Monday, October 25, 2010

Literary swag

My author's copies of Writers of the Future Volume 26, along with the trophy and copy of Tyler's illustration for "Lisa with Child" arrived this Saturday.

Many thanks to everyone at Author Services, which administers the contest and orchestrated a wonderful week in Los Angeles. The time spent there with my peers, the contest judges, and the instructors was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Hanging up the artwork on the wall and putting the trophy on the desk was certainly something of an emotional moment. I've always avoided calling myself a writer, because it sounded rather pretentious without having a published novel on the shelves of bookstores. However, having tangible signs my first publishing success is making me a whole lot more comfortable with the idea of being a writer and not just a hobbyist. That and the fact that friends have started referring to me as a science fiction writers helps.

Of course now I need to figure out a away to make this sustainable. The literary science fiction market is imploding, and if the trends of the past few decades continue to hold true, only a handful of individuals will be able to make a living writing original science fiction. It has already largely transitioned from a profession to a cottage industry, in which even published novelists write in their spare time.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Fall in PDX

The writing view

Friday, October 22, 2010

In case the internet hasn't given you...

...enough ways to waste your days in front of a computer, I'd like to recommend Warren Ellis's ongoing online comic about telepaths in post-apocalyptic London, Freak Angels.

Normally I'm not much of an Ellis fan for the same reason that most of literary science fiction no longer interests me--because it's like being beaten over the head with an ideology. If I had my way, fiction would be as hostile to ideology as science. Ideologies carry too high of an epistemological cost in that they compel their believers to shut out whole aspects of the world and disregard empirical observation.

Not that completely ideology-free fiction will ever come about. Even the beliefs of positivists give shade and color to their writing. That said, a middle ground of moderation is possible. So far, Ellis seems to have hit that with Freak Angels. I'm about a quarter of the way through the extant work, and the post-apocalyptic setting has made for a story in which science fiction concepts and the stories of the characters come first.

Making it a fun read thus far.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cool robotics...

...but definitely the most bizarre and threatening floral delivery system I've ever seen.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The city planet

"But the history book of recent Homo sapiens...should begin and end with one narrative line: We became city dwellers."

~Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map

Sometime around 2008 we quietly tripped over a major transition line. For the first time in human existence more of us lived within urban areas rather than the countryside.

Welcome to our city-planet: a world of urban hives, sprawling edge cities, wired hinterlands, and shrinking wildernesses.

This transition has had me thinking about other major tipping points and under-appreciated shifts in human development. The story of our species looks quite different when focusing in on geographic regions, or long-duration trade networks, or biological and information exchanges as topics of historical inquiry rather than the traditional study of nation-states. Entirely new patterns of interactions and casual dynamics appear when examining these systems.

Some of the major transitions and events might be:

•The emergence of symbolic thought as indicated by art, grave goods, and burial of the dead. This may have marked the emergence of animistic religious worldviews.

•The adoption of syntactical language and its organizing effects on the brain, which may be a key component of advanced abstract reasoning.

•The first successful emigration out of Africa

•The extinction of the Neanderthals, the last of our fellow homini species. Or possibly the extinction of Homo floresiensis, the Indonesian “hobbits,” who may have existed up until 12,000-years ago.

•The settlement of the Americas, making Homo sapiens a global-spanning species.

•The start of the Holocene and the retreat of glaciers in the northern hemisphere.

•The transition from family bands to multi-family tribes in regions with highly productive ecologies.

•The neolithic revolution. The adoption of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent and subsequently in other locations. This marks the beginning of the displacement of hunter-gathers by agricultural societies.

•The emergence of multi-generational family households, with several generations of extended family under one roof. This often included hired help or slaves.

•The domestication of livestock and emergence of pastoralists

•The domestication of transport animals in Eurasia

•The emergence of chieftainship societies with specialized labor and economic social classes, distinct from the hierarchically flat generalist hunter-gatherers and pastoralists. Chieftainships also created organized warfare as well as corvĂ©e and slave labor that enabled the building of public works to increase agriculture and trade productivity.

•The first cities in Mesopotamia, the Indus River Valley, and in what is now Northern China and Mesoamerica.

•The emergence of mythology-based anthropomorphic deities and belief systems.  This change replaced earlier animal totems and spirits of nature with entities who often embodied the abstract dynamics of the human world.

