Tuesday, December 31, 2013

States and Nations 3.0: Global Democracy

The establishment of a hemispheric or global empire, with all of the bloodshed or at least repression that have accompanied earlier conquest states is one possible scenario for the rise of a successor model to the modern nation-state. At the same time, many of the factors we've looked at previously in this series leave room for hope for us and our children. Somewhere between the possible return and up-scaling of empires and a devolution of nation-states into micro-polities there are other less dramatic but still transformative possibilities.

A globe-spanning democracy is one of them.

Top Down or Bottom Up?

While out of fashion and far-fetched in the current age of widespread ethnic and religious strife, the kind of centralized top-down, UN-like model of global governance dreamed of by statesmen, futurists, and commentators during the aftermath of two World Wars in the mid-twentieth century could enjoy a revival if another global conflict or a planet-wide disaster threatens our species. Crises demanding an unprecedented world-wide mobilization, ranging from a rumbling super volcano and looming volcanic winter, to massive solar flare activity, chronic terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction, or endemic recessions and depressions in a planetary economy that has become even more integrated, could all serve as catalysts for the kind of statecraft that would be needed to thread together a world of seven billion or more squabbling human beings.

Or, a kind of network of planet-scaled democracy could come from the bottom up. One possibility touched on earlier in this series are soft-power international organizations like those that run the Internet gradually taking on more and more governance functions in a near future where everything from file transfers to drug transactions have taken on a global character - or at least more than they already have over the past decade. Widespread destructive online terrorism and economy-destabilizing cybercrimes, or fiscal instability or planet-wide depressions triggered by offshore banks beyond the reach of conventional regulatory bodies could all serve as drivers for the aggregation of power in the hands of such organizations.

Eventually these institutions might surrender their leadership or at least oversight to varying degrees of democracy.


One of the more intriguing scenarios is as world in which 3D printing and other emerging fabrication technologies, along with automated resource gathering in the form of  harvesting carbon from the air, the cheap and easy biosynthesis of exotic materials using engineered bacteria, and advances in local food production, all obviate the regional infrastructure and regulatory necessities that created our present bureaucratized states. A world where the basics and even some of the luxuries of modern life can be produced with reasonable speed and effort at home might be an odd hybrid of local communities, city-states, and networked international soft-power organizations powered by Kickstarter style donations, user fees, or targeted taxes.

Not that I'm advocating for the demise of the nation-state. As mentioned in an earlier post, no other form of human polity has done so well in meeting the social challenges of industrial economies. Where states with low corruption hold sway, they've created an unprecedented level of broad prosperity, helped win and safeguard civil rights, and even more importantly, they've made possible a day-to-day freedom from the revenge killings, intimidation, and the kind of violent low-level resource struggles that have characterize much of our species' time on Earth.

Identifying Global

Democracy tends to function most smoothly in societies in which a majority of the population share a common culture or sense of identity. It can be rocky - famously and violently so - in places where such a unity is lacking. There are exceptions to this. The United States presently enjoys an almost non-existent level of political violence despite having a religiously and ethnically diverse population - in part because its settlement and founding period played out during a time of backlash against sectarian violence in what is now called the Western World. Even the past decade of polarization and political drift from the center has produced little in the way of violence.

Still, the current levels of religious and ethnic violence that plague some of the world's more diverse democracies would seem to argue against the global sense of identity necessary to a planet-scaled democracy taking root. Stable societal identities are either based on shared niche beliefs, blood, and traditions, or in some regions for the past century and a half, nationhood.

But nations, have not always been nations. Not in their modern sense as a unit of identity. It's only very recently in our time on this planet that humans have come to identify with nationality rather than a clan or village. Just as national identities gradually came into being over the past two centuries during the age of telegraphs, extensive road and canal building, and cheap printing presses, we may be witnessing the rise of nascent global identities with the generations growing up on the internet. These cohorts are coming of age in a world in which global brands and entertainment franchises are more pervasive than ever.

