Sunday, September 30, 2012

Military science fiction seen through real world eyes

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

Friday, September 28, 2012

Earth cracking beneath the Indian Ocean

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

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

'via Blog this'

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

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Anime influences and cyclic derivatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 24, 2012

Singing androids and Lisa with Child

Lisa with Child - A Novella had another good weekend in the Kindle store, pushing up to #12 on the list for free techno-thrillers and staying on the front page for that sub-genre for 48 hours. That was definitely a nice boost for the writer ego. So, in celebration of the occasion here's a link to Björk's gorgeous electronica video of singing female robots, All is Full of Love.

This clip never fails to draw me in, in part because it comes close to animating the essence of what I was striving to express when I wrote the final draft of the short, "Lisa with Child". Namely a synthetic entity who is both very human and who is very obviously a machine. Someone who is capable of an intensely warm and loving relationship that is rooted in how she came into existence. A relationship that is an unusual variant of the love that humans can have between one another--symbiotic rather than romantic, and expressed in how she mirrors the person she is connected to with both her heart and her mind.

In "Lisa with Child" that relationship is also an evolving one. Originally Lisa was intended to be an extension of her partner's intentions. She and her fellow Williams types were meant to be reliable, covert combat systems in age in which self-reproducing weapons systems have been used to create mass tragedies, and in which a weapon platform going rogue is a very real concern. Thus she was built to incorporate the well being and motivations of her partner, CIA field operative Karin, into the core of her own existence as an entity of thought and emotions.

It's relationship that takes an unusual turn when the threats that confront Karin come from within rather than without, after her forced retirement. The catalyst of conflicting priorities when faced with a self-destructive Karin pushes Lisa to evolve in an unexpected direction that both actualizes her need to preserve her identity while saving Karin and acknowledging Karin's future mortality at the same time. It's an evolution that sets the stage for the events of Lisa and Kim, which looks the tensions and joys found in a similar bond shared awkwardly and unevenly between three individuals, as well as the potential for tragedy that results when the symbiotic connection between one of Lisa's sibling Williams types and his owner goes disastrously awry.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

States and Nations: What comes next

We humans haven’t always lived in nations-states. That’s an obvious one, I know, but it's observation that for me begs the question of what comes next? We've gone from living in family bands to tribes and clans to chieftainships and eventually bureaucratized states, so is there some new type of social organization waiting to emerge in the future? One that might be as difficult for us to fathom as the British Empire was for Pacific islanders in the 1700s, or as any modern state would be for mammoth-hunting Europeans around the end of the last ice age?

Maybe a world-state largely run by expert systems? Or how about a technologically empowered reversion to earlier, more human-scale forms of government. Tribes with legally binding customs in the age of cyberspace, or high-tech direct-democracy city-states in a globalized world?

Another obvious observation: Nation-states and their predecessors were made possible by different technology packages. Bands and tribes were primarily paleo- and neolithic tech-level nomadic hunter-gatherers. Village-based chieftainships arose along with farming and animal husbandry, and bureaucratic nation-states (for the most part) were a response to the enormous populations, complex infrastructure growth, and mass-mobilization military needs of the industrial age. So in a time of maturing information technologies and blossoming bio- and nanotech, is a form of social organization and governance developed during the transition from farming to a manufacturing really a good fit for us?

Looking back, the past century is certainly littered with the detritus and mass graves left behind by nation-states behaving badly. Some, like Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Imperial Japan, and Maoist China, became vehicles for horrific ideologies that killed tens of millions in episodes that stagger the mind and wrench at the heart. Even the more benign liberal and socialist democracies have had plenty of ugly moments, both while fighting totalitarian states and in dealing with their own ethnic and religious minorities.

Before we go on, I want to say that I’m fan of the nation-state model, despite its many shortcomings and associated ugliness. Why? Because the moderate states have created mass economic prosperity on a scale never seen before in human existence. They’ve granted unprecedented political freedom to a members of species that used to publicly torture and then execute dissidents in places as diverse as medieval Europe, imperial China, tribal North America, and Aztec Mesoamerica. Moreover, in North America and much of Europe the citizenry has struggled with itself to improve the treatment of minorities of all stripes, both at the hands of the state and their fellow citizens in daily life. It’s often been a rocky process, but it’s one that has steadily expanded the circle of rational adults who are granted the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, who live free from the fear of organized paralegal violence like lynchings, and who can find redress for wrongs in the courts and legislatures.