•The adoption of written language, which enabled a leap in the organizational complexity of large undertakings as well as the durability and clarity of information stored in external memory systems.

•The emergence of currencies, which allowed for new forms of large-scale market-driven economic organization without the necessity of having a chieftain. Political power then became more diffuse in city-states

•The emergence of continent-spanning trade networks such as the Silk Roads of Eurasia, the Gold Roads of Africa, and the Turquoise Road that linked portions of North and Central America.

•The emergence of early nations in the form of empires. By the year 0 BCE multi-ethnic, multi-lingual empires in Rome, Persia, India, and China nearly spanned the entire length of Eurasia from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

•The suppression of polygamy in empires and city states to maintain social stability. Prior to this, polygamy had been a common practice in tribal and chiefdom societies, but served as a frequent motivator for destabilizing violence among low-status males who were unable to find female partners or wives within their own society.

•The emergence of early humanism in India, China, and Classical Greece. While not widely held at the time, these human-centered worldviews were built around concepts that would later give rise to secular paradigms. Of particular note in Greece were the ideas of empirical observation and discourse on its discoveries, leading to truths that clashed with cultural descriptions of reality.

•The emergence of monotheism and religious paradigms based universal truths

•The adoption of wind and water wheels across Eurasia, which greatly increased the amount energy available for manufacturing goods such as textiles as well as processing foodstuffs in mills.

•The Vikings’ contact with native North Americas. For the first time humanity completely encircled the Earth.

•The Columbian biological exchange of foodstuffs, fauna, and pathogens between the Eastern and Western hemispheres.

•The colonization of the Americas

•The gradual emergence of a modern Humanist worldview in which the lives of humans are the primary and the divine is secondary.

•The decision of Song China to adopt silver as its national currency during the early 1400s. The subsequent exploitation of extensive silver deposits in the Americas by Europeans gave the Spanish and Portuguese greatly expanded access to East Asian markets. This lead to the creation of the first globe-circling trade networks and the finial eclipse of the Silk Roads by maritime shipping. It also served to drive much of the Western European powers’ imperial expansion.

•The creation of the formalized scientific method

•The Industrial Revolution and the switch from wind- and water-based power for industry and transportation to hydrocarbon power.

•The beginning of the decline in the use of animal power for manufacture and transportation

•The emergence of Rationalist paradigms

•The creation of the first atheist state in revolutionary France. All previous human societies had incorporated religions as central cultural institutions.

•The emergence of Romantic paradigms as a backlash against Rationalism.

•European colonialism in East Asia and Africa

•The emergence of centralized, bureaucratic nation-states

•The rise of national identities, which subsume the regional, local, and kin-based group identities that had been humanity's primary group identifiers.

•The decline of multi-ethnic, multi-lingual empires when faced with rising nationalism in subject states and peoples.

•The use of petroleum product to created easily transportable energy sources of unprecedented power and reliability. This also allowed for the creation of nitrogen-based fertilizers which greatly reduced human dependence of solar power in agriculture, which in turn freed much of humankind from famine or food scarcity as a repeated lifetime experiences.

•Urbanization. Large scale migrations into cities accelerates dramatically. This places urban dwellers in the historically unusual position of dealing with dozens of strangers each day.

•The emergence of nuclear families as with parents and their children living in households separate  from grandparents and other extended kin.

•As the industrial revolution proceeds, many urban dwellers shift to consumer- rather than producer-based individual identities.

•The theory of Natural Selection and the Big Bang theory provided secular frameworks for explanations of the origin of the universe and the origin of biological life.

•The mapping of the world and the end of the age of exploration bring an end to the worldview of Earth as a place of mysteries. At the same time the discovery of a universe outside the Milky Way galaxy during the early 20th century shifts the realm of the unknown to the newly expanded heavens.

•The emergence of religious fundamentalist worldviews as a reaction to modernity

•The emergence of secular totalitarian ideologies as reactions or adaptations to modernity. In less than one century these systems kill more people than religion in all of previous human history.

•Using industrial hydrocarbon power, Homo sapiens become the largest transporter of earth, moving more tons of it than any geological process aside from the continental drift.

•The devolution of power. Political power continues an uneven trend of diffusing from elites to the public within democratic nation-states.  An advance that is generally associated with the rise of innovative industrial economies.