Not that this isn't the first decade in which such a vision has been brought up. During the dawn of the Jet Age there was similar talk as brand names in fast food, airlines, and automotive manufacturing became global icons. Fifty years on, we still don't have a global identity, but at the same time entertainment from anime to an international array of computer and console games, films, food, and coffee chains have achieved a significantly deeper penetration into everyday life. Daily communications between people living around the world have also become common. When I was a teen, talking with a  friend in Sweden was a dollar-per-minute phone call that I looked forward to all month. As an adult, I comment without second thought on Facebook walls of friends in Europe almost daily from here on the West Coast, and can participate in a mailing lists and discussion groups whose members live scattered across the planet.

Many of the present day commonalities of identity - shared entertainment, frequent recreational communications, and common-interest friendships - may become even more international in nature when a new generation of accurate, real time text and audio translation software breaks the language group barrier. Presently the bulk of online communications and cultural interchanges all take place within spaces that mirror the physical world's distribution of languages.  

With these changes and impending changes, we could soon see the emergence of age cohorts identify more with a world civilization and economy than the nation-states they reside in. Here in the present day US, we still have attachments to the states we live in, but our identities for the past century or so have grown more bound up in the nation than the region. Eventually the nation-state's hold could recede, much as the local states' did starting in the late 1800s in favor of a larger level of culture and social organization as a natural response to scaling up changes in economic and social institutions.

Or not 

This scenario is based on a continuity of current globalization and technology trends without significant interruption or catastrophic disruption. The Western World on the eve of World War I was similarly bound together by the threads of international finance, an international scientific community, telegraphic communications, and steamships. The level of economic and even cultural integration was seen as being so high that several pundits declared that a conflict between the great powers had become impossible.  In the aftermath of the war and its follow up conflict, it wasn't until the early 1970s that global trade reached its Pre-World War I tonnage. An online war fought with malware that exploits the interconnected nature of the Internet could have a similar, debilitating effect on communications and cultural interchanges for years into the future.

A global identity could also be complicated by ethical shades of gray. Most of the participants in these trends of daily international communications, mutually beneficial economic transactions, and common entertainments are members of the middle and upper classes. It's possible that tomorrow's suburban and urbanite children in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Eastern and Western Europe, Japan, Korea, Mexico, and the US could end up having more shared interested in common with one another in a post-language divide world than they do with the working classes whom they live alongside in geographic space.

All kinds of potential tensions and conflicts could open up along those fault lines.

Idealists and the Weight of History 

If a successful global democracy sounds a little too rosy as an outcome for current trends, consider the following. If you're reading this blog (according to the Google Analytics at any rate), chances are you live society given form and shape by well-meaning statesmen and dedicated activists during the past two centuries. The sacrifices of soldiers may have won or preserved your liberties depending on where you live, but it was the idealists who invented and gave your society almost all the positive attributes you enjoy, if not appreciate, today.

If you're a citizen of a democracy, the governance structure that rarely intrudes on your daily life was dreamed up by amateur intellectuals, professional clergy, and natural philosophers from the late 1500s into the 1800s. It's one that leaves you free from the whims of kings, secret police, the medieval or Roman-like public execution and torture of political dissidents, and involuntary terms of military service spent in pursuit of conquest. Governance by rule of law rather than cliques of nobles grew from collection of visions dismissed by realists and cynics alike, but which slowly became our reality through long struggle and cultural evolution. The realization of this family of dreams may not be perfect - we have a ways to go as far as protecting minority rights or maintaining the degree of widespread economic property enjoyed by two Post-World War II generations - but it's a system of political liberties and freedom from scarcity that most of humanity over the past 100,000  years could barely have believed possible.

Such organized hopes and visions from the  past make up much of our lives today, even if we normally lack the historical perspective to appreciate that fact. Likewise, what we strive for in our societies today and envision for the coming generations can help shape events and outcomes for the better long after we've departed this Earth. Whether that means supporting visions of the next form of society as a global governance network, or a mega state of egalitarian flavor, or local, self-sustaining communities successfully riding out the next wave of technological challenges, idealism is a powerful current in history that cannot be dismissed when looking forward.

