Monday, October 29, 2012

States and Nations 3.0: E-democracy threats and promises

Our societies and governments have gotten more complex along with our tools. Over the past ten thousand years emergent technology packages have gone hand-in-glove with that increase in complexity, and the creation of new forms of human social organizations and governance. An example: Advanced paleolithic stone tools were so effective at allowing our ancestors to obtain more food and fuel that they helped lead to increased population densities. As more people lived in closer proximity, more cooperative endeavors became possible, and tribes formed from disparate family bands woven together into larger societies. Chiefdoms and states likewise appeared after similar technology shifts, and I suspect that the same will happen in the future. While advanced biotechnology and human brain augmentation may one day change how we organize and govern ourselves, the advent of information systems holds many near-term potentials for either transforming modern states and nations, or giving rise to an eventual successor form of organization.

Currently there are three broad forms cyber democracy, each with their own balance of potential strengths and weaknesses:
  • Electronic direct democracy
  • Expert system-assisted democracy
  • Social software engine driven democracy

Electronic direct democracy is my least favorite of the three. Empowering citizens with direct governance strikes me as a romantic, but singularly bad idea. My inner historian looks back at the durability of the representative Roman Republic and parliamentary democracies, and sees a stark contrast with the instability and short-lived natures of direct democracies, like that of Classical Athens. Whether it's the history of angry mobs voting out and exiling effective military commanders such as Pericles and Alcibiades, or Californians strangling their state with a combination of referendum-passed tax caps and spending mandates, direct democracy in practice is far removed from the beautiful theoretical picture painted by many of its boosters.

Think about all the ranters you've ever seen at city council meetings, or the trolls in the comments section of news articles. Now imagine handing them legislative power. Not a pretty image, and that's not even getting into questions of expertise or knowledge of existing bodies of laws.

This form of governance might work on a small scale, or in an environment where constant survival considerations are an entrenched part of the culture. However, if I were to depict a large e-democracy in science fiction, chances are it would would resemble its troubled real world historical predecessors, baring any major changes in human nature.

Next in States and Nations 3.0: Expert Systems Enhanced Democracy

State of the Species | Charles C. Mann | Orion Magazine

State of the Species | Charles C. Mann | Orion Magazine:

'via Blog this'

An excellent long form article on the past and present of our species.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Another round of Skyrim

The next States and Nations post will be up on Monday. In the meanwhile, here's a quick break from science and science fiction with another round of in-game Skyrim shots from my Best of File. These are from earlier in the year, when I had the game tweaked for a saturated high fantasy feel, rather than the more realistic palette of muted colors along with the sharp, high-contrast lighting that I settled on towards the end of my time in Skyrim.

I've probably mentioned this before, but I enjoy the occasional fantasy book or game because the genre is more about being in the moment than techno thrillers and science fiction. It's generally not as encumbered by deep meanings and implications, so it provides a welcome, primordial pause of imagery and sensation when I'm overthinking the world.

House of gods

Night home

Drama in three dimensions 

Winter fall

Night bright

Wolves on a beach

Pandora's sphere

Hide site (tents and camouflage)

Friday, October 26, 2012

The failure of generals - A missing context

General Failure - Thomas E. Ricks - The Atlantic:

'via Blog this'

I'm not a fan of military affairs journalist Thomas Ricks. I read his book, Fiasco, about the early conduct of the Iraq war back in 2006, and found most of his conclusions to be grossly simplistic. He glossed over enough important details and leaped to so many shaky judgments that I never felt tempted to pick up any of his follow on books about the war, as it continued to play out. It certainly didn't help that during conflict's closing phase he went and made a number of public predictions that turned out erroneous, to put it it mildly. He claimed in 2008 that the largest battles of the war had yet to be fought, and that the conflict would only grow larger. All that said, his Atlantic article in the above link does a worthwhile job of looking at the inability of senior commanders during the conflict's early years to understand the nature of the enemy they were facing, and at the disappointing failure of the Pentagon and White House to relieve them as Iraq spiraled down into chaos. However, that latter failing requires some historical context, which Ricks fails to provide.

In the article he contrasts the lack of generals fired during the Iraq war to the readiness of the general staffs of the World War II Era-Army to quickly sack commanders who failed to perform under the stress of combat. Part of Ricks' missing context is fairly obvious, even at first glance. None of the officers fired during World War II were theater commanders, like the ones he criticizes in the Iraq conflict. Instead they were all unit commanders. There is a big difference between kicking out a general in charge of how a war is waged, versus a field grade or lower flag rank officer who failed to make himself or his unit perform while under fire.

The other missing bit is that the officer corps going into combat in World War II was an enormously different beast than the one in Iraq. In 1943 the US Army had gone from a pre-war force of around 190,000 with 14,000 professional officers to having 8.3 million men under arms. That exponential growth had seen the officer corps diluted down again and then again and yet again as tens of thousands of green volunteers joined its ranks.

In that chaotic environment, there was no way to know who would perform and who would fail. Officers who had never commanded small units in battle suddenly found themselves in charge of thousands or tens of thousands of combat arms soldiers in the middle of history's largest war. The result was an intense shake down period for the Army and other services, in which the service branches had little choice about promoting masses of untested officers into positions that held the power of life and death, and then firing those who couldn't cope while promoting those who looked promising. The commanders in Iraq, conversely, had all come up through a long chain of previous commands, staff assignments, and schools, and for the most part they had excelled during their earlier careers. Their failures were often a lack of perception or insight, rather than outright operational incompetency or even cowardice under fire.

Despite that missing context, Ricks does bring up an interesting tangential point in the article that's worth thinking about. An ugly point that I've heard others touch on, but never express as clearly as he did. Namely that the tactical proficiency of the enlisted soldiers, NCOs, and company grade officers made it possible for generals who failed to understand the conflict to hold onto their commands as the war spun out of control. Even while the insurgency spread and number of attacks increased, Army and Marine units continued to win nearly every fight on the ground. There were no large-scale massacres of US soldiers or overrun American platoons. No large firebases or camps were lost, and no groups of stunned POWs were paraded before cameras by insurgents -- any of which might have brought about an immediate change in theater leadership. Without tangible significant losses, the failures of vision took longer to recognize as friendly casualties came in at a rate of one or two or three a day.

In other words, tactical excellence on the part of soldiers and marines in the field helped blind politicians and officers in Washington to a subtler but persistent set of strategic failings. So it's not surprising that it wasn't until nearly four years into the conflict that a theater commander was finally put in place with a mandate to change the very means used to fight the war.

PS The next States and Nations article will be up on Sunday

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Science fiction is catching up to my novel

Boeing Successfully Tests Electronics-Frying, Microwave Missile : The Two-Way : NPR:

'via Blog this'

Above is an NPR article that discusses the recent test of a type of directed energy weapon that figures prominently in the military science fiction novel that I'm currently shopping around. It's a missile warhead that destroys electronics equipment within a specified cone using an electromagnetic pulse.  It's a concept that's been around for a while now in military affairs circles, but now it's close to becoming a reality, with a successful demonstration by Boeing at a Utah Air Force facility, as explained in this video.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Self-publish Vs. Traditional publishing

Today my near-future espionage novella, Lisa with Child, cracked the top ten on Amazon's free techno thriller list. Meanwhile, the VIRAL anthology with my other novella, The Call, has hit #2 on the war list, and is sitting at 807 overall in the Kindle store. But it's also going for free.

I just need to figure our how to convert some of that volume from giveaways to sales, while waiting on a yea or nay from a traditional publishing house regarding a novel. The dilemma of self-publishing versus taking the time and patience needed to go the traditional route is excruciatingly frustrating on days like today. It's a real temptation to bolt to one side or the other when one is showing signs of life, rather than continuing to work both.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The VIRAL Novellas Omnibus : Free Monday - Wednesday

Now up on Amazon, the novel-length omnibus edition of the VIRAL Novellas. Collected along with my 90 page espionage thriller, The Call, are three other stories of deception and covert action set in the darkest corners of the War on Terror. The authors range from from new talents like myself to veterans and heavy hitters, such as bestseller Steven Savile and Keith R.A. DeCandido.  

The book will be available for free Monday - Wednesday on the Kindle Store, as will my near-future thriller, Lisa with Child.

The VIRAL Novellas

-30- by Keith DeCandido

Veteran journalist Joe Lombardo thought he was done with wars and terror campaigns. After winning a Pulitzer for his articles on the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and sacrificing his marriage covering wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he’s quit the foreign desk of the New York Times in favor of writing about local politics for the Daily News. Or at least that’s what he believes right up until an old CIA source gets in touch with him for the first time in years with the story of a lifetime…

ANOMALY by Jason Fischer

Doctor Felix Koehler oversees the vaccination program in Dadaab, Kenya. When the world’s largest refugee camp is plagued with cholera outbreaks, Koehler discovers a murderous conspiracy. Corrupt CIA agents plan to destabilize the African Union by distributing a live virus to certain ethnic groups...

