Consumer Tech

Book Review: extraterrestrial The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth


I don’t normally do book reviews but since someone wanted to get my thoughts on this one, I thought I would share with a broader community.

Source material

Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth: Loeb, Avi: 9780358278146: Books

Let’s get into it

This book is mainly about what to make of the very unusual sighting of an object which came from outside our solar system in 2017, dubbed ‘Oumuamua.

This book is written at a very simple level – perhaps fifth grade or sixth grade? So I guess it’d be a great addition to a middle school library. I was aching for some more details.

I’m actually ready and willing to ‘believe.” For me the main thing was the paucity of facts presented.

The biggest failing of the author is to fail to be so guarded! Professor Avi, you are uniquely qualified to spin any plausible story about this object. Surely you have thought of many origin stories for this thing. Why not share them? This is a book, after all, not a scientific publication. We won’t peer review you for daring to create a plausible backstory for this object.

For me to make my points I have to give some background so everyone sees what I am seeing.

Professor Avi has this super cool lightsail project. Something like 10 GigaWatt lasers are required to send a super slender light sail up to 1/10th the speed of light.

An aside. Wouldn’t a multi Gigawatt blast create a plasma out of the atmosphere, thereby transferring its power to the air rather than the target lightsail? Maybe you overcome that by spreading the laser over a wide area. or using micosecond blasts. Not sure. And what about the reflecting rays? Can they be adequately disbursed to avoid singeing the earth?

But I digress. Sending any macro object to any fraction of the speed of light is wondrous. And dangerous. By conservation of energy I have to assume the thing at that speed would have 10? 100? gigajoules of energy (I will do the math later). Imagine the consequences of an earth-like planet being “visited” by one of those things. Either cataclysmic, or at least terrifying to those lifeforms. Yes, I know the odds of collision are infinitesimal. But they are not zero. And no way can these things be aimed with such precision to avoid that scenario altogether. Not to mention the idea is to send thousands or millions of them out. Welcome to mankind, extraterrestrials, we like to announce our entrance with a bang!

For instance, ‘Oumuamua, though it comes from outside our solar system, is at the local system of rest of the nearby stars. So that is pretty remarkable, and it means its speed is not anywhere close to a fraction of the speed of light, unlike Prof Avi’s lightsails. Why is that? This particular civilization felt they could wait around thousands of years?? Or did it start out at a fraction of the speed of light and then get decelerated as it neared its target? And if so, by what force?

And when I learned it sped up as it zoomed around the sun, I immediately thought of the analogy of our space missions which sometimes use giant planets like Jupiter to pick up speed and slingshot away faster than they had been going. Was ‘Oumuamua purposely aimed near to our sun for its boomerang effect? But it was tumbling like every eight hours. Should lightsails do that? Or does that show if it was a lightsail, it was no longer fit for purpose – inactive space junk? ‘Oumuamua trajectory deviated in the manner a lightsail might. But if it was slowly tumbling, how is that compatible with that statement? Aren’t lightsails only good for catching rays from one orientation? I actually don’t know but that’s what I would naively assume.

And it came from somewhere. if you reverse its trajectory, where did it come from? Was it an area with an inhabitable exoplanet?? Is that area receiving heightened scrutiny from SETI and company??

Going back to these lightsail things travelling at a good fraction of the speed of light, if one were to whip past us, would we even have a chance to see it? I believe it would be effectively invisible to us. How would they fare when colliding with space dust?

A manufactured lightsail would have great symmetry. The brightness profile was not a nice sine function, though close. What is the lightsail shape we can assume given the observed brightness profile fluctuation? A partially destroyed lightsail, perhaps? Where is the artist’s rendering of that?

So you see my point now? Don’t make me speculate. You’re the expert. Your speculations will be grounded in better science than anything I can dream up. So I guess Prof Avi, despite being a maverick in many ways and bucking current scientific thinking in promoting this as a thing created by alien life, reverted to the usual scientist’s conservatism in not making unprovable statements. And we are worse off because of it.

The great filter

And this term bothers me. It reads poorly. The first I heard it was from a fellow reader, and, even though I was familiar with the concept, I had to ask for a definition. A good term of art is self-explanatory. This is not a good term. Advanced civilizations probably last for only a few hundred or at best a few thousand years before they self-destruct. Looking at ourselves, we’re probably only going to get a few hundred the way we’re going. And this is supposed to be the great filter or something? I don’t have a better term, but far more clever people could come up with one I am sure. Like inevitable self-destruction, except something with more of a ring to it.