Next up, the final article of this series: States and Nations - Transcending Cultural Evolution

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Year In Music

Somehow I missed this understated 80s-flavored science fiction film when it came out, but I've gotten copious millage out the soundtrack since discovering it. Some of the best fiction and technical writing sustainment music I've had to work with in several years.

And at long last VNV instantiated another album.

Crystal Castles, who also helped to keep the writing music queue full of sustained intensity.

The local music scene here in Portland continued to offer sublime minutes.

Speaking of Portlandia...

And there was more Amanda Fucking Palmer, also at long last.

At at really long last, almost sixteen years after their previous studio album, Mazzy Star - who are the soul of rainy days and dream-like reveries - reappeared. Despite all the meanwhiles gone by between projects, Seasons of Your Day is nearly a perfect continuation of their sound. A natural evolution that feels like it's been three years and not almost two decades.

Max Richter's Infra was an achingly good journey of modern composition. Particularly "Infra5". That track is everything you've ever wished Classical music was.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Historiography: Near and far views

For somewhere in the mid-twentieth century...history at last blends into the clamorous world of current affairs. Time's locomotive slows and the broad horizons of the past are obscured...Gathering up his cherished omniscience, the historian must get down from the air-conditioned express with its tinted windows, cross the tracks, and elbow his way aboard a slower, noisier train whose windows have no glass, and whose doors are never closed.

With nose pressed against a knobby reality, the historian soon makes a disconcerting discovery: He has just been downgraded to the role of an observer, just another one of those contemporary chroniclers whose testimony he has so often found wanting... 
~John Keay, India: A History

Keay's observations on the differences between the field of history and the study of current affairs are bang on. The big sweep of events in motion is almost entirely without clarity when we're caught up in the swelling tsunami that is historic change. The shapes and currents only becomes clear with the receding passage of years. In many ways journalists and current affairs analysts have the unenviable job of trying to drink this ocean of swirling and murky data through the straw of limited perspective, with only a very finite amount of time in which to gulp it all down and process it.

It's a realm that even brilliant historians dive into at their own peril.

The best exemplar of this, for me at least, is the scholar who first instilled the love of history as a field of study in me. Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was revelatory for a sixteen-year old in Nevada. A profound analysis of economic causes driving battlefield methods and outcomes in a five-hundred year span of European history, and written at a time when nearly all my teachers insisted that history was a collection of data from which no useful patterns could be discerned. Or if one could be seen, it always seemed to pigeonhole way too neatly on one side or the other of the political spectrum.

Not only did Kennedy manage to link a number of period economic indicators to military practices and outcome in ways that neither the Democrats or Republicans in my life wholly approved of, but he introduced in Rise and Fall a novel thesis for explaining Western Europe's surprising imperial ascension. Surprising, because Western Europe had spent nearly all of historical time lagging well behind much larger and more advanced Eurasian civilizations. Cities had been round for thousands of years elsewhere on the continent, but had only made the jump north of the Alps around 1000 AD. Even in 1492, with Spain poised to conquer much of the New World and Portugal on the cusp of bypassing the Silk Roads, all of Europe was still considerably behind in technology, military power, and continent-spanning cultural influence compared to Ming China, Europe's Islamic rivals, or the cultural power-house conglomerations of princedoms and  sultanates that would much later become what is now Bangladesh - India - Pakistan.

Kennedy's new explanation for Western Europe's rise to global power was that it was a product of geographic divisions. The land was so segmented by mountains, dense forests, and bisected by major rivers that no one was able to impose a centralized rule through conquest. And so Western Europe as a whole never fell into dynastic orthodoxy and technological stagnation. Elsewhere in the world, the crowning political and military achievement of forging a large nation out of conquests and absorption by Caliphs, Mugahl or Ming or Manchurian emperors, or Tokugawa Shogun aspirants, was followed up by the slow fall into imposed stasis and the rejection of new technologies or war fighting methods that threatened members of the ruling elite or warrior castes.

Fleets were scrapped, long-range exploration curtailed, firearms restricted, and disruptive philosophers or reformist schools of thought violently suppressed.

