Friday, August 31, 2012

Why do we have brains?

We didn't evolve brains to think. At least not originally. Instead, our central nervous system is something like a complex thermometer that gradually grew into self-awareness.

OK, so that's a bit of an oversimplification, but many of the brain's oldest functions are rooted in directly maintaining the body's chemical and temperature balances. In our remote ancestors the central nervous system and its evolutionary precursors appeared in multicellular organisms that had grown too large for those internal equilibriums to be kept up by purely local cell processes. Not surprisingly  the hormone and temperature managing brainstem is evolutionarily the oldest part of our central nervous system and forms the structural core of the brain.

But there is another almost equally primal reason for having a brain, a function whose mediating cortices sit in the basement of the brain, nestled up against the brainstem: Movement. Many of the brain's other functions such as the generation of emotions, the accumulation of memories, perception of the outside world, and associative reasoning all exist to prompt us to move, whether that motion is speech, tool use, or locomotion such as walking and running. The requirement to generate movement shapes both the hardware and processing software of our senses as well as influencing how we employ our cognitive abilities while going through life.

The Ted talk linked to in the BBC article below looks at some of the cognitive processes behind the ability to move as well as some of the evolutionary history of movement. 

BBC - Future - Health - The real reason for brains:

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Of course we don't necessarily perceive our existence as being about motion. While motion is the ultimate outcome of many of our thoughts, the levels of analysis, perception, and emotion that lead us to move have largely taken on a life of their own. All the processes that make up thought and sensation create a rich subjective inner world, and much of our time within it is devoted to analyzing the meaning of emotions and perceptions as well as the probabilities of outcomes from actions yet to be undertaken. Then there is the fact that motion is a medium. One with a vast variety of expressions and divergent sensory impressions, separate from disparate processes of sensation and reasoning that initiate them.

All this will make it all the more ironic if we ever chose to discard our bodies or spawn software entities motivated by drives bequeathed to us by evolution.

P.S. That article on the Indo-European language and the social sciences is still forthcoming. It's just taking a little more thought and research than anticipated. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Passing through Northern California

Driving through vast mountain forests in the deepening haze of a wildfire's smoke plume for two hours, then out under clear skies. Not long after that transition, another hour spent driving through a second vast bank of mixed white and brown.

It's a sweeping landscape, and when it burns, it burns big.

Mild haze and Mt. Lassen, the southern anchor of the Cascade volcanoes, which sits amidst a sprawling complex of smaller volcanoes and vents.  

The fires did make for a spectacular sunset 

The drive from Portland to Reno is an epic one. First there's the rich agricultural splendor of the Willamette valley, with various towering forested buttes erupting from the valley floor alongside the freeway as the high ridges of the Cascades and Coastal Mountain Ranges narrow in and then converge at Eugene. After that it's low rolling mountains and narrow canyons populated by predominantly by Douglas firs and hemlock.

The farther south the road travels, the fewer firs there are, and gradually the undergrowth of ferns hands off to dry grasses. Across the border into California the first tumbleweeds drift across the freeway as 14,000 ft, twin-peaked juggernaut of Mt. Shasta looms over the world.

 Image courtesy of the USGS, public domain 

In the upland forests south of the mountain between the Cascades and the Sierra Nevadas, Ponderosas, lodgepoles, and other scaly armored pines make up the forest, while red and gnarled Manzanita bushes with waxy green leaves dominate its floor. These in turn grow scarcer as another hour passes, and give way to sagebrush and cresote. The road wanders east away from wetter windward side of the mountains into their lee, and even the trees thin out into islands amid large highland meadows, until finally the highway lowers you down into the purple desert twilight of evening above Susanville, California.

Not far away, barren mauve mountains of stone and cheatgrass stretch away into the spartan desolation of the Great Basin, growing ever drier and more elegant since the end of the last ice age.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Nevada road trip

I'm on my way back home to Nevada for a few weeks, so the next post--which will be on about recent futuristic developments in social sciences as well as the spread of the primogenitor Indo-European language--will not by until Tuesday.


Sunday, August 26, 2012

100% bizarre cheesiness

Mowing down hoards of zombies with a synthesizer machine gun, low-budget 80s style. Only with dubstep blaring in the background rather than Kraftwerk.

I haven't really gotten into dubstep so much as some of its more lyrical and coherent pieces have infiltrated into to my music rotations and playlists. It's a bleed over of preferences heavily shaped by years of listening to melody-driven electronica.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

RIP Neil Armstrong.

Looking back, we were really very privileged to live in that thin slice of history where we changed how man looks at himself, and what he might become, and where he might go.

-Neil Armstrong

His truly was one small step for a man, but a giant leap for all mankind.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Private crypto key in mission-critical hardware | Ars Technica

Scary stuff. A shoddy encryption scheme and an easily breakable backdoor in routers used for running major infrastructure components.

Private crypto key in mission-critical hardware menaces electric grids | Ars Technica:

'via Blog this'

Late night conversations

Below is a good example of the type of wonky late night conversations I tend to get myself into. The kind that often leave other people exclaiming WTF? Sometimes it's because I'm making funny, but more often than not my thoughts seem to require a good deal of context for others make sense of. Even when well explained, they regularly wander through territories that are strange to most people.

Questionable Content: New comics every Monday through Friday:

'via Blog this'

Sometimes it's more serious than the lighthearted moment depicted in the comic.

Having lived abroad for almost eight years as a civilian and as an Army scout, and then spending several years working with monkeys has left me with an experience base that probably doesn't make me easy to relate to. And that's not even getting into the whole history nerd thing, or the fascination with science and the ways in which our brains, cultures, genes, and our environments all combine to make us who and what we are. Acquiring those interests and memories seems to mean that I've passed through portions of the spectrum of human experiences that most people in middle- and working-class America aren't normally exposed to.

For the most part I'm very grateful to have all those memories. In part, because many were awesome or deeply moving, and also because on a daily basis some of them remind me of how good life is--of how well off we are in United States in terms of everything from having enough to eat, to a freedom from many types of fear that are ubiquitous throughout much of the world. At the same time it also means I need to consciously work at gearing myself up or down into daily conversations. In the right sort of discussions I can contribute a lot, but often I seem to come off as pretty alien if I get to talking about what's really on my mind.

"Oh yeah, I can totally relate, there was this one time in Sweden when we tried blood pudding..."

"Dog in Korea..."

"If you think that's messed up you should have seen this one time on the border of Macedonia and Kosovo..."

"So did you read the latest about Homo sapiens and the neanderthals not having interbred..."

"That story about your kid reminds of when these juvenile maquaque monkeys..." *

"Smith was laughing so hard he fell off the vehicle..."

"The alpha male wouldn't back down until..."

"But on a geologic time scale..."

I think writing has helped with this to some degree. Maybe not with cultivating the discipline to be selective enough when it comes to talking about what's on my mind, but more with having to explain myself in ways that are brief but evocative enough to hold people's attention, while at the same time generating enough context so that others can grasp the point that I'm trying to get across without without dropping massive info dumps on those poor souls.

All this time behind the keyboard doing genre work is time spent working on being succinct, descriptive, and honing in on what's relevant to the audience or those around me.

*It turns out that new parents reeeeeeally hate inadvertent comparisons of their kids' behaviors to monkeys. Who knew?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Bizarre videos

I used to regularly post bizarre videos on this blog in the heady days of early web 2.0, when blogging and YouTube clips were shiny and new. Back then candy tasted sweeter, the sky was bluer, and the Japanese were on the cutting edge of the strange when it came to audio/visual. Now the the South Koreans seem to be taking over.

Every time I see a clip like this from the Land of the Morning Calm the desire to go back there strikes, and strikes hard. There have been so many changes in attitudes reflected in everything from girls with bare legs and mid-drifts in music videos, to the insane popularity of StarCraft as a national sport. It's very different from the country I spent a year in, which was just settling into its new-found status as a stable democracy. Instead of being the most wired nation on Earth, it was a land where both mobile phones and computers were rarities, and the internet was some strange, faraway American thing that I had a difficult time gaining access to.

Cities as engines of energy and entropy

A lofty but neat article on cities as heat engines within the context of the laws of thermal dynamics.

The City As Engine: Energy, Entropy And The Triumph Of Disorder : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture : NPR:

'via Blog this'

This article had me thinking about one of my favorite schools of history: environmental history. In part this school looks at the interactions of human beings with the natural world as well as the ways that the environmental factors have influenced human history. It's a way of approaching the past that shows some very different patterns of information than those seen in the traditional historical studies of states or peoples. It unearths at lot causes that originate in that natural world and then resonate through the behavior of people in nations and tribes.

