Why I’m over “Overdiagnosis”

Once again, a journal article claiming extremely high rates of breast cancer overdiagnosis (“up to 48%”) makes big news.
Here’s the problem: it’s a retrospective cohort study which calculated an overdiagnosis % based on a truly bizarre endpoint: the total number of “advanced” versus “non-advanced” breast cancers.
Now in any scientifically valid study, you would use a definition of “advanced” that involves lymph node and/or distant metastases – features that strongly correlate with overall survival. You might even do a secondary analysis with overall survival as an endpoint.
Nope. These clowns defined advanced as “radiographic primary tumor size >= 2cm”… then using a completely invalid endpoint they did a bunch of statistics to come up with a completely invalid conclusion. Garbage in, garbage out.
As if to illustrate the ridiculousness of their own study, the Danish researchers published several overdiagnosis estimates based on different statistical approaches. The two bottom-line numbers were 24.4% and 48.3%…
How can you have any faith in your statistics when they give you two different answers that are completely different? If I tried to sell you a car by saying that, depending on how you measure it, it either has 244 horsepower or 483 horsepower, you’d call me a fraud!
* * *
Here’s the problem with the entire concept of “overdiagnosis”:
1) Overdiganosis is a synthetic endpoint that is effectively a derivative of a derivative. The degree of statistical modeling required to estimate overdiagnosis means that any errors, biases, or design flaws in the starting data-set will be enlarged by orders of magnitude. A tiny change in the statistical assumptions leads to a 2-fold difference in your final “endpoint”.
2) Overdiagnosis is highly un-reproducible within studies, or between studies. If you look at literature reviews of “overdiagnosis in breast cancer”, the published values from top-tier journals ranges from ~5% to ~50%. That’s such a large range it is impossible to apply to real life.
3) Overdiagnosis is neither clinically apparent, nor is it provable or disprovable. No one can single out a patient and definitively prove that they were overdiagnosed, or they weren’t overdiagnosed. In my simplistic clinical mindset, that makes it more like faith healing than scientific medicine.
* * *
The conceptual basis of overdiagnosis makes some sense in some cases. It is easy to imagine a bedridden 90-year-old being diagnosed with some tiny little cancer that probably won’t kill them.
However, the statistical methods used to estimate overdiagnosis percentages are horribly unreliable, and they do a piss-poor job of helping make decisions in real life.
A physician with common sense can avoid scanning or treating the bedridden 90-year-old while still offering care to the rest of the patients, and he doesn’t need to quote an artificial “24% to 48%” number to back up his clinical judgement.

The Culture War Is Iraq


Donald Trump was so unlikable that even some of his own voters were terrified of him. In exit polls, as many as 17% of Trump voters were “concerned or scared” about Trump being President. Amazingly, that didn’t stop them from casting a ballot for Trump, who will enter the White House as the most disliked American President in recent history.

Much ink and pixels have been spilled over how such a bad candidate could have won a Presidential election. Is America an irredemably racist and sexist country of deplorables? Or was the election all about trade, jobs, and the dwindling power of labor unions?  Maybe it was really all about Hillary Clinton’s political incompetence? Or is the Republican Party is really quite strong despite all evidence to the contrary?

Personally, I have a different theory:

The Culture War is Iraq

(And Liberalism is George W Bush)



When President George W. Bush invaded Iraq, everyone knew the war was going to be utterly one-sided. The US had all of the weapons, all of the aircraft, all of the satellites. The US had far more troops with far better training and morale. We had a vast coalition of allies, some more enthusiastic than others.

And above all else, the US was equipped an overweening sense of superiority. History had ended, the West had won, and the sorry barbarians in Iraq just hadn’t realized it yet. Once we overthrew their corrupt and brutal government, surely the people would recognize what a big favor we’ve done them. Dick Cheney infamously said that we would be greeted as liberators.

Of course, none of that happened. We won the war in record time, smashing the Baathist government of Saddam Hussein. Baghdad Bob tried to claim that they could fight off the Americans but ended up in the ludicrous position of claiming that “there are no American tanks in Baghdad” while American tanks rolled down the street behind him. Within two months of the invasion, Saddam’s military was annihilated, Saddam was hiding in a spider hole, and George W Bush was on an aircraft carrier proclaiming “Mission Accomplished”.

But hindsight shows that the mission never was. We may have won the war, but we lost the peace, and during the fighting we lost our own moral values. The Iraq war eventually led to radical Islamic terrorism becoming far more influential than ever before.

So what does this have to do with President-Elect Donald Trump?


Quite simply, Liberalism has won the Culture Wars and hoisted a giant Mission Accomplished banner over the metaphorical aircraft carrier of popular culture.

If you examine the “armies” and “weapons” of the culture wars, liberalism has all of the firepower on its side. Hillary Clinton was endorsed by 167 Hollywood stars, while Donald Trump’s only Hollywood star was vandalized. The newspapers and television news are heavily left-leaning. Almost every high-ranking university has endorsed the liberal “safe spaces” movement, to the point that the University of Chicago attracted widespread attention, and criticism, for rejecting it.

During the 2016 election cycle, many pundits on both sides of the aisle stated that the Culture War is over, liberals have won, therefore the Republican Party is dead. Even Republican pundits agreed that their party was in a meltdown.

Even if the GOP failed to keel over this year, they reassured everyone that “demography is destiny”. The GOP’s unpopularity with young and nonwhite populations would doom it to complete irrelevance within a few years. Much like what the “End of History” argument said for foreign policy, the “Demographic Destiny” argument assumes that the good guys will always win in the end because we are good and they are bad.

It’s almost reminiscent of the saying that God Is On Our Side, but minus the God. That in and of itself should be a red flag.

As we all found out, the God of Demographics was a no-show at the ballot box on November 8th. Despite criticizing and sometimes insulting Hispanic Americans, Trump won more Latino votes than Mitt Romney. And down-ballot candidates outperformed the wildest expectations of the Republican party.

Why did this happen?



Liberalism won the Culture War. Like US tanks rolling through Baghdad with F-15s circling overhead, liberalism won in crushing, annihilating fashion. And just like Dubya, they won the war so easily that they completely forgot about the need to win the ensuing peace.

When the US took over Iraq in 2003, we made the infamous mistake of “de-Baathification“. Believing that Saddam Hussein’s old Baath party was the root of all evils, the US-led occupation completely dismantled anything and anyone that may have been linked to the old party. This generated an immense amount of ill-will, plus overall chaos and disorganization, all of which provided a fertile field for the later rise of ISIS.

In an analogous move, victorious liberal culture warriors have demanded a level of political purity that is grossly unsustainable. When Yale professor Erika Christakis wrote an email about Halloween costumes in October 2015, the ensuing protests led to her resignation from Yale. A New York University professor was placed on leave and questioned about his mental health when he expressed support for Donald Trump.

Worse yet, during this election cycle, many people talked about the white working class in an absolutely demeaning manner. In the same way that culturally-insensitive Americans assumed that recalcitrant Iraqis must have been “derka derka Muhammad jihad“, culturally-insensitive big city elites jumped to the conclusion that Trump-supporting whites must be an irredeemably racist and sexist basket of deplorables.

Hillary Rodham Clinton

You’re not going to convince anyone to vote for Hillary (or even to stay home from Trump) by calling them deplorable. You’re doing the exact opposite. So many people were turned off by liberal tactics and messaging that they voted for Trump despite worrying that he was unqualified and unfit for the Presidency.

As stated by New York Times columnist Mark Lilla, liberalism has become “largely expressive, not persuasive.” I wish that more liberals would take this to heart. I agree with a lot of liberal ideals, but I find it devilishly frustrating to watch liberal political statements land like a drone strike in Mosul. If you win a battle and kill the enemy’s troops, but you create three times as many enemies as before, you haven’t won a battle at all.

Just like the US government killed Saddam only to empower the rise of  ISIS, liberalism may have killed off Cheney and McCain only to empower the rise of Trump and Bannon.

So this brings us to the question of, “What now?”

I think it’s simple. We need to stop being so damn expressive and start being more persuasive. A lot of high-profile liberal actions seem like they were done without any regard to whether it would win more supporters or detractors.