This geographic thesis is far from being the end all explanation of the last five hundred years of international power dynamics. Jared Diamond incorporated it as just one of several geologic and ecological factors in his famous Guns, Germs, and Steel. Other factors such as such Spain's gaining control of huge sources of South American silver at a time when the world's two largest economies, China and much of India, were moving towards silver-backed currencies, also impacted the course of events. Still, the idea of Europe's unconquerable geographic divides giving rise to its empire-building conquest states was both revolutionary at the time, and has proven durable in academic circles over the past thirty years.

I was also impressed by Mr. Kennedy's boldness when it came to looking forward into the future. When the Rise and Fall was published in 1987 he predicted on the basis of his historical analysis that the US was tipping over into a period of hegemonic decline under debt and military overreach, while Japan would continue its economic ascent. The Soviet Union could be expected to maintain its current levels of military and fiscal clout well into the foreseeable future...

Uh, well, shit.

Yes. Historians. Present. Peril.

It was astounding that someone had gotten the past so brilliantly right managed to get the very near future so completely wrong. At the same time it was hugely instructional. Looking into the question of how Kennedy made such a bad set of calls revealed a layer of faulty premises and bad assumptions, which in turn granted insight to just how often we people construct worldviews and paradigms out of such shoddy material. Or about how even good concepts can become a liability in other contexts. What works analyzing the past can be dangerous when attempting model the future.

Which isn't to say that History has nothing to contribute when looking at the present. Most of us have at best a nodding acquaintance with the histories of our nations, at a time when mainstream narratives on both the left and the right are hugely simplistic. Filling in the gaps in our knowledge gives the past a complexity that matches the present, and more fully explains how we got to where were at. Sometimes, the discipline of studying the past can even recast the present in a wholly new light, transforming a chaos of disconnected ideas into logical consequences living on a braid of interwoven causes and effects.

Next up: Getting the Past Right: Explaining the Now

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Utopia and Dystopia: Music

The future works upon us
As we all work upon it

~YACHT, "Utopia"

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Entanglement and Wormholes

You can't get entangled without a wormhole: Physicist finds entanglement instantly gives rise to a wormhole:

'via Blog this'

Image courtesy of  Allen McC under Creative Commons
via Wikimedia Commons
Apparently the quantum entanglement of particles and wormholes are both manifestations of the same underlying reality. Out universe is pretty damn awesome in a 'spooky' kind of way at its lowest scales of being.

Now if only such wormholes and connections were transversible by information...

ds2 = -c2dt2 + dl2 + (k2 + l2)(dθ2 + sin2θd∅2)

Equation courtesy of Wikipedia

Friday, November 29, 2013

The ISS: One of humanity's great engineering triumphs

Photo NASA, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The international space station is one of humanity's great engineering triumphs. But now NASA has to face a difficult question: what is it for? | The Washington Post:

'via Blog this'

The Washington Post has an excellent series of free long form articles on its site about the various current US space programs, looking at the prospects for the public and private sectors, as well as the Post-Apollo Era in general. My favorite is the piece that examines the history and possible near future of the International Space Station, and the all the important operational lessons the station's international consortium has learned about long-duration human spaceflight from building and operating it.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The natural world versus the human world

"In the real world, Jason had found, there was no such thing as a narrative. Reality was made up of never-ending cycles...Out of obscure beginnings life went on growing into infinity; conclusions, as essential as they are to all plot, are an invention."

~Peter Høeg, Tales of the Night

The natural world does not lend itself to storytelling. Physics and chemistry are alien and counter-intuitive realms, difficult for most of humanity to comprehend. The worlds of biology and ecology lack heroic narratives, being largely a timeline of unceasing struggle without climax or denouement - the actors fading in and fading out in waves of branching speciation, adaptation, and absorption or utter extinction.

Ironically enough, even the story of humanity itself is hardly the stuff of epics. When confronted with actual History as captured in period documents and artifacts, filmmakers and novelists around the world almost always resort to a drastic shearing and pruning: cutting away major events, deleting important players, and compressing years and drawn out decision points to days or minutes in order to come up with something dramatic that theater-going audiences will watch and book-buying individuals will read cover to cover.

