Thursday, January 20, 2011

Wanted: Immortality on a Budget

I want to write my name in the wet concrete of the universe and get something that will say, "Joelogon was here," forever -- or as close as I can get. It'd be a monument, or at least a marker, of my existence. So here's the question:
What's the longest-lasting physical artifact that I can buy, create, or commission (at any given price point) to leave behind?
A Kilroy was here reference if you were wondering.

I explicitly say "physical artifact" to rule out flaky and intangible things like radio messages beamed out into space, true love, and the genetic legacy left to my (as yet notional) descendants.

I want something that I can hold, that can later be analyzed and puzzled over by alien archeologists in the far-distant future.

Or something I can revisit when I get nostalgic for my corporeal existence every once in an eon after I've Ascended as a pure energy being in a higher plane of existence.

10,000 years is chump change -- I'm talking at least a million years. We probably have a hard stop a few billion years from now when the Sun grows into a red giant, but I realize I'm not going to be spending a lot on this project, so even a mere billion years is probably out of scope (even though the oldest known rocks are estimated to be about 4 billion years old).

While we're setting some boundaries, let's add a few more:
  • We're stuck in the gravity well: No launching of objects into interstellar space.
  • Set it and forget it: No caretaker cults to polish and maintain the object.
  • Readily available, existing materials: Yes, I know the singularity is right around the corner. But I'm talking about materials that exist in usable quantities now.
  • Recognizably personalized: Has to be something I've marked as my own. No pointing at the Moon and saying "Mine!"
I'm thinking about a layered approach -- say, a pure platinum sphere, encased in glass...and that's where I get stuck. Don't have clue. Materials scientists, weigh in.

Where should I keep it?
Say we solve the materials science issue -- what about the geography? Where would you keep an artifact you want to last forever?

We've got an object that's supposed to outlast humanity, and anyway, we want to keep it away from people. The last thing we need is some crackhead from the dregs of a far-future civilization breaking the thing open to sell the shiny metal bits to a pawnshop.

So figure in shipping and handling costs to get the thing drop-shipped to an isolated area. Which one: Find some geographically stable desert and bury it? Get under the Antarctic ice sheet? Or take a boat ride over to the Mariana Trench and throw the thing overboard?

Until the sun explodes, what are the other major threats my artifact would face: Corrosion, erosion, tectonic activity? Countless cycles of temperature fluctuations?

Anyway, I don't have a clue, so I'd like to hear some ideas for objects at $100, $1,000, $10,000, or the price point of your choosing.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Osama bin Laden is not a Romulan

On, a Xanatos Gambit is a no-lose scenario, where no matter what the good guys do, win, lose or draw, they end up furthering the villain's plan. (It's almost exclusively a bad-guy thing, because having a hero who's pulling all the strings pretty much takes the fun out of things.)

Here's a simplified example from boxing: I try to punch you in the face. If you don't block it, I punch you in the face. If you do block it, it opens up your midsection so I can smash your liver, which is what I really wanted to do all along.

(There's a whole bunch of variations on Xanatos gambits: One is Xanatos Roulette, where the plan depends on a ludicrous sequence of events occurring just so, and pretty much requires the villain to be omniscient. Season 4 of 24 is a notable example of this. And then of course, there's the Thantos Gambit, where the death of the villain is also part of the bigger plan.)

I was reminded of all this the week before Christmas, hearing the NPR story Intelligence Officials: Al-Qaida Learns From Mistakes, about the printer toner bombs. The way we have terrorists built up in our minds, I think we're automatically ascribing Xanatos Gambit mastery to them. Take the toner bombers -- no matter what happens, you can write it up as a terrorist win:

  • Toner bombs blow up plane in mid-air = Terrorist Win
  • Toner bombs don't blow up plane, get delivered to America, explode in some random FedEx office (because they were addressed to non-existent Chicago synagogues) = Terrorist Win
  • Toner bombs get stopped; air freight gets disrupted as everyone freaks out; West spends untold millions on countermeasures = Terrorist Win

The thing about Xanatos Gambits in real life is that I have to believe they don't occur very often, and when they do, they're mostly retroactive, along the lines of "uh, yeah, I meant to do that" (when we look at our own behavior), or more often, "oh my god, these guys are evil geniuses" (when we're looking at our opponents.)

