Monday, July 30, 2012

The Evolution of Human Thought: Embracing artifice, abhorring nature

By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart.
~The Confucian Analects

Imagine a tribe of farmers who have no myths or storytelling, few rituals, and who sometimes use harsh physical discipline to enforce a ban on their children playing. Such a peoples exist, and in their own way they embody many of the apparent paradoxes of human nature.

All Work and No Play Make the Baining the "Dullest Culture on Earth" | Psychology Today:

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We humans have a nature that is a product, of well, nature. It's a result of the selective survival dilemmas and demands placed on our ancestors' brains in order to thrive as hyper-social, meme-swapping omnivores. At the same time, we have a combinatorial forebrain that allows us to link together chains of concepts and in doing so generate emotion-modifying perspectives that can be captured and preserved in cultures as ideas and norms. Those viewpoints and the behavioral flexibility that the neocortex and its associative& areas make possible also allows us to suppress& our nature, both as individuals and as societies.

In the closest mode that we have to a baseline state--life in hunter-gatherer bands and tribes--our children play for most of the day. Such loosely structured, fun-driven activity among juveniles and youths is a behavior we share with our fellow primates. I've spent who-knows-how-many hours watching the young of various sub-species of macaque monkeys as well as vervets roughhouse and wrestle and play tag. We've seen similar behavior in hunter-gathers around the globe, even separated between the New and Old Worlds for nearly ten thousand years since the end of our planet's last major glaciation period.

However, at some point in our cultural evolution as members of H. sapiens we break with the natural world and defy impulses that are readily expressed among hunter gatherers. Eventually we end up insisting that our children spend their days sitting still and learning Greek and Latin, or how to write Classical Han characters, or memorize long verses of the Prophet's revelations, or mastering abstract manipulations of numbers, rather than running around outdoors. Or we set them to work in fields or sign them into arduous apprenticeships in trades, whether in the small and often brutal kingdoms of medieval Northern Europe or in the repressive Aztec Empire. We eventually take the historically unusually step of forbidding our offspring marry and begin reproducing at around age thirteen, and instead push the age of adulthood up to 18 in order to further their educations.

This isn't to say these changes are good or bad or represent progress, but rather that they simply are.

From what I've read, this suppression of human nature doesn't take place when we move from tribes to larger, more complex chieftainships. Rather it predates that change in social organization, and it seems to start when a tribe abandons full-time hunting and foraging in favor of agriculture.

This is a shift that certainly seems to engender significant changes in worldviews. In the case of the Baining Peoples of New Guinea described in the article above, they apparently come to value a separation& from nature. They pride themselves on transforming the natural into the man made, and view work as the defining factor that separates people from animals. They look down on sex as a base necessity, and employ sometimes severe forms of corporal punishment to punish children from playing. They fear the wilderness, devalue personal initiative and expression, and praise landscapes that have been re-shaped to the needs of farming.

In other words, their paradigm to a large degree reflects the necessities of their mode of production and survival.

A similar disparagement of nature and natural behavior is well known in the feudal agricultural societies of Christian Western Europe. Among philosophers and elites the underpinnings of these beliefs did not start to come into sustained question until the Enlightenment, and it wasn't until the Romantic Era that a celebration of nature's beauty and the desirability of a more natural, less artificial life began to filter down into the emerging, industrial middle class. 

The drive for a return to a less-constrained lifestyle has accelerated in the West since then. Especially with the emergence of post-industrial economies. There have been famous cultural and sexual rebellions against agrarian mores, and in the Post-Margaret Mead era, a multi-decade glorification of a simple but more humane way of life to be found in hunter-gather societies.

Of course much of that glorification was based on a very romanticized view of life in pre-agricultural tribal societies. One that was largely constructed by Western academics to contrast with and highlight the shortcomings of industrial societies during a time of horrific world wars, and it was based on research that can only politely be termed as highly selective. It's view that overlooked the endemic violence of tribal life, and it lost much of its luster at the end of the Cold War with the resumption of ethnic-based warfare in many areas of the Developing World.

It turns out that along with restrictions on play, self-expression, and personal independence, agrarian cultural standards were highly effective at restraining blood feuds, competitions for social status, and polygamy. Societies so constrained built law-enforcement systems that--while often suborned to structures of political and economic power--did a good job of reducing levels of intra-societal violence.

Applications in speculative fiction 

The romantic view of tribal and band societies has had a huge impact on science fiction and fantasy. Much of what I read and watched as a child was product of the Post-Mead period, with heroes and heroines discovering wisdom, sexual liberation, and tolerance from shamans, tribesmen, and noble natives in exotic locations. This certainly wasn't a bad thing, as traditional agricultural norms often glorified racism and ethnocentric views that were quite cruel. They were also increasingly dangerous in a world growing smaller and more interconnected, and in which an ethnic group could conquer and rule a continent in a violent spasm of imperialism, or implement ideologically driven agendas of genocide in expansionist totalitarian systems.

