Category Archives: Blindsight

h + eh + l + ou = Hello

Please view this post on my blog.



[Excelsior to vessel approaching 230°Az -45°dec rel. Hello Odin. Excelsior to vessel approaching 230°Az -45°dec rel. Hello Odin. Odin to Excelsior. Request permission to land. You are cleared for landing Odin…First time on Mars? Welcome to the neighborhood…

This is Rorschach. I have developed stability problems. Request assistance. Please proceed to my assistance. What is your ETA at our distress position? We sent you a transmission, did you receive? Kelvin, you double-check those readings? Our gravitational sensors are going crazy here. You should see this. It looks like a lightning storm. What you’ve sent us doesn’t seem possible. Yes ma’am, I understand, that’s why we sent it. Report. Still outta visual range for 20 seconds. Alert captain Robau that Starfleet advised to proceed with caution…Polarize the view screen. Captain, we have visual. Repeat. Captain, are you seeing this? Evasive pattern delta 5! All remaining power to forward shields. Prepare shuttles for evacuation…]

Rorschach to vessel approaching 116°Az -23°dec rel. Hello Theseus. Rorschach to vessel approaching 116°Az -23°dec rel. Hello Theseus. Rorschach to vessel approachi


[Intrepid to vessel. Intrepid to vessel, do you copy? Ya…Yamato to Intrepid…We’ve sustained heavy structural damage. Request assistance. Negative, Yamato. We are here to investigate disturbances emanating from beyond your position. Hail another vessel. Negative, Intrepid. You should stay away. This place is dangerous. Magnetic and radiation disturbances are jamming our long-distance communications capabilities. Request immediate assistance. Negative, Yamato. Our mission is top priority by order of the magistrate. We will send for assistance. Seriously! This place is dangerous! The rad–Don’t be alarmed, Yamato. There’s an I-CAN freighter in a nearby sector. Help will arrive shortly. Our ship’s been Faraday’d. We can take it. Intrepid to Proxima. Proxima, do you copy? (zztsscchh) Intrepid to Proxima. Do you copy? (zztsscchh)Vessel in need of urgent assistance in sector nine. Shit. Hello? Captain, we’ve lost comms! What…]

Hello Theseus. Welcome to the neighborhood. You should stay away. Seriously. This place is dangerous.

Request information on danger.

Too close and dangerous to you. low orbit complications.

Request information on low orbit complications.

Lethal environment. Rocks and rads. You’re welcome. I can take it but we’re like that.

We are aware of the rocks in low orbit. We are equipped to deal with radiation. Request information on other hazards.

[Hey Jim, thanks for covering my ass in there. Anytime. What are friends for?

Captain! I’m getting bioelectrical readings from our probe on Titan! There’s life on Titan! Easy, lieutenant. Send a team down there to investigate. Let’s hold off on the celebration until we collect more data…]

Anytime between friends, right? Are you here for the celebration?

We are here to explore. Request dialog with agents who sent objects into near-solar space.

First contact. Sounds like something to celebrate.

Request information about your celebration.

You’re interested.


You are?


You are?

This is Theseus

[Don’t worry about him he’s just a baseline mongrel…
Hey baseline!…
Sir, the sensor’s readings far exceed baseline levels…]

I know that, baseline.

Who are you?

This is Susan James. I am a—

You wouldn’t be happy here, Susan. Fetishistic religious beliefs involved. There are dangerous observances.

Request clarification. Are we in danger from these observances?

You certainly could be.

Request clarification. Is it the observances that are dangerous, or the low-orbit environment?

[Comrade Liu, pay attention! Inattention connotes indifference. Or disrespect, isn’t that right Comrade Wei? Oh! Captain, I didn’t know you were here. I was just trying to relay to my Comrade here some of the safety protocols in our hold…]

The environment of the disturbances. You should pay attention, Susan. Inattention connotes indifference.

Or disrespect.