MARTYRS by Jordan Ellinger

When newly discovered intel places the world’s most wanted terrorist far from the mountain caves where he’s reputed to be hiding, the CIA decides to enlist the help of local doctor Sahir Ahmed to run an inoculation campaign designed to isolate DNA that can be linked to a sister in Boston. A relationship soon develops between the doctor and his nurse/handler, Pakistani-American Nadira, that has him questioning everything he knows about the bond between the nation he calls home and the superpower across the sea...

THE CALL by Alex Black

Iron-willed CIA case officer Nikolas Koteas confronts a series of increasingly ugly choices as he hunts for a notorious Taliban commander while under deep cover in Pakistan. When it becomes clear that his ruthless enemy has acquired a horrific weapon of mass destruction, Koteas must ask himself how far he will go and whether or not he will make the call to use the very vaccination ruse that he condemned in order to complete his mission...

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Evidence of neanderthal immigration to North Africa

The original Africans are Neandertals (in part) | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine:

'via Blog this'

You might be wondering, why all of the recent posts here about neandertals and other hominids? Partially it's an extension of my fascination with the evolution of the human thought. In my eyes we are our thoughts. Thoughts are the very experience of what is to be a human being, and the medium for all the drama that goes with that condition. The bones and artifacts left by our fellow hominii, and how they apparently interbred and competed with us says something about how they processed the world in their heads.

I'm also interested in neanderthals and other hominids because it dovetails with my science fiction writing. The trilogy I'm working on deals with the co-existence of sapient species during an age of star flight. The ability or inability to live side by side is a central issue, as is the influence of biology from separate spheres of evolution that affects how each sapient species sees the world. That, and how these species grapple with using emerging bio and nanotechnologies to alter those modes of perception. When it comes to writing characters and conflicts in such a setting it's both useful and fulfilling to take a look at the last time that our Earth hosted multiple sapient species who lived in close proximity to one another.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Neanderthals: A summary of us and them

Today's links of interest

Neanderthals ... They're Just Like Us?:

'via Blog this'

National Geographic has a good summary on what's known and not known about the state of relationships between modern humanity and the neanderthals. Divergences, convergences, and all that.

PTSD and resilience 

Stress: The roots of resilience : Nature News & Comment:

'via Blog this'

Science journal juggernaut Nature takes a look at some of the neurological underpinnings of brains that are altered by severe trauma and those that come through horrific events unscathed. This is an article that I will be revisiting, as my military science fiction takes a look at all aspects of war. That includes the years that come after and the ways in which technology may change or eliminate PTSD, for good and bad.

Five planets, one star

Tightly Packed Planets Spotted Around Sun-Like Star | Wired Science |

'via Blog this'

A Wired piece on the Kepler space telescope team's discovery of five near-Earth sized planets orbiting their star, all within the radius of the planet Mercury's close in circle around the Sun.

Bin Laden down

Alternative to Bin Laden Raid: A Teeny, Tiny Missile Strike | Danger Room |

'via Blog this'

Also in Wired, an interview with Black Hawk Down author Mark Bodwen on his new book The Finish, which describes the lead up to the raid that kill Bin Laden, and the alternatives that were discussed. Included the interview is a link to a Wired article that describes the ground-level fusion of intelligence and special operations functions within the Joint Special Operations Command, which came out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this past decade.

While the linked article's author is judgmental and uses various military terms incorrectly or out of context, he still sketches a good portrait of how the formerly separate worlds of combat operations and intelligence gathering were finally integrated at the operational level. As a personal opinion, I think that this is the biggest revolution in military affairs since the advent of the mechanized warfare and the overall 20th-century trend of integrated combined arms operations of armor, infantry, and indirect fire elements taking place at smaller and smaller unit levels.

Cork: A photo journalism essay

How cork is made: an illustrated guide:

'via Blg this'

Also, for the delight of fellow wine-loving onephiles, a fantastic photojournalism essay that shows the making of wine corks.

Monday, October 15, 2012

States and Nations 3.0: What is Cyberdemocracy?

As mentioned in the first States and Nations 3.0 post, we've gone from living in family bands, to tribes, multi-village chiefdoms, and then states. It's a progression seen in seen in branches of humanity who were isolated from one another for 10,000 years by the vagaries of ice-age land bridges between the New and Old Worlds, as well as in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean. Those steps in increased social complexity are by-in-large linked to advances in technology. Family bands and tribes normally employed paleo- and neolithic hunter - gatherer tech packages. Chiefdoms were the product of early sedentary agriculture (with a few notable exceptions in resource heavy regions). Early states required relatively advanced packages of farming techniques, domesticated crops, and crafts in order to exist.