When Ruth Bader Ginsberg criticized Colin Kaepernick for protesting, it wasn’t because she disagreed with the message, a protest against police brutality. She was criticizing the way the message was delivered. When people see a political messenger disrespect the flag, a large percentage of Americans won’t even listen to the message. They’ll simply assume that we are wrong.

Sure, you may believe that it’s silly to get all wee-wee’d up about perceived disrespect to the flag. You may even be factually correct. But if millions of Americans are already upset, mocking them for over-sensitivity will not win any friends.

I completely agree that police brutality is a terrible problem. It’s one of many factors contributing to racial and economic inequality. But those of us who are pro-police-reform can’t possibly win a national debate by using a strategy that inspires two opponents for every one supporter.

A more persuasive strategy would be to highlight the areas where community policing has workedDraw more attention and charity dollars to events like police-community cookouts and other goodwill-building measures. Have police-reform liberals and police-reform conservatives sit down and come to an agreement on best practices. Yeah, this strategy is hard work. No, it won’t draw nearly as many television eyeballs as a football-stadium protest. But it’s better to gain 100 friends and 0 enemies than 1,000 friends and 2,000 enemies.

* * * * *

This strategy doesn’t just apply to one issue. It should apply to all political statements, campaigns, and causes. Before you get all fired up by a cause that you agree with… go around and listen to people who disagree with you.

You’ll quickly get a sense of which political messages generate sympathy, and which ones provoke resentment, hostility, or even hatred. Don’t go around baiting the “deplorables” with the latter, no matter how satisfying it may feel to win arguments with obviously irrational people. In the end you’re just creating more resentment and hatred.

Liberalism has won the Culture War in the USA. Gay marriage went from being unspeakable to being supported by a majority of Americans. Marijuana legalization has made progress in a large number of states. Americans are much less sympathetic toward crony-capitalism and abusive lending than before the Great Recession. And we are much more skeptical of the military-industrial complex and military adventurism.

But if liberals continue to behave like a victorious occupying force, clamping down on dissent with heavy handed shame-and-blame tactics… the victorious Culture War will drag on into a cultural quagmire of mistrust and anger. (as it has already done in 2016)


It’s time to stop dropping Hellfire Missiles and MOABs on the Culture War. It’s time to focus on winning hearts and minds.

Why Neuropsych Studies are Big Liars

Bad Science Of The Day:

Why Big Liars Often Start Out as Small Ones

I came across this article in the “Science” section of New York Times. It is a link to a Nature Neuroscience paper out of the University College of London, which amazingly enough appears to have free fulltext. Naturally, I pulled up the actual article and spent quite some time trying to make heads/tails out of it. Sadly, it wasn’t worth the time.


The original article, as well as the NYT piece, makes the very plausible claim that the human brain desensitizes itself to dishonesty in the same way that you become desensitized to bad smells. So slimy corporate executives, crooked politicians, and hustling street vendors aren’t actually trying to lie and cheat. They’ve just gone nose-blind to the stink of their own deception.

That’s certainly a plausible hypothesis, and it passes the Bayesian common-sense test. The problem is, after reading the Nature Neuroscience article, I have a hard time washing away the stink of their poor methodology. It smells like an Unreproducible Neuropsych Study, suffering from many of their common Bad Habits:

* Very small n
* Really stretching it with experimental design
* Really stretching it with synthetic endpoints
* Running minimally-bothersome trial stimuli on subjects stuck in a highly-bothersome fMRI scanner
* Data-torturing statistical methods
* Shoehorning hard numerical data into a Touchy Feely Narrative

First of all, their subjects were 25 college students with an average age of 20. I can understand only having 25 subjects, as it’s not exactly cheap/easy to recruit people into fMRI neuropsych experiments. But they actually scanned 35 kids. 10 of them caught on to their trial design and were excluded.

Really? One third of their subjects “figured out” the trial and had to be excluded? Actually, it was probably more, only one-third admitted to figuring out the trial design. For being a study about deception, the researchers sure were terrible at decieving their test subjects.

Alanis Morisette would be proud of the irony, as would Iron Deficiency Tony Stark.

The experimental design was questionable as well. The researchers used the Advisor-Estimator experiment, a commonly cited psychological model of Conflict of Interest.

Normally an advisor-estimator experiment involves a biased advisor (who is rewarded for higher estimates) assisting an unbiased estimator (who is rewarded for accurate estimates).

This is a great surrogate model for real-world conflicts of interest, like consultants who make more money if you are convinced to buy ancillary services. But it seems like a terrible surrogate for deception. As the experimenters themselves noted, there was no direct personal interaction between the subject and the estimator, no actual monetary stakes involved, and no risk of the subject being caught or punished for lying.

Worse yet, the magnitude of deception involved is incredibly minimal: skewing an estimate by a few pounds in the hopes of being paid a pound or two. That’s a minimal level of emotional manipulation of the subjects. I don’t know about British college kids, but I’d be much more emotionally disturbed by the fact that I’m stuck in a fMRI scanner.

Radiographic measurement, as with photographic image quality, is all about signal to noise ratio. In this case the emotional “signal” (distress caused by lying) is tiny compared to the ambient emotional “noise”.

Things get really silly when you read their composite endpoint, something called “Prediction beta”. It appears to be a statistical mess: a 2nd-order metric divided by a 2nd-order metric and averaged into something that resembles a correlation coefficient but is numerically less than 0.1.

Somehow this was statistically significant at p=0.021. But then you read that the authors also tested a crapload of other brain regions, and none of them were nearly as “predictive” as the amygdala. That’s a textbook case of multiple-comparisons data torturing, and it means that their p-values should have been Bonferroni’d into oblivion. The significance threshold shouldn’t have been 0.05, it should have been much, much lower.

When all is said and done, the authors should be congratulated for having taken a common sense anecdote (“Small lies lead to bigger ones”) and spent an immense amount of time and money coming up with super-unconvincing scientific data to back it up.

I imagine their next Amazing Rigorous Neuro-Psycho-Radiology trial will demonstrate, after testing twenty hypotheses with thirty different regressions, a borderline-statistically-significant correlation between insufficient parental affection and abusive bullying behavior.

Bullcrap like this is why common-sense driven people are losing their faith in science.

Is America Already Socialist?


Socialism has been a hot topic in the 2016 election cycle. Bernie Sanders has drawn an unexpected amount of support, and he is promoting something called “Democratic Socialism” in the US. In response, POLITICO Magazine published an anti-socialist polemic titled “How Did America Forget What ‘Socialist’ Means“.

 This brings up the obvious question: What exactly does the word ‘socialist’ mean? Well, you could turn to various dictionaries. There’s the Oxford Online Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Random House, and Wikipedia. They’re each slightly different but basically: Socialism is a system where the means of production are owned by everyone.

The POLITICO article references socialist systems in Cuba, China, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea, as well as the old Soviet Union. All of these countries followed a Marxist concept of socialism, in which private property is outlawed and the government owns all of the means of production. Based on this definition, Bernie Sanders is not a socialist. Bernie has loudly disavowed any plans to nationalize the corporations or outlaw private ownership of capital. This is fortunate, as the POLITICO polemic is absolutely correct in one thing. Outright nationalization has been a disaster in every country that’s attempted it.

However, European and Canadian socialists haven’t nationalized the corporations either. (except for healthcare, which Bernie would nationalize as well) Despite the fact that the Danish do not describe themselves as ‘socialist’, Bernie Sanders has cited Denmark, Sweden and Norway as shining exemplars of democratic socialism. This requires a definition of socialism far different from the Marxist ‘state control of the means of production’.

In a country like Denmark, Sweden or Norway, the government and labor unions have a great degree of control over corporate practices such as hiring practices, work hours, wages, and pensions. This follows the spirit of the word ‘socialism’ by giving the public a sense of ownership in business decision-making. However, it avoids actual public ownership of businesses, which is the dictionary definition of ‘socialism’. So it’s entirely reasonable to say that Denmark is not a socialist country, but it’s also reasonable to say that Denmark is a socialist country. (as Bernie does)

Many economists have argued that under this relaxed definition of socialism, the US is every bit as socialist as Europe. They rightfully point out that the US has a higher regulatory burden than most European countries – especially when it comes to licensure, registration, permitting, and tax laws. These complicated and expensive-to-follow laws are a method of public control of private businesses, so under the relaxed definition they are ‘socialism’. And these laws cast a powerful shadow on American businesses. The World Bank rates the US’s Ease of Doing Business lower than Denmark, the UK and New Zealand. The Heritage Economic Freedom Index rates the US and Denmark roughly the same. If capitalism is supposed to stand for freedom of doing business, the US is no more capitalist than Denmark.