Still, deep-seated conceptual flaws remained in the well-meaning rebellions against traditional agrarian beliefs. Entangled with the unrealistic vision of peaceful life in a hunter-gather world was the myth of the blank slate. The belief that there is no human nature aside from an innate goodness, and that stripping away the "arbitrary" repressive restrictions of our agricultural and industrial cultures would allow people to be happier, kinder, and less violent.

Rather than speculative fiction in the Post-Mead world, we need something more in the vein of Post-Guns, Germs, and Steel. We need fiction that does not see human culture as arbitrary, but rather as geographic adaptations that evolve in response to both the environment and historical events, as well as the emergence of new technologies. We need fiction that examines rather than reflexively damns the traditional agrarian mores that are still important to large sections of the working and middle classes, and that does not throw out the baby with the bathwater by tossing out social judgments and shame standards that restrained human greed and personal violence along with those that encouraged racist views and behaviors. We need fiction that can describe societies as a series of rocky, tension-fraught compromises between elites and the masses, rather than black-and-white conspiracies of oppression.

We also desperately need speculative fiction that incorporates what we are learning about human nature from our genes and neurology at a time when technology is starting to allow us to manipulate both these facets of who we are.

The tensions between human nature and human agricultural cultures have been with us now for about 5,000 years. We can see them in the lives individuals around the world, including those of the Baining Peoples. If we're going to find our way to a future that either resolves or peacefully harnesses those internal conflicts, we need to do a better job of acknowledging just how complicated we are as a species that lives caught between our genes and our cultures.

Capturing all that in speculative fiction would be a great place to start.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Printing assault rifles at home

The novel I'm currently shopping, Phase Line Escher, deals with life in an age in which bio and nano-tech weapons of mass destruction can be fabricated in a garage using advanced 3D printers or desktop gene sequences. The Boing Boing article below, about a man who recently printed some of the major components of a functional AR-15 assault rifle at home, could well serve as a milestone for how we're closing in on that age here in the real world. Interesting and frightening at the same time.

Report of working 3D printed gun - Boing Boing:

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Friday, July 27, 2012

Ideas! Ideas! Ideas!

I have way too many ideas. Easily enough story ideas for six or seven novels.

Why is this the case? Because I have so many ideas about the world and about people from reading all the freaking time about science, technology, history, the lives of individuals as captured in biographies, and, of course, from reading other people's works of fiction. That and all my time spent living abroad as a civilian and earlier, as a soldier.

I've got so many such ideas that if an angel of the lord were to take up a fiery sword and drive out everyone from the temple of art who was there for ego or fame, I'd be one of the few who was spared because of a love of the narrative of concepts and of the storytelling possibilities inherent in the web of relationships that connect them within consilient worldviews.

This week I'm taking a break by revising far-future novelette about teens, Taosim, and nanotechnology. Or rather, about teens surviving and fighting back when the Taoist- and nanotech-centered world order that they've grown up in is overthrown. I've also got an already written near-future novella about an overland expedition across the devastated United States as the world attempts to recover from the effects of a catastrophic eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano, which I really need to turn into a novel. Even though the novella has got a lot of great scenes that wowed most of the alpha readers, several of them were good enough to point out that at such a short length it doesn't have enough room to adequately convey the story of a man who's lost history's greatest price to its largest catastrophe, and who's still struggling to create something inspiring in a frozen and hungry world. Then (or well, rather, first off in the work que) I really need to spend more time working on world refinement for the second novel in my Operational Arts trilogy--the first of which, Phase Line Escher I've already started shopping around.  

I've been making steady progress writing and writing and writing (plot, character, action, lather, rinse, and repeat), but of the more I get done and the more I read books and watch films, the more ideas seem to pop up. Now, after having played Skyrim  for the past few months and then taken a break from it, my head is filled with ideas for a pair of fantasy novels. One about young people in a young world where gods are emerging from the ranks of animist spirits, and magic is closely tied to the primal laws of quantum mechanics, relativity, and thermal dynamics. The other about adults in a harder, slightly darker, and more medieval world in which reality is somewhat consensual, and ideas expressed through the power of words and captured in cultures can physically alter the fabric of everything that is. 

Feh! Ideas! I love' em, but there are times when I feel like I might drown underneath 'em all.

Anyways, to make a liar out of myself, here's some more Skyrim photos. Partly because I didn't have room in my previous posts, and partly because they seem to be popular with a segment of this blog's readership according to its analytics, but mostly because I'm in a fantasy genre kind of mood today. 

Oh yes, to be clear these are all screen captures form my games that I've generated using Steam' F12 image capture feature.  