Even the real time narratives of the present can have little to do with reality. Individuals and whole societies have ridden ideological narratives down in flames to destruction or devastation, unable to let go of the stories of who and what they saw themselves as being, until a blood-drenched threshold of loss was exceeded. Many of these events were all the more tragic because the destructive narrative was often only one of several tribal or national narratives that somewhere along the way had picked up an ugly critical mass.

Or maybe a sad and constricting inertia better describes the phenomenon. Political narratives woven into group identity have caused individuals to disregard the findings of science, the potential lessons of recent defeats, and to abandon critical analysis of the lives of those who have gone through similar situations before them.

Yet when it's all said and done, we human beings - products of the natural world that we are - are very much intuitive creators and gatherers of narrative. It seems to be a characteristic of us around the world. Even many of the themes we use globally are similar, though the variations are local and many. Heroism, nobility, revenge, redemption, wish fulfillment, the enforcement of cultural norms as aspects of the universe in the form of divinities or divine laws.

Tragedy earned, and tragedy unearned.

In many respects, an education in the sciences or engineering, and the cultivation of professionalism in almost any field, are attempts to overcome to limitations of narrative. A drive to stop filling in gaps in knowledge with assumptions drawn from the form and structure of our native cultures' stories and our personal narratives, and to embrace a more empirical view of the world. A view that often runs roughshod over those comfortable stories.

There are probably good reasons why the natural world instilled this love of narrative in our brains. The pre-conscious pathways and signal-processing modules in our brains appear to fuse the streams of disjointed sensory information and the memories they evoke into a coherent story for our consciousnesses to make decisions within. And given how emotions are the primary evaluation system that we use to quickly judge and prioritize the importance of events, our narratives are by necessity heavily driven by feelings.

via Big Think.

Narratives also offer a schema for the brain's chronologically organized autobiographical memory subsystem to help impart structure to the unceasing flows of data moving through our brains, and to do so in a way that lets us comprehend ourselves both as individuals and as members of the societies. This also helps us to notice linear causes and effects observable only over long durations, and to capture and store durable individual and cultural recollections of them.

In that sense both group and individual narratives are likely flawed but necessary tools. Which makes me wonder what a species whose memories and personal narratives were organized on the basis of space rather than linear time would be like. Our semantic memory subsystem, the one that holds and recalls abstract information independent of the situation in which it was learned, may well have evolved from a spatially organized system of memory concerned with recalling positive and negative stimuli.*

*Yes, I'm working on a story that incorporates the idea. Brain stuff and its cultural manifestations are an enduring personal obsession.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Neruon components perform computations

Smart neurons: Single neuronal dendrites can perform computations:

'via Blog this'

Imagine if all the on/off bits of your computer that represent binary states could perform calculations on their own. Or if multiple sections of each switch could. In a sense, that's what the neurons of your brain are capable of. Information processing takes place not only in the exchange of data between neurons, but within their components as well.

Which isn't all that surprising. We've known for a while that there's a fair amount of chemical computation taking place at the level of bio-active proteins both within and outside of neurons in the brain. Data is sent to surrounding white matter tissue, where it creates signal bearing cascades of chemical reactions, some of which feed back into the matter and neurons there.

There's a lot going on in between your ears, from the level of chromosomes and computing RNA loops up to the firing of individual neurons and entire networks and maps of them, and then all the way back down in scale again. Over and over and over in a rising and falling weave that references both the external world of the environment and the internal space of the body's needs as it tries to push us towards the ever elusive and interlinked modes of chemical, thermal, and emotional homeostasis.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Wired Magazine: Building toward a volcanic caldera event in South America?