The Danish regulatory regime has a strong focus on ‘fair distribution of wealth’, something that American socialists envy greatly. In comparison, US regulatory bodies are non-redistributive by nature, largely because socialism has been a toxic word in the US for so many decades. Medicare was prohibited from negotiating drug prices for exactly this reason. Instead of addressing inequalities, our unfree and uncapitalist regulatory bodies mostly serve narrow special interest groups. The RFS corn ethanol standard was supposed to benefit the environment, yet most environmentalists believe it to be harmful. Despite this fact, very few politicians are willing to run against the Big Corn lobby.

You could accurately describe the US economic system as being ‘capitalist in name only’, or CINO. You could also say that the difference between the US and Denmark is that Denmark places government regulators in corporate boardrooms, while the US places corporate executives in government regulatory committees.

Both conservative and liberal groups have written many jeremiads about “regulatory capture“, the tendency for government regulators to serve special interests instead of regular citizens. Established businesses push restrictive licensure laws to prevent competitors from setting up shop. Megabank executives pressure their friends at the Federal Reserve to carve out exceptions to banking laws. Car dealerships twist state laws to prevent competitors from entering the state. Environmental agencies willfully ignore mass poisonings. Startup businesses run into ridiculous restrictions all across the US.

Unfortunately, while almost everyone can agree that corrupt regulatory bodies are a major problem in the US, there is very little agreement on how to fix this problem. Some people believe that regulatory bodies can be improved by making the regulations more strict and punishing those who game the system. Others believe that regulatory bodies can be fixed by putting ‘the right people’ in charge – someone altruistic and incorruptible.

Libertarians believe in George Stigler‘s theory of regulatory capture – which is that regulatory capture is inevitable. No matter how strict the rules or how well-intentioned the personnel, corruption can only increase over time. This is because there is a strong financial incentive for corrupt individuals to influence a regulatory body, but there is a weak or nonexistent incentive for righteous individuals to fight back. This may sound like a nihilistic theory, but it certainly seems consistent with the present-day US economy. According to this theory, any attempt to “purify” corrupt agencies will have at most a temporary effect. Instead, the best antidote to corruption is to limit the number of levers and knobs that a corrupt bureaucrat could possibly touch. This means keeping regulations as simple as possible, eliminating special incentives, and cutting down on subjective discretion as much as possible.

Steve Forbes famously said that “Capitalism is the world’s greatest economic success story.” Unfortunately, it is also the world’s greatest political failure story. Over the course of the the 20th century, capitalist economic systems repeatedly triumphed over communist economic systems in productivity and wealth. Yet at the same time capitalism itself has degenerated into the corrupt system of CINO-ism.

How, or if, capitalism can be saved may be the most important question of the 21st century.

Unless robots decide to kill all of mankind. That might be slightly more important. Until then, capitalism is the most important question.

Episode VII: The Meta Awakens

meta: A term, especially in art, used to characterize something that is characteristically self-referential.

– Urban Dictionary, 2005


WARNING: This entire post is a theory on The Force Awakens. If you have not seen the movie, close your browser right now.



If you’ve made it this far, you should already have seen The Force Awakens. Hopefully you’ve seen it more than once. If you’ve read anything on the Internet you may have encountered online theories about Rey’s parentage, the identity of Supreme Leader Snoke, or other pieces of the Star Wars mythos. This is not that kind of theory.

My theory is that The Force Awakens is actually JJ Abrams’ meta-commentary on geek fandom. To sum things up:

Han, Chewie, Leia, and Luke represent the Star Wars intellectual property.

R2D2 and C3PO represent the old-generation (40s and older) Star Wars fans who lived through the first three cinematic releases.

Poe and Kylo represent the mid-generation (late-20s to 30s) Star Wars fans who weren’t born during ANH/ESB, but were old enough to remember the Episode I disappointment.

Rey and Finn represent the young-adult Star Wars fans who are too young to have experienced prequel shock.

The Force represents the emotional impact of geek culture – mainstream culture in the past, Internet culture in the present.

The Dark Side represents the nitpicking, judgemental, gatekeeping side of geekdom, as in “Gamergate” and “Rabid Puppies” online movements.

The Light Side represents the inclusive, joyful, uplifting side of geekdom, as in celebrity authors such as Neil Gaiman and George RR Martin.

Supreme Leader Snoke represents the primeval force of fanbase hatred.

Once you view the new Star Wars lore through an allegorical lens, it not only makes sense, it shines a bright light on geek culture and science-fiction culture as a whole.

Star Wars ANH

Solo, Organa, Skywalker, Chewbacca
The Holy Trinity… and a walking carpet


So JJ Abrams’ Star Wars allegory begins by assigning the following roles to each Original Series character:
Luke = The Original Movies
Han = The Expanded Universe
Chewie = The Videogames
Leia = The Merchandising

Luke Skywalker is the most important man in the galaxy. He has the strongest command of The Force, just like how ANH/ESB/RotJ are the most loved by the fanbase. However, by the start of TFA, Luke has been missing for many years… ever since the Cataclysm that turned Kylo and the other young Jedi to the dark side.

Where Luke is powerful but somewhat one-dimensional, Han Solo is a complex character with a good heart but many bad habits. He represents the old Star Wars EU, ranging from the amazing Timothy Zahn novels to some downright putrid plotlines. His inseparable furry companion also has shades of greatness but also very bad breath.

While Leia (the merchandising) may share most of Luke’s DNA, she’s had a long and tempestuous relationship with Han (the Expanded Universe). Sometimes this relationship has seemed like true love, as in super pricey Boba Fetts. Other times things are a bit rocky, as demonstrated by testicle-headed Rebel aliens.

The two droids, R2D2 and C3PO, represent the old generation of Star Wars fans. These old-school fans were droids, so they don’t feel The Force – our allegory for the cultural impact of SF. These fans were blessed enough to live in the pre-Facebook, pre-Reddit era. They could be loyal and devoted fans without having to worry about whether fandom should be inclusive or judgemental.

And of course no mention of the Original Cast is complete without Darth Vader. In this allegory, Vader represents old school sci-fi, ranging from Wells to Clarke to Herbert. Just like Luke and Vader, “popular” SF is the son of “serious” SF but the two of them have fought bitterly since the beginning.

Vader was a staunch disciple of the Dark Side, with a judgemental fanbase that harassed Lucas for not knowing the definition of a parsec. However, in the end Vader went over to the light side and helped Luke overthrow stodgy, no-fun science fiction.

Unfortunately, Vader was mortally wounded in the battle, and Hollywood has been allergic to filming serious SF ever since. (with a few exceptions like “Moon”, “Interstellar”)



Star Wars: The Next Generation
Ren or Stimpy?

Poe Dameron and Ben Solo were both born around the time of Return of the Jedi. This makes them exactly the same age as the fan-groups that they are meant to symbolize. I was born a year after Return of the Jedi, but that didn’t stop me from seeing all three Star Wars movies all over TV and VHS.

Poe is an incredibly skilled pilot and yet he is not Force sensitive (as far as anyone knows). He represents the Star Wars fans that loved the Star Wars universe without ever being too involved in the fanbase culture wars – do the 12 parsecs make sense, is Leia’s Bikini sexist, why did Lucas have to include the Ewoks? The Poe-type fans may have read a smattering of Expanded Universe books and/or comics, but weren’t raised on them. The EU was never our father.

On the other hand, Ben Solo had no choice but to be emotionally involved. The Expanded Universe was his father. Together with Star Wars toys and merch, they were his introduction and his entire reason to love geek culture. From infancy, Ben was aware of his Force-sensitive emotional bond to geekdom. He was sent to train in Luke’s Jedi Academy, where the Original Movies taught him respect for Star Wars’ place in geek culture.

