Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in music

Discovered the joys of VNV Nation this year. A group that nails a particular science fiction vibe for me, in just the right way. That, and their optimistic sound made for a nice change of pace amidst all the economic gloom.



Charlotte Gainsbourg brought a more complex sound to the year.



San Francisco based Thao Ngyuen supplied an amazing intensity and an interesting pop song complexity



The same song performed on a rainy Paris back street at night. Seriously, the 90s left me with an incurable weakness for acoustical versions of my favorite songs. I'm not proud of this.



Sometimes the reverse holds true, though. Portland based electronica band Yacht remixing Portland based Mirah's acoustical "Make it Hot" was a lot of fun.



The Heavy's "How You Like Me" met my electric funk needs for the year, and I totally didn't discover this song through beating Borderlands 2. #Lies!



John Murphey's "Adagio in D Minor" from the sound track of the science fiction film Sunshine got top billing on my Genre Writing playlist. This was thanks to Knate Myers' now famous compilation of nighttime footage of the Earth, as seen from the International Space Station in low orbit. This was also my favorite video of the year -- almost a religious experience, and I still haven't gotten bored with watching it.


This year's playlist on Rdio



Also, I went through a mullet rock period this year. Not that I'd ever admit that on the internet where it'll haunt me forever.

Some good friends have been watching the long-running urban fantasy series Supernatural, which features a lot of choice southern rock. That was enough to push me over the edge, apparently. Call it a need to rock out without restraint. Call it an acoustic monument to having survived childhood in 1980s Nevada, but sometime you just have to capture that sensation of headbanging behind the wheel of a 79 Trans Am, and it has to be done with in music.

Enter at your own risk. You may gaze into the mullet, but the mullet also gazes back into you.



Sunday, December 30, 2012

Science fiction on the internet: The year in short films

About two years back, a friend recommended a four minute film set in near future Russia about a mysterious gift, a sleek-looking robot, a violent theft, and the subsequent pursuit through Moscow. The film had polished, kinetic execution, and an apparent high production value. In other words, it looked good and played out well.


The Gift from BLR_VFX on Vimeo.

Browsing around, I started coming across other, similarly impressive pieces, like the heavily stylized Codehunters.



There were also a number of interesting concept trailers for films that have been written, but not made.


Keloid Trailer - A Short Film by BLR from BLR_VFX on Vimeo.

While 2012 ended up being a terrible year as far as political partisanship and infighting here in the US, it was a good year online for short clips in science fiction.

Tempo is a fun, thirteen minute piece, with striking similarities to the iconic puzzle game, Portal. Only in this setting, the high-tech device central to the plot manipulates kinetic energy, rather than space. And as with Portal, the device is put to creative and clever improvised uses.



Archetype is a solid piece about the internal virtual realities that advanced software entities exist in, and a combat platform with memories and a personality that it shouldn't possess. The film does have several cliched moments, but there's also a nice twist, and I thought it was worth the seven minutes.



Payload is an eighteen minute Australian short that plays out in a corrupt future of grinding poverty at the foot of a beanstalk-style space elevator. While the film drags in the middle, it features some great acting and a good finish. It's also definitely on the grim side of the genre.


Payload from Stu Willis on Vimeo.

Luke and Ridley Scott's Loom was originally shot as a technology demonstrator project for a 3D laser projection system. The 20 minute short is deliberately evocative of Ridley's 1982 masterpiece, Blade Runner. It drops viewers into a particularly bad day for a gene engineer technician working in a synthetic flesh factory, and who has secretly grown a woman in his apartment. A melancholy film with art house sensibilities, it's probably not for everyone, but at the same time it delivers a nice emotional punch if you like cinema with a measured and unhurried pace.

Coming soon: The music post

I'm working on the annual Year in Music post...which apparently is a popular feature of this blog. Or at least it's popular if Blogger's analytics can be believed. Last year's post and a place holder article for it beat out everything else in terms of page visits this month (December), for three out of four weeks.

I'm good with that, if a little surprised.

While I'm on the topic of music, I've taken time out during school terms to indulge in some futurism and update my ideas about what the coming decades might look like. As part of this project, I've been thinking about how I listen to music, and how much that's changed since 1996 -- both in terms of software, hardware, and circumstance. Why '96? Because that was the year I left Nevada, enlisted in the Army, and then went off to Korea.

That was most definitely a change in my audio life. Suddenly I wasn't spending an hour or more in a car each day, motoring from place to place and listening to tracks. In fact, for the first few weeks of regular Army life after OSUT scout training, I didn't listen to any music at all. There simply wasn't time or a private space for it in the workdays. Thankfully, that lack was easily remedied with some new hardware and a few conscious choices. A skip-resistant CD Walkman purchased at the camp store brought my selection of music into the gym for the first time. Additionally -- also for the first time -- I started making time to listen to my favorite songs while doing nothing else. A-half hour or forty minutes of lying in my bunk in the evening, headphones on, eyes closed, and with the sound of Sheryl Crow's voice or the Red Hot Chili Peppers carrying me along through my year in the Land of the Morning Calm. Under the bridge, if it makes you happy, every day is a winding road, and on and on.

It was amazing how much more there was to hear in each track when there was nothing but music to focus on. All sorts of small deviations in the chorus, clever pauses, and subtle shifts that just aren't as noticeable, or that you otherwise stop being aware of if you've heard a song more than three or four times.

The change in hardware and circumstance probably wasn't as significant as the later arrival of MP3 players and the ability to buy tracks selectively, rather than whole albums. Still, it was a big one, and it's had a lasting impact.

I've also been doing a lot of thinking recently about music as a neurologic activity, and how near future biotechnology might alter it. My current novel involves a crew of biotech smugglers and an engineered drug called Aulos -- named after the double flute of the Classical muse of music.

Aulos facilitates enhanced feedback between the brain's audio cortices and the emotion-mediating structures of limbic system. This heightens the naturally occurring emotional responses to music by an order of magnitude. The drug is also designed to create signal bleedover into the feedback loops of the motor function cortices, so that both rhythm and any melody are physically felt in the body. Lastly, the drug generates intense nostalgia flashbacks with songs that a user has listened to in years past, by increasing the firing potential of synapses in the pathways of the autobiographical memory system.

While Aulos isn't physically addictive, it's difficult to quit. Once you've had it, listening to music without the drug is a pale and passionless experience. Then there are the issues that crop up with a bad batch. In the case of the smugglers, it's the delivery of an Aulos production run that leaves its victims unable to distinguish words from melody, and robs them of the ability to hear meaning in spoken language.


My favorite book about music and how it interacts with the brain's many systems is neurologist Oliver Sachs' accessible and fun to read Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. A collection of interesting case histories, it's well worth the time if your interested in the hows of how we experience music, and the bizarre things that can go wrong when the underlying wetware systems fail to function as they're meant to.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Portland by night

Revisiting some of the first shots I took after moving to the city, with a better camera.