Image Courtesy of NASA and the US / Japanese ASTER Science Team

A Caldera in the Making?: The Curious Story of Laguna del Maule - Wired Science:

'via Blog this'

This swelling volcanic basin is the most, um, well promising candidate we know of for a large caldera-forming event. Lots of small, dribbling eruptions of rhoylite from what looks like a large magma source not far below the surface. It also has an apparent uplift of 30 meters in over the last century, which would put the sedate rises and falls of the Yellowstone plateau to shame if true. What's missing from the potential super volcano eruption scenario? The kind of outgassing associated with the gas-rich magma that generates truly violent and colossal Plinian ash eruptions. What does it mean? No one knows for certain. There's still a lot for us to learn when it comes to the largest classes of volcanic events.

What's fascinating about this for me, is the pre-eruption similarities between Laguana del Maule and the Long Valley Caldera in Eastern California. The latter is the one super volcano I've seen in person, having driven through it several times as a child and twenty-something. It's an interesting landscape with many indications of cataclysmic geologic violence, if you know how to read those signs. Searing ash winds that welded themselves into lateral waves and descending columns of solid stone, and bisected hills and mountains that were partially devoured when the vast caldera floor collapsed several kilometers after a days-long ash discharge that buried much of what is now the Southwestern United States.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"The Future Will Destroy You"

What I'm listening to nowadays:

"The future will destroy you with tragic new inventions, to keep you on a chain. To be your everything. The future will destroy you with complex competitions..."

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Best of space photos

We're living in a golden age for people who love space imagery. Between the constellation of unmanned probes and rovers zipping around our solar system and crawling across the face of Mars, the Hubble Telescope's views of our galactic neighborhood and beyond, and the International Space Station looking down from low orbit, each week brings at least one or two new images that drive home the wonder and scale and sheer beauty of the universe. Or at least the beauty that we humans and our young machine ecology perceive.

So, with out further ado, my favorite space-related imagery of recent years. All photos courtesy of NASA and JPL.

Saturn's icy moon, Enceladus

Soyuz capsules attached to the ISS

The Shuttle Endeavor attached to the ISS

The Hubble's shot of the Horse Head Nebula from earlier this year

Another Hubble shot

The south pole of Mars, as seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
The aftermath of a recent solar eruption, as captured in UV by  NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory

Astronaut Tracey Caldwell floating in International Space Station's observation copula not long after its installation

Dry ice mounds near the Martian south pole

Jupiter's frozen moon Europa
The great rift of Mars and the largest volcanoes in the solar system

The Curiosity rover's self-portrait

Space station and space shuttle amid the vastness

Cassini's view of Saturn's north pole and its great hurricane

A massive solar flare in UV from May this year. Powerful enough to have caused wide-spread damage on Earth, if it had taken place a week earlier.

Venus transiting the sun last month. Solar Dynamics Observatory.

A rover-eye view of the local Martian landscape

Friday, October 25, 2013

Braids of plasma and magnetism

A 30,000 kilometer braid of twisting plasma flung out by the sun, and ley lines of magnetism boiling across the surface in the aftermath. All of it caught in gorgeous HD at various intensities of ultraviolet out toward the high end of the spectrum.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Who we were

Our ideas about it keep evolving as more fossil evidence allows us to refine this picture of our ancestral selves.

BBC News - Blow to multiple human species idea:

'via Blog this'

Monday, October 07, 2013

Three barbers

During the year I spent in South Korea there were three older Korean ladies who ran the barbershop I visited every two weeks. My last name, apparently, was a source of serious vexation for them. They seemed utterly certain that there had to be a connection between the surname and my heritage. Which isn't the case to the best of my knowledge. As far as I know I received my genes from recent ancestors mostly in Europe, with some from Lebanon on the maternal side of the  family lineage. That explanation, however, failed to carry water with the barbers.

After an initial round of very direct and repeated questing - and my admittedly incomplete Cliff-Notes summation on the naming conventions of England as I understood them – my conversational relationship with the barbershop trio settled into a kind of cat-and-mouse exercise in inquiry. Each biweekly visit kicked off an animated dialog in Hangungmal, in which it sounded like they were reviewing the state of the debate to date, while one of them shaved my head with the clippers. By the time it was time to take warm water and a straight-razor the back of my hairy neck, another one of the trio would introduce a new round of indirect questions designed to ultimately unearth some familial or at least significant geographic connection to black America. Nevada during the 80s and early 90s was a pretty pale and homogeneous place, so I had to answer in the negative for the last one, but they persisted.