In the example of the toner bomber, it's only a terrorist no-lose scenario if we overreact to each successful -- and more importantly, unsuccessful -- attack.

Two other things about the toner bomber:

* The other aspect of the NPR story was that it was basically about al Qaeda process improvement systems, which makes me wonder: Does al Qaeda have Six Sigma black belts? Can al Qaeda get certified ISO 9000?

* One thing about the toner bombs (that also held true with 9/11) was that they used the West's infrastructure against itself... it's basically the terrorist equivalent of "Stop hitting yourself!"

The title of this post comes from the reputation of Romulans in Star Trek as being master plotters and practitioners of the Xanatos Gambit. Though, really, a better, but much more obscure example from sci-fi would be Servalan from Blake's 7, or even Cobra Command from the GI Joe comic books (not so much with the TV series... those guys were morons.)

I think we in the West have bin Laden built up as this supreme puppetmaster, where it's probably more accurate to see him as keenly adaptable. For example, (I'm relying on my memory of reading Thomas Hammes' The Sling and the Stone), he pretty much completely blew the West's reaction to 9/11 as a way to move his political objectives downfield; while we know bin Laden is playing a long game, he didn't see the Taliban's Afghanistan knuckling under so quickly (arguably, the US taking our eye off the ball because of Afghanistan is what saved bin Laden's Afghan strategy), etc.

Anyway, like I said, I think the real-life Xanatos Gambit relies on retroactivity, overreaction, and picking the right (or wrong, as it may be) framing device, to make your enemy look a lot more ingenious than he actually is.

(Then again, bin Laden may not be a Romulan, but we are not Vulcans -- we can't all be Bruce Schneier, reacting rationally to terrorism. While I'm name-dropping, let's bring in Dan Ariely, to see how we can apply behavioral economics to counterterrorism.)

Monday, January 03, 2011

Random Access: 2010 Brain Dump

  • I had a New Year's, starting at Jimmy's and then going to McCormick & Schmick's in Ye Olde Towne Centre. You can see it here, if you really want to -- the photo below is a remarkably accurate representation of the evening -- the only thing not depicted was how long it took to get a drink at times:

  • My credit card wouldn't take, though the card company (later) says it's fine, so I'm wondering if I accidentally put my wallet on the magnetic latch on my Macbook. It's been a recurring fear of mine, although I've never done it.
  • Speaking of credit cards -- here's a photo of someone else's signed slip, that I saw as I was waiting for my own card to get declined:
Zorro leaves a $3 tip on a $49 tab? At least he got the math right.
  • I spent the last part of New Year's Eve Day with an impromptu Joseph Gordon-Levitt festival, re-watching Inception and Brick, and then seeing (500) Days of Summer for the first time. It was a little twee, but I liked it, especially how the non-linear chronology converged towards a specific point. The only thing I didn't like (outside the fact that the "drunk" acting by Gordon-Levitt and the dude from Super Troopers who's married to Christina Hendricks [*mind boggles*] looks like actors trying to act drunk) was I identified far too closely with the male lead, who's in his early to mid-twenties, whereas I am... not. Very much not.
  • Oh, and I finished things out with Inglourious Basterds, which was completely not what I was expecting and I can't quite understand what all the fuss was about.
  • My first workout of 2011 was really my last workout of 2010. I'm caught up now, just in time to join all the "resolutionaries."
  • Up until a recent year-end top music countdown on the local dance music station, I though the chorus of Taio Cruz's Dynamite (I had to look that up) went:
    "I throw my hands up in the air sometimes, saying "AY-O... Galileo"
    leaving me wondering why a club music dude was name-checking astronomers.
  •  I have a nagging cough that's got me all phelgmy and sounding like I have laryngitis.
  • Every time I see the temporary traffic light truss (it will be replaced by a full-on overpass) at the intersection of Fairfax County Parkway and Reston Parkway, I kind of get the urge to climb it so I can crawl across it. I'm a little surprised no one has been arrested trying it yet: