Thursday, September 25, 2014

Oregon's science fiction landscape

During the mid-1950s a journalist named Frank Herbert flew to Florence, Oregon to conduct research for an article. His subject: the use of poverty grasses to control the drifting migration of sand dunes.



By the time he left Florence Herbert had developed a fascination with ecological engineering. An interest that would drive him to write one of the all time best-selling novels in science fiction.


I finally got around to reading the first three follow-on Dune novels this summer: Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and God Emperor of Dune. They're good. Very good, even though they lack the depth of Dune itself.

Each mostly follows a conspiracy to its ruin or fulfillment over the course of weeks or a few months. Nothing as epic as the semi-mystical enlightenment, vast sweep of planetary engineering, and years-long dynastic conflicts that made the first novel such an experience. And nowhere near the level of intense character development that accompanied the rise of the Fremen messiah, Paul Mau'dib. Revisiting this series, I immediately saw why I had such a hard time finishing the relatively terse and dry Dune Messiah as a twenty-something


That said, the follow-on books pull off a mind-bending exploration of post-human entities writen decades before post-humanism became a staple of the genre. A journey-look that kept me fully engaged this time around, a few years down the road.

By the mid-1960s Herbert was well along in exploring the headspace of humans who sense and conceptualize the world in ways not accessible to most of their family members, let alone the masses they rule as semi-divine sovereigns -- or as an apex predator in the case of Leto. At the same time, these are characters who remain anchored in the human world, even though it's a cultural and biological space in which Paul, Alia, Ghanima, and Leto II experience enormous difficulty making their intentions understood.

These ruling Atreidies are products of genetic augmentation through a centuries-long breeding program. Though environmental factors including the spice melange and their upbringing as nobility play a role in the expression and mastery of their powers.

On the often lethal stage of intrigue and war they mostly contend with other orders of enhanced human intelligence. The Bene Gesserit remain powerful actors on the extreme edges of human potential thanks to their refined training regime with its synergies of mind and body. The Guildsmen, enhanced by both specialization mutations and constant spice ingestion, share something of the Atreidies' prescient abilities as well as the dangers that go hand-in-glove with oracular powers. However, they experience nothing of the complex internal communal lives that the pre-born twins and Alia struggle to master. At the same time the trained superhuman empathy of the Facedancers makes the Teliaxians more dangerous to the other factions than even their shape shifting or advanced biotechnology. The only rivals to all of these enhanced or post-humans are technologists who are largely kept off screen and bounded by legalistic restrictions during the first four books.

It's this tense ecology of trans-, post-, and training enhanced-human intelligences that helps make the Dune universe such an exotic and high-concept place.

The three follow-on novels are very much worth your time if you're interested in byzantine politics, the viewpoints of post-humans living among humans, or just seeing what becomes of the Atreidies dynasty over the course of three thousand years. The biggest letdown, for me, is that the elite female adepts of the great schools and the post-human women of the Atreidies all end up foils for their male counterparts.



The novels are most definitely products of their time in that they ascribe several character traits and viewpoints to inherent differences between the sexes.

There are, in fact, some consistent differences between the sexes that we've zeroed in on over the fifty years since Dune was published. However, these are almost all subtle, exist largely on the borders of statistical significance, are often counter-intuitive. They're also best understood within an even larger spectrum of biology and culture that doesn't match up with the cultural assumptions that underlay the system of superhuman powers and military structure in the Dune novels. In God Emperor, Herbert's exploration of the differences between men and women in military environments is driven far more by Freudian psychology than historical militaries or anything found in biology.

All of that said, Frank Herbert was still a pioneer in the sheer amount of screen time and internal narration that he gives female characters. These books are, after all, 1960s and 70s science fiction novels. At that time women were often embodied ideals as seen by men in the pages of the genre, rather than actual characters whose perspective we get to inhabit. Herbert was well ahead of nearly all his peers in climbing that particular curve.

Even at a time when we've gone from seeing human nature as discrete poles to a spectrum with distributed probabilities, these novels are still well worth picking up. Largely because they offer a no-holds-barred glimpse of humanity as it might become, rather than what it was once thought to be.



















Thursday, September 11, 2014

Global entanglements


Those of us born between the end of World War II and the year 2000 grew up in what was probably one of the most peaceful periods of human history. That might sound like a gross oversight given some of the genuinely horrific events of those fifty plus years. After all, the best we can hope for is that the depredations of Mao killed only 30 million citizens of the People's Republic of China during the late 1950s. The separation of India and Pakistan set off waves of forced human displacement on a scale that dwarfed the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s in Eastern Europe and Africa. While the Cold War remained frozen in a tense deadlock in Europe for nearly four decades, clashes elsewhere between Soviet- and US-backed states or forces claimed the lives of millions in developing countries.

In the aftermath of the second world war there was much ongoing bloodshed in a world deeply wounded by 19th century imperialism and which continued to be wracked by conflicts spawned from Europe's totalitarian ideologies. Yet compared to the two centuries that preceded it, the Post War Era was considerably more peaceful. There were no direct wars between the great and superpower states, aside from short and clashes along borders, such as those between China and the Soviet Union during the late 60s. De-colonization reached its conclusion, and nothing remotely approaching the scale or intensity of 19th century imperialism took its place. Perhaps most importantly we not only avoided a third world war, but the intensity of wars dropped off.

The overall frequency of wars killing more people than present day traffic accidents has gone down dramatically following the end of World War II. In an even longer view, conflicts between nation-states during this period took place at a rate far lower than those occurring between early states, chieftainships, ancient empires, and tribal societies throughout much of the world.

This is certainly not a universally accepted thesis. Especially among those who view US participation in the Cold War and it's more recent military involvements abroad as crypto- or not-so-crypto imperialism. Others make an interesting argument that while the creation of modern bureaucratized states has lowered the frequency of war, it's also lead to a sharp rise in lethality of armed conflict when practiced by wealthier countries.

For me, an overall decline in human violence is an idea I feel largely comfortable accepting given the sheer scale of past wars and violent upheavals back when affected populations were vastly smaller. That, and when looking at the dramatic decline in homicides that accompanied the recent development of professional police forces. While far from complete, historic data, archaeological evidence, and (much more questionably) the paleo fossil record for humanity point toward a dramatic plunge in the number of deaths per 100,000 people attributable to war or peacetime murder.

Not coincidentally, a significant part of this decline took place in an age of unprecedented and deliberate global economic integration. This network of institutions and agreements was established by members of three generations who had paid an appalling human cost during two world wars, and who feared a possible dark age or even extinction level event that might accompany a third global conflagration.

Stringing the Loom

While the United Nations is the most visible and well-known diplomatic institution from that period, it was the cooperative monetary and trade agreements that did the most to enforce the peace between industrial, and more recently, post-industrial states. Primarily by deep entanglement via trade and making critical natural resources reliably available in international markets, rather than through the uncertainties of imperial maneuvering, conquest, and the small wars abroad that lead up to the cataclysm of World War I.

In this cooperative environment, European democracies with long histories of colonial rivalry and warring with one another as monarchies made it through the Post War Period and achieved a profound economic integration without armed conflict. At the same time, nations including Brazil, China, Ireland, Singapore, and South Korea successfully modernized, or at least brought modernization to large sections of their populations. With the collapse of the Soviet Union during the final decade of the period, the once widespread dread of World War III suddenly became almost quaint.

It's telling that instances of large-scale violence in the aftermath of the Cold War took place almost entirely in nations and failed states only loosely integrated into the global economy. The major exception was the 1991 war between Iraq and a coalition bent on preventing a major disruption to Persian Gulf oil supplies.

This successes of this system were not without their costs. During the 1950 and 60s open trade was a boon to the working class here in the United States, but the subsequent migration of industrial production overseas helped contribute to a long-term decline in blue collar wages and upward mobility. The movement of industry from democracies with strong environmental and workers rights regulations has also created environmental catastrophes in developing nations along with the re-emergence of sweat shop labor on scale not seen since the low points of the first industrial revolution during the 1800s.

It's also well worth noting that this cooperation and integration has been a driver for many of the economic activities and consumption patterns presently changing our planet's weather and oceans.

Wear, Tear, and Forgetfulness 

The Post War system of international cooperation that's helped keep the peace between major powers has been showing signs of fraying lately. In part from technological developments and deregulation that have made the world so tightly integrated that vast sums of capital can now flow between nations and reside offshore beyond the ability of states to regulate or effectively control. Some of the great powers have also recently staked open or apparent claims to ocean and land territories outside their borders, well beyond anything recognized under international law or tradition. This is taking place at time when cyberwarfare weapons allow states to hit each others' financial systems and national infrastructure with little warning and varying degrees of deniability. That, and to strike across distances that previously formed effective barriers to conflict.

Even more worrisome, the generations able to recall firsthand the devastation of great power warfare have largely passed away.