And then… something went very very wrong.



The Tragedy at the Jedi Academy
The Power of the Dark Side

Over a decade before The Force Awakened, something horrible happened at the Jedi Academy. In the movie this caused Ben Solo’s transformation into Kylo Ren, it forced Rey to be hidden on Jakku, and it caused Han and Leia to go their separate ways.

Now the movies never quite explain how Supreme Leader Snoke managed to influence so many young Jedi right under Luke Skywalker’s nose. However, I have a pretty good idea.

In the new TFA continuity, The New Republic appears to have far less popular support than the Legends EU New Republic. That plus the fact that Leia abandoned the New Republic suggests that it wasn’t doing a good job of running the galaxy. The Republic may have been corrupt or incompetent or more likely both.

The Republic’s dysfunction must have been obvious to the teenage Jedi apprentices. That would serve as an easy lead for Snoke to seduce them to the dark side.

So over a decade ago, the Star Wars canon went in a really stupid and poorly executed direction. It’s obvious that The New New Republic represents the Prequel movies. Dislike of the Republic becomes so severe that it empowers Supreme Leader Snoke, the avatar of fan-hatred.

And under Snoke‘s influence, the young Star Wars fan Ben Solo is transformed into a bitterness and rage-filled creature, Kylo Ren. Even as he resents his parents, Kylo idolizes his grandfather Darth Vader – nitpicky old science fiction. He became convinced that Star Wars wasn’t pure enough, that real sci-fi should have logically consistent technology and no implausible superweapons… and as a follower of the Dark Side he believes that anyone who disagrees “isn’t a real SF fan”.

Kylo Ren believes himself powerful in the Force. He spends years practicing online warfare, trolling and harassing with a whole brigade of his Ren peers. Kylo’s creepy mind trick wrings secrets out of unwilling victims just like hacked documents and pictures can be used to blackmail people. The Dark Side is strong with this one.




Mary Sue Rey
Stronger than she knows

Rey is the young-adult geek fanbase, around ten years younger than Kylo Ren. She was no more than eight years old (maybe six or seven?) during the Tragedy of the Jedi Academy. Her memory was wiped – she probably never even saw Episode II/III. At the start of TFA, Rey believes that Han, Luke, the Jedi and the Force are all just myths. She practically doesn’t even realize that she lives in the Star Wars universe. As a real-world geek she knows more about Doctor Who, Tony Stark and Cloud Strife than she does about Star Wars.

Rey quickly runs into BB-8 and Finn. These two characters represent the small-child fanbase and the non-geek fanbase respectively. They are not Force sensitive; BB-8 because he is a child and Finn because he is not emotionally invested in geek culture.

In fact, Finn starts out as a stormtrooper. He is a servant of the dark side, but he’s the janitor, he’s not invested in the fight. Finn represents every non-geek who is exposed to Star Wars merchandising and has to suffer through his Dark Side geek friends complaining about how much Star Wars sucks. His first impression is that it’s all stupid and he doesn’t want anything to do with Star Wars. Finn frees Poe not because he loves the Resistance, but only because he needs a pilot.

Rey doesn’t want to be a Star Wars fan either, but she has no choice – she’s an integral part of the New Star Wars continuity. As the young-adult fan with a social media presence, Rey is the most valuable person in the galaxy both to the Light Side and the Dark. And so both sides will always try to win her to their cause – the Light Side through friendship, the Dark Side through anger and coercion. (possibly by accusing her of being a “Fake Geek”)

Kylo kidnaps Rey because he’s the embodiment of terrible Internet harassment, and this tends to target women of Rey’s age. Finn only agrees to attack the Starkiller Base because he wants to save Rey.

Of course, Rey doesn’t need much saving. Rey is keenly attuned to The Force of Internet culture wars, she just didn’t know how much power she really had. After Kylo attacks her mind, Rey immediately learns to use this power and she dominates a weak-minded stormtrooper. (ie some other internet kid) After this point, her power never stops growing.

Rey feels like an overpowered Mary Sue character because she is. The category of “20-year-old women who spend money on geeky stuff” is the single fastest-growing demographic in geek culture. Everyone in the geek-culture universe wants her on their side.


Crossing the Rubicon
Coming to an end

Right before the final mission on Starkiller Base, Leia tells Han that she really wants her son back. In our allegory, this represents Disney and JJ Abrams trying to bring back alienated Star Wars fans. These Kylo Ren fans used to be hardcore fans, their internet-Force could generate massive profits for Disney!

But Kylo is still badly conflicted over his relationship with Han. Han himself admits that he wasn’t always a good father. (selling crap like the Sun Crusher and Vong Invasion series)

Ultimately the alienated fan’s hatred is too strong to overcome, at least not with a single movie. Kylo Ren kills Han Solo and he falls into a bottomless pit, the same fate as the Legends Expanded Universe. Kylo remains on the dark side, although he is surprisingly unable to defend himself from Chewie (the videogames). Chewie’s bowcaster bolt leaves him badly injured for the final battle.

In that lightsaber fight, a wounded Kylo Ren takes on both of the younger-generation fans at once. Finn is easily defeated as he lacks the Force sensitivity (the ability to fight on the Internet). However, Rey is much stronger than Kylo as we all expected, especially since Kylo is badly hurt. His attacks are ineffective, his taunts only make Rey stronger, and Kylo is humiliated.

After the victorious battle, Rey (the young Star Wars fan) meets up with R2D2 (the old Star Wars fan) and together they find Luke Skywalker (the original joy and love of Star Wars). This neatly sums up JJ Abrams’ intent with the new series: he aimed to bring a whole new generation of fans to a love of Star Wars. Judging by the movie’s historic box office reciepts he has been successful.

On the other hand, JJ had no illusions about his ability to bring back the truly disillusioned and hateful Star Wars fans. Kylo Ren is the dyspeptic 30-something ex-fan. At the end of the movie he’s still on the Dark Side.



Lightsabers and Culture Wars
Trust your feelings

In conclusion, The Force Awakens is actually an allegory for the entire online geek-culture debate.

If we look at science fiction and fantasy geekdom in real life, we have a real problem with fans falling to the Dark Side. There’s an angry, exclusionary movement that accuses would-be geeks of being “fake geeks”, “social justice warriors” and worse… and it’s shockingly powerful. When the full firepower of the Dark Side is focused on one target, it can destroy an entire planet – or at least a SXSW panel.

The Dark Side of the Internet Force is tempting because it is an easy path to power. A fan can seem much more knowledgeable if he studies absolutely every detail of a small number of franchises, and declares that everything else is “not SF” or “not geek culture”. He can feel like an arbiter of geekness, a gatekeeper who can dismiss anyone he doesn’t like as being a simpering, speech code-loving, freedom-hating SJW. He can destroy entire gaming events with the power of bomb threats called in by a Reddit brigade.

The Light Side is a more difficult path to tread. Admitting that all geek culture is legitimate means that you can’t possibly be familiar with it all. There’s no adrenaline rush where you can feel like a powerful leader backed up by an army of Stormtrooper-like brigadiers. You are forced to admit that other geeks have every right to love franchises that you despise, and to love casting and plot decisions that you disagree with.

Yet the Dark Side is ultimately self-destructive because it’s not likable and people rebel against it. Dark Side governments are forced to destroy entire planets or stars just to maintain their grip on power… much like Dark Geekdom communities tend to be fractious and conspiracy-prone. Destroy enough planets and eventually there won’t be anyone left to rule. This is the problem with Dark Side fanbases; they can only shrink over time.

Back in 2012, Dark Siders attacked “girls pretending to be geeks” only to be shot down by Neil Gaiman among other high profile geek voices.

In 2014, Dark Siders created the “GamerGate movement” supposedly to protest bad journalism, but its highest-profile actions have resembled a hate group more than a journalism group. GamerGate has been loudly denounced by Intel, EA, SonyBlizzard, and almost every other major gaming company.

Earlier in 2015, Dark Siders created the “Sad Puppies movement” as a reaction against percieved political correctness in Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels. While they had a few good points at first, the Puppies’ online rhetoric quickly degenerated into hate brigades. In the end, George R R Martin pulled together a massive coalition of SFF fans to vote down the Puppies. The Puppies declared victory by claiming that they’d intended to lose all along – but everyone else knows that they lost.