The various cooling periods like the Little Ice Age, volcanic winters at the start of the European medieval period, droughts during the decline and reorganization of Mayan civilization, are dramatic examples of this. Ones with effects like famines, population declines, migrations, or something as prosaic as the switch from wine to beer consumption on what are now the British Islands. Subtler effects like the flow of water through the environment, studies of available woodland resources and and how those woodlands change under human management also exert clear formative influences on groups of humans when looked at in the long run.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

An entire weekend of writing

Two solid day of genre writing and writing copy for a client. Sweet! This means that much music will be listened to over the next forty-eight hours, and for some reason I'm on a serious electronica kick.

Summer music for me is normally an excursion back into pop music, classical rock from Zeppelin to 90s stuff, and the realm of guitar-driven melodies in general. For some reason this summer, however, I'm having a hard time putting down the synth tunes. Both a certain spread of the dubstep spectrum (coherent and lyrical stuff) and electronica like VNV. Or rather especially VNV. Their combination of intelligent lyrics, driving melody, and rhythm is like crack while writing.

Anyways, the genre writing this wekend is a bit different because it's all world building for my Operational Arts trilogy. Historical narratives, technologies, synopses of each major institution or social collective that has a bearing on the trilogy's story arc, and so on. Normally this kind of nerdery is something that teenagers and newbie writers spend a lot of  time on, and I haven't been into it for several years.

Which may have been a mistake. Both because it's a fun change of pace, and it really seems to help me connect with the sense of place and atmosphere. Not that I'm going to let myself get carried away with it, because there are only so many keyboard hours in a day. Or that four years spent focused more on character development and conveying emotional interchanges has been bad, But revisiting dedicated world building feels like being able to step back, see the big picture and get a fresh breath of air. It feels like I've got a much better idea of where the story is going.

That latter bit is what I'm hoping will differentiate this current burst of world building from the kind of pointless, detail cluttered geeking out I used to do. Now it feels like accruing all of these details into a coherent document offers several insights into the characters and where their lives are headed amid all of the historical tumult.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Apocalypse Not: Here's Why You Shouldn't Worry About End Times | Wired Science |

Apocalypse Not: Here's Why You Shouldn't Worry About End Times | Wired Science |

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A good Wired magazine article that chronicles past predictions of economic and ecological collapses, mass famines, and resource depletions that never happened. At the same time I think the article would have been better mentioning some major collapses that have happened in the past. A little balance to help us hone in on which scenarios are likely to be actual threats and which are flights of paranoid fancy.

Fabricating prototypes downrange

Deploying MacGyver to Afghanistan | Defense Tech:

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This is neat. A modular workshop with 3D printers and other fabrication equipment built for deployment to remote locations and staffed by a pair of engineers connected to others back in the States. Contained within a shipping container,this portable shop allows for the modification or creation of high end equipment including electronics and sensors short order to counter emergent threats in war zones or for use in disaster relief. According to the article, deployed teams from the Army's Rapid Equipping Force have already used these Expedition Labs to work up ground-penetrating radars to spot buried IEDs while in Afghanistan as well to develop improvements for existing sensors already deployed in the field.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

When science fiction started to suck

Someone else who has views similar to those I've been expounding on about when sci-fi went downhill. Though I'd put the tipping point back in the 90s rather than this past decade.

VG Cats - # 287 Boldly Went:

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Straight out of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash

A collar-mounted air bag designed to replace helmets. Something similar to what Stephenson's plucky skateboard courier, Y.T., wore.

The Invisible Bike Helmet: An Airbag On The Go | TechCrunch:

'via Blog this'

Of urban myths and ideologies

When I was living in Western Europe every so often one of the locals would badger me with a story about how NASA had wasted x millions of dollars developing a pen that would work in zero gravity, while the smarter Soviets just used pencils. Most of these individuals were socialists, which makes it all the more ironic that I’m seeing some US conservatives propagate the very same meme on FaceBook this week, though now the amount of money wasted by “big government” is in the billions of dollars. Of course the best thing about all of this is that the story isn’t true. Not even a little. But it is a great example of the universal blinding power of ideologies on both sides of the left - right divide, especially when it comes to an idea or ‘truth’ that supposedly embodies everthing that’s wrong with the other side.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ima Robot

Sweet gogamog, I have not been able to get this song out of my head all weekend while writing, copywriting, or while helping a friend with a car project. It's exactly the kind of thing I would have loved dancing to at the clubs while living in Germany back when.

Of course they had to go and give it an embarrassing title and cover photo...