Below: Showing off more of those high resolution texture maps and lighting mods

Below: The Midas Magic Mod's Meteor Storm spell. It's a nice addition to the game's under-powered vanilla magic catalog. This one in particular is good because of the cinematic quality, and because it's nice having strong magic that allows a leveled spell caster to do things like lay waste to armies. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Early Africans mated with mystery species of humans - The Washington Post

Apparently a gene survey of modern Africans turned up DNA sequences from what was likely a hominid species similar to the neanderthals. This sister group probably only existed in Africa as the genetic exchange appears to have taken place after the out migration modern H. sapiens into Asia and Europe, and the genes in questions are only found in current day Africans.

Early Africans mated with mystery species of humans - The Washington Post:

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Along with the recent discoveries of the Indonesian "hobbit" hominii and the East Asian Denisovans who contributed DNA to the ancestors of today's Pacific Islanders this paints a picture in which our ancestors mingled and occasionally mated with other offshoots on the hominid evolutionary branch. It also furthers the debate on whether homo sapiens ultimately displaced or absorbed our closest evolutionary kin.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

One last round of in-game Skyrim screen shots

A final collection of screen captures, just to demonstrate how much the game play experience has evolved for me. Compare these images to the previous group of Skyrim shots that I posted a week ago and you'll see some immediate and striking differences. Enough so that these collections feel like they come from two separate games--one with a stylized high fantasy atmosphere, and the other with a grittier, more realistic low fantasy feel.

Most of the obvious visual improvements are due to the addition of a climate and lighting mod. One that not only creates distinctive regional climates and new weather systems, but also different types of air. The mod pulls this off by generating dynamic humidity levels and the appearance of fuzzier, moist air on warm days, and its absence on crisp, cold, clear days with sharp levels of image contrast.

Click to enlarge

Later that same evening.

Interior shots

High contrast night shots. Also, an images to show off some improved texture mods and compression algorithms for sharper facial features, particularly around the lips.

The Dragonborn, armored up and ready for epic war

Northern lights in Skyrim

Showcasing the high resolution texture pacts for armors and other inanimate objects. While these were not included in the original game because of the limitations of consul gaming platforms, Bethesda has made them available for free download by PC gamers.

Featured mods:

This is definitely the last set of Skyrim photos that I am posting, though I will put up some Mass Effect character shots later on. Why the last? Because I'm uninstalling the game. Skyrim is an addictive sandbox world--a big open realm to explore and play in, and also to make up stories within. Aside from the sheer time drain, the latter is particularly problematic since imagining stories is what I do professionally, and having a game play outlet for my storytelling drive definitely saps that particular wellspring of creative energy.

Also, it's becoming a time suck not just playing the game, but experimenting with the different combinations of mods: downloading and adding them to create those new aesthetics and gameplay experiences. Just getting twenty or thirty mods to work together without glitching the game can be a fun challenge in and of itself.

This doesn't mean that I'm giving up on games entirely! As I've written about previously, games are now a big part of the genre experience for the readership these days. I don't think it's possible for science fiction or fantasy writers to stay abreast of the field without indulging in games. You're simply no longer a part of the dialog between the fans and the art if you're abstaining entirely.

So I'm going back to a strategy that worked well for me during my university years. I'll pick a major title in science fiction and one in fantasy to play from late December through February -- the dark and wet time of the year here in the Pacific Northwest, then leave off the rest of the year.

If you are a fan of artsy Skyrim game shots, I can warmly recommend the work of Dead End, a professional game photographer who has dedicated gaming boxes for producing, among other things, staggeringly fantastic Skyrim shots.

Monday, July 23, 2012

A sad passing

Sally Ride, the first female US astronaut to go into space has passed away. For me, she was a part of a childhood that was filled with all kinds of firsts on the evening news. First instances of minorities holding various political offices and high private sector positions, and firsts for women in every field.

It was also the age of the space shuttle, which I was dearly fascinated with. One of the clearest memories I have is of getting up at 4:30 AM to watch the first shuttle launch with my father.

Photo courtesy of NASA, public domain 

So today definitely marks a bit of sad passing. The loss of a pioneer, as well as of a woman who became a dedicated educator and science booster after her retirement from NASA. And she was a symbol of decade in which a lot of progress played.

Located here is a gorgeous compilation of HD launch footage done by a shuttle enthusiast on YouTube. The best I've come across so far, with amazing sound quality. Also, some lovely HD launch footage from NASA of the shuttle Atlantis below.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A shameless sucker for beautiful space station footage

Especially when it's set to the soundtrack from the film Sunshine.

Via I09

Le Guin’s Hypothesis | Book View Cafe Blog

Le Guin is such a wonderful essay writer. Fluid and compelling in her prose. In this case when tackling the false dichotomy between literature and genre writing.