Friday, December 21, 2012

The software automation of intelligence functions

Army considers Palantir to boost intelligence architecture | Defense Tech:

'via Blog this'

Apparently Palantir's Intelligence software, built to distribute data and information in an intelligence community environment, has grown popular enough with soldiers that the Army is considering incorporating into its existing infrastructure. Which is an interesting concession on the part of the Army, because at present Intelligence is not compatible with the service's Distributed Common Ground System. It sounds like Palantir's system is easier for soldiers to use when it comes to displaying and working with large quantities of raw data like IED locations and social graphs of suspected insurgent networks. More details can be found at DefenseTech.Org and on the Palantir website.

The incorporation of the Army's intelligence architecture into combat units through software systems like the Distributed Ground System and Intelligence is a significant milestone in the overall evolution of military systems. One that will hopefully break some long-standing organizational stovepipes and distribution choke points within the services' internal information flows. As I blurbed in an article a few weeks back (down toward the bottom), the ground-level fusion of traditional intelligence functions with special operations units inside the Joint Special Operation Command in Iraq and Afghanistan was a major revolution in military affairs. Or at least the vanguard of one. Either way, it's a merging that vastly enhanced the effectiveness of JSOC's units, and -- I think -- finally lead to the full realization of the potential agility of special operations forces.

For years, lack of actionable intelligence was a major hindrance to use of those forces. The high risk nature of special operations -- small teams often cut off from quick backup -- made both commanders and politicians reluctant to employ them when current intelligence was hard to come by. However, the ability of units to quickly gather, analyze, and  distribute fresh data, rather than having a separate, slower moving organization for tactical intelligence functions, has helped reduce the problem of staleness and actionability. It often results in one mission generating a quick chain of follow ups as new data is rapidly exploited, without much of the old friction or jurisdictional boundaries that use to slow the process.

For me, the closest precedence to this development is the sheer capability that combined arms mechanized warfare brought to ground units during the 20th century. The combination of armor, infantry, and indirect fire elements into smaller and smaller units -- going from separate regiments to combined battalions, and even companies and platoons in some cases -- gave units an agility, speed, and flexibility that steamrolled opponents who failed to adapt.

It wasn't just the speed that trucks and tracked vehicle brought to the game. The ability of tanks and infantry to work closely with one another in practiced cooperation created units that could shift fluidly from one terrain type to the next. Armor dominated in open country, while infantry handled pockets of dense terrain like woods, natural choke points, or villages, to prevent opponents from getting off shots at the vulnerable flanks of tracked vehicles. In the dense terrain of forests and cities, infantry became the arm of decision, while tanks shifted to providing heavy fire support against emplaced positions and obstacles like bunkers and barricades, and controlled open spaces such as roads, clearings, and city squares. In both built up areas and in the open, armor and infantry together benefited from having organic mortars and integral brigade or division artillery assets that allowed them to quickly strike targets shielded by horizontal cover.

Now a ground-level integration of intelligence and combat arms functions similar to that seen in the special operations community is being carried out in the conventional Army with the incorporation of software that facilitates quick lateral and vertical sharing of information. I suspect that this change is both an adoption of techniques developed by JSOC, as well as a refinement of earlier data-sharing experiments carried out in the test bed Force 21 units, and in the medium-weight Stryker brigades that saw combat over the past decade. Whatever the source, it will be interesting to watch the effects of this melding play out in the real world.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Cold War Dystopia in the Age of Information


BBC News - North Korea: On the net in world's most secretive nation:

'via Blog this'

The BBC has a fascinating article up that paints a bleak picture of life in North Korea with the coming of internet access and cell phones. It's something along the lines of what the Soviet Union might have looked like if that country and Stalin had survived into the Information Age. The article discusses roving internal security units that track down citizens who use non-state sanctioned cellphones (often smuggled in from China), as well as a mandatory operating system that spies on users. Imagine Windows or your Mac OS reporting your online activities to security services with the power to sentence you and your family to several years in a detention camp, should your behavior behind the keyboard call into question your political reliability. Another mandated feature is a script on all North Korean web pages that increases the size of the Supreme Leader's name, whenever it appears.

Red Star OS -- Your operating system is watching you, comrade 


North Korea fascinates me for a variety of reasons. The Democratic People's Republic is something very close to the realization of George Orwell's nightmarish vision in 1984, complete with its own Double Speak and state bureaus that employ prolonged torture and brainwashing techniques to reprogram 'deviant' citizens. I'm also interested in it because so much of the world seems to be intent on ignoring its existence. For over thirty years the its government has run a gulag network comparable to Soviet or Nazi forced labor camps, yet there are still so many individuals and groups, mostly on the left, who are hellbent not on denying the camps' existence, but on putting them out of mind entirely. Which is a real shame, because here in the US it was the left in form of presidents like Truman and a liberal dominated House and Senate that responded to the North's Soviet-backed invasion of the south, and who were determined to block the forcible export of the Soviet Union's totalitarian ideology by embarking on a policy of Containment.

Other reasons are personal in nature. I spent the first of my four years in the Army at a small cavalry camp ten kilometers (six miles) from the Intra-Korean border and the Demilitarized Zone, during the tail end of the great famine, in which somewhere between a-half million and three million North Koreans starved to death -- largely because their government was too proud to accept offers of outside assistance. It was a time when many in the North were so desperate to flee from relentless hunger that they made several hundred defection attempts across the heavily mined DMZ, and it was a period when the North Korean Army hunted its own citizens as they sought to escape.

Naturally enough this is something that influences my writing, or at least it's had an impact on what I find it important to write about. More on that next week...

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Downtown Portland

The kind of stuff you see while on your way to a coffee shop to do some writing....


Friday, December 07, 2012

The shifting software of music

"As you are no doubt aware, there have been changes in how people listen to and procure music, during the past dozen years," the blogger said in the Queen's English.

OK, so, that's something of an understatement. If you're tech savvy enough to read this blog, chances are you've been stealing or buying music off the web for years now. The coming of online music was a once-in-a-lifetime event that shifted the foundation of all things song beneath the house of industry that it had built.

It's a change that's altered the way I hear music.



The ability to buy only the tracks that I like off an album means I'm far more engaged with music than ever before. My interest no longer waxes and wanes like it once did while listening. Now I've got forty eight hours worth of my favorite and only my favorite songs to listen to on a single playlist, which can keep me immersed in an inner landscape of sound and emotion for several hours at a time. The ability to shuffle randomly through such a huge volume of tracks, or through twenty-song playlists, also means that I no longer get desensitized to new favorite songs the way that I used to. It's much more fun to slot a newcomer into a list of similar tracks, rather than listen to it by itself over and over to the point where all emotion has been leached out of the melody, rhythm, and any well turned lyrics.