So I was asked, if this comes from an advanced civilization, is this a cause for hope, or a cause for despair? To argue the despair first, we got space junk from an advanced civilization. Probably they died out and we are left to do astroarchaeology on their junk. Not so great. But I am more hopeful. It’s incredibly difficult to target another star, they managed to do it. Maybe their lightsail had an accident or something. No worries because they sent out millions more like Prof Avi proposes to do. And, the main thing, we overlapped with them! We were advanced enough to detect another’s technology. Mostly because of the self-destruction tendencies, and the randomness of when advanced life forms, we’re not going to have any overlap with the vast majority of our fellow aliens. Their time in the sun was either way in the distant past, or will occur way in the future. That we overlapped in any way at all, probably means there are very, very many advanced civilizations, even in our stellar neighborhood, such that we had decent odds of intercepting and overlapping with one. And that gives me awe and excitement to learn about this advanced life. The hope comes from the viewpoint that these beings aren’t threatening to us. I have a naive belief that they would be trained in cultural sensitivities a la Star Trek The Next Generation or something as opposed to Independence Day, and decide not to wipe us out, nor to alter our technology (much), but more to observe us from afar. So on balance this encounter makes me hopeful.

Any insight if this was a civilization which reached the singularity? I.e., where it transferred its organic intelligence to a program in silicon or some other infinitely long-lasting, purpose-built medium??

So yes I am convinced the simplest explanation is the best one, and prof Avi’s hypothesis is by far the simplest. It raises a few questions which I would have preferred answered. And I was dying for more speculations. The speculations of an insider is worth 100 times the speculations of an outsider such as myself who doesn’t know what they don’t know!!


Prof Avi devotes a lot of time to philosophy. That’s all good. I didn’t learn too much from it, but I suppose others could find it useful. I don’t have an issue with it.


If I were really responsible, I’d do research, or at least read the darn book reviews on Amazon or get an answer to some of my questions on Quora or something. Probably a lot of my questions are addressed. But my time is not infinite and I’m not trying to impress anyone. As I learn more in the course of my ad hoc reading I will revise this blog with better information. And one more thing about my personal philosophy, I am writing this based solely on self-reflection and readings I’ve absorbed from years ago. I consider active research “cheating” in this regard, and I will inevitably be swayed and biased by the first educated opinion I come across.

Before reading this book, I was aware of this object from 2017 and that it was special, just based on my general reading of science news. It was only from this book that I realized how compelling the extraterrestrial case was.

Prof Avi took a few facts and made a book out of it. He should probably create a fictional but plausible back story for this object and make another book that addresses some of these basic questions.

February 2022 update

They have just discovered signs of a third exoplanet around Proxima Centauri, our nearest neighbor in the galaxy! That’s exciting. The place is only four light years away. Maybe a lightsail craft will visit it within our lifetimes.

Reference and related

Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth: Loeb, Avi: 9780358278146: Books

An intelligent discussion of whether or not this was a lightsail:

My cheese grater image of the 2017 eclipse.

Admin Hosting Service Linux

Hosting: You Really Can’t beat Amazon Web Services EC2

You want to have your own server hosted by a service provider that’s going to take care of the hard stuff – uninterruptible power, fast pipe to the Internet, backups? That’s what I wanted. In addition I didn’t want to worry about actual, messy hardware. Give me a virtual server any day of the week. I am no hosting expert, but I have some experience and I’d like to share that.

The Details
I’d say chances are about even whether you’d think of Amazon Web Services for the above scenario. I’d argue that Amazon is actually the most competitive service out there and should be at the top of any short list, but the situation wasn’t always so even as recently as February of this year.

You see, Amazon markets itself a bit differently. They are an IaaS (infrastructure as a service) provider. I don’t know who their top competition really is, but AWS (Amazon Web Service) is viewed as both visionary and able to execute by Gartner from a recent report. My personal experience over the last 12 months backs that up. My main point, however, is that hosting a server is a subset of IaaS. I assume that if you want your own server where you get root access, you have the skill set (aided by the vast resources on the Internet including blogs like mine) to install a web server, database server, programming environment, application engines or whatever you want to do with it. You don’t need the AWS utility computing model per se, just a reliable 24×7 server, right? That’s my situation.

I was actually looking to move to “regular” hosting provider, but it turns out to have been a really great time to look around. Some background. I’m currently running such an environment running Ubuntu server 10.10 as a free-tier micro instance. I’ve enjoyed it a lot except one thing. From time to time my server freezes. At least once a month since December. I have no idea why. Knowing that my free tier would be up anyways this month I asked my computer scientist friend “Niz” for a good OS to run a web server and he said CentOS is what I want. It’s basically Redhat Enterprise Linux except you don’t pay Redhat for support.

I looked at traditional hosting providers GoDaddy and Rackspace and 1and1 a bit. I ran the numbers and saw that GoDaddy, with whom I already host my DNS domains, was by far the cost leader. They were also offering CentOS v 5.6 I think RackSpace also had a CentOS offering. I spoke with a couple providers in my own state. I reasoned I wuold keep my business local if the price was within 25% of other offers I could find.