For now, the Light Side is still winning most of its battles. That’s not to say there isn’t collateral damage, but at least the Dark Side is mostly confined to the “Outer Rim” of the Internet galaxy.

In the universe of “Star Wars”, we’re confident that the Light Side will eventually win in the end. I can only hope that the same holds true of real life geekdom.

May the Force be with you all.

On Interstellar Travel: Does the Warp Stare Back at You?

On Interstellar Travel
Part 3 of 3: Does the Warp Stare Back at You?

“When you stare into the Warp, the Warp stares back into you.”
– Warhammer 40k

As part of the 45th anniversary of the Moon landing, I’ve written a series of articles on interstellar travel. In the last two installments I covered slower-than-light interstellar travel and Star Trek’s warp drive. Slow travel is plagued with the problem of travel duration. After all, spending 150 years on a ship is not very appealing, and what happens if you run out of supplies? Warp drive sounds plausible, and even has a real-world mathematical analogue, but it has a high probability of causing space-time paradoxes.

So maybe we’re thinking too small. Maybe we don’t need interstellar travel schemes that are “plausible with existing physics”, after all they really aren’t all that plausible. Now we know that the Earth, Sun, and Interwebs are governed by Einsteinian physics. So if we want to break Einstein’s rules, we need to travel to a different dimension altogether! For maximum traveling comfort, this dimension should be immediately adjacent to normal space-time, and we should be able to bring along enough space-time to keep our physical bodies intact.

As it turns out, tons and tons of science fiction universes make use of a high-speed dimension immediately adjacent to regular space. This parallel dimension is called Hyperspace in most fictional universes, Slipspace in the Halo universe, and Ultraspace in Iain Banks’s Cultureverse. For the sake of convenience I’ve grouped them all under the umbrella of “Hyperspace”.

Because hyperspace exists outside of normal space-time, it doesn’t have to follow any of the laws of physics. However, if you want to give hyperspace a pseudo-scientific veneer, you can always invoke string theory. Unproven variants of string theory suggest that there are many extra dimensions adjacent to our own, rolled up into incredibly small spaces that we can’t access. If you could somehow squeeze into these alternate dimensions, you could move just a tiny bit and find yourself halfway across the universe. Ta-da, realistic hyperspace!

There’s one big problem with string theory hyperspace: the extra dimensions are very, very small. Not just regular small, incomprehensibly small: on the order of a Planck length. This is so small that if a proton was enlarged to the size of the Earth’s orbit, a Planck length would be the size of a DNA double helix. Passing a camel through the eye of a needle is downright trivial compared to traveling through such a tiny dimension. Also, physicists aren’t sure that string theory is real, and the string theorists aren’t sure that the extra dimensions are real. So scientifically speaking, string-theory hyperspace seems much less plausible than warp bubbles or even time travel.

I guess the scientist with a comical lisp was right for once – it was never supposed to be “hyperspace”, it’s “hypothspace” – a hypothetical space.

So let’s forget reality, and get into some different fictional concepts of hyperspace.

A Taxonomy of Hyperspaces
Not to be confused with a Hyperspace Tax

At a very basic level, hyperspace concepts can be split into “safe” and “dangerous” versions. Let’s start with safe hyperspaces, as they are much more common. In safe-hyperspace universes, hyperspace is pretty darned boring. You could kill yourself by dropping out of hyperspace on top of a star, as alluded to by Han Solo, but you’re unlikely to die in hyperspace itself. Depending on how hyperspace works, it may not be possible to fight a battle in hyperspace.

Safe hyperspaces may be further divided based on method of hyperspace entry. In Star Wars and Halo, ships can enter and exit Hyperspace/Slipspace at arbitrary locations. Less advanced ships may suffer from restrictions on where they can jump, while high-tech ships can enter and exit Slipspace at will.

In terms of their narrative impact, these “go-anywhere” hyperspaces are really not much different from warp-bubble drive. You could replace every warp core in the Federation with Corellian Hyperdrives of equal speed and reliability, and no one would really notice. Of course, canonical Star Wars velocities are much higher than Trek velocities, but they’re probably the same now.

One big problem with the “go-anywhere” drive is that they tend to give space combat an offensive bias. With no spaceborne equivalent to terrain or chokepoints, the attacker will enjoy advantages in mobility, initiative and surprise. It’s no coincidence that Star Trek, Star Wars, and Halo all place some emphasis on the idea of “don’t let the enemy find our fleet / superweapon / homeworld.” Once they discover your point of vulnerability, it’s awfully hard to defend – even when you set a trap!

This leads to the next category: “restricted hyperspace”. Maybe unassisted interstellar travel is extremely slow, expensive, or dangerous, but most travel occurs with the help of jump points, wormholes, mass relays or other fixed devices. These “jump paths” make interstellar travel downright easy, but your movement becomes predictable. Babylon 5, Mass Effect, and Honor Harrington all use variants of this hyperjump concept.

The restricted-hyperspace concept is highly appealing to writers because from a plot perspective it behaves much like terrestrial geography. Well-charted jump lanes are like major roads, while low-quality jump lanes are like back-country roads. Governments, bandits, and invading baddies all want to seize control of the jump paths, as they are the most economically valuable part of the star system. On the other hand, unassisted hyperspace is like a spooky forest that you can hide in, diving into “uncharted jumps” to evade pursuit. Just watch your back; hyperspace may be dark and full of terrors.

Restricted hyperspace also allows military forces to set up strong defensive chokepoints, slagging invading forces as they funnel through a wormhole or mass relay.

In some universes, hyperjumps may be “hard-restricted”, making FTL utterly impossible outside of spacelanes. This “hyperspace on a rail” concept removes all possibilities of escaping into uncharted space. It is pretty unpopular in fiction, but very common in gaming. The Freespace, Master of Orion, and Sins of a Solar Empire series all use hard-restricted jump geometry, as does Every Space Board Game Ever. Games prefer hyperspace-on-a-rail for its simplicity, as true 3-dimensional movement is very difficult to pull off in videogames and frankly impossible in boardgames.

In a minority of hyperspace systems, it is impossible to stay in hyperspace for any measurable amount of time. Instead, ships rapidly jump in and out of hyperspace in “stutter warp”. This is a relatively rare form of warp drive, originally published in the tabletop RPG 2300 AD and popularized by the novel A Fire Upon the Deep. Because each stutter-jump is instantaneous, you don’t need to worry about how time flows while you’re traveling faster than light: it doesn’t. Otherwise it’s not too different from go-anywhere hyperdrive.

From a realism perspective, all of these hyperspace concepts are purely speculative. You could say that hyperspace is “further out there” than Trek warp because there’s not as much supporting math, but you could also argue that the math proves that Trek warp is impossible. Until the physicists discover radically new branches of physics, FTL travel will remain impossible in our existing scientific understanding.

Here There be Dragons
Go ahead and take that Step, just remember to Walk Without Rhythm

Back in the Age of Sail, exploration was so dangerous that many explorers never returned. Human imagination concluded that there must be an endless number of monsters in the sea, from seductive sirens to terrifying dragons. Of course, the deep seas of Earth never contained any sirens or dragons, but the danger was real and the body count high.

Just as the ocean was terribly hostile to flimsy ancient ships, hyperspace may be a very hostile place for future starships. Perhaps hyperspace is simply so bizarre that people go crazy by staring into it, as in the Ringworld series. Or maybe foldspace is filled with subtle hazards that can only be percieved by highly specialized individuals, such as the Spice-addicted Guild Navigators in the Dune series.

Or maybe the sirens and dragons aren’t just figurative…  The Trope NamerWarhammer 40k, describes starships traveling through The Warp, a dimension full of immeasurably horrific Daemons and Chaos Gods. This is similar to the dimensional gates used by H.P. Lovecraft’s Elder Gods, and is probably inspired by Lovecraft to some vague extent.

In a universe where FTL travel is extremely dangerous, interstellar trade and travel would be difficult and expensive. Anyone willing to travel a long distance through Chaos would have to be desperate, crazy, or seeking a large payoff. Any substance that makes travel safer would be incredibly valuable, sought after and hoarded by every military force in the galaxy.