So if there are other forms of social organization beyond states in our future, what kind of technologies might bring them about?  Advances in brain augmentation and gene engineering that alter the nature of human thought hold exotic possibilities. But before getting into those a couple of articles from now, there are more quixotic technologies worth looking at on the near-term horizon. Technologies that are less radical, but which still hold transformative potentials. Information and computer science tech are on the lips of lots of near-future futurists these days, and their discussions often include the terms cyberdemocracy and e-democracy.

What are these forms of neo-populism?

Essentially there are three broad tiers that I've come across so far:
  • Electronic direct democracy
  • Expert system-assisted democracy
  • Social software engine driven democracy 
Direct electronic democracy is the simplest of the three. Essentially online voting systems would allow voters to decide each issue directly, doing away with the need for elected representative bodies. Expert system-assisted democracy consists of varying schemes to use AI systems to aide voters or politicians. One such design would replace elected representatives with randomly chosen citizens who serve limited terms of office, and who are assisted in their duties by AIs or dispassionate expert systems. An ideal setting for of this system is one in which the software is self-maintaining, self-evolving, and does not require maintenance from human engineers who might tamper with the systems. 

Social software engine democracy is a complex hybrid form. One in which citizens up vote or down vote issues and choices on software systems that are modeled on robust game engines, which have already established a track record for being able to operate in the face of advanced and repeated hacking attacks. These applications packages would include forms for discussion, and reputation systems with cumulative, peer-voted reliability ratings like those used on eBay or classic online forms like Slashdot. In other words, other citizens would vote the reputations of their peers up or down, one rating at a time, to help establish credibility. Such a system could also be used to choose and supply executive agents--operatives who solve problems and enforce agreed upon laws using just-in-time resources voted to them by fellow citizens who approve of their performance.   

Author Daniel Suarez uses an emergent social software engine democracy as the center piece of his bestselling novels Daemon and FreedomTM. In the books' present day setting, gamification techniques in the form reputation bonuses, Kickstarter-style funding, and social recognition are used to help encode participation in collective decision making into everyday online life. Encrypted digital currencies and augmented reality also figure prominently in weaving this social system into the physical space of daily life as well. 

Next up: E-democracy

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A genetic potential for cultural revolutions

I believe in the blank slate! | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine:

'via Blog this'

Above is a link to an article that hits the sweet spot with regards to the complexity of how both genes and environmentally transmitted cultural information shape what we are as humans. In this case it's a proposal that genetically modern humans spread out from Africa and coexisted with or inhabited areas in Eurasia that bordered regions occupied by older lineages like H. neanderthalensis and the recently discovered denisovans. Those same modern humans held genes that conferred latent potentials, which were finally realized with the arrival of some sort of cultural revolution that enabled homo sapiens to displace or assimilate the kin that it had previously bumped up against.

As I've written about previously, my pet theory for a cultural influence that greatly increased the complexity of the brain's wiring in individuals is syntactical spoken language. Learning a grammatically structured communications scheme significantly alters a human brain. So much so, that it is clinically recognized, with individuals unfortunate enough never to have learned a language during the youthful brain's super plasticity phases between ages two and sixteen expressing lifetime deficits in abstract reasoning.

Words and the ability to order them into sentences that carry larger meta meanings likely offered an entirely new avenue for internally manipulating concepts in a species that had previously been a visual thinker. The genes involved in the latency were probably in part those that set the stage for the development of the semantic memory subsystem, construct the speech-generating Broca's region in the brain, and those that enable complex associative connections in the neocortex.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Cyberattack on Mideast energy firms

Cyberattack on Mideast energy firms was biggest yet, Panetta says - The Washington Post:

'via Blog this'

Some of the cyberwarfare issues that I've posted about here earlier are heating up. This summer, several Mideastern energy firms suffered a destructive loss of data after a viral attack. More recently, major US banks came under a coordinated and sustained denial of service attack that appears to have cost them a few tens of millions of dollars in lost fees and disrupted transactions. The chief suspect in both incidences are the Iranians, who are believed to be retaliating for the joint US - Israeli Stuxnet attack against their nuclear program.

As a purely personal opinion, I think that Stuxnet was a mistake. Both in a narrow military sense that it was a wasted attack that could not deliver a significant blow, and in the broader sense of being the proverbial stone cast in a glass house.

