Monday, April 30, 2012

Abstract computing

I've done some recent new media copywrite work for a client, and it's gotten me thinking about the amazingly fast evolution of distributed computing. I know, thinking is dangerous for both copywriters and science fiction authors, but bear with me here.

Way back when, if you wanted your firm to have a full-time presence on the internet you had a server computer sitting in your office. Of course by way back I mean the late 1990s during the age of Web 1.0. So not quite Jurassic in the time-scale sense of the internet, but still long enough to qualify as long ago in this context. Around that time it became common to outsource this kind of operation to professional web hosting companies to leverage scales of economy and pooled resources. In other words, you probably switched to renting time on a server in someone else's specialized office because it made better business sense. Not long after that, another shift happened and it became cheaper and more reliable to rent time a virtual server software entity that is spread out in a cloud between multiple hardware servers in farms run by companies like Amazon and Rackspace.

Of course things haven't stopped there. Not by a long shot. Now you can rent time in a distributed "software environment" built to negate many of the annoying quirks and forms of software entropy that servers experience.

So how abstract can this process get? Like literal clouds of tiny devices floating in the air to act as software environments? I made a quick post about this question earlier today on the FaceBook. That netted me an almost immediate response from a fellow Portland area science fiction writer and coder.

According to the Ars Technica article he shared with me, the backers of the infamous Pirate Bay bit torrents site are considering creating a network of low-cost, balloon-borne servers to create their own wireless network. So, yeah. My bet is on tiny airborne machines that will form literal clouds at some point.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

In this life,you are your brain

That fact is a big part of why I'm so fascinated with the brain and the minds that it generates. Well, that and how we might be able to tweak or alter the brain and mind during the coming decades, both for awe-inspiring good and for some potentially horrific badness. Either way, when it comes to who we are and who we might be, the organ of thought figures prominently.

I also think the brain, mind, and our experience of life is a largely untapped topic in science fiction. Or at least, there is almost nothing in literary science fiction that talks about altering minds and gray matter in the context of the brain's genetic and evolutionary history, or that touches on the actual real-world wetware systems that we have learned so much about during the past two decades.

Systems that give rise to the desires and hungers that motivate us and that shape our perception of everything around and even within us.

So it was really cool this morning to jump on to the internets find that not only has Fiona Apple's latest single dropped for her forthcoming album, but that she's singing about that sometimes difficult and bothersome brain and the experiences and emotions that it creates for us.

And she does a beautiful job of it.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Some excellent storytelling

I'm normally not a fan of westerns, but this one has some great storytelling in it. Both with the plot from the original 1968 novel, but also in the Cohen brother's adaptation of it.

I have enormous respect for anyone who can successfully pull a story out of a book and drop it into a movie. That's no mean trick as novels and films are two entirely separate beasts, with very different senses of pacing as well as different attention spans on the part of readers and film viewers.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The peak of our weapons

I came across some frightening Cold War imagery, courtesy of Io9 today. Images that are both a chilling reminder of an apocalypse that never happened as well as a milestone in the evolution of military arms.

This insanely sinister infographic illustrates the power of the world's strongest nuke: "Tsar Bomba"

'via Blog this' via Io9

Humanity's drive to create larger, more powerful weapons reached its high point in 1961 with the detonation of the Soviet Union's colossally powerful Tsar Bomba. Past this point, the general trend has been a downward one as guidance and delivery systems have grown increasingly accurate.

There have been some exceptions. Tank main guns have gone up in size to deal with improved armor packages, but again, the overall trend has thankfully been a downwards one. 

Watching this footage earlier today was enough to send a chill down my spine and evoke memories of childhood fears from growing up during the Late Cold Ware, when I was well aware that our species had the power to create a global holocaust. This was very much the stuff of nightmares, and it found an occasional cultural expression in the science fiction of 60s, 70s, and 80s. Mainstream novels such as On the Beach and genre works like A Canticle for Leibowitz explored the dark sides of post-apocalyptic scenarios, while the fears or realization of a nuclear armageddon drove the plots of near-future science fiction books like Greg Bear's excellent and forward-looking Eon.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

An art project that ran for 12,000 years

The murals within the Chauvet Cave in Southern France were painted from 32,000 years ago to about 20,000 years prior to the present, before the cave was sealed by a collapse. While the cave remained opened, some of the paintings were expanded on and added to by later artists who lived up to 5,000 years after the original painters. The timescale involved and the sheer numbers of humans who lived and passed away during that 12,000-year period is humbling. That's a span of time almost twice the age of the oldest Egyptian pyramids.