With all that said, if there is a next step in the evolution of human social organizations I’m hoping it’s one that builds up on the expansion of liberty and prosperity made possible by the dispassionate rule of law in modern states. Of course the future is not always a nice place, and it’s also possible that our nation-states might not last too much longer as technology continues to put more destructive power in the hands of individuals, from lone gunmen who can kill dozens to terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction. We live in states that have a very short track record as far as survivability, and which depend on ten-thousand mile supply chains these days for the manufactured goods that make life possible as well as the farm machinery and petroleum products required for the industrial-scale agriculture that feeds us.

So I’m going to be looking up as well as down in the next article. I'll float models of increased social complexity as well as simplified ones that look like updated forms of earlier social organizations. And I’ll be taking a look at technology. How might new forms of tech change both governance and society?

Lastly, there will be the question of choice. What kind of alternate societies would people like to live in? While brute necessity might force us to revert to simple forms of living, the ideals and the dreams of reformists, futurists, clergy, and natural philosophers, during the 1700s, 1800s, and the past century shape how we live today. Our aspirations and those of our children for a better tomorrow will hopefully play a similar role in shaping what comes next.

Next up: What is Cyberdemocracy? 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Indo-European: No one has been anywhere for long

There's been a bit of a kerfuffle going on among linguists over the origins and spread of the mysterious ancestral language that spawned descendants as diverse as Latin, German, Anatolian, and Persian. From the western shores of Spain to present day Iran and India, many of the words that people use to make themselves understood have their roots in a tongue that somehow spread across a broad swath of Eurasia not all that long after the end of the last ice age. The question of how that happened--through a diffusion of agriculture and related technologies from the Fertile Crescent or conquest by horse-raising, chariot-riding pastoralists from what is now Northern Turkey--is a complex one. It's also a good reminder that no one, not even in the 'Old World,' has been where they're at today for long in the big scheme of things.

As a teenager I mistakenly thought that Indo-European had to be the first human language, or maybe one of its second-generation descendants. Possibly it was a daughter tongue carried out of Africa to Europe by the very men and women who had first met the neanderthals of the latter continent, and its fracturing lay behind the biblical story of Babel and its tower. Needless to say, there were some significant time scales that I was failing to grasp back then. That, and I had no appreciation of just how mobile our species has been or how fluid its ethnic groups and racial identities are when thousands or even just hundreds of years are flowing by in an eye blink.

Modern humans may have begun to displace Homo neanderthalenis in Europe around 35,000 years ago, but it wasn't Proto-Germans, Celts, Slavs, or Scandinavians who did it. The oldest distinct ethnic groups in Europe, the Sami people of the Scandinavia Peninsula and the Albanians in the modern Balkans, have only been there for about 5,000 years. Previously and since then, humans have swept across Eurasia, interbreeding, being assimilated, and then giving rise distinct populations only to be displaced and mixed up again. The vast grasslands of Western, Central, and Eastern Asia have churned out many iterations of far-ranging horse riders and the tenacious hunter-gatherer tribes who warred with them in the border regions of hills and forests. Members of both groups spread out from those heartlands in distinctive waves of emigration across the rest of the continent.

The entrance into Europe of the Germanic peoples, their conquest of the Celts, and their clashes with the agrarian civilization of the Roman Empire is one such wave that just happened to be documented to a degree by early historians and commentators. And if it was recent enough to find its way to pen and parchment it's pretty much breaking news to species that has been around for the better part of a quarter of a million years.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Headed back: Reno to Portland

Just north of Reno

The 'low' high country where the granite Sierra Nevada Mountains end and the volcanic Cascades begin. Also, a meeting place between the ecologies of the high cold sage desert and the mountains.

A small volcano: One of around a dozen edifices both dormant and dead within the vicinity of Mt. Lassen, the southernmost of the Cascade volcanoes.