The change in procurement mediums has also made me even more social with my music. I say "more", because, yeah, back in the day I not only made mix tapes, but occasionally inflicted them on friends unfortunate enough to find themselves within arms length. So the jump to YouTube and the ability to direct friends to my channel there was a natural one to make. Of course YouTube no longer is what it once was. The commercials have come, so the pure experience of music fused with imagery has been shattered.

Which is as it should be. YouTube is parasitic. Nearly all theft, and little payback for the artists whose works appear there. Which makes me glad to see the rise of cheap, paid music services like Rdio, Spotify, and Pandora, where sharing uninterrupted music or playlists is an organic feature. That, and the ability to see what other friends are listening is now the primary means by which I discover new songs to listen to and buy. Yeah, I still occasionally crawl the reaches of the internet, looking at recommendations by well-listened individuals whose tastes have proven to overlap mine, but seeing what friends are listening to each day online is a heavy new body in my musical solar system--one which has perturbed the orbits of all other sources.

If my childhood self, who read a lot of science fiction back in the 80s, could see all of this--the hardware, the software, the social networks--he'd be by himself with ecstatic glee. As far as music goes, the future has proved to be pretty damn awesome.

Monday, December 03, 2012

An adaptive book manufacturer

A cool article about a print company that has restored itself to profitability by making a series of buisness practice and technology adaptions since 2008. It's a bright spot in an industry that is caught up in a lot of turmoil at the moment.

Book manufacturer Thomson-Shore is adapting and rebounding | Michigan Business | Detroit Free Press | freep.com:

'via Blog this'

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Drone makes first carrier-style catapult takeoff

Footage from Military.com of an X-47 drone making a carrier-style launch at a test facility.



It continues to astound me that the Navy is at the forefront of development work on unmanned air-to-air combat systems, while the Air Force remains nowhere to be seen. While there aren't any drone aces in anyone's immediate future, it's only a matter of time until these aircraft outperform human pilots -- not only in loiter time, but in the grueling, high-g realm of turn-and-burn that is air combat maneuvering. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

States and nations 3.0: Social network democracy

Cyberdemocracy comes in three major flavors, including direct edemocracy and expert systems enhanced democracy. The third form is somewhat more complex, but also more dynamic and adaptive than the first two. In the first article of this series I briefly described the software engine driven democracy put forward by Daniel Suarez in his best selling novels Daemon and FreedomTM. At the start of this two-book story, a recently deceased billionaire's final command unleashes what looks like a automated terror campaign online and in physical space, using autonomous vehicles and cyberwarfare malware. As the plot progress, it becomes clear that there's far more going on.




CfA Salon | August 2012 |

The attacks are directed against a group of oligarchs who have been individually sabotaging the United State's economy for the sake of short term profits. They've recently formalized an alliance to subvert the federal government through K Street lobbyists, bribery, and the use of private security forces in order to further their private goals. At the same time, the cybernetic system behind the strikes targeting them has also been rapidly incorporating thousands of ordinary and selected extraordinary individuals into a network of communities. These towns and regional cooperatives employ local power generation technologies and advanced 3D printer manufacturing to create a networked society that is more locally self-reliant and far less dependent on ten-thousand mile global supply chains, and fragile, regional power grids.

This network is an extraordinarily democratic society. One in which members up vote or down vote potential solutions to major issues, allocate funding and resources Kickstarter style to individuals known for solving problems, and engage in consensual rule making.

The underlying platform is an engine and social community originally built for a massively successful Call of Duty style game, with millions of subscribers. Like game engines and game communities in the real world, the social governance software is designed to continue functioning, despite talented individuals regularly hacking or attempting to hack the system. Augmented reality glasses, linked to encrypted peer-top-peer networks running the engine, help to incorporate this social governance model into the daily life of its members by displaying shared data and offering 24/7 voice and image access.

Overall it's not a perfect vision of governance, and Suarez discusses some of its shortcomings, as well potential methods for sabotaging such a system in the video above. It's also an idea that's not yet fully developed.

The current discussion about electronic and social network democracies is reminiscent of debates about democracy during the 1500s through the mid 1600s - a long period when early natural philosophers and other thinkers living in European monarchies and North American colonies engaged in dialogs about theoretical, rationalized republics. The discussions, letters, and essays from this time contained raw and often unpolished ideas about hypothetical nations free from the tyranny of kings, superstition, and cruel or counterproductive medieval traditions. Many hoped for a form of democratic meritocracy in which rationality and public consensus governed. There were also incomplete and sometimes Utopian hopes and plans for a perfect state.

Many pragmatic and idealistic models were based on a romantic view of the Roman Republic, though sometimes tempered by a jaundiced look at Athenian democracy. The latter was commonly perceived as a failed state, in part for having ordered the death of Socrates after rampant nationalism and mob rule wrecked the city state's Mediterranean empire and military during a chain of disastrous wars with Sparta. Eventually, however, those early and sometimes impractical Renaissance models matured during the Enlightenment and evolved into the basis for our present day democracies.

Like those earlier, untested models, Cyberdemocracy is a also family of theories with a basis in existing local practices. Limited parliamentary representation during the Renaissance and Enlightenment was already being practiced in England, the Dutch Republic, and in New World's colonial legislative bodies. Today, a number of Silicon Valley start ups and other businesses are already using collaborative project management software on a daily basis. In these systems, company members post items or problems that need to be solved, and then assign a priority level. Others assign their own priority to the project, and a numerical consensus emerges. Sometimes individuals tackling parts of the problem use the program's social feeds and sites to coordinate or further subdivide tasks. Other times, online group chats snowball into being, as emails and texts are sent out through the network, and a dedicated site is established. The task is dismembered, and then the components of the solution are put together by the group in real time. Some departments in large companies have also begun to rely on collaborative project management systems for big projects.

Granted, at present these are very local, and purely private sector practices, but it's likely just a matter of time until someone attempts to apply these methodologies to governance in one fashion or another.

In a science fiction setting this could happen with similar project and task coordination systems evolving into a method of governing in a frontier community, high-tech post-apocalyptic scenario, or in orbital habitats, asteroid settlements, star ships, and other permanently inhabited space structures. It might require a generation or two for such a system to be widely accepted, and it could also be successfully scaled up at some point for use on a regional or national level.

In the real world, this could also take place as a generational process as people grow accustomed to using such software in the workplace. This would allow for both a gradually accruing sense of legitimacy as well as a body of built up practical refinements, just as the move to chiefdoms and nations required an evolutionary chain of developments to prouce functional, durable models. Or such a transition could take place in a matter of years or even months, since the forces of historical change seem to move faster and grind finer than ever before in our present age.

Maybe such systems will be remain purely local, existing alongside traditional national governments. Or maybe they will remake the existing political order entirely.