This kind of art is also an interesting milestone in tracking the development abstract human thought. Being able to create a representation of a flesh-and-blood animal from blobs of paints and strokes of a brush on a blank surface demands a lot of high-end reasoning power. The kind made possible by the memory- and concept-associating neocortex glomed on to the the front of our human brains. That and by our semantic memory system which stores abstract concepts.

Our oldest system of memory in evolution is short-term memory, which consists of transient electrical currents between specialized neurons that do not appear to last much longer than a span measured in seconds. After that, the first durable system involving permanent connections between neurons was the reflexive memory system--also known as muscle memory--which allows basic physical skills to be memorized and improved upon. Then came the rise of the declarative memory, which is a set of memory systems that can be actively accessed and searched by the parts of our brains involved in generating conscious thought.

The oldest part of this network is the autobiographical subsystem, which provides the ability to recreate images and other representions of past situations that we have experienced. A second subsystem appears to have gradually emerged to hold information that concerned positive and negative stimuli organized on the basis of positions in space rather than in time. Eventually this subsystem evolved into our semantic memory, which holds abstract concepts and the ultimate representations of abstracts, words. In doing so it lets us both store and process data that is independent of the situation in which it was learned.

Probably the most important function of our semantic memory is that it lets us identify and understand underlying cause-and-effect dynamics common to multiple scenarios. Without it, we would probably see our pasts as linear collections of wholly unique moments with no repeatable commonalities on which to base predictions.

Paintings like those in the Chauvet Cave as well as the appearance of deliberately buried bodies interred with grave goods are important markers of human sapience. Signs of an awareness of the world that extends beyond just the immediate experience of the here and now to the implications of the present and a comprehension of multiple potential futures. They are also a powerful demonstration of how the neurological systems that make them possible are a key futures of what defines both the human experience as well as who we are as individuals.

We are our present and our past. We are both the history of our genes and culture as well as our imaginings of the future.

Sean Young's making of Dune, super 8 film

Complete with ragtime music, strangely enough. That and Patrick Stewart when he still had hair. Via Portlandia.

Monday, April 16, 2012

How We Won the Hominid Wars

A brief and interesting interview about how a long chain of dramatic climate shifts during the last four million years may have driven human evolution. The short and long of it is that paleoanthropologist Rick Potts believes that being forced to deal with a shifting climate states pushed us to adopt greater adaptability in our behavior -- a mental flexibility made possible by the evolution of calorie-hungry forebrains.

How We Won the Hominid Wars, and All the Others Died Out | Human Evolution | DISCOVER Magazine:

'via Blog this'

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mass Effect 3: Learning from the ending

A few of my best days in life have been my worst days. This has been true in the Army, and as a civilian, and in writing. These are days when I fubar something nine ways from Sunday and find myself on my ass in the dust and looking up and asking "what the hell just happened?"

As you may have just guessed, it's that whole "what the hell just happened" question that sometimes ends up turning these into good days in the long run. Not that I'm disciplined enough to ask The Question each time I get knocked down, but it happens more often than not, and once in a while I actually come up with some good answers and put them into practice.

I've also tried to make a habit of taking long, hard looks at other people who are sitting on the ground with a dazed look on their faces. Not being stupid is learning from your own mistakes, being smart is learning from the mistakes of others, and so on. With that in mind, I'd like to share the best and most entertaining "what happened" analysis I've come across on this year's biggest debacle in science fiction: Mass Effect 3's fan-alienating ending.

But first: Why is the ME3 ending the biggest sci-fi screw up of the year? Because the Mass Effect series of games has sold millions of copies and has had a dedicated fan base that should make any genre writer green with Soylent envy. Why that envious? Those millions of copies of $50+ dollar games have sold in an age when 11,000 sales of a $12.99 book is often considered a good run for a print novel in science fiction.

And yet somehow even with a legion of fans who've been emotionally invested in it for five years, in its final ten minutes of 100+ hours of character-driven gaming, Mass Effect managed to crush many if not most of its players' positive feelings towards the series. The game's final scene is a frighteningly fascinating train-wreck that destroys what had been until then an emotional and profoundly thought-provoking science fiction experience.

