Human, All Too Human

Megastructures Revisited


As metaphor, megastructures have the potential to be powerful: as explanations for real phenomena, they are petty, motivated by the same impulse which makes journalists always refer to Star Wars when writing a story about a planet with two suns, or crack feeble Doctor Who jokes when writing about the theory of time travel.

Tabby’s Star is a genuinely exciting mystery, and to read articles which rush through the halting attempts by scientists to provide an astrophysical explanation in order to get to the part where they can write about megastructures is to watch the scientific be eclipsed by the merely science-fictional.

The objects supposed to be eclipsing Tabby’s Star are always referred to as “alien megastructures”, an adjective which on first glance is redundant – the star is thousands of light years away, and humans don’t know how to build megastructures. As I argued in my megastructure post from last year, in science fiction we project the ability to construct artefacts on the scale of solar systems onto aliens or our own machine descendants to avoid the uncomfortable fact that even if we had the technology to build such monstrosities, we lack, or believe that we lack, the ability to muster the social and economic resources which they require. All megastructures are alien.

Considered in the light of what we actually know, however, the opposite is true. We don’t know if aliens exist, and we don’t know anything about what their societies and psychologies might be like. And the ability to imagine megastructures is not even a human universal: it arises from a very specific time and place, from the triumph and downfall of the dream of an ever-expanding rationalist civilisation. The megastructure is born in the communist galactic epics of Olaf Stapledon and the manic space operas of E E Doc Smith, takes flight on the dreams of Cold War theorists like Dyson and Kardashev, and begins to collapse under its own ironic weight in the middle of Larry Niven’s Ringworld series in the seventies and eighties.

When we start speculating about Dyson spheres as the explanation for astrophysical effects, rather that using them as metaphors in fiction, it’s worth listing the assumptions which underly them:

  • once a civilisation becomes industrial, it will remain in a state when energy capture and expansion are its absolute priorities;
  • the most plentiful source of energy in a typical solar system is the radiation from its star;
  • somehow, the economic and technical means to build a Dyson sphere or swarm are achievable;
  • our current knowledge of stellar astrophysics is total: in other words, there are no factors, unknown to us today, which would make building a Dyson sphere or swarm harmful or impossible

The shakiest of these assumptions seems to me to be the first. We can’t imagine alien psychology, by definition: in general, the aliens in sf are projections of racial stereotypes, whether they are warlike Hun/Klingons or austere, contemplative Vulcans. Even contemporary efforts to imagine truly inhuman aliens – the eusocial galaxy-spanning civilisation of Charles Stross’ novella “Missile Gap”, or the terrifying and asentient “scramblers” in Peter Watts’ Blindsight – are specific to the culture which created them: arising from a very early-twenty-first-century pessimism about human consciousness and society as fallible and weak, at the mercy of creatures who are better equipped to follow a biological imperative which is simply another version of the grow-expand-maximise-capture drumbeat.

The common failure in all of these dreams is the idea that we can know what aliens would do, what a civilisation with better technology or organisational skills or more ruthlessness could accomplish: this line of speculation leads to aliens who are insane caricatures or nightmarish parodies of the worst excesses of the industrial civilisation that gave birth to them.

The star AR Scorpii appears to be a binary pair of a red and white dwarf: the latter is blasting beams of electrons travelling very close to the speed of light, which, when they impact upon its companion’s surface on the side visible to Earth, cause its brightness to fluctuate violently. This explanation is only an hypothesis, like all of our ideas about the stars. I think that it’s better to contemplate the strangeness of what might be out there than to merely use these remote and strange lights as projector bulbs for the shadows cast by our human, all-too-human megastructures.

Sixth Street Pale Ale 2

Back in April I blogged about making pale ale with fresh hops: I got a very decent-tasting beer with an unexpectedly low alcohol content. I tried the recipe again, with two different ingredients: instead of light dry malt extract I used Hop + Grain’s flavour booster, which is a mix of DME and dextrose, to up the fermentable sugar. And because I didn’t have as many hops from Peter’s place, I got some Galaxy to add late in the boil and dry-hop with. I figured Australian heritage bittering hops and modern aroma hops would be a good combination, and Galaxy is in a lot of my favourite contemporary beers  like Stone & Wood’s Pacific Ale and Kosciuszko Pale Ale. Here’s the recipe:

  • One tin Coopers Light Malt Extract
  • 1kg of Hop + Grain Flavour Booster
  • hops: Galaxy and Peter’s backyard
  • Mangrove Jacks M44 US West Coast yeast

The local hops went in at the start of the boil, and I added 20g of Galaxy at 45m and another 20g at 55m.

And I also discovered the real reason for the missing alcohol. When you boil a bag of fresh hops in wort for an hour, the flowers soak up a lot of the liquid: the same thing happened with the leftover hops, which I’d dried and kept in the freezer. When I had made the first batch, I hadn’t wrung any of the liquid out of the big mass of soggy hops. I chucked them in the bin, along with an unknown quantity of fermentable wort. I didn’t realise this until removing the hop sock from the boiler at the end of the boil: when I noticed how heavy the bag was, I sterilised a strainer so that I could squeeze out as much of the wort from the hops as possible.