Approaching Mt. Shasta from the south on lonely state route 89

Roadside volcano is open and serving. OK, probably not. Cinder cones like this one tend to be one-shot affairs.

Mt. Shasta and its three main peaks from the west.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Driving home to Portland

I'll be offline for the better part of two days, but hopefully there'll be some spiffy photos and entertaining musings to follow. The drive is one of my favorites, and all kinds of good ideas and interesting notions crop up after twelve hours of listening to good music and seeing the landscape of mountains and vast forests and bucolic valleys rolling by.

Also: Many thanks to everyone who downloaded a copy of Lisa with Child weekend. The story was up at #15 on Amazon's list for free high tech science fiction at its high point, and spent most of the last three days on the front page of that list. That was certainly a nice boost to the writing ego.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

The rising power of non-state actors: Google restricts anti-Muslim video

Google’s restricting of anti-Muslim video shows increasing clout of Web firms - The Washington Post:

'via Blog this'

I can't say that I blame Google for blocking access to the Innocence of Muslims films on YouTube. It would make me a more than a little queasy to know a video hosted on a service I was running had helped to fuel riots. At the same time this is also a freedom of speech issue that deserves examination, and the incident is also an example of just how much power has moved from state to non-state hands in recent years. These days Google and other online service providers have the ability to selectively block public dissemination of information on a scale legally unavailable to the US government, and that is beyond the technical means of both federal agencies and national governments in places like Egypt and Libya at this time.

As far as the free speech part, I don't feel too bad about Google choosing to block this video.  While I haven't had a chance to view the it yet, it sound like it toes the border of hate speech, and as a private service Google is free to set and define limits on what it will carry in the US. At the same time that freedom and the power inherent in it is worrisome. Google's actions can have an immense impact on the flow of information that is vital to public discourse, but with none of the public accountability of the democratic institutions that have traditionally governed that process here in the US.

Like I said, it's something deserving of examination. While Google has by and large been a decent corporate citizens there are no guarantees that it will always be so.

Happy news

The novella, Lisa with Child, that I put up for free on Amazon this weekend has hit #15 on the list for free high tech science fiction. That's not bad for the first day. Not bad at all.

A successful brain augmentation implant monkeys

When a technology or pharmaceutical works well in primates inside a research setting it's typically not far from making the jump to people. So, interesting stuff here.

Scientists make monkeys smarter using brain implants. Could you be next?:

'via Blog this'

Friday, September 14, 2012

Free reads? Free reads!

Download a copy of my award-winning short story bundled with a novella set sixteen years after the events of "Lisa with Child." Available for Kindle readers and most Windows or Mac computers at no cost, Friday, September 14th through Sunday the 16th on

Product Description: After a forced retirement from the CIA, former field operative Karin Linhart finds herself haunted by memories from a career spent hunting extremists armed with nanotech weapons of mass destruction. Now, on the verge of Karin's return to the Agency as a private contractor, her synthetic bodyguard, Lisa, announces that she has violated the ultimate law governing weapons systems in the mid-twenty first century: the ironclad ban on self-reproduction.
With her own future suddenly in doubt and both Lisa and her unborn child in grave danger, Karin must struggle to discover the reasons behind her friend and guardian's choice, even as time is quickly running out for both of them. Karin's superiors are close to learning the truth about Lisa's decision, and Karin will soon be forced to choose between a career that gives her life meaning and the continued existence of a being whose emotions and thoughts were meant to be extensions of her own.

An award-winning story of symbiotic redemption, Lisa with Child is a journey into a near future where rogue AIs seek to subsume humanity and the borders between biological and machine life are about to be forever blurred.

"Lisa with Child" first appeared in volume 26 of the prestigious Writers of the Future annual anthologies, after being chosen for inclusion by a board of prominent science fiction authors that included Anne Mccaffrey, Larry Niven, and Orson Scott Card. Lisa with Child - A Novella also includes the novella Lisa and Kim, a story about the ties that bind families together and a lethal software entity who stalks a gifted young woman across the Pacific Northwest of 2050.

Get them today for free!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Hiking in the Sierras

Granite: recycled sea floor that weathers in interesting ways.