Le Guin’s Hypothesis | Book View Cafe Blog:

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Man with augmented reality implants attacked in a French McDonald's

Apparently by employees didn't want him photographing their price menu and attempted to tear off the camera piece that is wired into his skull, according to this TechCrunch article. This...this is certainly the first case of someone assaulting a real world cyborg assault that I've heard of.

Five men standing beneath a nuclear detonation

Five men, 18,500 feet below an air burst detonation in the Nevada desert during the 1950s. That and it was baby nuke. In other words a small tactical device, not a strategic, city-killing weapon.

Five Men Agree To Stand Directly Under An Exploding Nuclear Bomb : Krulwich Wonders... : NPR:

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Footage via NPR

Having grown up in Nevada I heard all kinds of stories about the days of above-ground detonations, when people in Las Vegas and the surrounding towns would go up their rooftops to watch the scheduled blasts. Lots of related memories of bright fireball with otherworldly colors growing into the signature mushroom of 1950s on the northern horizon. Then the children and most adults would go indoors as advised by the government, and a few brave or foolishly brave individuals would stay outside watch the drift of glowing clouds of ionized gasses if the blast had taken place in the evening or at night.

Of course, the people in the downwind towns this ended up being the start of a long nightmare of cancers, dying loved ones, and a decades-long battle with the federal government for compensation.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Romance within the cultural evolution of human thought

To see the world in a grain of sand,
and Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
and eternity in an hour.

-William Blake

The significance of being Romantic

Much good music and poetry was produced by the rebellious Romantics of the 1800s. Even so, I have mixed feelings about the artists and philosophers of that era. On one hand, they railed against reason and the Enlightenment's worldview of the universe as an ordered, comprehensible place--both of which I'm rather fond of. On the other, their reaction against rationalism brought about the emergence of a new mass paradigm: a new widely shared way of seeing the world. That alone makes it worthy of studying in the context of humankind's ongoing cultural evolution--of placing it in the canon of tribal animistic worldviews; the humanism of the Classical Greeks and Romans, the city states of India, as well as Confucian China; the appearance of the monotheistic universalist paradigms of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, each with an ultimate prime mover and universal laws of human conduct; the emergence of the deist Enlightenment that shaped much of my homeland's views of human equality and the existence of natural laws that eventually grew into our present day concept of scientific theory.

The Romantic's rejection reason in favor of direct human experience eventually gave rise to influential groups such as the Lost Generation of the 1920s, the bohemians, beatniks, hippies, and provided influences which helped to shape the emergence of modern progressivism in in the US. It played a major role in the Culture Wars I grew up with during the 80s as well as the accommodation between reason and human heart that has been widely accepted from the 1990s to the present.

Fighting emergent totalitarianism

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

-Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself" 

There is another reason why my feelings are divided about the Romantics. Namely because they were right to be worried where the ideology of reason was headed: towards an absolutist rationalist worldview devoid of human compassion. While the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment found a ready and moderate soil to take root in within the democratic traditions of the colonies that became the United States, the stony ground that was Europe in the throes of the industrial revolution grew extremist movements from the same seeds. First in Revolutionary France, where Reason became a cult that killed thousands if not tens of thousands, and later in the rise of totalitarian communism--an ideology in which absolute reason pushed aside all considerations of humane conduct and helped to create political systems that killed tens of millions across the globe.

Of course the Romantics had their own extremist successors. On the right wing side of the totalitarian spectrum, the founders of Italian fascism and German Nazism drew on the the Romantics of the late 1800s. Their deliberately constructed political aesthetics not only embraced (or twisted) the Romantics' general themes of primal heroism, the primacy of emotions over the intellect in the case of nationalism, and myth building, but also specific cultural works. Adolph Hitler drew inspiration from the penultimate opera composure of the Romantic Era, Richard Wagner, much as Mussolini and his fellow traveler were inspired by the Italian Futurists.

Still, it's very much worth taking the time to see Romanticism from the viewpoints of the men and women who formed its vanguard, as well as their intellectual descendants who ranged from pacifists to some of the most methodically violent people in human history. It's also worth considering its place as a secular paradigm alongside the humanist and rationalist worldviews, and if nothing else, it left us evocative poetry and powerful music.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Tillamook Naval Air Station

A World War II naval air station built to house a squadron of sub-hunting dirigibles out on the coast.

I've always been drawn to massive structures like this. Something about the sheer sense of scale. I think its because some of my earliest memories from growing up at Travis Air Force Base are of C-5 cargo lifter jets. Aircraft so large you can park four Greyhound buses inside one, and when flying they seem to almost hang weightless and motionless in the sky.

My first thought when I saw this hanger for the first time while driving up the coast in 2007 on vacation was that it looked like something out of science fiction. Like a structure from anyone of several illustrated books I read as a child in which the future was huge and metallic and industrial in appearance.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Creepy installation art

Transformations, Emotional Deconstruction:

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80 Teddy Ruxpin dolls wired to a wall, emoting the current mood of the internet.