SciFi, Video


Megastructures are big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big they are. I mean, you may think you live in a big city, but that’s just peanuts to even the smallest megastructure.

Three of the more famous megastructures:

  • A Halo installation: 10,000 km by 318 km (¹)
  • A Culture Orbital: 3,000,000 km by 12,000 km
  • Larry Niven’s Ringworld: 299,200,000 km by 1,600,000 km (²)

Oh, and the Sun for scale. It’s at the end of the video, the small white dot in the middle of the Ringword’s… er… ring. Radius 695,700 km.

Rendered with

¹ Do not put a big ring this close to the ground. If you do, the heavy stuff of the ring will pull on the big deep water between land, making the water go very high and over everything, and everyone will have a bad day and not go into space ever.

² A Dyson sphere is the same size, but fully encloses the star instead of just encircling it


The passage of time

The last US presidential election was just over four years ago. I was buying a home.

Since then, my father died. I had one brief girlfriend and now have a long-term partner.

My partner is a traveller, and with her I have been to Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Belfast, Budapest and Barcelona; the British Peak- and Lake Districts, to the Rutland Water Nature Reserve, to and around the Norfolk Coast AONB and the Norfolk Broads, to Oxford, to York, (and I have shown her the South Coast where I grew up, Portsmouth, Chichester, Arundel, Brighton, and the Queen Elizabeth Country Park); in Kenya to Nairobi and to Hells Gate National Park; in California to San Francisco, Asilomar, along Route 1, Sacramento, the Sequoia, Sierra and Yosemite national parks, to Fort Bragg’s “Glass Beach”, to Lakes Berryessa and Tahoe; and because of her but not with her I have been to Rotterdam, Berlin (again), Hannover, Frankfurt, Zürich, Heidelberg, Köln, and Luxembourg.

I lost a friend because of Brexit, and somehow then managed to become an international dog minder. I’ve looked after six fluff-faces in three countries over the last four and a half months.

The post-Brexit months have taken me from (Duolingo level) zero to 20 in Esperanto, seen me write a short story and add a few tens of thousands of words to my novel.

The election (and Brexit) gave me despair, but writing down all the things that have gone well has given me hope. Yes, I know I’m privileged. I sympathise, and in the cases of religious and sexual minorities I empathise, but I really don’t know what to do to help those in need any more.



One of my memories growing up was the news of John Major vowing to veto every piece of EU legislation in retaliation for the BSE trade restrictions:

It wasn’t very effective.

My father told me it had failed because it meant the UK was vetoing everything that the UK wanted to do as a member of the EU while also failing to prevent other member states from agreeing with each other to do things that only the UK stood in the way of.

What happens if we leave? Well, we don’t get so many chances to tell the EU decision makers what we want the EU to do while also failing to prevent other member states from agreeing with each other to do whatever they want.

Stay in? Well, a veto can be used more effectively that it was. Vetoing everything is just throwing a temper tantrum no more effective than holding your breath until you go purple — they know you’ll give in without them having to do anything. Vetoing just the stuff you don’t like? That can work.

We can’t just order the EU around like it’s one of our colonies. We can send our representatives there to negotiate our interests on our behalf (and we do), but the difference between a negotiator and a dictator is that negotiators can agree to bear costs — money, changes to the law, to keep troops away from certain places or in other places, and presumably just about anything else.

Claiming the EU “dictates” the laws of the UK is deceptive; we ask our people to negotiate the details of what the entire EU will do. We ask. Our people.

And if the result of that negotiation really sucks, we can say no in a multitude of ways — and I don’t just mean “Non”, “Nein” and so forth. We have vetoes. And we choose the specifics of the laws the negotiations asked for, giving us the power to frustrate the spirit of an agreement while keeping to its letter. And ultimately, we can invoke the same powers that a “leave” vote would invoke.

Of course, some of those ways of saying “no” are rubbish (just ask Major!) but that’s true for much of life: if your boss asks you to go to a conference in Qatar, you could say “No, I quit!” and look for another job, or you could say “I’m openly gay and they have anti-gay laws. Find someone else.”

Brexit? Well, it looks more like a teenager yelling “I hate you!” and slamming the door on their parents than a new graduate moving out of the family home for their first job — strong feelings, no appreciation for the benefits they have enjoyed nor the costs others have borne, and a plan for the future so vague it can only be described as “speculative”.


The Singularity is Dead, Long Live The Singularity

The Singularity is one form of the idea that machines are constantly being improved and will one day make us all unemployable. Phrased that way, it should be no surprise that discussions of the Singularity are often compared with those of the Luddites from 1816.

“It’s different now!” many people say. Are they right to think that those differences are important?

There have been so many articles and blog posts (and books) about the Singularity that I need to be careful to make clear which type of “Singularity” I’m writing about.

