Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book review: The Court of the Red Tzar

It’s hard not to go numb when reading almost any history of the Soviet Union from the 1920s to the 1950s. The number of atrocities famously curves upward from the level of human suffering into emotionless numbers. Montefiore’s eminently well researched, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tzar, avoids inflicting such a loss of feeling by staying focused on individual and familial tragedy.

What makes this work of popular history so compelling is that the personal intrigues, birthday parties, denunciations, weddings, disappearances, evenings of cinema, torture, and ever-increasing fear or debauchery, all play out in the small but cliquish circle of families who ruled the Soviet Union during its darkest years. Then there is the fragmenting humanity of the man who dominates them all. As they rise in power, fall into exile or prison, are rehabilitated, or meet with the executioner’s bullet, none of the magnates, children, wives, or extended families of the Kremlin can escape the shadow of a loving father and bereaved widower already steeped in the blood of ten million Soviet citizens by the time Hitler sets the Holocaust in motion.


When I was younger, Hitler was my personal embodiment of evil. "Never again!" seemed like a goal that was both achievable and of dire importance in the aftermath of a catastrophe as unique as the Holocaust. Later, as I traveled the world and studied history, it became apparent that there were a handful of other totalitarian 20th century rulers who had matched or rivaled Hitler in number of tragedies inflicted. He was just the one that we focused on in the West.

At present, the rise of a new set of totalitarian autocrats may seem like a remote possibility. We've almost immunized our cultures against another Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot. We've enshrined Orwell, and popular entertainment feeds us a steady diet of fictional dystopias featuring oligarchs armed with sweeping propaganda apparatuses and panoptic surveillance technologies. There's a reason the Snowden revelations touched such a raw nerve here in the US. Sixty years of film and novels have implanted a deep aversion to unchecked state-surveillance.

At the same time, so many have forgotten the origins of the ideologies that gave rise to totalitarian rulers on both the extreme right and left. Communism at its heart was a reaction to the upheavals of industrialization. The economic transformations that forced millions of farmers from their homes into decades of urban poverty, malnutrition, and lifestyles alien to those of the small, family-oriented communities they'd left behind. Nazism and Fascism were the far right answers. Blood drenched responses to communism, and radical attempts to tame the instability of industrial economies.

So it's worth our while to look back. Then glance around to see if anything looks uncomfortably familiar as a new wave of technologies challenges our societies in the here and now.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Music for writing

Mostly for editing, actually, when working on both technical literature and genre material.

For either undertaking, Loscil's new album Sea Island is as close to an ideal background music as I've come across. Sublime, but with enough evolving structure to stimulate. An ambient equivalent of good espresso.

Along with "Bleeding Ink" other favorite tracks are:

Strangely enough, I do find myself favoring different musical genres depending on if it's applied or literary art that I'm working on. I seem to listen to more bebop, jazz-electronica, and classical while engaged in the various tasks of technical writing: editing text, illustrating, editing photos, consolidating interview notes, reviewing wiring diagrams for lines of functionality, and so on. Science fiction and fantasy are more frequently accompanied by pure electronica, ambient, and film or series soundtracks. 

Though not quite so much when it comes to actually writing new text. For creation in either field, silence is best. 



"More often than not," he mumbled, listening to "Angel of Loll" for the fourth time as he wrote this post.  

Monday, December 01, 2014

Choices for rent

The Three Breakthroughs That Have Finally Unleashed AI on the World | WIRED:

'via Blog this'

Wired has a thought-provoking article posted about practical artificial intelligence and its applications -- one written by founder and long-time senior editor, Kevin Kelly. 

The main thrust is that practical artificial intelligence has reached an emergence point. Several maturing software technologies are converging, allowing pattern recognition, language-parsing, deductive reasoning, and machine learning functions to be add to consumer and enterprise applications. 

A new generation of AI enhanced applications are drawing serious seed and Series A funding in Silicon Valley.

Interestingly, the new AI is not a big box, single-engine program or specialized hardware platform. Instead, IBM and others are offering its functions as scalable cloud utilities. Rent or buy and infuse as much of these capabilities into your processing as you need.