Chances are, if such social governance networks are ever implemented, they won't be perfect. And as a writer of drama, I don't want perfection. I want flaws and juicy exceptions to the rules that can serve as fuel for interesting conflicts. At the same time, as a citizen and a science fiction author of hopeful scenarios, I want something with a cool factor that's markedly more efficient than what we have now. That, and even more democratic. I'd like a system that builds on our tradition of spreading political power more and more evenly, and a system that will help lessen the impact of individual fortunes on politics, just as the transition from monarchies to republics did. And while the software networks of a social engine democracy will not be any more proof against sabotage than present day democracies or online networks, a body of safeguards and best practices like those used in online banking and ecommerce will hopefully produce systems that work more often than not, and that aren't prone to catastrophic failures.

Next up: The Defense of Cyberdemocracies 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Flexible armors

Copolymers as a potential (and promising) material basis for flexible, ultra lightweight armor.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Einstein's Brain


Snapshots explore Einstein’s unusual brain : Nature

'via Blog this'


Einstein's brain is one of the reasons I love writing science fiction.

OK, strange statement, maybe, but the differences between the luminary physicist's brain and the gray matter of normal people like me is pure inspiration. It makes me wonder what both society and individual lives would look like if the technology for customized brains was available.

The quirks of our brains' layouts and wiring can impact our lives in ways that are so bizarre as to feel like science fiction or fantasy. There are brains that can't see faces. Individuals with lesions or born with unusual wiring within the brain's fusiform gyrus, who cannot recognize faces ever. For them, there is not only a lack of identity associated with faces, but the individual features never make a recognizable whole. It's akin to being able to see individual terrain features on a map, such as the representation of a mountain or forest, but being unable to resolve those components into a coherent landscape, or match it to a section of the physical world.

But alongside those whose brains make it difficult to perceive or conceptualize aspects of the world that most people take for granted, are those with super human talents. Savants who can perform huge calculations quickly and entirely in their heads. Photographic memories and people with almost no artistic training who can reproduce scenes they have only glimpsed before with uncanny accuracy using pencils and paper. Synesthetes whose cross-wired sensory cortices allow them to experience the world in ways that sound alien but wonderful to the rest of us: Sounds that have color, or evoke physical sensations, words that taste, and other variations of linked senses.

And then there is Einstein. A genius with a brain that had unusual features associated with the visual-spatial reasoning areas that are a locus of mathematical ability.

So what would the world be like if we could change our brains at will? What if we could write talents into the living tissue of thought that would allows anyone to master a skill set at the limits of human ability, or perceive the world through the lens of genius. What if we could tweak the pattern recognition filters that construct our awareness of the world to see abstract patterns in events that are invisible to ordinary humans? How about the ability to perfectly recall every day of your life at will, as though reliving it?

What if we could erase traumas like the PTSD syndrome associated with war and childhood abuse?

How perfect could we make our brains. What kind of conflicts, dysfunctions, might arise from adding too many talents. As I've written about before, savant talents are often associated with neurological deficits, some caused by injury, other by genetics and accidents of birth. Our brain is a mass of engineering compromises, and the demands of processing complex social environments and abstract cultural information may have lead to the loss of some talents or mental abilities.

Or, what would happen if advanced technology allowed us to change the brain without limit? Might different configurations of talents and augmented perceptions lead to minds with unique abilities or worldviews? Differing paradigms that lead to conflicts over finite resources needed to realize an array of conflicting potential utopias?

There are so many cool concept possibilities, and such much room for story telling in this kind of idea space.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Europa Report

This one looks like it's got potential to be an entertaining, hard science fiction film.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Moving day

Moving and without internet at the moment. However, the next States and Nations will be up on Thursday.  

-Alex

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Names and Faces: Veterans Day

Names and faces now etched on a wall
Names and faces in long marble halls
Those names and faces once gave all

Names and faces glimpsed on the news
Names and faces in uniformed hues
Such names and faces paid heavy dues

Names and faces interred in the dark
Names and faces forever apart
Such names and faces illume in your heart

Names and faces on this autumn day

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Fall, again

Beaverton, Oregon, on the western side of the Portland metropolitan area.




On the northern edge of the city. Thanks to urban growth boundaries, the cutoff between the city and its surrounding farms is a sharp one.



Tuesday, November 06, 2012

With malice toward none...

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

~Abraham Lincoln 

Friday, November 02, 2012

Ars Technica on counter hacking

How Georgia doxed a Russian hacker (and why it matters) | Ars Technica:

'via Blog this'

Ars Technica has an article up on how Georgia's national information security team may have counter-hacked a Russian state hacker, who had had been altering online news articles in the Georgian media. As the Technica journalist acknowledges in the article, verifying the truth in international hacking incidences is nigh impossible. That said, the Georgian response of name 'n shame, along with publishing a detailed account of the technical means employed by both the hacker and the security services involved, is now becoming a common response model.  One that Google and other internet savvy firms have used in response to hacks that appear to have originated in China.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

States and Nations 3.0: Expert system enhanced democracy

Cyberdemocracy is still a concept that is very much under development. Proposed models for the use of cybernetic systems in governance run from setups in which citizens vote directly on important issues via specialized networks, to political schemes in which human involvement and democracy as most people understand it is minimal. Expert system enhanced democracy is a term that covers a broad  array of potential political setups on this spectrum.

At one extreme of expert system democracy, elected officials implement plans generated by AIs or expert systems to solve problems as they arise -- or even beforehand, if the systems' ability to model real world events outstrip that of human beings. So far in the real world, expert systems have lagged well behind humans in performance when it comes to diagnosing problems and generating solutions. Which is no great surprise given that it was only this year that we finally modeled an organism down to the molecular level, and that creature happens to be the simplest known single cell bacterium on the planet. However, with Moore's law showing no signs of stopping; with laptops holding the processing power of a human brain on the twenty year horizon; and super computers gaining the ability to model complex real world systems, this is a scenario deserving of serious consideration.

There are also variations of this political system, which impart increased degrees of control to human beings. In one, elected representatives prioritize implementation of expert system generated solutions based their own priorities or ideologies, rather than following a machine-generated order of execution. Another kink has solution implementations prioritized by civics network upvoting on the part of ordinary citizens.

In another step down with greater human control, problems are addressed after being chosen by elected representatives or through direct referendums. Only then do expert systems model the issue and generate a solution. In still another model, citizens are randomly chosen to serve a set term of office, and assisted by expert adviser systems in carrying out their duties.

Doing away with the law - Constitution as source code


Under these political systems, law as we know it might cease to exist. In its place, a series of vastly simpler guidelines would  shape the output of expert systems. A kind of DNA of basic rights and responsibilities used to generate complex arrays of dynamic responses. This could serve as a mechanism for rebooting legal systems that have become so choked by statutes that even mundane business tasks require consulting a lawyer.

Of course the decision to reboot a legal system in the real world is normally a dramatic one involving revolutions, or in the past, founding new, remote settlements. Tomorrow we'll look at some of those conditions  in a science fiction context, as well as at social network driven democracy.