Looking from the Sierras into the Great Basin.

Fifty years ago today: We choose to go to the moon.

The short version

The full version, which is very much worth taking the time to listen to and watch, both for the vision and for the quality of the rhetoric employed at a time when rhetoric was still the art of persuasive speaking meant to inform and enlighten listeners.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Also in our living future, today

"Baldur's Gate is a game I bought for my PC twelve years ago, on five CD-ROMS. Now I'm going to condense it out of the air and install it on a machine that you would have seen on Star Trek. We're living in the future, but I didn't even notice."

Penny Arcade on our life in the in the future, today.

Torn from the headlines of tomorrow

You know we are living in the future when Wired runs an article on the military's mistrust of its own robots.

Actually it's a so, so article for being in the future.

While it does have some good material in it, it's tone doesn't do justice to complexity of the issue, IMHO. Specifically on the military side of integrating drones into the existing systems of men and machines already on the battlefield. Hell, integrating people into people-based organizations is difficult enough, particularly in combat arms. It takes years to turn a young slacker just off the couch with Taco Bell still between his teeth into a competent infantryman. Even then, with training, lots of repetitive practice in cooperation, and a jargon designed to distill speech down to a set of formatted reports and specific phrasing to communicate in a chaos-filled environment, misunderstandings crop up and errors happen. Sometimes it seems like half the job of being a good leader is just being able to both express oneself clearly as well as to draw meaning out of others.

So yeah, integrating a semi-autonomous non-human platform into a networked system built to operate in a settings of physical and information entropy is going to take a couple of difficult and frustrating years for everyone involved. Both in and out of the military. With that in mind, having a healthy respect for all the things that can go wrong during that process shouldn't be characterized as "mistrust."    

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Remembering 9/11

A link to the piece I wrote for the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, describing how the events of that day changed my life in a big way. Also included is a link to a beautiful BBC photojournalism essay and interview showing the construction of both the original twin towers and their Post-9/11 replacements. It's very much worth watching, if a little emotional at points.

A story of the ground beneath our feet.

Lake Tahoe is a sublimely beautiful place, comparable to the fjords of Arctic Norway where I spent seven weeks during early 1998. Unlike those gentle bays and valleys, Tahoe is in many ways the product of violent and spectacularly far-reaching geologic forces that continue to reshape the Western Untied States

Seventeen million years ago the West Coast ran in a straight south-easterly line. Then a sticky collision with the northwest-moving Pacific Ocean plate began along a boundary that grew into the San Andreas Fault, deforming the continent's western edge and interior.

The results of that, along with some ice-age glacial sculpting, are rather spectacular.

Someday we'll pay a price for this beauty as the ground beneath us continues to pivot and fault blocks twist and rise, or sink like the one below the lake. However, such motion takes place on a time scale that civilizations can grow and die in several times over, and even after the next major quake humans will rebuild and continue to come here to enjoy what nature has made.

A paddlewheeler having a bad day. The Tahoe Queen looking very much like it was run aground by high winds.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

That Star Trek Google doodle and the Cold War

I thoroughly enjoyed Google's recent Star Trek birthday doodle. Especially the tip of the hat to the eternally suffering red shirts I sometimes sympathized with as a child during the late Cold War.

Television was pretty much a sparsely populated desert as far as sci-fi back in the 80s, so reruns of the classic 1960s Trek was where it was at as far as getting a regular fix of intelligent, if campy speculative fiction. As a teen I liked the Next Generation, but I never felt the same kind of affection for it as I did the original, and I wasn't able to get into any of the later series. Both Next Gen and those that followed felt a little too smooth and polished. It wasn't necessarily the lack of delightful camp or cheese, but they were bland in a way that I really couldn't put my finger on at the time. Maybe they were a little too politically correct, which was odd as the original series was definitely a product of the Civil Rights Era, and was very much on the pro side of the movement's issues.