I suspect the mega hit application that really sells this practical multi-threaded cloud AI is probably one that we can’t predict at this time. If I had to bet, though, my wager would be that the first majorly profitable application will be in enabling software to interact with people through natural language. Something along the lines of conversationally asking a search engine via phone for a list of local coffee shops with high ratings, the hours and location of the best sounding one, and real time directions -- all without glancing at the screen or resorting to commands. 

Or, to put it differently and drag a related field of hardware and software into the mix: The ultimate in augmented reality is probably an AI-enabled hands-free audio interface that allows users to operate with a minimum of distraction or invested focus during life’s daily tasks. Ask questions, get answers, and develop any further lines of inquiry conversationally. Hopefully with software that can anticipate relevant complications.

As an aside, I suspect that the most common civilian uses of visual augmented reality will probably be for sit down problems that demand a high degree of focus and persistently displayed information.

So that’s the pragmatics of what's kept me fascinated with this article. Much of it has been bouncing around as individual threads in software development circles for some time. Kelly, however, does a solid job of synthesizing some of the major elements and thinking about where they might go taken as a whole.  

Not that it also doesn't have any application in writing speculative fiction or anything…

Next Up: Centaurs and Symbiosis 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Wanderers - exploring the solar system

The most visually striking depiction of exploring and settling our solar system that I've come across. That, and the voice-over by Carl Sagan, who was pretty much the voice of space exploration here in the US when I was a child, is sublime.

Wanderers - a short film by Erik Wernquist from Erik Wernquist on Vimeo.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Awesome ISS footage

Two minutes, fifty seconds of mind-numbingly awesome HD footage shot off the International Space Station. That, and set to dub step.

Astronaut - A journey to space from Guillaume JUIN on Vimeo.

via Spoild

Image compilation by Guillaume Juin. The music is "Astronaut", by Vincent Ton.

Fall In Portland

I'm presently rereading Karin Armstrong's A History of God. A fantastic comperative text that describes the evolution of one of the most important components of human thought: The various concepts of god.

An interesting topic in part, because naturally there are some very divergent ideas that have emerged in historic time about of the ultimate being or chain of being. These ideas are often more complex and nuanced than commonly depicted in popular secular and mainstream religious sources. Especially when getting into to what degree humans can apprehend an elevated reality believed to predate the universe. That, and the sheer impact of these ideas in shaping one of humanity's major family of paradigms.

More on this thread in the evolution of our species' worldviews later.  In the meanwhile fall. One of my favorite times for wandering my lovely city with camera in hand.

The Goose Hollow Inn: A neighborhood institution and haunt of the pre-hipster middle class. Because a post about Portland wouldn't be complete without mentioning hipsters.


The mast of the old heavy cruiser USS Portland. One of the US Navy's most decorated vessels from the Pacific theater during World War II.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Developing military technologies: An aside

One of the specific what-ifs in the previous "Developing Military Technologies" article looks like it's becoming a real possibility. British Aerospace Engineering is apparently pushing a rail gun to replace the chain fed auto cannon on the US Army's Bradly Fighting Vehicle.

Railgun pitched for Army upgrade to Bradley Fighting Vehicle - Washington Times:

'via Blog this'

As an aside, there's also a video showcasing a DARPA agility concept armored vehicle that was drawing a lot of verbiage from online pundits a few weeks back. The video, and a lot of that commentary, have annoyed the hell out of me.

Dodging or blocking a slow-moving RPG round traveling at a hundred or so meters per second? Possible, I suppose. As long as the crew has some great seats to absorb the whiplash.

Dodging a tank main gun shot based on detection of the round in flight? Or even the light flare from the muzzle flash. Are you people fucking high? Seriously, that's a projectile moving at close to Mach 5 in some instances.

Good luck with it, I suppose. And with not turning your vehicle crew into jelly while trying to accelerate fast enough to get out of the way on any axis.