Next: Social Network Democracy 

Monday, October 29, 2012

States and Nations 3.0: E-democracy threats and promises

Our societies and governments have gotten more complex along with our tools. Over the past ten thousand years emergent technology packages have gone hand-in-glove with that increase in complexity, and the creation of new forms of human social organizations and governance. An example: Advanced paleolithic stone tools were so effective at allowing our ancestors to obtain more food and fuel that they helped lead to increased population densities. As more people lived in closer proximity, more cooperative endeavors became possible, and tribes formed from disparate family bands woven together into larger societies. Chiefdoms and states likewise appeared after similar technology shifts, and I suspect that the same will happen in the future. While advanced biotechnology and human brain augmentation may one day change how we organize and govern ourselves, the advent of information systems holds many near-term potentials for either transforming modern states and nations, or giving rise to an eventual successor form of organization.

Currently there are three broad forms cyber democracy, each with their own balance of potential strengths and weaknesses:
  • Electronic direct democracy
  • Expert system-assisted democracy
  • Social software engine driven democracy

Electronic direct democracy is my least favorite of the three. Empowering citizens with direct governance strikes me as a romantic, but singularly bad idea. My inner historian looks back at the durability of the representative Roman Republic and parliamentary democracies, and sees a stark contrast with the instability and short-lived natures of direct democracies, like that of Classical Athens. Whether it's the history of angry mobs voting out and exiling effective military commanders such as Pericles and Alcibiades, or Californians strangling their state with a combination of referendum-passed tax caps and spending mandates, direct democracy in practice is far removed from the beautiful theoretical picture painted by many of its boosters.

Think about all the ranters you've ever seen at city council meetings, or the trolls in the comments section of news articles. Now imagine handing them legislative power. Not a pretty image, and that's not even getting into questions of expertise or knowledge of existing bodies of laws.

This form of governance might work on a small scale, or in an environment where constant survival considerations are an entrenched part of the culture. However, if I were to depict a large e-democracy in science fiction, chances are it would would resemble its troubled real world historical predecessors, baring any major changes in human nature.

Next in States and Nations 3.0: Expert Systems Enhanced Democracy


State of the Species | Charles C. Mann | Orion Magazine

State of the Species | Charles C. Mann | Orion Magazine:

'via Blog this'

An excellent long form article on the past and present of our species.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Another round of Skyrim

The next States and Nations post will be up on Monday. In the meanwhile, here's a quick break from science and science fiction with another round of in-game Skyrim shots from my Best of File. These are from earlier in the year, when I had the game tweaked for a saturated high fantasy feel, rather than the more realistic palette of muted colors along with the sharp, high-contrast lighting that I settled on towards the end of my time in Skyrim.

I've probably mentioned this before, but I enjoy the occasional fantasy book or game because the genre is more about being in the moment than techno thrillers and science fiction. It's generally not as encumbered by deep meanings and implications, so it provides a welcome, primordial pause of imagery and sensation when I'm overthinking the world.

House of gods




Night home



Drama in three dimensions 



Winter fall




Night bright




Wolves on a beach




Pandora's sphere




Hide site (tents and camouflage)


Friday, October 26, 2012

The failure of generals - A missing context

General Failure - Thomas E. Ricks - The Atlantic:

'via Blog this'

I'm not a fan of military affairs journalist Thomas Ricks. I read his book, Fiasco, about the early conduct of the Iraq war back in 2006, and found most of his conclusions to be grossly simplistic. He glossed over enough important details and leaped to so many shaky judgments that I never felt tempted to pick up any of his follow on books about the war, as it continued to play out. It certainly didn't help that during conflict's closing phase he went and made a number of public predictions that turned out erroneous, to put it it mildly. He claimed in 2008 that the largest battles of the war had yet to be fought, and that the conflict would only grow larger. All that said, his Atlantic article in the above link does a worthwhile job of looking at the inability of senior commanders during the conflict's early years to understand the nature of the enemy they were facing, and at the disappointing failure of the Pentagon and White House to relieve them as Iraq spiraled down into chaos. However, that latter failing requires some historical context, which Ricks fails to provide.

In the article he contrasts the lack of generals fired during the Iraq war to the readiness of the general staffs of the World War II Era-Army to quickly sack commanders who failed to perform under the stress of combat. Part of Ricks' missing context is fairly obvious, even at first glance. None of the officers fired during World War II were theater commanders, like the ones he criticizes in the Iraq conflict. Instead they were all unit commanders. There is a big difference between kicking out a general in charge of how a war is waged, versus a field grade or lower flag rank officer who failed to make himself or his unit perform while under fire.

The other missing bit is that the officer corps going into combat in World War II was an enormously different beast than the one in Iraq. In 1943 the US Army had gone from a pre-war force of around 190,000 with 14,000 professional officers to having 8.3 million men under arms. That exponential growth had seen the officer corps diluted down again and then again and yet again as tens of thousands of green volunteers joined its ranks.

In that chaotic environment, there was no way to know who would perform and who would fail. Officers who had never commanded small units in battle suddenly found themselves in charge of thousands or tens of thousands of combat arms soldiers in the middle of history's largest war. The result was an intense shake down period for the Army and other services, in which the service branches had little choice about promoting masses of untested officers into positions that held the power of life and death, and then firing those who couldn't cope while promoting those who looked promising. The commanders in Iraq, conversely, had all come up through a long chain of previous commands, staff assignments, and schools, and for the most part they had excelled during their earlier careers. Their failures were often a lack of perception or insight, rather than outright operational incompetency or even cowardice under fire.

Despite that missing context, Ricks does bring up an interesting tangential point in the article that's worth thinking about. An ugly point that I've heard others touch on, but never express as clearly as he did. Namely that the tactical proficiency of the enlisted soldiers, NCOs, and company grade officers made it possible for generals who failed to understand the conflict to hold onto their commands as the war spun out of control. Even while the insurgency spread and number of attacks increased, Army and Marine units continued to win nearly every fight on the ground. There were no large-scale massacres of US soldiers or overrun American platoons. No large firebases or camps were lost, and no groups of stunned POWs were paraded before cameras by insurgents -- any of which might have brought about an immediate change in theater leadership. Without tangible significant losses, the failures of vision took longer to recognize as friendly casualties came in at a rate of one or two or three a day.

In other words, tactical excellence on the part of soldiers and marines in the field helped blind politicians and officers in Washington to a subtler but persistent set of strategic failings. So it's not surprising that it wasn't until nearly four years into the conflict that a theater commander was finally put in place with a mandate to change the very means used to fight the war.