Just as depressing, in the West the economic institutions and agreements that made much of the current prosperity and peace possible have come under sustained fire from both sides of the political spectrum. The far right and even members of the moderate right often see voluntary international institutions as violations of national sovereignty, or even part of a sinister conspiracy against their homelands. Members of the present day left in Europe and North America often deride the mid 20th-century treaties and institutions of economic cooperation as extensions of the very imperialism they were meant to help end. There's certainly a wide lack of recognition on that side the political aisle here in the US that it was earlier generations of statesmen and activists largely on the left who were the proponents and architects of the international cooperative system.

At this point it's too early to pronounce the system in terminal or even steep decline. At the same time, a widespread failure of popular imagination around the world to compare the stability of Post War economic cooperation with the chronic warfare and financial upheaval that proceeded it is deeply worrying. However cliche it might sound, people who fail to look to the past risk the tragedy of repeating its worst episodes.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Terraforming robots




Abiogenesis (Short Film) from Richard Mans on Vimeo.


I need to step up my game when looking for science fiction shorts on the internet. This is twice in the past two weeks that I09 beat me to one.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Three technologies in the military sphere

Three technologies have been making headlines in defense circles, all of which hold the possibility of significantly impacting how we fight wars.

Hypersonic 

First up, old-school kinetics. Weapons that shoot faster, farther, and hit harder. Or in this case, vastly harder, at much longer ranges, and with speeds that put these systems in a category of their own. 

Hypersonic is a blanket term covering a number of weapons ranging from magnetic accelerators to air-breathing and rocket powered missiles. What these have in common is exceeding Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound) for nearly the entire duration of munition flight time. Much or all of the associated damage from these systems comes from the sheer kinetic energy imparted into the targets.

Enough energy in some cases to set fire to metal.

The US Navy will be conducting at sea trials in the near future.




In science fiction, rail guns have been largely depicted as slightly longer-ranged cannons. Hypersonic missiles and the effects of their speed on shaping battle spaces have been largely absent.

One of the most likely near-term real world applications of accelerator technology is as defensive weapons to shoot down incoming missiles and indirect fire projectiles such as, artillery shells. Where present day point defense weapon systems are essentially point blank in range, defense accelerators on naval vessels hold a very real potential to extend the envelope for accurate defensive fires to the horizon. An inbound missile or shell tracked by a radar or even sufficiently advanced optical network can come under sustained fire the moment it clears the curve of the Earth.

Currently, sustained shoot down attempts only take place during the terminal seconds of a weapon's flight.

Additionally, a rail gun round can reach the horizon traveling near the velocity it departed the weapon muzzle at. This, where standard chemical projectiles move with significantly decreased velocity at much shorter ranges. That drop in speed necessitate an arced flight path to get as much range as possible. Such an arc exposes conventional rounds to all sorts possible of disturbances. Rail gun projectiles by contrast have a nearly flat flight path, which increases accuracy through both reduced deviations and simplified targeting.

Likewise, rail guns could make air-defense artillery a significantly more lethal threat to manned and unmanned aircraft with the ability to accurately and nearly instantly engage high flying targets. For the first time since smart bombs allowed bombers and fighters to nail targets from above 3,000 meters, air-defense cannons may once again become a significant factor in shaping the battle space.

On the offense side of the equation, naval rail gun artillery is poised to extend the range of wet bombardment platforms farther inland when used for indirect fires. With significantly a higher rate of fire than conventional artillery, a rail gun-equipped cruiser could lay down the kind of firepower associated with battleships on inland targets well outside the historical reach of naval warfare units.

Meanwhile, accelerators and hypersonic missiles mounted on ground vehicle could end up blurring or erasing the distinction between anti-armor and anti-aircraft weapons.

Next up: Hypersonic missiles and supper capacitors. 



Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mid year science / science ficiton shorts

The cutest science fiction short film of the year so far.


Orbitas | by PrimerFrame from PrimerFrame on Vimeo.


Also, a rather beautiful motion capture study of Olympians. Highly abstracted.


Citius, Altius, Fortius from Felix Deimann on Vimeo.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Music states

For those interested, what I'm listening to this summer. Or at least the bands whose labels have OFFICIAL YouTube pages with sharing and embedding enabled.




I shouldn't like Metric's Synthetica. It doesn't fit within my normal spectrum of taste states. Also, not a big fan of synth-inflected pop, but...




But it's brilliantly constructed with amazing lyrics and energy appropriate to summer.





Pairs-based Lebanese singer and songwriter Yasmine Hamdan. I've been a listener since seeing her in Only Lovers Left Alive. Particularly for sounds slow and intense.