But that's all minor stuff. What really bugs me is the is the following graphic that accompanied the video:

I mean, but damn. Have the people who came up with this spent anytime around actual armor units? Probably not. Use of terrain for cover and concealment, not sky-lining the vehicle by moving over ridge lines, making use of hull down positions and camouflage, and moderating speed and engine noise, have all been part of the tanker's bag of tricks to "avoid detection" since at least World War II.

Likewise when it comes to avoiding engagement. Armor crews have been seeking to slip around unnecessary fights or unfavorable conditions by making use of one of the tank's best features for well over half a century. Namely that of mobility. Often that has taken the form of bypassing enemy defenses or units by choosing unlikely avenues of approach. Risky avenues that may even be constricted, but which provide concealment from prying eyes and even ears so long as the vehicles are traveling slowly and deliberately. It's dangerous, but it's also allowed armor units to emerge into an enemy's rear or flank with little if any warning.

Then of course there's the use of speed to sweep around an opponent in open country.

Tank and armored reconnaissance units can be almost fluid in their movement, flowing around terrain low and slow or rushing low and fast until the right moment.

Anywho, perhaps DARPA is intending to automate some of these actions much the way that stealth technology automates some functions of an aircraft's avoidance detection. If they are, I'm not seeing how. Or at least any realistic how.

Also, it's worth noting that the trend for armored vehicles in urban combat has been towards heavier, rather than lighter. Mainly because as the Russians, Israelis, and US have rediscovered, avoiding everything from detection to taking hits is much, much harder for vehicles in constricted urban environments. Hence the Russian and Israeli armies' adaptation of tank chassis for use as survivable infantry APCs, and the uparmoring of US vehicles in Iraq this last decade.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Augmenting free will

How new brain implants can boost free will – Walter Glannon – Aeon:

'via Blog this'

Aeon magazine has an interesting article up, which discusses a brain implant technology that restores normal decision-making capabilities to individuals with degenerative conditions such as, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. The piece then goes on to speculate about the possibility of future implants "that can boost free will" in healthy individuals.

Short and very much worth the read.

My pick of enhancements for augmenting the cognitive wetware of human volition goes as follows:

Attention augmentation. The brain has several mechanisms of neuron arousal and desensitization that underlie our ability to focus in on one phenomenon out of many. That, and pay attention for a limited duration before losing interest. There are also structural features that play a role in this such as, essentially firewalling the decision-making prefrontal cortex so that only the most urgent neuron firing patterns elsewhere in the brain can engage with it. Boosting the ability to delay loss of interest in an activity or subject would give individuals a greater control over the content of their thoughts. The same would go for an artificial ability to focus intensely for superhuman durations.

Enhanced awareness. The brain generates varying grades of awareness. On the low end there is awake but incoherent. On the other, a heightened mindfulness of surroundings and immediate potential consequences found in performance artists, rescue works, soldiers, and some meditation practitioners. Being able to invoke mindfulness or hyper clarity on command could be interesting. That, or the narrow attention-to-detail of unthinking mechanical task engagement. Even more interesting, enabling simultaneous mindfulness and the kind of task-focus level that normally excludes awareness of one’s surroundings and the passage of time.

Improved working memory. Working memory is in many ways the RAM of the brain, though with several elements. Those include a phonological loop that holds small amounts of audio information and a kind of sketch pad in the visual cortex. Also, varying degrees of ability to quickly call up salient facts and personal experience from the semantic and autobiographical sub-systems of conscious memory. Plenty of room here for interesting tweaks and mods leading to improved decision making.

Enhanced emotion control. The brain has its various arousal and reward networks, such as, the dopamine feedback channel. These can and do go awry. Sometimes disastrously so. Implant technology has already come a long way in restoring mood stability for people with severe issues like clinical depression. For healthy individuals, an increased indirect or a novel direct control over these systems could grant a much more immediate ability to govern emotional responses. Something beyond the traditional means of consciously constructing a contrary perspective to modify a strong or persistent emotional reaction. Enhanced control over the very feelings that drive us to make decisions could prove to be a very popular technology. One with all sorts of potential benefits and pitfalls depending on the app.