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Closest Stars - maps, model and list

A nifty online resource for learning about the locations of the nearest stars in our galactic neighborhood.

The Closest Stars - maps, model and list:

'via Blog this'

Sometimes Portland

Sometimes this city of mine is almost a parody of itself.  For example, a few days ago I was walking home from a meeting of the Fireside writing group, and I came across a vendor selling fresh-made chevre (goat cheese) ice cream with habenero jam from a street cart. And they were offering free samples of course. Other flavors included sweet summer corn in buttermilk sherbet, and honey strawberry balsamic with cracked pepper.

Yes, these are actual flavors of ice cream.

Saying this city has a foodie culture is almost like remarking that the beach has sand. It's such pervasive part of the environment that it's hard to escape sometimes. Especially when nearly every public space is occupied by some sort of farmers market on Saturdays and often on Wednesdays.

Then there is the home pickling and making of sausages. In downtown and East Portland you could be forgiven for thinking that we are still living in the Gilded Age going by beards or how many people are into brining vegetables and curing meat.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

A beautiful revolving 360 panorama of Mars

A gorgeous HD look around the Martian landscape by the older Opportunity rover. Blended shades of red and tarnished copper blue that are totally worth spending a few minutes ooing and ahhing over.

And yet another species of ancient human is discovered

Our hominid branch of the evolutionary tree seems to have sprouted more offshoots than we previously suspected. It's also interesting that several seemed to have existed in Africa during the same period.

BBC News - Many human 'prototypes' coexisted in Africa:

'via Blog this'

Monday, August 06, 2012

Mars Curiosity: Why such enthusiasm?

The good news from Mars has got me feeling curious this morning. Why are so many people excited about this particular mission after two plus decades of space shuttle missions that the media and public largely snoozed through?

Not that I'm complaining. Landing such a large and complex vehicle on another world is an amazing milestone in exploration and engineering. But why this mission, why now? After all, our species' ultimate future lies in space, so anything we can do to keep this kind of emotional investment flowing is important. With that in mind, I'd like to take a quick and dirty look at things that helped connect Curiosity with the public.

1. That amazing Seven Minutes of Terror video

Seven Minutes of Terror is great storytelling. It hits us with a dilemma right up front; it let's us know what's at stake; it gives us some short looks at passionate people who are involved in a high-stakes undertaking, and it's got a great production value feel to it. This five minute vid is high speed, low drag. It's an example of what NASA and JPL need to keep pumping out in the age of the internet.

2. Speaking of the internet: Free imagery!

Image courtesy of NASA / JPL. Public domain.

The internet has helped turn us into relentless daily consumers of beautiful images, and the current mating of the space program with High Definition cameras satisfies that particular urge in a very visceral way. The ability to distribute high-quality images from missions directly to the public is a major asset for the space program. One with a direct line to the hearts and minds of the world that has been well traveled by the previous Mars rover missions. People have grown used to seeing gorgeous images from the Red Planet, and they want more. Speaking of which...

3. MOAR rovers!!!

Image of  Mars spirit rover courtesy of NASA. Pubic domain.

For some reason people love rovers in away that just doesn't apply to other unmanned vehicles. Something about these lonely automated explorers rolling across the vast spaces of another world appeals to school children and adults alike. Maybe it's the arms and eye-like cameras, or maybe it's just the fact that they're land-going entities rather than void flyers, but we can connect with these robots in a way that we simply do not when it comes to probes like the Voyager craft or Galileo probe.

You may have noticed that so far none of these items have touched on the actual science of the mission. There's a reason for that. With the public, only us geeks are likely to come for the drama, but stay for the data. That's all right as far as I'm concerned. Yeah, it'd be great of Joe Six Pack or John Middleclass had a burning desire to know the geologic history of Mars or wonder about the presence of life there. And sometimes Joe Six Pack and John Office do get infected with the curiosity, but such instances are few and far between. Always have been, and baring some engineered change to human nature (which I'll admit, I'm kind of sort of hoping for), always will be.

So if having new imagery to look at first thing in the morning from a friendly rover crawling across the red world helps keep the public engaged, I'm all for it. After all, as they used to say "no bucks, no Buck Rogers."