The thing is, they were really good at it. Sometimes we’d be five minutes into a conversation on food, the weather, or things that people do on vacation before I’d realize that we were again touching on race and ethnicity as they seemed to perceive it.

This went on for about six months, with the trio demonstrating an amazing ability to continue generating novel avenues of conversational investigation to get at what they seemed to see as a hidden truth. Eventually, however, the matter seemed to sink into a category labeled Foreign Madness of Americans Beyond Explanation. Something that they simply strove to accept, no matter how strange or puzzling. There would be some suspicious glances, as though I was hiding something from them, and the occasional muttering under ones breath in Korean, but for the most part the questioning ceased. Then we got a new platoon sergeant. A short, but powerfully built Sergeant First Class who had black skin and the last name of White. After that any veneer of restraint in the barbershop was gone. The matter had been promoted from Beyond Explanation, to Foreign Strangeness that Must be Understood NOW. The questioning was fast, strident, and non-stop, and only ended for me when I hopped the freedom bird back to the States a month later.

On one level the whole thing was amusing and even charming at times. It made for a nice distraction from the often brutal weather, and the reality of the famine next door in the North, which claimed over a million lives and sent a pulse of desperate defectors through the labyrinth of rusting landmines and razor wire that is the DMZ. On another, I remain frustrated and baffled. Did I ever really understand the conversations? What were the barbers actually thinking? Did any of my explanations of US culture and history penetrate? Were their assumptions and premises really as simple as they sounded? Why the hell did this topic demand such a level of passion on their part, especially in a racially homogeneous country like South Korea? They always danced around that issue when I asked. Would I have heard the same questions if I’d been getting my hair trimmed in downtown Seoul, rather than by three working class women in a camp out in the sticks six miles away from North Korea?

All I know for certain is that if Ewah University or any other Korean institution of higher education ever needs three assistant professors of rhetoric and inquiry, I’d be happy to make a recommendation.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Beings of computational biology

Structure is function. The shape of a bioactive molecule defines the other molecules with which it may interact: those with complimentary shapes. Shape defines function. The modern idea of computation adds an extra item. Now the idea reads "Structure is function is computation." So Structure can now be seen as algorithm. Consequently, the evolution of biological structure is the evolution of algorithms. As simple as this shift in perspective may seem, its consequences run deep and will continue to emerge in the coming century. It's information processing all the way down and all the way up. From the way that...molecules...interact with the brain to large-scale "mental effects" of this interaction as one's mood lifts - it can all be described as a vastly complex computation.

~computational neurobiology researcher, Read Montague, Your Brain is (Almost) Perfect

Our chromosomes are powerful computational devices, each one a compilation of programs known as genes. When read by RNA editor loops they produce other RNA strands that in turn generate proteins. Some of these proteins become the static load-bearing structures of biological life. Others are bioactive. In other words interactive with other proteins and RNA strands - RNA being an evolutionarily older, more volatile form of genetic information storage structure than DNA, which complex multicellular lifeforms often uses as a type of functional memory for active processes, similar to RAM. Various meetings of bioactive proteins, or of proteins and RNA, initiate cascading sets of chemical signals that change the operation of a cell, or organs like the brain. Many protein-on-protein and protein-RNA interactions ultimately feed signals back into chromosomes, activating still more genes and leading to the generation of other proteins and RNA strands.

It's a breathtakingly complex series of feedback loops and cycles, many of which we're only starting to understand. The sequencing of the human genome showed us the source code of human biology, but we're just getting into the operations of that code. A code that's not only self-replicating, but self modifying, self-referencing, and interactive both internally within the scope of its own functionality as well as externally with inputs from the complex environment outside the human body. Aside from the brain - if you chose to count the human brain as separate from this truly byzantine system, which underlies the brain and all its works - the protenomics of our genomes are the most complex systems we know of in the universe. Learning how they operates and how to interface with them is going to take some time.