Then, and here’s one of the cool things about IaaS, I fired up a CentOS image at Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud. With utility computing I pay only by the hour so I can experiment cheaply, which I did. Niz said run v 5.6 because all the bugs have been worked out. He hosts with another provider so he knows a thing or two about this topic and many other topics besides. I asked him what version he runs. 5.6. So I fired it up. But you know, it just felt like a giant step backwards through an open source timeline. I mean Perl v 5.8.8 vs Ubuntu’s 5.10.1. Now mind you by this time my version of Ubuntu is itself a year old. Apache version 2.2.3 and kernel version 2.6.18 versus 2.2.16 and 2.6.35. Just plain old. Though he said support would be available for fantastical amount of time, I decided to chuck that image.

Just as I was thinking about all these things Amazon made a really important announcement: prices to be lowered. All of a sudden they were competitive when viewed as a pure hosting provider, never mind all the other features they bring to bear.

I decided I wanted more memory than the 700 MB available to a micro image, and more storage than the 8 GB that tier gives. So a “small” image was the next step up, at 1.7 GB of memory and 160 GB disk space. But then I noticed a quirky thing – the small images only come in 32-bit, not 64-bit unlike all the other tiers. I am so used to 64-bit by now that I don’t trust 32-bit. I want to run what a lot of other people are running to know that the issues have been worked out.

Then another wonderful thing happened – Amazon announced support for 64-bit OSes in their small tier! What timing.

The Comparison Results
AWS lowered their prices by about 35%, a really substantial amount. I am willing to commit up front for an extended hosting because I expect to be in this for the long haul. Frankly, I love having my own server! So I committed to three years small tier, heavy usage after doing the math in order to get the best deal for a 24×7 server. It’s $300 $96 up front and about $0.012$0.027/hour for one instance hour. So that’s about $18 $22/month over three years. Reasonable, I would say. For some reason my earlier calculations had it coming out cheaper. These numbers are as of September, 2013. I was prepared to use GoDaddy which I think is $24/month for a two-year commitment. My finding was that RackSpace and 1and1 were more expensive in turn than GoDaddy. I have no idea how AWS did what they did on pricing. It’s kind of amazing. My local providers? One came in at six times the cost of GoDaddy(!), the other about $55/month. Too bad for them. But I am excited about my new server. I guess it’s a sort of master of my own destiny type of thing that appeals to my independent spirit. Don’t tell Amazon, but really I think they could have easily justified charging a small premium for their hosting, given all the other convenient infrastructure services that are there, ready to be dialed up, say, like a load balancer, snapshots, additional IPs, etc. And there are literally 8000 images to choose from when you are deciding what image (OS) to run. That alone speaks volumes about the choices you have available.

What I’m up to
I installed CentOS 6.0 core image. It feels fresher. It’s based on RedHat 6.0 It’s got Perl v. 5.10.1, kernel 2.6.32, and, once you install it, Apache v 2.2.15. It only came with about 300 packages installed, which is kind of nice, not the usual 1000+ bloated deal I am more used to. And it seems fast, too. Now whether or not it will prove to be stable is an entirely different question and only time will tell. I’m optimistic. But if not, I’ll chuck it and find something else. I’ve got my data on a separate volume anyways which will persist regardless of what image I choose – another nice plus of Amazon’s utility computing model.

A Quick Tip About Additional Volumes
With my micro instance it occupied a full 8 GB so I didn’t have a care about additional disk volumes. On the other hand, my CentOS 6.0 core image is a lean 6 GB. If I’m entitled to 160 GB as part of what I’m paying for, how do I get the access to the remaining 154 GB? I guess you create a volume. Using the Admin GUI is easiest. OK, so you have your volunme, how does your instance see it? It’s not too obvious from their documentation but in CentOS my extra volume is


I mounted that a formatted it as an ext4 device as per their instructions. It didn’t take that long. I put in a line in /etc/fstab like this:

/dev/xvdj /mnt/vol ext4 defaults 1 2

Now I’m good to go! It gets mounted after reboot.

Dec, 2016 update
Amazon has announced Lightsail to better compete with GoDaddy and their ilk. Plans start as low as $5 a month. For $10 a month you get a static IP, 1 GB RAM, 20 GB SSD storage I think and ssh access. So I hope that means root access. Oh, plus a pre-configured WordPress software.

Amazon EC2 rocks. They could have charged a premium but instead they are the cheapest offering out there according to my informal survey. The richness of their service offerings is awesome. I didn’t mention that you can mount the entire data set of the human genome, or all the facts of the world which have been assembled in How cool is that?