Hazardous-FTL universes tend to be more violent and militaristic than gentler universes. Part of this is narrative bias; someone who would write a completely peaceful story is unlikely to make hyperspace a violent place. However, it’s also a logical consequence. If hyperspace is highly dangerous, only highly dangerous people would feel comfortable with it. The hazards of space travel would discourage merchants and schoolchildren to a much larger extent than pirates, mercenaries, terrorists or madmen.

Now it’s interesting to speculate what might happen if a hazardous-FTL society became much less hazardous. Intercontinental travel was near-suicidally dangerous in the 16th century, but routine in the 21st. If the same thing happened in a WH40k-esque setting, would the galaxy become more peaceful? Probably (although not in WH40k, that’s just ridiculous).

How much of the violence in pre-industrial human civilization was caused by the fact that everyday life was so deadly that there was less of a taboo on killing? I’ll leave that question to the anthropologists, historians and philosophers, but it seems to me that it’d be responsible for some of human violence. I think it would be very interesting to set a sci-fi novel in the midst of a cultural transition between an ultraviolent “Warhammer” setting and a peaceful “Star Trek” galaxy.

* * *

So that’s it for my semi-systematic ramblings on interstellar travel. The fact is that with our current understanding of physics and outer space, mankind is not going to take any small steps under an alien star. Someone will need to discover the next domain of physics, whether he’s a brilliant academic mind or a half-crazy drunk. And on the day that his work is publicized, all of us sci-fi enthusiasts will cry. Half of our tears will be shed in joy at the advancement of mankind and space travel, and the other half will be shed in mourning over all the pseudoscience that’s suddenly as dated as Jules Verne’s moon cannon.

Post your comments if you got any!

On Interstellar Travel: Can we Break the Light Barrier?

On Interstellar Travel
Part 2 of 3: Can we Break the Light Barrier?

Zefram Cochrane, Is That You?
Protoss Corsair

This is Part 2 of the three-part series “On Interstellar Travel”, written to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Moon landing. In the previous installation I discussed slower-than-light interstellar flight. Today we make the faster-than-light (FTL) plunge!

Under Einsteinian physics, nothing can move faster than light with respect to spacetime. However, spacetime itself can move as fast as it wants to. Shortly after the Big Bang, the universe expanded much faster than light. Therefore, even with “realistic” physics, FTL travel is at least somewhat plausible.

The Star Trek style “warp bubble” is one of the most enduring faster-than-light concepts in science fiction. A starship doesn’t move inside its warp bubble, so it doesn’t need to worry about time dilation or other relativistic effects. The warp bubble itself moves at speeds much faster than the speed of light.

In the 1990s, Miguel Alcubierre developed a mathematical theory that supports faster-than-light bubbles in Einsteinian space-time. Dr. Alcubierre’s academic paper refers to “the warp drive of science fiction” as inspiration. In fact, it’s directly based on Star Trek. Interestingly enough, ever since Alcubierre’s rise to fame, many modern sci-fi authors have equipped their starships with “Alcubierre drives”. This places the Alcubierre drive in the same hallowed position as cyberspace, a science fiction concept that inspires a real-world concept that inspires more science fiction. This image may be the ultimate circular reference: NASA’s concept art of a “USS Enterprise” powered by Alcubierre drives based on warp drives based on Star Trek.

Now, Alcubierre’s original theory was explicitly impossible. Generating the warp field required obscene quantities of “exotic matter” and “negative energy”, and there was no way to steer the warp field. However, since the Alcubierre drive is purely theroetical, it’s possible that tweaks to the math could greatly decrease its energy requiements.

Alcubierre and Star Trek disagree in one major respect: what happens to matter (or light) entering and exiting the warp field? Trekkie ships routinely engage in warp-speed combat, slinging phasers, disrupters, and photon torpedoes without dropping out of warp. That wouldn’t work with a “realistic” Alcubierre field – the edge of the warp bubble is an area of severely distorted space, much like the event horizon of a black hole. Any energy or matter passing through the edge would be severely distorted if not destroyed. This should affect communications as well, unless your communications signals exist in a parallel dimension (ie subspace communicators).

The characteristics of a warp-based interstellar civilization would depend on just how fast their ships, and their communications signals, could travel. In pre-JJ Abrams Star Trek, ships took days to weeks to travel around Federation or Klingon space, and much longer than that to cross the galaxy. However, you could have a real-time conversation with a Starfleet admiral from very far away. This allowed the major Trek powers (Feds, Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians etc) to build well-coordinated interstellar empires, while still preserving a sense of distance. Isolated backwater worlds could exist in pre-Abrams Trek because distance was actually meaningful. Unfortunately, in the post-Abrams universe the Moon appears to be in low Earth orbit, and Qo’noS is just a few miles further. Most illogical.

Does a Warp Drill Pierce the Heavens?
When does the fantasy stop making sense?

“Hard science fiction sticklers” are very intelligent people who rank higher on the evolutionary tree than the rest of us. You know this is true because they have highly sophisticated brainstem reflexes. After all, they roll their eyes as soon as they hear “faster than light travel”.

So why is FTL such nonsense? Well it contradicts our current understanding of science, but that shouldn’t be a game-breaker. After all, the whole point of sci-fi is to show speculative technologies. However, one of the persistent complaints about FTL travel is that it seems to require the existence of time travel. Hard sci-fi fans recoil in horror at the thought of time travel, as it inevitably leads to silly logical inconsistencies.

Actually, indiscriminate use of FTL travel could cause logical problems even worse than time travel. Let’s try out some science-fanfiction: a thought experiment in the setting of Star Trek (The Original Series).

*   *   *

Warning: Physics Ahead!

* * *

Captain Bob of the USS Paradox leaves the Earth at 8:00AM traveling on maximum impulse power, a speed of 99.5%c. At 8:20AM, Captain Bob suddenly realizes that he forgot to lock his space-car door. So he orders Commander Spock to turn around and head back to Earth at Warp 9.

Traveling at 99.5%c causes 10-fold time dilation, so when Captain Bob turns the starship around at 8:20AM, only 2 minutes have passed by on Earth. Since it takes time for Earth’s light to reach Bob, if he looks at an Earth clock it will show “8:01AM”.

“We have re-oriented and are ready to engage warp drive,” says Spock.


Warp 9 is around a thousand times lightspeed so it takes just over a second for Captain Bob to get back to Earth. The Earth clock now reads “8:02AM”.

“That’s funny,” says Captain Bob, “If only two minutes have elapsed, then I can’t possibly have traveled further than 2 light-minutes.”

Commander Spock points at something behind Captain Bob’s back. “Look behind you.”

Captain Bob looks back in the direction he came from. Sure enough, the USS Paradox appears just one light-minute away. “That’s odd. If my ship is out there, and I’m also right here, that means we’ve duplicated ourselves.”

Spock nods. He knows the feeling.

“But if that’s so, then at some point in warp flight we must have gone straight through a past version of ourselves.”

Spock slowly raises a single eyebrow. “That is most illogical. Two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.”

“Oh, you’re rig…” The Captain faces the camera with the wide eyes of a cartoon coyote who’s just realized he’s standing on thin air. Then his entire starship explodes in a glorious blast of illogic.

Less than three millparsecs later, the Millennium Falcon sails gracefully out of the still-glowing fireball. “Whew, that was a close one Chewie!”


This paradox is illustrated below:


Solving the FTL Paradox
Cutting the Einsteinian knot

So from a naive perspective, FTL seems completely impossible. The existence of a warp drive would cause collisions throughout space and time, logic-eating paradoxes that could fundamentally alter the rules of the universe in crazy and unpredictable ways. For example, the travel time between Earth and Qo’noS could inexplicably decrease from several weeks to a few minutes. Oh wait, I already mentioned that one.

That said, there is one easy way to immediately banish all FTL paradoxes: Do away with Einsteinian relativity.

Relativistic paradoxes only occur because there is no “correct” (aka “absolute”) frame of reference. If an absolute frame of reference exists on some cosmic level, then you can easily prevent any time travel or paradoxes. Let’s go back to our previous example, using a cosmic background frame that is stationary with respect to the Earth.

