Sunday, April 20, 2014

Under the umwelt

Jonathan Glazer's, Under the Skin: A slow burn, art house film about a pitiless alien entity moving through the human world, and seeing it in terms vastly different from our own.


The film brings to mind Thomas Sebeok's concept of umwelt. The different sensory and conceptual worlds that each type of organism inhabits. A mole rat, a tree, a tick, and a falcon might live and participate in the same dry grasslands ecosystem, but how they experience and process that habitat varies enormously.

The tick is blind, but sensitive to heat and butyric acid, and knows how to feel its way across the warmblooded mammalian bodies that these signals emanate from. The falcon has eyesight and mobility that are almost supernatural by human standards. It can find its way over vast spaces that it apprehends from far off. It both senses and conceptualizes the world very differently from the tick.

The predator played by Scarlett Johansson isn't quite so alien in the senses. She seems to take in the world primarily in terms of eyesight similar to humans, but she may as well exist in her own umwelt when it comes to the social sphere. The human ecology of socitial relationships between strangers is purely a place to hunt and to kill without second thought or any but the most pragmatic considerations for her.

Johansson's character transgresses cultural norms and appropriate behaviors without registering the violations. She often seems uncomfortable within her human body when alone, and has a timing to her movements and reactions - when not luring humans to their death - that comes off as much more reptile than mammal.

This makes character a rarity in science fiction. The product of another planet's biosphere and evolutionary lineage that feels genuinely alien.

Recommended for people who enjoy art house or the occasional high-concept film with a deliberate sustained intensity suited to a predator slowly stalking its next victim.

Hovering rocket - launching and landing


I'm impressed it could land while thrusting. That's a lot of heat, over pressure, and debris blowing back at the rocket when hovering just above the ground. As a matter of fact, during most launches water is dumped beneath the rocket motors to absorb and dampen much of the noise energy. Yes, rockets are so loud that the sheer noise itself, reflecting upward, can damage the craft if not managed.

High energy system almost doesn't begin to describe the dynamics of a spacecraft making its ascent...

Friday, April 18, 2014

Memory and malleability


to a lost memory from Skyler Brown on Vimeo.

A stylized short piece on memory and expectation, with some nice visuals.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Scattered history

A spiffy and well put-together short about a man who murders history in the near future.


The premise of this film is about ten or fifteen years too late to work as far as equating paper with history. Especially in an age of online archiving. Still, it's an interesting meditation on the means that the past uses to define us as individuals and as cultures, and the frictions these processes can generate.

For many, in many parts of the world, the narrative of "who we were" acts as a bleak source of emotional gravity. One that almost invariably draws groups into bloody collisions with neighboring communities of race and religion every few generations. In others places, the stories told by popular history hold tribes, villages, and nations in a constant low-level field of mutual antagonism.

One of the major experiences of my adult life was going to a country where people had just finished killing each other over faith and ethnicity. Just one of many such episodes over the past few hundred years in that region, all of which have left the locals with a very dark and intertwined sense of history on both sides.

For me, this came not long after standing watch in another land where the inhabitants had killed each other in staggering numbers during a clash of secular mid-twentieth ideologies that played out in the post-colonial vacuum. That conflict wasn't about history. Or at least not about old history at first, but the situation seems to have settled down into something akin to it over these past sixty years.

Not surprisingly, I tend to think about these things a lot. At least on days when I let myself. It's not any sense of trauma that sets me to keep these thoughts compartmentalized. Rather it's that they're so important that everything in daily life can feel faded and threadbare and unimportant when sharing mind space with them. And as much as I love the big picture ideas, and as important as the questions raised by those experiences are, daily life is the life I'm actually living. Bills gotta be paid, groceries bought, lights kept on, and novels written.

Still, I do keep coming back to them.

One of the uncomfortable realizations from over a decade of reflection on all this is that diversity can be a curse. Or at least cultural diversity has been a dreadful burden in many parts of the planet. There're so many mass graves and so much ongoing bad blood at the world's crossroads. Oceans of tragic history in the places where overlapping waves of peoples settled in close proximity to one another, and still till this day can not get along.