PS The next States and Nations article will be up on Sunday

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Science fiction is catching up to my novel

Boeing Successfully Tests Electronics-Frying, Microwave Missile : The Two-Way : NPR:

'via Blog this'

Above is an NPR article that discusses the recent test of a type of directed energy weapon that figures prominently in the military science fiction novel that I'm currently shopping around. It's a missile warhead that destroys electronics equipment within a specified cone using an electromagnetic pulse.  It's a concept that's been around for a while now in military affairs circles, but now it's close to becoming a reality, with a successful demonstration by Boeing at a Utah Air Force facility, as explained in this video.


Monday, October 22, 2012

Self-publish Vs. Traditional publishing

Today my near-future espionage novella, Lisa with Child, cracked the top ten on Amazon's free techno thriller list. Meanwhile, the VIRAL anthology with my other novella, The Call, has hit #2 on the war list, and is sitting at 807 overall in the Kindle store. But it's also going for free.

I just need to figure our how to convert some of that volume from giveaways to sales, while waiting on a yea or nay from a traditional publishing house regarding a novel. The dilemma of self-publishing versus taking the time and patience needed to go the traditional route is excruciatingly frustrating on days like today. It's a real temptation to bolt to one side or the other when one is showing signs of life, rather than continuing to work both.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The VIRAL Novellas Omnibus : Free Monday - Wednesday

VIRAL
Now up on Amazon, the novel-length omnibus edition of the VIRAL Novellas. Collected along with my 90 page espionage thriller, The Call, are three other stories of deception and covert action set in the darkest corners of the War on Terror. The authors range from from new talents like myself to veterans and heavy hitters, such as bestseller Steven Savile and Keith R.A. DeCandido.  

The book will be available for free Monday - Wednesday on the Kindle Store, as will my near-future thriller, Lisa with Child.


The VIRAL Novellas

-30- by Keith DeCandido

Veteran journalist Joe Lombardo thought he was done with wars and terror campaigns. After winning a Pulitzer for his articles on the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and sacrificing his marriage covering wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he’s quit the foreign desk of the New York Times in favor of writing about local politics for the Daily News. Or at least that’s what he believes right up until an old CIA source gets in touch with him for the first time in years with the story of a lifetime…

ANOMALY by Jason Fischer

Doctor Felix Koehler oversees the vaccination program in Dadaab, Kenya. When the world’s largest refugee camp is plagued with cholera outbreaks, Koehler discovers a murderous conspiracy. Corrupt CIA agents plan to destabilize the African Union by distributing a live virus to certain ethnic groups...

MARTYRS by Jordan Ellinger

When newly discovered intel places the world’s most wanted terrorist far from the mountain caves where he’s reputed to be hiding, the CIA decides to enlist the help of local doctor Sahir Ahmed to run an inoculation campaign designed to isolate DNA that can be linked to a sister in Boston. A relationship soon develops between the doctor and his nurse/handler, Pakistani-American Nadira, that has him questioning everything he knows about the bond between the nation he calls home and the superpower across the sea...

THE CALL by Alex Black

Iron-willed CIA case officer Nikolas Koteas confronts a series of increasingly ugly choices as he hunts for a notorious Taliban commander while under deep cover in Pakistan. When it becomes clear that his ruthless enemy has acquired a horrific weapon of mass destruction, Koteas must ask himself how far he will go and whether or not he will make the call to use the very vaccination ruse that he condemned in order to complete his mission...

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Evidence of neanderthal immigration to North Africa

The original Africans are Neandertals (in part) | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine:

'via Blog this'

You might be wondering, why all of the recent posts here about neandertals and other hominids? Partially it's an extension of my fascination with the evolution of the human thought. In my eyes we are our thoughts. Thoughts are the very experience of what is to be a human being, and the medium for all the drama that goes with that condition. The bones and artifacts left by our fellow hominii, and how they apparently interbred and competed with us says something about how they processed the world in their heads.

I'm also interested in neanderthals and other hominids because it dovetails with my science fiction writing. The trilogy I'm working on deals with the co-existence of sapient species during an age of star flight. The ability or inability to live side by side is a central issue, as is the influence of biology from separate spheres of evolution that affects how each sapient species sees the world. That, and how these species grapple with using emerging bio and nanotechnologies to alter those modes of perception. When it comes to writing characters and conflicts in such a setting it's both useful and fulfilling to take a look at the last time that our Earth hosted multiple sapient species who lived in close proximity to one another.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Neanderthals: A summary of us and them

Today's links of interest

Neanderthals ... They're Just Like Us?:

'via Blog this'

National Geographic has a good summary on what's known and not known about the state of relationships between modern humanity and the neanderthals. Divergences, convergences, and all that.


PTSD and resilience 

Stress: The roots of resilience : Nature News & Comment:

'via Blog this'

Science journal juggernaut Nature takes a look at some of the neurological underpinnings of brains that are altered by severe trauma and those that come through horrific events unscathed. This is an article that I will be revisiting, as my military science fiction takes a look at all aspects of war. That includes the years that come after and the ways in which technology may change or eliminate PTSD, for good and bad.

Five planets, one star


Tightly Packed Planets Spotted Around Sun-Like Star | Wired Science | Wired.com:

'via Blog this'


A Wired piece on the Kepler space telescope team's discovery of five near-Earth sized planets orbiting their star, all within the radius of the planet Mercury's close in circle around the Sun.

Bin Laden down


Alternative to Bin Laden Raid: A Teeny, Tiny Missile Strike | Danger Room | Wired.com:

'via Blog this'

Also in Wired, an interview with Black Hawk Down author Mark Bodwen on his new book The Finish, which describes the lead up to the raid that kill Bin Laden, and the alternatives that were discussed. Included the interview is a link to a Wired article that describes the ground-level fusion of intelligence and special operations functions within the Joint Special Operations Command, which came out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this past decade.

While the linked article's author is judgmental and uses various military terms incorrectly or out of context, he still sketches a good portrait of how the formerly separate worlds of combat operations and intelligence gathering were finally integrated at the operational level. As a personal opinion, I think that this is the biggest revolution in military affairs since the advent of the mechanized warfare and the overall 20th-century trend of integrated combined arms operations of armor, infantry, and indirect fire elements taking place at smaller and smaller unit levels.

Cork: A photo journalism essay


How cork is made: an illustrated guide:

'via Blg this'


Also, for the delight of fellow wine-loving onephiles, a fantastic photojournalism essay that shows the making of wine corks.


Monday, October 15, 2012

States and Nations 3.0: What is Cyberdemocracy?

As mentioned in the first States and Nations 3.0 post, we've gone from living in family bands, to tribes, multi-village chiefdoms, and then states. It's a progression seen in seen in branches of humanity who were isolated from one another for 10,000 years by the vagaries of ice-age land bridges between the New and Old Worlds, as well as in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean. Those steps in increased social complexity are by-in-large linked to advances in technology. Family bands and tribes normally employed paleo- and neolithic hunter - gatherer tech packages. Chiefdoms were the product of early sedentary agriculture (with a few notable exceptions in resource heavy regions). Early states required relatively advanced packages of farming techniques, domesticated crops, and crafts in order to exist.

