Posted in writing

Talking to aliens

In our tiny corner of the Universe, we know (to the best of our limited knowledge) that we’re the only intelligent species that exists. But space is vast and we can still send a message across even if we don’t deliver it personally. What message should we send, and how?

First, let’s talk about language. Our language has evolved over centuries in different civilizations. Some languages have symbols like A-Z to represent their alphabet, while others like Chinese use pictures. I think it is fair to say that an alien would understand neither. What language would be a common ground between humans and aliens? The answer is Mathematics. Even if an alien did not use a decimal system, we have good reason to believe that the laws of mathematics are truly universal. The value of pi remains the same in decimal or binary or whatever representation an alien would choose to use. As a means of communication, an alien would certainly be interested that we as a species were aware of Newton’s laws, Einstein’s theories of relativity, and so on.

Next, consider the form. Sending a signal through radio waves sounds reasonable at first, but these get considerably weaker as they travel. Sending a physical device is another approach, but it is impossible to target it when you don’t know the destination. The probability of aliens locating, accessing and decoding a tiny probe in the vastness of space is tiny indeed. But we are nothing if not ambitious. The Voyager space probes are doing exactly this. We have carved messages in Gold records and shipped them in these spacecrafts. (The records are made of Gold because it is a noble metal and is very resistant to corrosion, so we expect this message to last for centuries if not more.)

Finally, consider the content. What could we conceivable talk about that would impress an alien civilization? Lewis Thomas considered this in his book “The Lives of a Cell”. For him the answer was obvious. “Send Bach. All of Bach”, he said. A more detailed answer was given by a team led by Carl Sagan that constructed the contents of the Voyager records. They took a wide rather than deep approach. Some of the sounds include those of Whales, laughter, wind, rain, vehicles and so on. We feel music is a universal language, so there is a lot of music from a variety of cultures the world over. There are images of humans, the earth’s place in the solar system, and so on. And most importantly, there is a pictorial representation of how to decode and play back the images and audio.

Attempts like these are ultimately hopeful rather than practical. They provide an opportunity to see and represent humanity’s best side in a message that will outlive us all. For non-experts like us, they provide fertile ground for thinking about how to communicate across cultures and finding common ground.

Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in. Forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.

Ralph Waldo Emerson. I saw it first in Rick Remender’s phenomenal end to Agent Venom (Issue #22)

Tomorrow is a new day..

Posted in books

Notes on the book "Flow"

Title: Flow
Author: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I’ve long been interested in Active vs Passive hobbies, why one is better than the others, and so on. Here’s a nice reddit post that captures a similar mindset around gaming. So reading Flow gave a lot of clarity to these ideas.

Any programmer who’s been ‘in the zone’ and loses sense of time knows the feeling of ‘Flow’ and that is the subject of this book — Deep hobbies that improve one’s self.

The author categorizes activities with good ‘flow’ if they meet these criteria:

  • A challenging activity that requires skills
  • Requires concentration
  • Has clear goals and immediate feedback
  • Removes awareness of everyday frustrations
  • Exercises control over ones own actions
  • Concern for self disappears
  • Sense of time altered

Here are some sections from the book that caught my attention:

“The wisdom of the mystics, of the Sufi, of the great yogis, or of the Zen masters might have been excellent in their own time — and might still be the best, if we lived in those times and in those cultures. But when transplanted to contemporary California those systems lose quite a bit of their original power. They contain elements that are specific to their original contexts, and when these accidental components are not distinguished from what is essential, the path to freedom gets overgrown by brambles of meaningless mumbo-jumbo. Ritual form wins over substance, and the seeker is back where he started.”

“Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food, and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of the body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur. But they do not produce psychological growth. They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness.”

“In today’s world we have come to neglect the habit of writing because so many other media of communication have taken its place. Telephones and tape recorders, computers and fax machines are more efficient in conveying news. If the only point of writing were to transmit information, then it would deserve to become obsolete. But the point of writing is to create information, not simply to pass it along.”

The middle quote is a satisfactory answer to my question on what differentiates mindless passive hobbies from effort-intensive active ones: the latter create better versions of ourselves.

Posted in Uncategorized

Why I'm writing again

I used to feel that a wiki-like structure was a better way to organize my thoughts. Articles like this influenced my thinking back then. Carefully gardened and cross-referenced wiki-style pages seemed like a better organizational structure than chronological blog posts that wouldn’t be relevant a few months or years later.

So for a year, I used a nice static site powered by mkdocs. Pages were maintained in git and written in markdown. Github actions would push the updated site on every commit. And the site itself was hosted in NearlyFreeSpeech and cost almost nothing. The site is still present here. But now I’m back to good old hosted wordpress and back to writing chronological blog posts rather than carefully grown pages. Here’s why.

The first reason is pure nostalgia. This blog has posts going back to 2006. Very few things I’ve done in my life go back 14 years and are maintained in the same place.

The second is the nudge given by this lovely little article on why one should maintain a blog. The critical realization was that it’s okay to not be original. That unoriginal writing can still be useful to the right audience (if one hasn’t heard the idea before), and to the writer (to help them compose their thoughts better).

Finally, I always take notes and obsess over improving the way I do so. The latest book I’m reading in that area is “How to take smart notes” by Sonke Ahrens. That and a few other improvements I’ve made in the last few months have helped me understand that hoarding links is a fairly useless obsession. A better way to absorb information is to write it in your own words and compile it into a coherent narrative. I’ve restructured my notes to follow this approach and it has helped me organize things a lot better. The last few book reviews I’ve posted were also due to a better note taking approach while reading.

Here’s a quote I’ll end with that essentially summarizes why I’m writing again, from the same book:

“.. writing is not only for proclaiming opinions, but the main tool to achieve insight worth sharing.”

Sonke Ahrens, “How to take smart notes”