Request information on environments you consider lethal. Request information on your response to the prospect of imminent exposure to lethal environments.

[This is Captain Weinstein of the USS Relativity. Turn around. This area is prohibited. I repeat, prohibited. This is Captain Teller. My apologies Captain Weinstein, we will be glad to comply…

Requesting permission to board. Of course, captain. I must first warn you, we’ve been operating without our shields for many weeks. On board radiation is very high…]

Glad to comply. But your lethal is different from us. there are many migrating circumstances.

(pp. 96-104)



How do you represent the mental processes of a being with no consciousness let alone the capacity for symbolic thought? I don’t really know, but I started off with certain assumptions. I assumed that the scramblers were at the very least capable of distinguishing between phonemes (the smallest units of sound in language). So I figured that they felt patterns forming among certain phonemes, which frequently clustered together (hope this helps explain the title). The aliens must have then noticed that these clusters of sounds themselves belonged to a pattern–basically morphemes, except that the scrambler have no concept of meaning. And through sheer processing power, they figured out syntax and other rules of language that Watts mentions like phrase-structure grammar, long-distance dependencies, and FLN recursion.

The short passages within the brackets represent an infinitesimally small sampling of the sounds that the scramblers would have processed. I put those there to show (in an extremely simplified way) how the aliens might have learned ship-to-ship protocols and how to convincingly mimic human interactions. I had initially planned to erase all punctuation and to rewrite the words phonetically to more closely approximate the jumble of sounds the scramblers might have heard , but that would’ve been too confusing to read (not to mention time consuming).

Finally, each change in the transcription of  Rorshach’s transmissions signifies the change in tone that Watts indicates in the book. Theseus’ transmissions are depicted in enlarged red font to convey a sense of threat and intrusion. If language itself is seen as a violent act to the scramblers, I wanted to show how benign words can still be harsh and in your face.

The end result is messy and complicated but just imagine you’re a non-self aware being inside a Chinese Room and you might see it this way too.


(Note: Most of the second paragraph beginning This is Rorschach is directly from the script of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek. The ship names I’ve used also come from the Star Trek universe. For more on the symbols at the top of the post check out the Wiki entry on phrase structure rules here.)


I’m pork, therefore I’m ham.

“I wastes energy and processing power, self-obsesses to the point of psychosis. Scramblers have no need of it, scramblers are more parsimonious. With simpler biochemistries, with smaller brains—deprived of tools, of their ship, even of parts of their own metabolism—they think rings around you. They hide their language in plain sight, even when you know what they’re saying. They turn your own cognition against itself. They travel between the stars. This is what intelligence can do, unhampered by self-awareness” (p. 304).

Consciousness sucks. I totally buy it. After trudging through the thick, impassably dense fog that is Peter Watts’ thought experiment, I buy it. I buy it like the forcibly sleep-deprived inmate at Guantanamo buys whatever the interrogator is selling him. Well, actually, that’s too harsh a comparison. Although I am a tired and bleary eyed mess at the moment, I thoroughly enjoyed what little I’ve understood of Blindsight. Of the many fascinating ideas saturating its pages, the one that caught my attention comes from the line quoted above. It’s the idea that consciousness is costly and inefficient. What an idea. Consciousness or self-awareness is usually thought to be the crown-jewel of biological evolution. It’s thought to be a prerequisite for (or a byproduct of) higher-order intelligence. I think this is the paradigm that pretty much everyone has accepted.

Watts turns that paradigm on its head. He argues that consciousness isn’t particularly essential to survival. The more primitive parts of our brain detect and act on a threat before the highfalutin prefrontal cortex (or wherever the seat of consciousness happens to be) is still checking itself out in the mirror.  His argument isn’t perfect of course; he needs fictional aliens to do make his case. But Watts does raise interesting questions. What is the nature of consciousness? Is having consciousness worth the trouble of all this existential angst? Did I forget feed the fish? Wait, that last one…Oh you get the idea.

In short, consciousness is totally overrated.