So if there are other forms of social organization beyond states in our future, what kind of technologies might bring them about?  Advances in brain augmentation and gene engineering that alter the nature of human thought hold exotic possibilities. But before getting into those a couple of articles from now, there are more quixotic technologies worth looking at on the near-term horizon. Technologies that are less radical, but which still hold transformative potentials. Information and computer science tech are on the lips of lots of near-future futurists these days, and their discussions often include the terms cyberdemocracy and e-democracy.

What are these forms of neo-populism?

Essentially there are three broad tiers that I've come across so far:
  • Electronic direct democracy
  • Expert system-assisted democracy
  • Social software engine driven democracy 
Direct electronic democracy is the simplest of the three. Essentially online voting systems would allow voters to decide each issue directly, doing away with the need for elected representative bodies. Expert system-assisted democracy consists of varying schemes to use AI systems to aide voters or politicians. One such design would replace elected representatives with randomly chosen citizens who serve limited terms of office, and who are assisted in their duties by AIs or dispassionate expert systems. An ideal setting for of this system is one in which the software is self-maintaining, self-evolving, and does not require maintenance from human engineers who might tamper with the systems. 

Social software engine democracy is a complex hybrid form. One in which citizens up vote or down vote issues and choices on software systems that are modeled on robust game engines, which have already established a track record for being able to operate in the face of advanced and repeated hacking attacks. These applications packages would include forms for discussion, and reputation systems with cumulative, peer-voted reliability ratings like those used on eBay or classic online forms like Slashdot. In other words, other citizens would vote the reputations of their peers up or down, one rating at a time, to help establish credibility. Such a system could also be used to choose and supply executive agents--operatives who solve problems and enforce agreed upon laws using just-in-time resources voted to them by fellow citizens who approve of their performance.   

Author Daniel Suarez uses an emergent social software engine democracy as the center piece of his bestselling novels Daemon and FreedomTM. In the books' present day setting, gamification techniques in the form reputation bonuses, Kickstarter-style funding, and social recognition are used to help encode participation in collective decision making into everyday online life. Encrypted digital currencies and augmented reality also figure prominently in weaving this social system into the physical space of daily life as well. 

Next up: E-democracy

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A genetic potential for cultural revolutions

I believe in the blank slate! | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine:

'via Blog this'

Above is a link to an article that hits the sweet spot with regards to the complexity of how both genes and environmentally transmitted cultural information shape what we are as humans. In this case it's a proposal that genetically modern humans spread out from Africa and coexisted with or inhabited areas in Eurasia that bordered regions occupied by older lineages like H. neanderthalensis and the recently discovered denisovans. Those same modern humans held genes that conferred latent potentials, which were finally realized with the arrival of some sort of cultural revolution that enabled homo sapiens to displace or assimilate the kin that it had previously bumped up against.

As I've written about previously, my pet theory for a cultural influence that greatly increased the complexity of the brain's wiring in individuals is syntactical spoken language. Learning a grammatically structured communications scheme significantly alters a human brain. So much so, that it is clinically recognized, with individuals unfortunate enough never to have learned a language during the youthful brain's super plasticity phases between ages two and sixteen expressing lifetime deficits in abstract reasoning.

Words and the ability to order them into sentences that carry larger meta meanings likely offered an entirely new avenue for internally manipulating concepts in a species that had previously been a visual thinker. The genes involved in the latency were probably in part those that set the stage for the development of the semantic memory subsystem, construct the speech-generating Broca's region in the brain, and those that enable complex associative connections in the neocortex.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Cyberattack on Mideast energy firms

Cyberattack on Mideast energy firms was biggest yet, Panetta says - The Washington Post:

'via Blog this'

Some of the cyberwarfare issues that I've posted about here earlier are heating up. This summer, several Mideastern energy firms suffered a destructive loss of data after a viral attack. More recently, major US banks came under a coordinated and sustained denial of service attack that appears to have cost them a few tens of millions of dollars in lost fees and disrupted transactions. The chief suspect in both incidences are the Iranians, who are believed to be retaliating for the joint US - Israeli Stuxnet attack against their nuclear program.

As a purely personal opinion, I think that Stuxnet was a mistake. Both in a narrow military sense that it was a wasted attack that could not deliver a significant blow, and in the broader sense of being the proverbial stone cast in a glass house.

From a historical view it reminds me of the early US bombing raids against North Vietnam--isolated strikes, none of which was part of a coherent campaign designed to bring the enemy to his knees in short order. Instead of a killing blow against a weak combatant, the gradual escalation of pinpricks served to give the Soviet-backed North Vietnamese a good picture of US capabilities, and then develop an effective defense. Toward the end of the war, US pilots no longer had free reign over the skies of North Vietnam. Instead they found themselves pitted against a formidable network comprised of the Warsaw Pact's best air defense weapons platforms. The resulting fight claimed the lives of hundred of US airmen and officers, and saw several dozen confined in brutal POW prisons. All in a battle space that they had dominated just a few years earlier.

Then there's that glass house issue. The US is one of the most wired countries in the world. We've got more critical financial and infrastructure assets online than just about anyone else. In using software to destroy hardware in someone else's country, we've invited a response on the same battlefield. And unlike dropping a bomb, cyberwarfare is an arena where enemies can actually hit back at the US.

I'm not suggesting that cyberspace would have stayed a peaceful and happy place if Stuxnet had never been launched. Someday, someone will fight a war online, and the financial fallout will likely  be ugly for everyone involved. I'd rather it not be us who are tangled up in that mutually destructive episode. Especially with so much of our lives and livelihoods tied up in dataspace. If the threat of a nuclear armed Iran is so great then we should be willing to go the distance in physical space to decide the matter permanently, and do it within the confines of the Geneva conventions that we helped to write. Especially at a time when we are only just starting to address our major online infrastructure vulnerabilities.


California's future: Detached and headed north?

Some days the internet is full of awesome. Yesterday I learned that just to the east of California's super volcano, the gigantic Long Valley Caldera, sits the remains of an older caldera blasted into the flank of Sierras: The Minarets Caldera, a place of towering spires surrounding a jumbled volcanic void. That's so going on my list of places to hike.

Related to that, it appears that energy from the collision between North America and the Pacific Plate is ever-so-slowly transferring from the San Andreas fault to a deepening trough and system of spreading faults just to the east of the the Sierra Nevadas in the Great Basin. At some point in the distant future, the San Andreas may become an inactive fault, and the Pacific plate will drag all of California to the northwest along a new plate fault, much as it has done with Baja Peninsula since slowly rifting it off mainland Mexico, starting 15 million years ago. See the fourth page of this geology digest article for illustrations.

California being transported to the Pacific Northwest may not necessarily be awesome, but it's certainly a rather epic scenario.