•The acceleration of global trade and communications

•The acceleration of scientific and engineering knowledge as well as technological breakthroughs.

•Technology continues to place ever-greater physical power into the hands of individuals.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A sobering FP article...

...on the economic consequences of a graying world and aging populations. Which is interesting from a genre perspective as much of the science fiction I read as a kid was concerned with overpopulation and Malthusian doomsday scenarios.

Think Again: Global Aging - By Phillip Longman | Foreign Policy

Maybe this means rather than trying to predict a most likely future we should be consciously writing stories within an array of possible outcomes.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Altering the components of self

So, as previously discussed, we've learned much about the brain and the mind that it generates from the study of our genes as well as observations of living brains in action over the past two decades. Additionally, fields such as neuroanthropology, molecular anthropology, and biological anthropology have enjoyed a number of successes in tracing out humankind's intertwined physical and behavioral development. Meanwhile research in development psychology has done much to demarcate the bounds of innate knowledge and inborn predispositions.

As we discover more about about the biological roots of personality and society, we learn more about the feedback cycle between these components--of how while the brain has inbuilt primate properties, our organ of thought is also built to be modified to a degree by external influences such as language and culture. Finally, even as we continue to discover the biological building blocks of the self and its relationship to society, we are developing technologies to alter these roots of the mind.

All of which opens up numerous storytelling possibilities.

Our brains contain three different memory systems that can be modified. The most interesting--for me--is the two-part declarative memory. The older part of this system is the episodic, which handles the recall of situations that an individual has experienced. The more recent is the semantic memory, which holds information is independent of the context that it was learned in. The semantic half of the declarative memory allows us to create abstract meanings, as it gives us the ability us to remember the commonalities of multiple situations and thus to discover underlying factors and casual relationships.

Of more relevance to individual personalities is emotive mechanism whereby the brain encodes long-term episodic memories. The stronger the emotion, the more likely the hippocampus is to write short-term situational awareness into long-term recall. Modification of this process would change the nature of memory and a persons remembrance of their life, changing their outlook on the world. What if we could make memory much more selective? What if nature has already made memory self-serving to a large degree, and we could modify it to be more emotionally objective or empirical?

We appear to have an emotional network shaped by the short-term priorities of a world in which food was scarce, and the next season could bring feast or famine. The majority of our species finds survival, athletic, and social skill sets and activities far more interesting that abstract reasoning skills such as mathematics, accounting, and the scientific process. We have such terrible long-term discipline that cultures around the world must seek to chide and chivvy us to place our long-range priorities before our much more appealing prospects for short-term gratification.

What if we could make math as innately appealing as sports, adventure, or combat. What if we could make long-term gratification as emotionally attractive as instant satisfaction?

Sexual orientation appears to be heavily influenced by exposure to androgen hormones while in the womb. Imagine if we could make similar changes later in life. What if individuals could reassign their orientation? What if others could force them to change their orientation?

What if we could make everyone a synesthete, linking sense such as sight and hearing to produce a rich cross-sensory experiences that have so far been the privilege of a tiny few?

And then there are the savant talents: Can we extend eidetic memory, super-human math calculation, and innate artistic talents to all of humanity via magnetic stimulation of the brain or gene engineering. What are the ethics of eliminating the the varieties of mental retardation common in males and associated with having only a single active copy of the x-chromosome. What would be the morality of eliminating Downs Syndrome.

The list goes on and on of all that we might alter about ourselves. Oddly enough, science fiction writers seem to have been reluctant discussing changing human nature in the context of human evolution. Or for that matter, the existence of a human nature rooted in genes, innate nuerobiological structures, and primate brains of the past.

Next up: The biological paradigm of the mind in science fiction (yes, this time for real!)

Gothic steampunk...

...from Denmark's The Raveonettes.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Europe's super volcano and the Neanderthal extinction

Last year I wrote a redemptive short story set in the Western United States after an eruption of the Yellowstone volcano--an event modeled on Yellowstone's most recent "mega-colossal" eruption of six-hundred-forty-thousand-years ago. In this story, the Central United States has been smothered under a meter of abrasive volcanic ash, and the world is struggling through the third year of an unbroken volcanic winter. Human civilization continues to limp along only because of the widespread use of space program technology originally developed for permanent settlements on the Moon and Mars.