I don’t believe in real infinities. Any of them. Something will get in the way before you reach them. I therefore do not believe in any single runaway process that becomes a deity-like A.I. in a finite time.

That doesn’t stop me worrying about “paperclip optimisers” that are just smart enough to cause catastrophic damage (this already definitely happens even with very dumb A.I.); nor does it stop me worrying about the effect of machines with an IQ of only 200 that can outsmart all but the single smartest human, and rendering mental labour as redundant as physical labour already is, or even an IQ of 85, which would make 15.9% of the world permanently unemployable (some do claim that machines can never be artistic, but, well, machines are already doing “creative” jobs in music, literature and painting, and even if they were not there is a limit as to how many such jobs there can be).

So, for “the Singularity”, what I mean is this:

“A date after which the average human cannot keep up with the rate of progress.”

By this definition, I think it’s already happened. How many people have kept track of these things?:

Most of this was unbelievable science fiction when I was born. Between my birth and 2006, only a few of these things became reality. More than half are things that happened or were invented in the 2010s. When Google’s AlphaGo went up against Lee Sedol he thought he’d easily beat it, 5-0 or 4-1, instead he lost 1-4.

If you’re too young to have a Facebook account, there’s a good chance you’ll never need to learn any foreign language. Or make any physical object. Or learn to drive… there’s a fairly good chance you won’t be allowed to drive. And once you become an adult, if you come up with an invention or a plot for a novel or a motif for a song, there will be at least four billion other humans racing against you to publish it.

Sure, we don’t have a von Neumann probe nor even a clanking replicator at this stage (we don’t even know how to make one yet, unless you count “copy an existing life form”), but given we’ve got 3D printers working at 10 nanometers already, it’s not all that unreasonable to assume we will in the near future. The fact that life exists proves such machines are possible, after all.

None of this is to say humans cannot or will not adapt to change. We’ve been adapting to changes for a long time, we have a lot of experience of adapting to changes, we will adapt more. But there is a question:

“How fast can you adapt?”

Time, as they say, is money. Does it take you a week to learn a new job? A machine that already knows how to do it has a £500 advantage over you. A month? The machine has a £2,200 advantage. You need to get another degree? It has an £80,000 advantage even if the degree was free. That’s just for the average UK salary with none of the extra things employers have to care about.

We don’t face problems just from the machines outsmarting us, we face problems if all the people working on automation can between them outpace any significant fraction of the workforce. And there’s a strong business incentive to pay for such automation, because humans are one of the most expensive things businesses have to pay for.

I don’t have enough of a feeling for economics to guess what might happen if too many people are unemployed and therefore unable to afford the goods produced by machine labour, all I can say is that when I was in secondary school, all of us young enough to be without income, pirating software and music was common. (I was the only one with a Mac, so I had to make do with magazine cover CDs for my software, but I think the observation is still worth something).


The near future

Five years ago, 3D printed kidneys were demonstrated live on stage. Teams like that are working on all the other organs in the human body right now, except for the brain.

Brain–computer interface have been around for much longer. Not that you need them if there isn’t a brain in the body, and plenty of research is going on to create silicon brains for robotic bodies — brains that learn from experience how to walk, or see. Naturally, if a robot knows how to walk, it can be given a higher-level order like “walk forward”, or even “walk to the shops” if you add Google Maps.

Put 3D bio-printing and BCI together, and it looks like remote-controlled organic avatars are in our near future.

My first thought was of bodyguards being more willing to (literally!) take a bullet for their employers, because the bodyguards would be using artificial bodies… but then I realised bodyguards would mostly be redundant because many of the people who currently use bodyguards would be able to use remote controlled bodies themselves, and never be in any real danger in the first place.

Then I thought of soldiers… but why go to the trouble of 3D printing a soft, fragile, organic body for soldiers to control when you could, with far less exciting new developments in bio-printing, manufacture a metal and plastic avatar for your soldiers? Or make them in a non-human shape that better suits military needs?

The next most obvious career it could make redundant is prostitution, depending on what it cost. I know essentially nothing about what life is like for prostitutes, only the scare stories that made it into national media — and yet, all of those threats to life and safety would cease to exist if prostitutes didn’t have to really touch their customers, if they could interact via a remote controlled biological robot.

The flip side (or the same side, depending on your views of prostitution), is that it would make crime easier to commit and harder to prove guilt. You couldn’t tell from the outside if you were looking at a real human, or a printed copy that was remotely controlled. It would mean an end to eye-witnessing/DNA testing/fingerprinting criminals, because such avatars could be of anyone, real or imagined. A simple MRI scan or X-ray wouldn’t be enough, because printing a lump of disconnected brain cells in the shape of a brain would fool such a scan, yet be no more of a person than you would get from sculpting a dozen cattle brains into the same shape.