For those who are curious, it sounds like 80% of the present day collision energy is expressed in movements along the San Andreas fault, while the other 20% finds an outlet in the deformation of the Western Great Basin's Walker Trough, which roughly parallels the Sierras.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Place holder for the next States and Nations article

Apologies for the recent lack of posts here. I've gone back to school full time to pick up some programming skills. Linux, JavaScript, and the like. I'm also hunting for an apartment while trying to keep up my science fiction writing output and meet my copy writing obligations. Once I'm settled in with a roof of my own overhead I should be back to doing one article and a couple of minor posts here each week.

The lack of bogging has been frustrating because I've been looking forward to tackling the subject of what future nations and other human collectives might look like. The nation-states that we live in are a relatively recent invention, and I would be surprised if they end up being the end-all be-all of human social development. Our future starfaring descendants may well one day look back at the science fiction of the early Space Age, and have good chuckle over how naive our depictions of 20th century industrial nations among the stars are. Crazy Earthbound people, why not fantasize about interstellar samurai kingdoms, spear-wielding hunter-gatherers living on asteroids, or  planet-wide chiefdoms?
 
At any rate, I'll knock out the next article in the series--which looks at the potentials and dangers of different forms  cyberdemocracy--this weekend, or die in the attempt. In the meanwhile there is a fairly good article up at Slate that's worth a read if you're looking to fill up a few internet minutes with something that's intellectually nutritious. It takes a summary look at the current genetics- and fossil-derived  view that the ice-age paleolithic world was one in which there were multiple species of humans bumping up against one another on many different views.

That's right. I'm so busy and stressed for time just now that I'll even stoop to tossing out insinuations about sex to keep my readers happy.  Not that I ever do that in fiction or anything...

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

A volcanic vision of changing seasons

Mount St. Helens looking dry and raisin-like in an autumn sunset on the US Forest Service's Volcano Cam, not far away from Portland in Washington State.


Source: http://www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/volcanocams/msh/views/static-highdef.php

The glaciers and permanent snow fields may be lonely now, but soon enough those brown and grey slopes will all be clad in white.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Military science fiction seen through real world eyes

There have been a couple of fun articles floating around on the internet, which analyze a pair of seminal science fiction series through the lenses of history and present day military affairs. In the Foreign Policy article "Aircraft Carriers in Space" the editor of Small Wars Journal looks at what the reboot of Battle Star Galactica and other other works get right and wrong bout space combat. Of particular interest is the fact that apparently E.E. Dock Smith's 1930s Lenseman novels inspired the US Navy's incorporation of combat-information-centers into the design of its flagships. In a similar vein, Ben Adams contributes the well reasoned piece "Systems, not Sith: How Inter-service Rivalries Doomed the Galactic Empire" over at Overthinkingit.com, which explains the defeat of Star Wars' evil empire in terms of the branch service battles that have historically plagued militaries here on Earth.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Earth cracking beneath the Indian Ocean

It looks like the Indo-Austrian plate might be starting the long process of cracking into two new plates. If this is true, it would explain two major quakes earlier this year off of Indonesia and a subsequent rash of minor quakes that took place at a never-before-seen frequency for a period of several days around the globe.

Earth cracking up under Indian Ocean - environment - 26 September 2012 - New Scientist:

'via Blog this'

Most of the articles I've looked at discuss this as though it's a new thing, but one mentioned that the process may have started as early as ten million years ago. Either way, it's interesting stuff that shows how dynamic our homeworld is.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Anime influences and cyclic derivatives

Pardon me while I nerd out in a big way with this article.

Popular speculative fiction site IO9 recently ran a piece on visual motifs used in American cinema that are borrowed from Japanese anime. Among these are concrete surfaces that shatter when landed on by super-powered characters like Neo in The Matrix, or the up-armored Tony Stark in Iron Man . Also included are insectoid mecha (robots),  psychic battles with spectacular side-effects, and weaponized women as sexy cybernetic or supernatural combat platforms.   

In other words, a whole lot of visual badassery and epic atmosphere from land of manga and OVA films.

Not surprisingly, the comments section of the article quickly filled up with some sharp observations about how many of these motifs first appeared in American speculative fiction novels or comic books. This is the internet after all, and no one was going to make these kind of geek culture assertions and walk away unscathed.

This time around, both sides are right. Many of those classic visuals did make their way from anime to Hollywood. Japanese animation has been an enduring influence on a generation of writers and directors who grew up watching brightly-colored characters with big eyes and spiky hair on local television stations or bootlegged VHS tapes. I was most definitely one of them. At the same time, there are plenty making-of-specials in which manga artists and anime writers talk about specific American science fiction influences on their work.  

Not that this interchange of artistic influences is anything new. It's just the most recent manifestation of an ongoing process of  international exchanges. Only now it's accelerated to the point we can practically see discrete packets of influence ricocheting from culture to culture, complete with sparks of controversy and fan-boy admiration.

There have been material exchanges of cultural going on at least since the time of the Silk Roads. Chinese textiles were incorporated into the clothing of the Roman Empire, and Roman glassware was traded in the land of the Han Dynasty. During this past century, however,  the coming of cinema helped to accelerate such cross-border movements into easily traceable lines of dovetailing pop culture influences. My favorite example of such a tightly woven braid is Samurai film master Akira Kurosawa and his American acolytes.     

Kurosawa's high-tension 1950s and 60s samurai showdowns and his often laconic deception of those qued warriors were very much influenced by similarly drawn-out stare-downs and sudden-death six shooter battles in the John Ford films that Kurosawa had admired during the 1930s. Yojimbo in particular is an homage to the influence of Ford and his westerns. At the same time, those samurai movies found a loyal following in Southern California among a new generation of film makers. Future block bluster directors like Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola became devoted followers of Kurosawa, and George Lucas openly incorporated several of Kurosawa's film elements into Star Wars. Watch Hidden Fortress if you want to see the original incarnation of R2D2 and C3PO as squabbling sidekick peasants in medieval Japan

The sense of admiration among the American film directors was strong enough that when Kurosawa encountered difficulties raising funds for his films in Japan after a string of box office flops, that Lucas and Coppola used influence and their own money to help produce Kurosawa's Kagemusha. 

There were also other international influences involved in this system of cross-culture exchanges. Kurosawa was a fan of Shakespeare and counted Tolstoy among his influences as a storyteller.

As mentioned earlier, this kind of thing has been going on for a long while in storytelling. Anime and Hollywood exchanges are hardly any more surprising than a pair of epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, set in a backwater collection of primitive city states, going on to become pillars of the transnational cultural body that would become Western Civilization. Every storyteller has formative heroes whose works shape theirs. Often the come from unlikely sources, including other lands. Only now it's just a bit more obvious whom we derive ourselves from, and that's certainly nothing worth getting angry over on the internet.