From a historical view it reminds me of the early US bombing raids against North Vietnam--isolated strikes, none of which was part of a coherent campaign designed to bring the enemy to his knees in short order. Instead of a killing blow against a weak combatant, the gradual escalation of pinpricks served to give the Soviet-backed North Vietnamese a good picture of US capabilities, and then develop an effective defense. Toward the end of the war, US pilots no longer had free reign over the skies of North Vietnam. Instead they found themselves pitted against a formidable network comprised of the Warsaw Pact's best air defense weapons platforms. The resulting fight claimed the lives of hundred of US airmen and officers, and saw several dozen confined in brutal POW prisons. All in a battle space that they had dominated just a few years earlier.

Then there's that glass house issue. The US is one of the most wired countries in the world. We've got more critical financial and infrastructure assets online than just about anyone else. In using software to destroy hardware in someone else's country, we've invited a response on the same battlefield. And unlike dropping a bomb, cyberwarfare is an arena where enemies can actually hit back at the US.

I'm not suggesting that cyberspace would have stayed a peaceful and happy place if Stuxnet had never been launched. Someday, someone will fight a war online, and the financial fallout will likely  be ugly for everyone involved. I'd rather it not be us who are tangled up in that mutually destructive episode. Especially with so much of our lives and livelihoods tied up in dataspace. If the threat of a nuclear armed Iran is so great then we should be willing to go the distance in physical space to decide the matter permanently, and do it within the confines of the Geneva conventions that we helped to write. Especially at a time when we are only just starting to address our major online infrastructure vulnerabilities.

California's future: Detached and headed north?

Some days the internet is full of awesome. Yesterday I learned that just to the east of California's super volcano, the gigantic Long Valley Caldera, sits the remains of an older caldera blasted into the flank of Sierras: The Minarets Caldera, a place of towering spires surrounding a jumbled volcanic void. That's so going on my list of places to hike.

Related to that, it appears that energy from the collision between North America and the Pacific Plate is ever-so-slowly transferring from the San Andreas fault to a deepening trough and system of spreading faults just to the east of the the Sierra Nevadas in the Great Basin. At some point in the distant future, the San Andreas may become an inactive fault, and the Pacific plate will drag all of California to the northwest along a new plate fault, much as it has done with Baja Peninsula since slowly rifting it off mainland Mexico, starting 15 million years ago. See the fourth page of this geology digest article for illustrations.

California being transported to the Pacific Northwest may not necessarily be awesome, but it's certainly a rather epic scenario.

For those who are curious, it sounds like 80% of the present day collision energy is expressed in movements along the San Andreas fault, while the other 20% finds an outlet in the deformation of the Western Great Basin's Walker Trough, which roughly parallels the Sierras.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Place holder for the next States and Nations article

Apologies for the recent lack of posts here. I've gone back to school full time to pick up some programming skills. Linux, JavaScript, and the like. I'm also hunting for an apartment while trying to keep up my science fiction writing output and meet my copy writing obligations. Once I'm settled in with a roof of my own overhead I should be back to doing one article and a couple of minor posts here each week.

The lack of bogging has been frustrating because I've been looking forward to tackling the subject of what future nations and other human collectives might look like. The nation-states that we live in are a relatively recent invention, and I would be surprised if they end up being the end-all be-all of human social development. Our future starfaring descendants may well one day look back at the science fiction of the early Space Age, and have good chuckle over how naive our depictions of 20th century industrial nations among the stars are. Crazy Earthbound people, why not fantasize about interstellar samurai kingdoms, spear-wielding hunter-gatherers living on asteroids, or  planet-wide chiefdoms?
At any rate, I'll knock out the next article in the series--which looks at the potentials and dangers of different forms  cyberdemocracy--this weekend, or die in the attempt. In the meanwhile there is a fairly good article up at Slate that's worth a read if you're looking to fill up a few internet minutes with something that's intellectually nutritious. It takes a summary look at the current genetics- and fossil-derived  view that the ice-age paleolithic world was one in which there were multiple species of humans bumping up against one another on many different views.

That's right. I'm so busy and stressed for time just now that I'll even stoop to tossing out insinuations about sex to keep my readers happy.  Not that I ever do that in fiction or anything...

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

A volcanic vision of changing seasons

Mount St. Helens looking dry and raisin-like in an autumn sunset on the US Forest Service's Volcano Cam, not far away from Portland in Washington State.


The glaciers and permanent snow fields may be lonely now, but soon enough those brown and grey slopes will all be clad in white.