Is fine-tuning really fine-tuning?

A paper speculating about the probability of stars forming in alternative universes mentioned at Cosmic Variance got me thinking again about whether our universe is fine-tuned for the emergence of intelligent life. I have always found fine-tuning arguments to be a sort of argument from ignorance, in that they tend to ignore the possibility of other forms of intelligence. While they might be correct in claiming that if the physical constants were significantly different then our form of carbon-based organic life could not arise, they don't really succeed in excluding other possibilities.

Sometimes I imagine that there could be universes with intelligent life that imagine that it's their own universe that's fine-tuned, and them unable to imagine life emerging in a universe that is almost entirely empty like our own. (Greg Egan's Schild's Ladder deals with similar concepts.) Or perhaps galaxy-wide life forms that somehow emerge from the interactions of entire stars acting similarly to cells might be unable to conceive of intelligence at an incredibly microscopic and fast scale like us. Thoughts like these sometimes makes me wonder whether we could even recognize some forms sentience even when it's in plain sight.

Stephen Baxter has a good grasp on how fragile the fine-tuning argument is, and he draws a vivid picture of what alternative forms of life could have arisen throughout the development of the universe in his Xeelee Sequence of stories, from those that form from defects in space-time itself to carbon-based life forms like ourselves. And really, given only the fundamental laws of physics we know today, could anyone have predicted the rise of carbon-based intelligent life like humans? Just because we don't know how intelligence could arise from different laws of physics doesn't mean it's impossible.

A solution to Crackergate

PZ Myers' tongue-in-cheek threat to desecrate consecrated communion wafers has caused a storm of controversy throughout the World Wide Web. Personally, I think it's being way overblown by a few oversensitive Catholics. It's going way too far when there are ridiculous attempts to get him fired, a delusional paranoia of a mild-mannered professor who at most threatened to mess up a cracker forces additional security at the Republican National Convention, or death threats are sent.

I would like to make a modest proposal that would hopefully be satisfactory to everyone. Instead of pelting PZ Myers with death threats and (heaven forbid) actually implementing them, I propose that a representative from the Catholic side desecrate a consecrated calamari dish for each consecrated wafer that PZ Myers desecrates. The calamari will be consecrated with an agreed-upon ritual, through which the dish will be transubstantiated into the flesh of PZ Myers. For those who literally believe that a consecrated wafer is transubstantiated into the flesh of Jesus Christ, I'm sure they can come up with evidence and arguments, which would be of similar quality to those that support their belief in transubstantiation, to justify that the calamari dish would indeed have been transubstantiated into the flesh of PZ Myers.

I believe that this would satisfy all of those involved. For those who believe a cracker is just a cracker, desecrating calamari will look just like a silly response to a silly desecration of a cracker. And for those who believe that a cracker can literally be the flesh of Jesus Christ, desecrating calamari would be equivalent to doing bodily harm to PZ Myers himself, so it should satisfy their bloodlust without invoking a violent response in those that do not believe in transubstantiation.

Terrorism in a police state

The Bush administration has consistently claimed that the government must expand their power and restrict the rights of citizens in order to maintain security and prevent terrorist attacks. They have aimed for warrantless wiretaps, indefinite detention and torture of so-called "enemy combatants", spying on peaceful activist groups, suppression of non-violent protests, etc. I bet they would even love to control the mass media, although they appear to be compensating using the "fair and balanced" FOX News, a news network that blatantly displays its bias in favor of the conservative right.

So it's ironic when there is a bomb attack in China, a police state of the sort that the Bush administration can only achieve in their dreams. Even with an oppressive level of control over the populace, China still hasn't been able to prevent terrorist attacks on their soil. Is a significant erosion of civil rights worth the prevention of a few terrorist attacks? Given that a nation much more like a genuine police state still suffers from plenty of terrorist attacks, I'm somewhat dubious whether expanded government power at the price of civil rights would actually help prevent any terrorist attacks at all. Some might even be able to make the case that it would actually motivate more terrorism.

Scribbled word cloud

Generating word clouds from Wordle seems to be an up and coming fad. Based on words that appear on a web site or blog, Wordle generates an image of a cloud of words based on how often they appear and laid out in a hopefully aesthetic manner. It's a Java applet, so there isn't any worry that generating images will overload the Wordle server. Cosmic Variance and the US/LHC Blogs are two sites that have already succumbed to the fad. With such prestigious precursors, who am I not to follow?

Word cloud for Stochastic Scribbles generated by Wordle

Generating a word cloud for this blog, it appears that I've talked a lot about North Korea. This is somewhat surprising since I'm usually not very interested in keeping track of the totalitarian state. I'm probably talking about them a lot recently because they're acting even more oppressively than usual such that they're causing incidents which even I can't help but comment on. Other things that the word cloud indicates are that I appear to maintain an interest in Mars exploration and that I might have a thing for "incidents".

An all-nighter for Phoenix

Fork-like conductivity probe

Some people might have an impression of robots as tireless workers capable of doing a repetitive job endlessly and accurately. But robots have limitations just like anything else. The Mars Phoenix Lander is one such example, for it only has a limited amount of power to work with, and if things go wrong, there isn't much it can do to fix itself, although the ground operators for the lander back on Earth would still try their hardest to work around any problems. It is also not infintely smart; the lander is actually fairly dumb with only a limited amount of memory.

So I guess the limited amount of power provided by its solar panels and the limited amount of memory it can use to store data before having to send it to Earth is the reason why the Mars Phoenix Lander hasn't worked on 24-hour shifts until now (except it's more like a 25-hour shift, since a Martian day is closer to 25 hours long). The lander has for the first time worked all through day and night, using a fork-like probe stuck into the Martian soil to continuously measure how well heat and electricity is conducted, using only power stored in its batteries during the night. This could help determine how the water in the soil changes between solid and vapor as the temperature changes throughout the Martian day and night. They don't expect the detection of liquid water since the region is too cold for it, though.

Double doors open to an oven on the TEGA instrument

Soon enough, Phoenix will also be initiating a direct chemical analysis of icy soil it scoops up from the Martian soil. Hopefully, we won't have problems like the last time it tried to analyze the soil, where the soil was too clumpy to pass through the screen protecting the lab instruments. And if we're lucky, it won't be the last direct chemical analysis it does if it can avoid a serious short circuit in the instruments.