m afraid I was too chicken to introduce her to the Dead Dad).

Scientists do not have a monopoly on assessing evidence. A Hackney SITP review

Last night, I went to a Hackney “Skeptics in the Pub” event. The big draw was lawyer David Allen Green, aka blogger Jack of Kent, who was speaking on the subject “Scientists do not have a monopoly on assessing evidence“.

The good parts. David is a charismatic and entertaining speaker. The main thrust of his talk was interesting: he wished to disabuse those present of the notion that the legal process is a quest for “the truth”. Instead, the law wishes solely to dis/prove legal liability. Having found that someone is liable, it can then do things to them. Fine them. Make them do community service. Send them to jail. Whether someone is liable therefore depends solely on assessing evidence in accordance with the law as laid down. The truth isn’t so much a consideration.

David illustrated this thesis with a catalogue of cases, all of which will be familiar to the Skeptics movement or to readers of his blog or his New Statesman writing. For example, it matters not that we all know that Paul Chambers never intended to actually blow Robin Hood airport sky high. Liability was established under the law, so bad things can be done to him (there’s a further appeal due in February).

That contrasts with science, which believes that it (and usually scientists believe only it) aims to get at the truth.

It’s certainly an interesting perspective. Unfortunately, that’s as far as he went with it. I was waiting for him to develop it further, but he spent a lot of time wallowing in the past, without really explaining what the implications for his thesis were. It’s good to play to the gallery at times, of course, but I would have welcomed a deepening of his hypothesis.

Both law and science rely on models. The scientific model aims at truth, if you’re a scientific realist, or perhaps usefulness, if you’re an anti-realist. The legal model aims at establishing liability (as David explained). A major difference between science and the law is that where science finds discrepancies between “truth” and its model, it will change the model (this is a gross simplification for the purposes of keeping this blog post short!). Because the law isn’t concerned with the truth, this can’t happen. However, egregiously unfair cases may lead to the law being changed or “bent” to produce a temporarily or permanently fairer outcome, as perhaps happened in the Simon Singh case. Exploring why we operate law and science differently would have been interesting, especially if you were to contemplate whether you could run them the same way. Further, it would have been illuminating to look at other disciplines, such as history, economics or accountancy, to determine whether they follow the legal or scientific model, or whether they have an alternative approach. (My starter for ten is that history is more scientific, accountancy is more legal, and economics has aspects of both.)

As I say, it’s a pity that David didn’t go there. But it was an enjoyable evening in a great venue with excellent company. It’s well worth keeping an eye on their future agenda.