I read dozens of papers on "super volcanoes" while researching for this story. Of particular interest were articles on the eighteen-or-so super events that have taken place during the past two million years. Of these, one of the most fascinating but frustrating to research was the eruption of Italy's Campi Flegrei.

Most people are aware that the city of Naples is imperiled by its close proximity to Mt. Vesuvius, which destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79. Not so commonly known is that the city is also located adjacent to Europe's only active super volcano. Around thirty-nine to thirty-five-thousand-years ago, the Campi Flegrei erupted over five hundred cubic kilometers of rhyolitic ash in a caldera-forming event that must have devastated downwind regions in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, and lead to a dramatic climatic shift.

This was also the period during which anatomically and behaviorally modern Homo sapiens first entered Europe. At the time the continent was already inhabited by the Neanderthals.

How Europe came to be settled exclusively by modern humans has been a subject of much debate. It's still not known if Homo sapiens out competed, out bred, or directly killed off Homo neanderthalensis, or if they absorbed some of them through interbreeding. So it was frustrating to read about the eruption of Campi Flegrei during this time and to find out there was almost no information about the volcano's impact on the region's hominid populations.

Now, however, there is new evidence in the form of ash layers and tool deposits in Russian caves. These findings suggest that Flegrei's Campanian Ignimbrite super-eruption played an important role in depopulating portions of Europe and clearing the way for the first influx of modern humans.

If true, this would help to make sense of how Homo sapiens were finally able to displace the Neanderthals, as an earlier Neanderthal presence in the Middle East appears to have kept our ancestors bottled up in Africa for tens of thousands of years. When we finally undertook our first successful migration out of our home-continent, it was south along the coastline of the Arabian Peninsula, skirting the areas inhabited by Homo neanderthalensis at the time.

Campi Flegrei is not the first super volcano to have shaped our species. The earlier and far more devastating eruption of Indonesia's Lake Toba around seventy-five-thousand-years ago appears to have nearly exterminated the human race, and may have left survivors in scattered pockets that were isolated for thousands of years. Depending on if and how far humankind had migrated out of Africa at the time, these groups of separated survivors may have been the ancestors of the first distinct racial groups.

In other words, prior to the Toba event it's likely that all humans possessed a single skin color.

Regardless if our species had left Africa or not, the signs of a population bottleneck from this period are written within our genome. When Toba erupted and triggered a years-long volcanic winter, our numbers and those of other mammals such as elephants and lions plummeted. This left the tell-tale genetic signs of gene selections from large populations suddenly suddenly sectioned into small survivor groups.

As an aside, I don't lose sleep fretting over Yellowstone. No one knows if the volcano is currently cooling off or heating up, just as no one knows what the exact saturation states of the magma in the chambers immediately below the park are.

Super volcanoes depend on intrusions of gas-poor basalt lava from below, which then melts the continental crust and forms caches of gas-rich explosive rhyolitic magma--explosive in the frothy sense that a shaken up can of soda has the potential to jet out it's contents if opened. As the Yellowstone hotspot has already generated three caldera forming eruptions at its current location, it is entirely possible that it has exhausted the ability of the bedrock there to produce more gas-saturated rhyolitic magma. In the six hundred thousand years since the last super volcano scale eruption, it has only erupted large quantities of basalt and some gas-poor rhyolitic lava.

Or it may be saturated enough at this very moment for one final colossal event. Even if there is enough saturated and cystalized rhyolitic magma present, we do not understand the mechanism that causes it to shift from a stable state into volatile chain reaction.

The potential super volcano that I am most curious about at present is the steadily swelling Iwo-Jima caldera several hundred of miles off the southern coast of Japan. Within this volcano, the island of Iwo-Jima has been uplifted over one hundred twenty meters (approximately three hundred sixty feet) during the past four hundred years. The location where the US Marines first landed during the famous and bloody assault on the island of Iwo-Jima is now twenty meters (sixty feet) above sea level.

Further reading for those who are interested:

Campi Flegrei

* Volcanism and the Mantle, Campi Flegrei. This research paper contains maps and photos of the half-submerged Italian caldera's geology and placement.

The present-day Campi Flegrei is of particular interest not only because it is inhabited, but also due to its restlessness. During the 1970s portions of the caldera floor rose by two meters (six feet), and another 1.8 meters of uplift during the early 80s resulted in the temporary evacuation of twenty-thousand townspeople. Europe's youngest mountain also stands at the center of the caldera, erected there during an eruptive period in the 1500s.