Jolie Holland's "Dark Days" from this year's Wine Dark Sea. Yes, it is in fact darkly dark. But also fun, riding as it does on Holland's throaty vocals, building power, and warm, complex sound. So there.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Audio hallucinations and loving machines

Two articles got me thinking about human nature and its future this week.

Stanford researcher: Hallucinatory 'voices' shaped by local culture:

'via Blog this'

One is a Stanford News piece covering a recent study's findings about the influence of culture on the expression of schizophrenia. Namely an anthropologist's take on how the hallucinatory voices are perceived by schizophrenics in differing societal contexts. Professor Tanya Luhrmann's interpretation of her data is that in individualist cultures the voices are more likely to be experienced as hostile or as deficits. Those with the illness in more collectivist societies have a better chance of interpreting the voices as friendly and as aspect of the world.

First, the normal disclaimer. As a rule of thumb, it's best to wait for three studies done by three teams at separate facilities to come to similar conclusions before declaring any set of findings "fact". Second, the sample populations in this study appear to have been very small. Also, the discussed definition for what constitutes individualist and collectivists societies is...broad. Calling western societies individualist is throwing a wide blanket over a group of cultures strung out rather than clustered on that spectrum.

To me, this study looks like an interesting start point. An inroad on the contextual presentations of schizophrenia that's deserving of a lot more follow up.

That said, I've always wondered if it was easier to be schizophrenic, or at least more accepted, when the voices were often seen as aural manifestations of angels, demons, or saints. I've also suspected that it'd be even easier to deal with the audio hallucinations in animist cultures, where the dominant paradigms frequently imbue everything with the potential for voice and consciousness.

It's also amazing how period and technology specific the voices can be. While living in Scandinavia ten years ago, I spent quite a bit of time hanging around doctors in general and psychiatrists specifically. One of their more interesting observations was the hallucinatory universality of spy satellites, in particular CIA spy satellites, used to steal or read thoughts on both sides of the Atlantic.

Rather than individualist versus collective, I wonder if it's paradigm that's the stronger influence. An individual's broad worldview in the sense of technology base, religion type, general acceptance of the existence of clinical disorders of the mind, and more in that vein.

Assuming that the differences hold up with larger sample populations.

I also wonder if people might choose to cultivate useful forms of schizophrenia in the future, with implants and gene augmentation. To give literal voices to the various analytic functions of the brain.

How? One of the more intriguing hypotheses I've come across about the disease is that an individual's inner narrative voice is a composite of several analytical and simulation functions. Schizophrenia, in this model, is in part a timing error in which the inputs that make up the singular voice of the mind fall out of sync with one another. A lack of cohesion that we might eventually take deliberate advantage of to construct a new style of processing our world awareness with parallel internal narratives.

That said, it's been several years since I've encountered the voice timing hypothesis in a medical journal. I have no idea how or if it's held up in light of recent discoveries about networks in the brain, and our ongoing refinement of neuroanatomical functions.



Failing the Third Machine Age: When Robots Come for Grandma — The Message — Medium:

'via Blog this'

Robots as emotional caregivers and sources of solace?

That's actually something I've given a fair amount of thought to. Though for reasons other than those articulated by assistant University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci.

Where Tufekci is understandably concerned about the destruction of much needed medical and caregiver jobs and all the violent turmoil associated with past technological revolutions, I'm more worried on this issue that humans will quit or greatly reduce their socializing with one another.

Especially if the robots or software agents are kinder than people. Nicer and either capable of genuine emotion or a facsimile convincing enough for people to buy into.

Why? Because I've seen it happen with monkeys. Not monkeys and robots, but monkeys and humans.

Usually with juvenile and young adult rhesus macaques who became accustomed to socializing with people. Hanging out with the lab techs was all about the constant grooming opportunities, treats, and all those encouraging friendly noises (words) that humans tend to vocalize around monkeys they like. Life in the troop, on the other hand, was endless macaque infighting and politics. The sharp-edged conflicts over status, jockeying for position, and slapping down or humiliating those underneath to keep them in their place in the rhesus hierarchy.

That's not to say life in all troops was brutish. Leadership styles of the elites and combativeness within each culture varied. Still, it never looked fun at the bottom, and in some groups not even tolerable in the middle or at the top.

Monkeys acclimatized to human-levels of friendly interactions and lack of common social violence tended to do poorly when introduced back into a communal housing unit.

Not that human society is anything close to perfect. There are those who would almost certainly be healthier and more emotionally stable with loving machines rather than their squabbling fellow human primates. Still, I'd rather see technology help make us better social animals rather than seclude us from one another. The future of human augmentation, in my eyes, is as much about improved emotions as enhanced reasoning or augmented talents.