* * *

Since Captain Bob is moving with respect to the cosmic background, he experiences time dilation and the background does not. So when Bob’s clock reads 8:20 AM, the cosmic clock has advanced by 200 minutes and reads 11:20AM. Bob has traveled 199 light-minutes in the cosmic reference frame, but due to time and length contraction this is only 19.9 light-minutes in Bob’s reference frame. In Bob’s reference frame, the Earth clock only reads 8:01AM, the same as in the first example.

Bob slaps himself in the forehead. “Oh crap, I forgot to lock my space-car door.” He reaches for the space-fob on his space-keys. “Commander Spock, turn this thing around. Maximum warp, engage.”

When the USS Paradox engages warp drive, it travels 199 cosmic light-minutes in 12 cosmic seconds. Since Bob is still under 1:10 time dilation, his clock only advances 1.2 seconds. It reads 8:20:01 by the time he reaches Earth. However, the Earth clock says 11:20:12AM – 12 seconds later than when Bob entered warp.

“Look behind you,” says Spock.

Bob looks over his shoulder and sees an image of the USS Paradox 100 light-minutes away. “Wait a second,” he says. “I’m still seeing a duplicate image of our ship. I thought that meant we could collide with ourselves?”

Spock shakes his head. “No, Captain. 201 minutes have elapsed here on Earth, and our trip only took 200 Earth minutes. It will take another 198 minutes for our light to catch up to us, but it’s only light. There is no duplicate of our ship out there.”

Bob visibly relaxes. “So there’s no way that we could run into our past selves?”

“Of course not, Captain. That would just be ridiculous.” Spock keeps a straight Vulcan face, but his human half is laughing on the inside.

* * *

As long as faster-than-light travel exists within an absolute frame of reference, individual people and ships can experience all the time dilation they want, but the universe will never see two copies of the same object in the same place at the same time.

There’s one big obstacle to getting rid of relativity: if an absolute frame of reference exists, it should be fairly easy to observe. Whatever direction the Earth is moving during the spring, it’s moving the opposite direction in autumn. If there is a fundamental cosmic background frame, we should be able to detect our motion relative to this background. In fact, the absence of a seasonal difference in physics is exactly what drove Einstein to invent the theory of relativity in the first place.

This non-observation can be “solved” by assuming that the absolute frame of reference only applies to objects in warp space. After all, if Bob returned to Earth under impulse drive, he’d experience the “normal” time dilation effects described by Einstein.

Of course, if a FTL starship has to follow totally weird laws of physics just to exist, it may require a more fundamental change in space-time than an Alcubierran warp bubble. Instead of trying to create a bubble of exotic space in the ocean of realspace, it may make more sense to throw your entire starship into a different dimension.

This concept is best described as Hyperspace, and will be the subject of Part 3 of this article. (Thanks for reading!)

On Interstellar Travel: Can We Reach For The Stars?

On Interstellar Travel
Part 1 of 3: Can we Reach for the Stars?

“You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone. Only you’re not.”

45 years ago, Neil Armstrong took one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind. Over the intervening decades, it’s interesting to see the progress that mankind has made in outer space. As a species we have continued to leap forward, placing thousands of satellites into Earth orbit and sending probes all over our Solar System. Yet we have not taken any more small steps for man, or woman. There are no more bootprints on the Moon or any other celestial body than there were in 1972.

Manned space travel is difficult and perilous, and at the moment low-reward. Earth is the only Earth-like world in the Solar System; any colony we put on the Moon or Mars would require supplies from Earth just to survive. If you’re looking for a comfortable extraterrestrial world to live on, you’ll have to go interstellar. There’s a lot of ideas for how mankind could one day walk on an exoplanet – some realistic, some less so.

As part of the celebration of the 45th anniversary of the Moon landing, I’ve written up a series of three articles on interstellar travel. Today’s article will stick to (mostly) realistic slower-than-light travel options, while the next two pieces will delve into increasingly (but not infinitely) improbable modes of propulsion.

When I’ve Been There Ten Thousand Years
Traveling Much Slower than Light

Einsteinian space-time has three space-like dimensions, one time-like dimension, and an absolute speed limit of c, approximately 300,000 kilometers per second (kps). Nothing can move faster than c without also traveling backward in time. And since arbitrary time travel causes all sorts of logic-destroying stupidity, most scientists assume that time travel is impossible. Therefore, nothing can go faster than the speed of light.

In a realistic universe, it takes an awfully long time to get anywhere. The Apollo moon missions maxed out at around 11 kps relative to the Earth. Traveling to the nearest star would take 115,000 years at this pace. Actually, you’d never get that far. Starting from the Earth, the escape velocity of the Solar System is ~42kps. You’d need a considerably faster craft to ever exit the Solar System.

In the 1960s, the Orion nuclear pulse-rocket was “designed” as a deep space exploration concept. This starship would have used repeated thermonuclear explosions to push it at extremely high velocities (compared to conventional rockets). Such a craft could accelerate up to velocities of around 3%c. This would get you to Proxima Centauri in 142 years.

With much-slower-than-light travel, a journey between the stars will either require many lifetimes, or prolonged cryogenic freezing. Either way, all of your friends at home will be long dead by the time you reach your destination. And if people live on a starship for too many generations, they may eventually forget that they are on a starship.

*   *   *

Very-slow interstellar travel faces one major problem: Resource consumption. Where do you get fuel, water, and other materials while spending centuries between the stars? Every ecosystem requires light and heat, which means you have to generate energy, and energy is in short supply in interstellar space. Even nuclear reactors will run out of fuel during a thousand-year journey.

A Bussard ramscoop could gather interstellar gas for fusion power, but there’s not a lot of gas out there and it would be plain H-1. This is a much dirtier fusion fuel than He-3, and over the years would cause radiation damage to your fusion drive. You’ll burn most of the hydrogen that you collect just to create enough thrust to offset the ramscoop’s drag. And the ramscoop won’t collect any metals – if anything on your starship breaks, you can only hope that your ancestors brought a spare.

Some slow-starship designs completely bypass the energy problem by relying on laser energy beamed from Earth. This energy could be used both to propel the ship and to power its ecosystem. It’s certainly an elegant solution, as you could rely on an extremely large energy-producing infrastructure that doesn’t have to travel with your starship. But what happens when your benefactors run out of funding, are killed in a war, are destroyed by climate change or natural disasters?

The fact is that based on a present-day understanding of physics and engineering, a slower-than-light “generation ship” is really not much more realistic than faster-than-light travel. If we ignore the difficulties of energy generation and resource collection in interstellar space, we might as well ignore the rest of physics.

And let’s say someone develops a technology that allows a civilization to live forever without an external energy source – why would you even want to live on a planet at that point? Just stay in interstellar space.

In a universe where human civilization is limited to much-slower-than-light travel, there would be no such thing as an interstellar civilization. Humanity might eventually spread out to a bunch of stars, but each solar system would have its own unique way of life. The human colonies might communicate with each other, but they really couldn’t trade effectively, and no one could travel back and forth between different stars. There could be countless alien civilizations in the galaxy, but we might never encounter them because they are too far away.

Oh my God, it’s full of stars!
Traveling at near the speed of light

According to Einstein, funny things happen when you get near the speed of light. Time slows down. Distances get shorter. Mass gets more massive. A traveller moving at 99.5%c will experience 10-fold time dilation, length contraction, and mass increase. That means he experiences time passing 10 times slower than someone at rest. Relativity may sound funny, but it isn’t just empty theory – our entire telecom and GPS system is programmed with relativity in mind. If Einstein was wrong, then none of the technology you’re using to read this blog article would work.

Science fiction authors have played with the concept of time dilation for many decades, because it’s fun. An interstellar traveller may live for a normal human lifespan but witness thousands of years of galactic civilization in fast-forwards.

There’s one massive problem with near-lightspeed travel, and it’s mass. Well, it’s really energy, but we all know that’s the same thing. If you’re using time dilation to age 10x slower, that means you are also 10x as massive as you were at rest. If you were to stop moving, you’d need to shed kinetic energy equal to 9x your rest mass, a truly absurd amount. In order to get moving again, you need to gain an equally ridiculous amount of kinetic energy.