It's also been problematic in the places I've lived in Western Europe, where homogeneous populations without much experience at diversity have largely tried to sweep the problems that have accompanied recent immigration under the rug. Problems like a lack of jobs and opportunities for the newcomers, and the informal systems of discrimination and discomfort that have helped cause this.

If there's anyway my homeland is truly exceptional these days, it's in how relatively well we've dealt with having a diverse population. Especially over the past sixty years.

The Earth Belongs to the Living

So would obliterating history work? Would it help us get along with one another?

Not erasing it on paper, surely. I know a number of people here in the US and abroad who have strong and profoundly ignorant notions of history. People whose narratives of the past drive a fair amount of anger and serve to reinforce their image of who they are held against a picture of others who embody the traits they dislike.

I doubt very much that the disappearance of original source documents that these people have never seen - or even heard of in most cases - of would affect them or their ideas in the least. No matter how valuable that material is to historians and people interested in our best efforts to reconstruct and interpret the past.

So how to deal with history then, when its popular manifestations seem to have such awful consequences for the living?

Dunno.

It's a terrain I'm still exploring, along with many others.

More on that later. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Multinational response to banking cyberattack


Some interesting followup from the Washington Post today on the systematic denial of service attacks on the US banking system earlier during this decade. Back then, the culprit was quickly pegged as Iran, not long after one of that country's intelligence service succeeded in destroying tens of thousands of computers at Saudi oil company Aaramco.

According to the article, the State Department is taking credit for putting together a multinational alliance of national computer response teams that helped slow the pace of the attacks. Some unnamed defense officials, however, are insisting that it was Iran's switch to a less confrontational posture on the international stage that was behind the reduction in incidences and intensity.

Cyberattacks between states remain my biggest worry as a possible trigger of larges-scale warfare between the great powers of our day. Even with the escalating tensions in the Pacific. Or at least for the time being.

I realize that with the hundredth anniversary of Great War (World War I) drawing near, it's getting to be something of a fashion to make comparisons to that time period. Popularity not withstanding, there are a few disturbing parallels that hold up. Most worrisome, the potential of a minor act of violence during a period of tensions to snowball and draw in countries who might have otherwise been able to negotiate their way out.

Where a century ago it was a network of shadow alliances, secret plans, and rapid mobilization schemes by European nations who found that technology had shrunk their continent, today it's the interconnected nature of the entire world that could quickly draw us all in. We live in an age in which infrastructure and major financial targets almost anywhere on the planet can be attacked with no warning and possibly great consequence. Especially since there are so many unknowns about the effects of this new form of warfare. That, and with the time required to accurately attribute and incident, a damaging series of attacks could result in hasty and misplaced retaliation.

The question is, what sort of underlying assumptions are coloring the major players' views of the risks and rewards of cyberwafre involving civilian targets? Are they similar to blithe early 1900s notions on armed conflict, which would put us at risk of stumbling over this century and new economy's Franz Ferdinands? Or are they more Cold War in nature, with a shared international realization that even an limited attempt at using of these weapon systems could fast devolve into an nightmarish spiral of destruction?


Thursday, April 03, 2014

Short films so far

Not having a good year so far looking for cool science fiction shorts on the interwebs.

It's been difficult finding five or six minute films that don't blow the first two or three minutes on opening shots that do little to advance the story

But we have, of course, a ways to go in 2014.



The above are essentially trailers, but they're also good exemplars of the kind of intensity a skilled professional in any medium can pack into a short piece. And of how even an establishment scene can really get things rolling.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

In the classical garden

It's been a while since I've posted pictures of the city. A place I still love after five going on six years here. But as fortune would have it, I've a new camera that I've been frothing at the mouth to try out for more than a week now.

OK, so the level of enthusiasm isn't quite rabid, but it still feels like forever and a day since my last camera shuffled off the plastic coil this past summer.