* Monitoring super-volcanoes: geophysical and geochemical signals at Yellowstone and other large caldera systems. A previously cited, easy-to-read and very informative Royal Society paper on Yellowstone and the difficulties in monitoring known super voclanoes to determine if a large-scale eruption is imminent. Also includes is a clear history and good maps of past activity.

* Radiating Volcanic Migrations: An example from the Pacific Northwest, U.S.A.. A research paper detailing how the emergence of the Yellowstone hotpot on the Nevada-Oregon border accompanied a transformation that radically altered the shape of much of Western North America. Good maps of major associated volcanic activity and the volcano's migration on page three, four, and five.

The video below shows the stretching and thinning of the Western United States' continental crust driven by its collision with the northward moving Pacific plate. This collision and stretching first began shortly--in a geologic sense--before the Yellowstone hot spot first emerged. Interestingly, both the Yellowstone and Newberry volcanic hotspots as well as the chain of rifts that buried much of the Pacific Northwest under layers of basalt lava all appeared at the center point of this stretch over a two million year period.

* Mantel A site with articles written by geologists debating the existence of mantel plumes. Some scientists believe that Yellowstone and other volcanoes that have persisted for millions of years are the products of heat plumes rising from deep within the Earth's mantel. Others believe that these are localized hot spots formed by interactions between the upper lithospheric layer and the mantel beneath it.

* The fate of the Juan de Fuca plate: Implications for a
Yellowstone plume head
. The Pacific Northwest region of United States and Southern Canada is currently overriding an oceanic plate that is subducting beneath the North American continent. In this journal article, two geologist argue that they have empirical evidence that suggests that the subducted oceanic plate beneath Eastern Oregon was destroyed by the arrival of the Yellowstone plume, seventeen million years ago.

* Upper-mantle origin of the Yellowstone hotspot. A research a paper written by two USGS scientists and a University of Durham professor arguing that there is no empirical data for a mantel plume beneath Yellowstone.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The military, sustainable energy,...

...and economies of scale

A hopeful Slate article on how the military's drive to adopt alternative energy sources could provide the necessary economies of scale to make such technologies widely affordable on the civilian market--as was the case with microprocessors and data processing computers this last century.

The military has looked at alternatives to fossil fuels before, but both cost and the fragility of the devices precluded adopting any of these technologies. However, the decreased price as well as increased reliability and efficiency of devices such as solar recharges in recent years has made the wide-spread deployment of alternative power sources a very real possibility.

And a much desired one.

The petroleum needed to power vehicles and combat platforms of all stripes has an enormous dollar cost. The above article cites the current money price of moving gasoline to the remote areas of Afghanistan at $400 per gallon (roughly $1600 per liter). Then there is the enormous logistical footprint of tanker ships and trucks required to move fuel. Any technology that can generate power on site has the potential to shrink the logistics network, and having fewer transport vehicles is a key component of making units agiler and easy to maneuver, both on land and at sea.

So here's hoping that these technologies work in the field as well as help to speed the widespread adoption of alternative power at home.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

It's very cool... the discovery of a semi Earth-like planet has grabbed people's imaginations

Future explorers could reach the Earthlike planet Zarmina in just 6.1 years

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

High-end cyber weapon

So someone has written and deployed a very complex, mutating malware weapon designed to damage or destroy specific infrastructure equipment.


There are a number things about the escalating level of cybenetic attacks taking place that worry me.

1) It's a form of combat taking place in civilian environs around the world. It's playing out in banks, power grids, as well as in several nations' national industrial infrastructure.

2) Insanely enough, major infrastructure devices here in the US are accessible via the internet. Power plants, dams, oil derricks, ATM networks, emergency service systems, have all been infiltrated, in a few instances attacked. A coordinated attack several regional power networks or dams could result in physical damage and major economic losses that would take months if not years to recover from. Amazingly, the private sector continues to drag its feet and resist taking steps to protect critical systems.

3) It's difficult to distinguish criminal activity from espionage or military attacks

3) It's extremely easy for events to escalate. An incident between two nation-states can quickly result in attacks by nationalist civilian hackers on each side.

4) Once malware is out on the internet it can spread quickly to non-targeted systems