How ridiculous is this? Well, the rest mass of a 70-kg (154#) human is 6.3 exajoules. That’s equivalent to 1,500 megatons of TNT, or 3 times the total energy of every nuclear bomb ever detonated. Now imagine spending nine times that energy just to accelerate a single person to near-lightspeed. We haven’t even considered the mass of the starship yet!

Even with antimatter or black holes, it is very difficult (and highly dangerous) to come up with this kind of energy. Science fiction writers have either ignored the energy problem, or circumvented it with handwaving pseudophysics. (“It’s an inertialess drive!”) In Speaker for the Dead, Ender Wiggin wondered if a star winked out every time a starship started moving. (since the ship picked up a vast amount of energy without spending any energy)

Astute readers might wonder, if a starship can pick up energy ex nihilo, could it harness that energy to some other cause? At the very least, with enough energy you could completely destroy any planet you crashed into. Of course, if you had the technology to generate “free” energy, you may already have much more efficient ways to destroy a planet.

In a universe where travel occurs at near-lightspeed, there could be something resembling interstellar trade and travel, it would just be very difficult. If faster-than-light communication exists, it’s plausible that far-flung human colonies would stay in touch with each other, sharing the same Internet and the same entertainment and a similar culture. However, travelling to see another star system for yourself would require a major time commitment. Anyone you left behind at home would be much older by the time you reached your destination, or dead if your journey was too long.

Unless, of course, your interstellar civilization managed to dramatically extend their lifespans. Simple anti-aging and regenerative medicine techniques could keep human-like bodies alive for many hundreds of years, long enough to reach nearby stars.

However, if you wanted to tour the hundreds of billions of stars in the Galaxy, at 4 years per star you’d have to live a trillion years. Neither medicine nor mechanical prowess could keep a physical body functioning for that long. You could repeatedly switch bodies, but it’s better to transsubstantiate into an energy being. An energy being might think and act on a totally different timescale compared to biologicals. If your consciousness was slow enough, or your memory long enough, you could hold a conversation with your friends across the galaxy despite a 20,000 year lightspeed delay. At that point, you would definitely not resemble a human in any meaningful way.

Oh, what was that sound? I guess it was the rumbling boom that happens when you break the plausibility barrier. I believe that brings today’s episode to a close!

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Come back later for Parts 2 and 3, where I will delve into interstellar propulsion ideas less constrained by reality.

45 Years from the Moon

45 years ago this morning, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell launched Apollo 11 from Kennedy Space Center. Four days later, Neil Armstrong would become the first man on the moon.

For the 45th lunar landing anniversary, NBC is running an entire series here:

Since 1969, spaceflight has transitioned from a government-run program to a highly profitable industry. The Apollo missions may have been justified by national pride and glory, but they were really all about the nuclear arms race; if you can build a moon rocket you can build very large and precise missiles.

In 2014, our smartphone signals, internet connections, and GPS would not work without the multi-billion dollar infrastructure in Earth orbit. Most satellites don’t need to be subsidized, they are quite profitable on their own. Yet we haven’t seen a lot of manned exploration outside of low Earth orbit, because it isn’t yet profitable.

It remains to be seen whether anyone will build a hotel in spacemine gold from asteroids, or film a reality show on Mars. In any case, the future of space exploration will require people to make money in space.

Was Malthus Right?


I ran across this very interesting PBS article recently (link above). It is an excellent summary of Malthusian philosophy that got me musing about Malthusianism and public policy.

Reverend Thomas Malthus first published his theories in the late 18th century, a time of dramatic social upheaval. The might of England had fallen short against the rebellious colonies, while the Ancien Régime had lost its head to the rebellious Jacobins. The only thing certain in this era was uncertainty.

Against this backdrop, Malthus proclaimed that there were a finite quantity of resources on Earth, and that the human population will always proliferate until those resources are consumed. Once the resources are exhausted, the world is doomed either to widespread famine or violence. If the overall resource level is increased by social or technological developments, humans will simply proliferate to a larger population and our overall misery will remain unchanged.

Malthus wrote that the median income of the common folk, expressed in the amount of food (pounds of wheat) they could afford, had remained constant from prehistoric times to the end of the 18th century – and this number was barely enough food to survive. The central dogma of Malthusian belief was that increasing living standards led to higher populations which led to decreasing living standards, causing a long-term equilibrium of famine and poverty.

Malthus believed that this negative feedback cycle could only be broken if the whole world decided to have fewer children. In an era where reliable contraception was nonexistent and many children died at a young age, this must have sounded as loony as putting a man on the moon.

Malthus also suggested that any large-scale charity (such as social welfare programs) would prove useless or harmful in the long run. According to Malthusian dynamics, the only thing keeping poverty in check is the death rate of poor people. Therefore, anything you did to help poor people would only cause more people to become poor. This part of his philosophy was attractive to an aristocracy terrified of the proletariat mob at their gates. As such, 19th century Malthusianism was staunchly conservative.


By the time of World War II, every civilized country had major social welfare programs in place. Thus, the “charity is harmful” portion of Malthusian philosophy was largely ignored (as it remains to this day). Instead, 20th century Malthusians focused the importance of population control. In the pre-WWII era this often meant eugenics and forced sterilization – the Malthusian Belt of Brave New World. Again, this placed Malthusianism firmly on the conservative end of the political spectrum.

Adolf Hitler proceeded to Godwin the eugenics movement, taking it to its most horrific extreme and making it unmentionable in polite society. However, a pharmaceutical innovation revived interest in Malthus – The Pill. Oral contraceptives allowed a new generation to have kids only when they wanted to. Birth control was immediately opposed by the religious right, so Malthusian philosophy was suddenly liberal. This right-to-left shift was completed when many early environmentalists started preaching Malthusian population control as a way to decrease environmental impact.

Malthus believed that food production was the crucial limiting factor for population growth. The Earth had a “carrying capacity”, a maximum number of mouths that the planet could feed. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, food was a central dogma in Malthusian environmentalism. In The Population Bomb(1968), Paul Ehrlich stated that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death by the end of the 1970s. He suggested putting contraceptives in the water supply or in staple foods, while noting the sociopolitical impossibility of doing so.

Instead, a social and technological revolution occurred. Basic farming techniques such as irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides spread from the First World to the Third. New crop cultivars, developed first by conventional breeding and later by genetic modification, massively increased farm yields. Food prices dropped so low that many industrialized countries had to pay farmers not to farm. Even as the human population of Earth increased from a few hundred million to over 7 billion, Malthus’s prediction of widespread food shortages never came true.


A funny thing happened between the 1970s and now. Populations leveled off and started to decline in Europe, Russia, Japan, and among non-Hispanic whites in the USA. This happened despite the fact that an increasing world population had not triggered any horrific famines, wars or plagues. It also happened in the absence of any draconian measures such as Ehrlich’s hypothetical contraceptive water supply. Economists coined the phrase “demographic-economic paradox” to describe the decreasing fertility among wealthy socioeconomic groups. What public policy triumph allowed population control to finally happen? Widespread access to affordable contraception, a remedy far easier to swallow than forced sterilization.

The success of birth control could be seen as the ultimate confirmation of Malthus’s thesis that limiting the population would improve quality of life. It has undoubtedly broken the Malthusian cycle of “increased living standards -> increased birth rate -> decreased living standards”. Recent predictions suggest that human population will peak in the mid-21st century and then decline. This predicted peak doesn’t happen due to food shortages, but because humans are choosing to have fewer children. Those children will not be limited to Malthus’s “14 pounds of wheat”, they will have much greater access to food and material goods.

Reverend Malthus’ ultimate objective was to decrease the worldwide fertility rate, and by that measure he has been wildly successful. What he could not have forseen was the method of this success. Malthusian doctrine gave birth to numerous population-limiting schemes over the centuries, many of which were impractical or inhumane. In the end, the global fertility decline occurred thanks to affordable contraception. Billions of human beings chose to have fewer children. No one forced them to do so. (except in China).

I wish that more policy thinkers would draw a lesson from this part of history. You can craft onerous laws to change people’s behavior, and they will fight you every step of the way. Or you could give people the freedom to choose. If the change in behavior is truly beneficial, people will gravitate toward it over time – as has happened in every high-income country over the past several decades.