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Europe's super volcano and the Neanderthal extinction: Follow up

A recent paper published in the Proceedings of  the National Academy of Sciences casts some doubt on the idea that the eruption of Italy's gigantic Campi Flegrei caldera volcano around 40,000 years ago killed off a significant portion Europe's resident neanderthal population when it buried much of Southern and Eastern Europe under silicate ash and plunged the planet into a renewed glaciation or "ice age" period. Doing so might have cleared the way for the entry of modern humans onto the continent. However, in the study that the new paper is based on, samples from four sites in the downwind area found that layers of previously un-examined microscopic glass particles from the eruption lie above the fossil record's transition from Homo neanderthalis to H. sapiens.

In other words, with these data points it looks like modern humans had already displaced the neanderthals prior to the massive eruption in downwind Eastern and Southern Europe. Unfortunately, the paper is not available in its entirety to the public at this time. That's a shame, because I'd happily read it in a heartbeat as I was under the impression that the displacement point between the two hominii species coincided with the eruption's visible ash layer in earlier excavations within the downwind region.

A medical doctor friend once told me that it's a common practice in the medical community to wait until three papers from three independent studies have verified a discovery before considering it a proven fact. While I'm somewhat attached to the idea that it was a smallish 'super volcano' eruption that provided the ecological disruption event which allowed Homo sapiens to displace the neanderthals, I'll file this dispute under undecided until more research has been published.

In other news

There were and always will be, eternally, migrations as there will always be births for life to continue. Migrations exist. Death does not exist! 

-Milos Crnjanski, "Seobe"

On a related note, while looking for information related to the recent Proceedings article I came across an interesting article on paleogenetics that discusses the origins of modern European, North African, and Near East populations. Essentially it paints a picture them as a fusion of native populations with a rapidly expanding group that originated at the heart of the Fertile Crescent. The author's conclusion is that this was likely a kind of Guns, Germs, and Steel migration, in which agriculturalists armed with a package of technologies and food production methods spread outwards and absorbed the native nomadic hunter-foragers. This is a hypothesis that lines up well with recent archaeological digs in Eastern Europe I've read about elsewhere that show a westward spread of both agriculture and goods, as well evidence of holdout populations in remote, difficult to penetrate areas. Several of these mountainous and arboreal forest strongholds are also home to languages that predate the arrival of Indo-European descended languages, such as Hungarian, Finnish, and Basque.

If such is the case, it would be an interesting convergence of populations of genes and linguistic memes.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Kill Decision, by Daniel Suarez

I'm going to be seriously disappointed if someone does not make a Hollywood blockbuster based on this action-driven techno thriller. Out of Suarez's three bleeding-edge technology novels, this one is clearly written for a mainstream audience outside of Silicone valley.

Along with the adrenaline, the story takes a look at the future of armed, autonomous drones mated with different forms of artificial intelligence. While the use of an ant colony model is played up for some good moments of swarming horror, the overall conceptual exploration of drone warfare and autonomous weapons platforms is somewhat shallow and more than a little one-sided. Still it's very much worth the read, and it does make for a good point of entry into these issues. With the open nature of the ending I'm hoping for a second novel that makes a more in depth journey through the perils and possibilities of 21st century AI weapons systems.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

On the military and espionage side of the house

Before Deadly Bulgaria Bombing, Tracks of a Resurgent Iran-Hezbollah Threat - ProPublica:

'via Blog this'

Obviously I'm not as I up to speed as I once was on military and intelligence affairs, but I do my best to stay on top of my reading since I like writing stories that touch on both of these worlds. The Call demanded a week and a few days of dedicated research, but normally mil-intel stuff has to compete with a lot of science and history and genre books in my reading lineup.

Still, along with some good books, I do occasionally come across some good articles that paint interesting pictures of events. The above joint ProPublica - Foreign Policy Article suggest a plausible connection between a recent wave of botched or clumsily executed terrorist attacks and attempts by Iran to retaliate over the assassination of several of its nuclear scientists as well as cyber attacks against their nuclear infrastructure. Since Iran has been much more Lebanon focused and hasn't carried out many major attacks outside of the Middle East for much of the past two decades, there may well be something to the authors' assertion that they've lost a good deal of their operational expertise as well as having underestimated how much the international security landscape has changed since 9/11.

This kind of granularity--the fallibility of organizations and their clumsy learning curves, particularly those of the antagonist's--is often missing in science fiction. Which is too bad. Yes, a competent, almost omnipotent enemy creates an obstacle for the protag to overcome, but it also ignores a realm of other dramatic possibilities. An escalating race between two sides, both striving to be the first to master a situation or technology, has all kinds of room for storytelling with setbacks, grit, and stomach dropping or first raising triumphant reversals.