Naturally, a lot of ink and pixels have been committed to paper and screen analyzing what went wrong. Here's one of the best, and it's very much worth your while if you've got any professional or fan interest in what makes a story work within science fiction.

At 39 minutes the video is a behemoth, but its a funny and well-paced monster that I've watched through twice and that I plan on watching again.

Also, a shorter, twelve minute look at the ensuing PR fallout to date by the same commentator. One that should be titled: How not to provoke your fanbase even further. 

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Lisa with Child - A Novella

“Lisa with Child” is excellent Science Fiction.
  ~Frank Dutkiewicz, Diabolical Plots

Tomorrow marks my entry into the Amazon epublishing market before getting back to the pursuit of traditional print deals. My first offering is a pairing of my Writers of the Future short story "Lisa with Child" with a follow up novella, Lisa and Kim. 

Product description: 

Originally an award winning short story, Lisa with Child - A Novella is a journey into a near future where the blurred borders between biological and machine life are about to vanish. 

Recently retired from the CIA, former field operative Karin Linhart finds herself haunted by memories from a career spent hunting extremists armed with self-replicating weapons of mass destruction. On the verge of her return to the Agency as a private contractor, Karin's synthetic bodyguard and companion, Lisa, announces that she is pregnant - a unique and troubling violation of the strict rules forbidding the manufacture of self-reproducing weapons systems. With her future in the Agency in doubt and Lisa in grave danger, Karin must fight to understand the means and reasons behind her guardian's decision, even as time is quickly running out for both of them. Karin's superiors are close to learning about Lisa's decision, and Karin knows she will soon be forced to choose between a career that once gave her life meaning and the existence of a being whose emotions and thoughts were once symbiotic extensions of her own. 

"Lisa with Child" first appeared in volume 26 of the annual Writers Future anthology, after being chosen for inclusion by a board of science fiction authors that included Anne McCaffrey, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Orson Scott Card. Lisa with Child - A Novella includes the short story "Lisa with Child" and the novella-length chapter Lisa and Kim, a story of the ties that bind families together pitted against a lethal rogue AI hellbent on subsuming humanity.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

People who used to read science fiction: In praise of escapism

It’s been a rough two decades for science fiction fans when it comes to major franchises. The new Star Wars trilogy tanked with the first of the films, the Matrix choked in the second movie, Futurama and Firefly were canceled, Serenity underperformed at the box office, Star Trek: Voyager failed to give many of its fans a sense of closure, Battle Star Galactica and Lost had their 'controversial' endings, and now one of the most popular beacons of optimism in the field for the past five years, the Mass Effect trilogy, managed to negate many of its fans’ sense of emotional investment in the final ten minutes. Meanwhile literary science fiction has continued to lose readers even as fantasy has grown in sales.

Some of this is obviously raw market share dynamics when it comes to television shows being canceled. Space opera and military science fiction are niche tastes, and it’s hard for series within these sub-genres to compete in mainstream venues like TV. Much of this decline though, seems to stem from a fundamental disconnect between the creative writing community and the fan base.

Namely when it comes to escapism.

As writers we want our works to be realistic, though that ‘realism’ is a often a matter of adhering to a set of literary conventions — conventions that promote tragedy as being inherently more meaningful than triumph and grim darkness as more moving than heroism. We also want our stories to be profound and bring important real life issues to the attention of readers, particularly when it comes to the many injustices of the world.

Readers and fans on the other hand have different priorities. They get enough of realism in real life, which includes daily exposure to economic injustices and social problems. For most of them, fiction is a break from mundane life, and at its best fiction helps them to recharge emotionally by offering up inspiration and a reminder that things like triumphs, heroism, and successfully making a difference in the world are real possibilities, even if these are harder to obtain and require more effort than giving in to tragedy.

All of which is a real shame. Once upon a time science fiction helped to play a role in enacting positive social changes, back when brighter endings and a sense of optimism allowed the genre to connect on a profound emotional level with its fan base. After all, that was science fiction’s emotional value added: stories that celebrated the struggle over what we might become rather than bemoaning who we are. 

Sunday, April 01, 2012

The Portland music play list

A playlist of local groups that I frequently listen to while working. While it's missing about a third of my choices due to their absence on Rdio, it's still one of my favorite lists and contains many nationally known groups.