The other problem I’d had with Batch I was leakage. A lot of the bottles got hairline cracks and leaked into the plastic bins, which is a problem I’ve had with previous beers. The Mangrove Jack’s M44 has a reputation as a slow starter, so my guess about the leakage was that there was still fermentable sugar in the beer, on top of the priming sugar I added at bottling. I decided to leave the beer in the fermenter for three weeks. Towards the end, I chucked in the rest of the Galaxy.

The result is the best beer I’ve made: ABV of about 4.5%, lovely Galaxy bouquet and the same clean bitterness I got from the first batch. It tastes like a really modern Australian pale ale on the high end of the hoppiness scale – if I were to change anything about it, I’d maybe use less Galaxy to dry-hop.

This is the first time I’ve made a beer that’s so good that I’ve kept  buying beer for regular drinking and only cracking the home brew occasionally, because I want it to last.

Why The Left Should

Why The Left Should Applaud Brexit
A Tankie Writes

Why The Left Should Shout Huzzah For People Who Literally Want To Stab Them To Death
A blog post in 10,000 words, by V. I. Rationalist

Why The Left Should Have Done The Same Kind Of Degree That I Did

Why The Left Should Read My Blog Posts In Good Faith And Understand Exactly Why They Are Very Wrong

Why The Left Should Do Something That’s Quite Implausible, Psychologically Speaking, And Would  Startle The Shit Out Of Everyone If It Actually Happened, Except Me, Who Would Nod Sagely

Why The Left Should Cease Their Infighting and Unite Against the Common Enemy: My Balls


Instead of my usual blog post, this Bloomsday I made a Twitter bot, @usylessly, which posts the output of a neural net trained on the text of Ulysses. There’s a bit more information about it on the bot’s website.

How to make beer

My friend Peter has a hop bine (not vine: hop vines are called bines) growing in his backyard in Granville. A couple of months ago, he put out a call on Facebook to any home brewers who wanted to help pick them, so I said yes.


We had fun picking them, and then had a delicious meal at a restaurant in Auburn, which Peter and Megan don’t want you to know about.


Hops are only ripe for a couple of weeks a year: almost all beer is made with dried hops. To dry hops properly you need a heater/ventilator arrangement – the old-fashioned ones are called ‘oasts’ – or one of those kitchen dehydrator things. I wanted to use the majority of the hops ‘wet’ (boil them fresh, without drying them) but I dried some on a cake rack in the kitchen to keep them for dry-hopping at the end. Hops are pretty, and when freshly picked they smell a lot like dope, to which they are closely related.


Later that week I started brewing. I’ve been making beer since August last year and up till now have just used kits, where you get malt syrup which has already been hopped, top it up with water and add yeast. So this was my first go at doing a boil: to get the bitterness out of hops you need to boil them for at least an hour with some malt. I also had to make up my own recipe, which was this:

  • One tin of Coopers Light Malt Extract
  • 1kg of Hop & Grain Light Dry Malt Extract
  • a big bag of fresh hops
  • Mangrove Jacks M44 US West Coast yeast

We didn’t know which variety of hops they were: a friend of Peters had rescued the rhizome from an old farm in the Southern Highlands. Different varieties are good for different things: some for bittering, others for aroma and dry-hopping (at the end of fermentation). Because of the uncertainty, there was no point being scientific about how much hops to put in the boil: I just put as much as I could fit in the hop sock and boiler, and added a couple of handfuls later in the boil in case I could get any complex flavours out of them.

I picked the yeast because I was aiming at a pale ale, and if there was any hop character I wanted to give it a chance to come through.

I added a quarter of the malt syrup to the boil – you need some of it because enzymes in the malt help extract the alpha acids from the hops, but if you boil all the malt, it caramelises and darkens. Boiling the wort with hops made the house smell like weed and Vegemite.


I put the rest of the hops into the freezer.


I bottled it after about twelve days in the fermenter, when I’d had a steady gravity reading for three days in a row. Tasting it at this stage, there was a very strong bitterness, which was a good sign that the boil had worked properly.


For the last couple of days I dunked some of the hops in a bag in the fermenter: if they turned out to be a modern variety like Galaxy this might have given some aroma to the beer.


Then I bottle conditioned them under the stairs for three weeks. A few of the bottles leaked a little in the last week: I think this is a sign that the fermentation got a bit stuck in the fermenter and restarted after bottling. The extra pressure from CO2 has pushed beer out through tiny cracks in the bottles. Next time I’ll leave it in the fermenter for two weeks.