These days I wonder if some of the differences between the atmosphere of the original and its successors might be found in the backgrounds of two very different generations of writers and producers. I need to do some more research, but I strongly suspect that Gene Roddenberry's wartime experiences as a B-17 pilot as well as his aviation background contributed to the original Trek's granular hard edges--ones that lent the first show an atmosphere that felt more real world-ish. That, and his experiences may account for the show's unapologetic and entirely non-ironic opposition to totalitarian ideologies and warrior societies.

It's an opposition that never equivocated liberal democracy with what feels like the show's stand-ins for the blood-drenched ideologies of the mid and early 20th century. The "Balance of Terror" episode that introduced the Romulans has strong Cold War overtones, complete with a demilitarized zone, weapons of mass destruction, and the dread of a renewed far-reaching war. In "Space Seed" Kahn casts a pro-eugenics shadow from the setting's past, much as the all-too-recent memories of Nazism did at the time when the series aired.  I've also often wondered if the atrocities and glory-or-death warrior-cult of Imperial Japanese militarism colored the early Klingons. Especially as in their original incarnation they had a decidedly East Asian look, and the script of the episode that introduces them describes the Klingons as "oriental" in appearance.

I also suspect that Roddenberry's combat experience is the reason why the pilot for the first series has darker feel to it than the more jovial version that eventually made it to network television.

I still enjoy going back and watching Classic Trek these day, but I appreciate it on levels that I never did as a child. With a historian's eye and my own real world experiences I now see attitudes and worldviews from the period that the show was shot in. Ideologically, I see a very clear distillation of the old school liberalism that had been embraced at the voting booth by the generation that had fought or served in World War II as enlisted personnel and company grade officers.

The show first aired at a time when liberal Democrats were midway through their sixty-year domination of Congress. It was a period when a much of the population in the United States hoped that the future would be a place where rationality and science had brought about a world free of want, as well as one free from the economic turbulence that had blighted the years of their youth and the lives of their parents or grandparents, reaching back into the late 1800s. It was one that reflected the tensions of the Cold War, but which still dared to hope that humanity would achieve a lasting peace within itself, laying to rest the demons of ethnic strife as well as the social turbulence caused by the mass poverty that had given rise to the extremist ideological views of Nazi German and the Soviet Union in the first place.

These days to watch the series is to touch a period when the future of humanity felt as though it hung suspended between a technological paradise and a hell of unending totalitarianism. 

Friday, September 07, 2012

Robot Cheetahs

Because the world needs more of them.  Via DefenseTech.Org

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Junk DNA: Regulating the genome

Several years ago when I was living in the charming little Swedish university town of Lund I walked over to the public library on a rainy day to read the latest edition of Scientific American. The cover article immediately snagged my attention with the authors' assertion that what had previously been thought of as junk sequences of DNA within the human genome were actually mechanism that regulate gene operations.

In other words there are chains of DNA that we call genes. These are periodically read, and then copied into RNA strands that in turn are used to manufacture the peptides (essentially tiny proteins) that are assembled into the building blocks, widgets, and other machinery of cellular life. Other non-coding stretches of DNA within our chromosomes--ones that had earlier appeared to be without purpose--had been studied and then looked as though they helped to regulate when and how and how often the genes are read and copied for use.

It was an exciting idea, and there was a nice symmetry in it. The notion that in increasingly complex micro and macro systems within our universe more and more internal regulatory mechanism are required to coordinate the timing of essential operations and the allocations of resources. Of course it was still early days for the idea that junk DNA played any kind of role. One study does not a scientific theory make.

Nearly a decade has passed between then and now, and a series of other studies have since confirmed the role of the non-protein producing segments as regulatory mechanisms. This confirmation gives us a much clearer picture of the human genome, and it's big step forward in learning how to read the body of computational data encoded in deoxyribonucleic acid that not only makes us what we are, but also plays a significant contributing role in determining who we are as individuals.

A functional medical exoskeleton

A Swedish medical exoskeleton built to restore mobility to stroke victims.

Robotdräkt ska hjälpa strokedrabbade att gå - DN.SE:

'via Blog this'

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Beautiful images from NASA's Cassini Saturn probe

NASA currently has several true color images of Saturn taken by the Cassini spacecraft and posted on the mission's website. Well worth checking out.

Image courtesy of NASA, public domain.