In the next few months I'm hoping to take said new camera on weekend trips around the US Pacific Northwest. Shoot some photos of the cities, volcanoes, glaciers, coastline, and marine and people creatures. But to start out, something local:

Portland's Lan Su Classical Chinese Garden


















Yet again, apologies for the paucity of posts here on Consilience. Five thousand words of good novel writing today, but almost no text to spare for the poor blog. In part, because I use this site as my test platform for writing about complex issues that I may or may not use in my fiction. This is where I let the academic voice run wild, and dive into technical or historical details. It's also the first step in slimming down and novelizing these ideas. Or put differently, a space for figuring out how to get my literary brain wrapped around the big ideas, and then present in accurate but streamlined words. Words that speed along a plot rather than choke it to death.

That said, but damn I need to start using shorter sentences here. I sure as hell wouldn't drop these kinds of convoluted word structures on my professional technical readers or on a genre audience. And I should not be hurling them at you, kindest blog readers.

While I apparently don't need to blog much when cranking out a novel, abandoning this platform and it's readership for months on end is still kind of dick move. One I'll work harder to avoid making.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The virtual brain





The Glass Brain is a lovely visualization of commutations between brain regions. It's composited from ongoing EEG scans measuring electrical transmissions, and mapped in three dimensions onto a structural model of the same brain generated by MRI, as well Diffusion Tensor Imaging used to trace out the major transmission tracts.

Yes, scanning and creating a real time visualization of brain activity is hugely complex at present. Building a quality visual model like the one above is matter of fusing models which detect very different features and structures. My hat's off to the University of San Francisco's Neuroscience Imaging Center for tackling this almost baroque undertaking, and coming up with something so strikingly modern and almost minimalist in the end.

It's also got me thinking about how extraordinarily well engineered the brain is when it comes to minimizing the kinds of transmissions depicted in the Glass Brain. Or at least it does so whenever it can.

Long-range inter-region transmissions consume a lot of power. They generate a good deal of heat. The infrastructure to move them is bulky. The more inter-region chatter and required bandwidth, the less horizontal and vertical real estate there is for things like regulating hormones and keeping the lungs and heart pumping.

So, such communications are costly, but at times they're also very necessary. Creating things like, a coherent field of vision, or an abstract comprehension, involve lots of regions talking to one another. Recalling an idea means the associative prefrontal cortex communicating with sensory cortices in order to access memories and visual models to knit together, as well as the areas outside the neocortex involved in real time working memory, motivation, and focus. Incorporating that idea into a model of possible futures means the prefrontal cortex also interfacing with the limbic system to mediate the emotions associated with the concept and the potential outcomes.

How does the brain keep those transmissions or their costs down when it can? In part by doing some virtualization and modeling of its own. Regions simulate one another. They read what are for the most part slow, noisy, short, and therefor cheap-to-send incoming transmissions, and use that constrained data to update those simulations of what the other connected areas are up to. Then they respond in kind with a minimum of processed information, selected in part based on the data requirements of the other participants, as they see them.

Think of two people navigating their way across the countryside, separated several hundred feet by a ravine filled with a loud river. They can shout at one another, and gesture, but here are all kinds of difficulties associated with those means of transmission. So rather than try and communicate every little detail necessary to get from parallel points A,B to C,D, they use what data is moving back and forth to figure out each other's intentions.

In a sense you're something similar: In part a collection of generalist virtual machines running on specialist hardware modules. Software talking with one another in what is for the most part a low-bandwidth, long-range transmission environment, with a low signal to noise ratios.

Then there is the associative prefrontal cortex that is the seat of our decision-making executive. This area of the frontal lobe is a continual generator of large-scale virtual machines. It sets up multiple feedback loops networks, which each makes use of a slice of several regions, creating competing models of the future or present when thinking. Models that incorporate everything from simulated motions, vision, audio, and even emotional reactions.

In someways, this makes the perfrontal cortex an exception to the rule of low cost transmissions. It's communication requirements are high enough that it rates its own super highway or privileged transmission network of fiber tracts.

All of this together, local and brain-wide virtualization creates the rich and textured models of the world and self that we call consciousness and being.