The result is a lot crisper and cleaner than I’d expected, and the strong bitterness at bottling has mellowed a lot. It’s extremely drinkable, and much more like an Australian pale ale than an American – like a less yeasty version of Coopers Green. There’s hardly any hop aroma, which is probably because of the variety: it’s only in the last few decades that Australian hop strains like Galaxy, which give a big citrusy nose, have been around. So I didn’t end up with a big hoppy American IPA, but an Australian-style pale ale is much more in keeping with what the original hops would have been used for.

Drinking beer which is made from green flowers which you picked yourself is absurdly satisfying. When I started this I thought that the idea of moving beyond kit brewing was overkill: I’m not going to start malting my own grain, but I’m a lot more confident about making up recipes and boiling now.

(I get my kit and ingredients from The Hop and Grain in Marrickville, who are very friendly and helpful despite the fact that I can’t grow a beard.)

POSTSCRIPT: on drinking a few of these I’ve found that it’s not very alcoholic. This is what the OG/FG calculations predicted – they estimated about 2.5% – at the time, I thought this might have been due to error measuring the OG. I think either fermentation got stuck, or the original wort just didn’t have enough available sugar for some reason. It carbonated properly, so there was still live yeast when I bottled it. Perhaps my assumption that one tin of malt extract + 1Kg DME toppped up to 23L would be roughly equivalent in available sugar to a kit was incorrect? Any experienced home brewers with advice, leave a comment. The OG reading was 1.030 and the final gravity was 1.011.

POST-POSTSCRIPT: after consultation with my brother-in-law and a few web searches, I think my DME theory is correct: it has less available sugar for fermentation than the same weight of dextrose. The only other time I’ve used it, it was in a kit which specifically asked for DME and was I suppose designed with that in mind because the resulting IPA was at least 6% ABV. I’m going to try this recipe again with a mix of DME and dextrose: I haven’t got the same quantity of Peter’s hops left but I’ll use what I’ve got plus some Galaxy or another good aroma variety, and see how I go. Science!


An archaic word, if it’s not too absurd,
Gives the air of an all-knowing Mentor.
But no-one approves when you write “it behooves”,
Unless you’re an irl centaur.

Rise of Trump shows that I, some Australian Blogger, am Correct

The seemingly-unstoppable ascendancy of orange-haired real estate mogul, businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump in the contest to decide the next Republican presidential candidate has lead many to ask whether this is the rise of a new form of American fascism. But before we ask whether Trump really is another Hitler, we should consider a more important question. How does this alarming scenario afford me, and other commentators, none of whom are experts and many of whom are on different continents, an opportunity to be correct?

There is no doubt that Trump’s confounding of the GOP establishment is alarming, but I would like to position myself as being far more calm and mature than those who believe this is the birth of a hitherto-unseen and poisonous form of American nationalism. Now, I’m not a professional historian. I have no especial qualifications in the theory of fascism and other related forms of totalitarian dictatorship as these were manifested in the course of the twentieth century, and, statistically speaking, neither do you. But we shouldn’t lose our heads simply because the conservative party of the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth appears to be having its collective lunch stolen by a blowhard tycoon who is backed by throngs of shrieking, violent racists and who stands to have a long shot at the leadership of the United States.

Let’s consider the significant differences between Trump and Hitler. Hitler, as any schoolchild knows, drew considerable support from the ranks of restive, unemployed and impoverished Germans whose nation had been wracked by punitive war reparations, hyperinflation and needlessly sarcastic musical satirists. Trump’s supporters, by contrast, although they are restive, underemployed and financially, on a global scale, somewhat inconvenienced, show little or no interest in cabaret, with the exception of Wayne Newton. Moreover, as citizens of the United States of America, they come from a completely different country to Hitler’s followers.

Hitler was a painter manqué and former soldier from an unremarkable family whose amoral ideology and extreme racial intolerance brought about the most brutal war of annihilation and genocide in world history; Trump is the heir to a New York City real estate fortune and has shown no particular inclination toward the visual arts. Trump is a serial divorcée with a decades-long reputation for sleaziness who has made highly inappropriate comments about the desirability of his own daughter; Hitler, although he is widely believed by almost everyone to have had a heinously fucked-up sexuality, was childless.

Even were it not for all these serious distinctions between Hitler and Trump, the most vital difference is one of timing. Hitler happened in the olden days and was ultimately defeated in a series of events which, calamitous though they were, are progressively disappearing from living memory, and which ultimately serve as a reassurance to people like me that our comfortable lives have been safeguarded by a long historical process which we were fortunate enough to end up on the winning side of. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is happening right now, and any suggestion that he is quite a bit like Hitler has to be fought against with every instinct and fibre of our being, lest that reassuring sense of comfort be disturbed.

Besides, Trump, even though he is a notorious career racist who retweets praise from actual Nazis, has been endorsed by America’s most well-known member of the Ku Klux Klan and seems to have a lock on the candidacy, is not a seasoned political operator like Ted Cruz, a wily Republican vampire about whom I first heard three weeks ago. It may be too soon to say for sure, but if I repeat the phrase “the GOP establishment” enough times and with an appropriate sense of measured conviction, signs are that events will show that this armchair observer is right.