Once we've reached a functional mastery, or at least competency, however, this will change who and what we are. The algorithmic shapes of bioactive molecules can be read by machines, and at some point machines will gain the ability generate targeted streams of these biological bits and bytes in real time. One day we will be able to see and affect processes that at present we can only blindly and indirectly manipulate with the huge 'n crude synthetic molecules of pharmaceutical medicine. Molecules that often succeed in fitting a round peg in a circular hole within the world of cell surface receptors - (the transducing communication portals of cellular life) - but which also gum up or  many a square - and triangle-shaped hole, leading to all kinds of side effects. And of course there are many viruses and disease-inducing bacteria whose infectious internal and external computational processes we are largely powerless against in our molecular ignorance. Our own, cancerous, runaway cells within our bodies sometimes become more and more adept at dodging the blind attacks of our chemotherapy regimens in a process of quick internal evolution that sometimes ends with the life of the human host along with the rebellious processes. A lethal adaptive spiral that we can only glimpse through statistical analysis in the lives and deaths of many, many humans, and at several removes from the actual events taking place with the culprit cells.

Accessing biology at the level of bioactive molecules will allow us to bring an entirely new level of awareness to the practice of medicine. It will also give us augmentative power. The same technology that can optimize a slow metabolism will likely boost strength or endurance or one of the other physical processes that we call human features. New computational treatments that addresses structural deficits in the processes of attention and focus affected by ADD and schizophrenia, as well as those that moderate cycles of anxiety or depression, will let us selectively change the base functions of consciousness to make us more than who or what we already are. Or at least let us make the attempt to gain everything from better focus, to savant talents, to perfect memory, more balanced emotions, and enhanced pattern recognition.


In recent decades we've created a global external system of electronic memory and data processing that's changed our lives and which may change our biology. Already there have been some feather-brush laboratory moments in which this new system of systems has reached into the flesh and blood world of computational biological processes taking place inside living organisms. In the not so distant future, those light touches will likely give way to systematized interface for the sake of healthcare, plugging modules of the world's external data network into the intertwined neuro-electric and chemical computations that are us.

We are very much information systems originally written by evolution, and we will find ourselves able to edit and possibly even rewrite the network that is us with this outside electronic network.

Humanity will likely become beings of computational biology on an entirely new level: self-referencing, self-modifying, and quit possibly connected with one another ways we'd be hard pressed to imaged today. We might even end up networked on many levels with new computational entities of light and electrons, who evolved in the competitive niches of digital markets and cyberwarfare ecologies. It's a lot to think about.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Revisiting Skryim and its Mods

I recently reloaded Skyrim to see what the state of the modding community is, and to test the stability of my mod collection now that last of the major updates to the game has been released. Overall I was pleased with both the look and performance...after I cleared up that graphics stuttering issue introduced by the final major update.

I'm still floored by the mod-driven evolution of the game. The final product I ended up enjoying is a very different experience from the out-of-the-box bare bones edition I first downloaded off Steam in November of 2011. Much more colorful, textured, richer sounding, and with greatly enhanced non-player characters and interactions, as well as a stunning array of enhanced player character customization options. And that was with an array of mods chosen for their consistency with the in-game lore and atmosphere. If I'd been so inclined, I could have introduced elements of anime fantasy, science fiction, or any number of items and monsters from other fantasy franchises.

Of course it saddens me that the best speculative fiction experiences these days outside of fantasy novels are in games and the occasional cable TV series. Movies aren't what they used to be, and it's been a decade now since a new science fiction novel gave me a sense of transport, wonder, or the feeling that I'd had some important preview of the future.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


I recently picked up a regular eight-hour a day technical writing job. Also, I'm almost 30,000 words into the current novel-in-progress, which is rolling along nicely. Obviously the blog is suffering. Apologies for that.

I'm going to try and push out at least one good, if short article on the weekends, and an observation and a cool link or two during the weekdays. We'll see how that goes, because it's awfully hard to say no to the novel whenever I sit down at the keyboard on my own time.

I've been asked if writing for work will diminish the zeal for craft writing after hours. I honestly don't think so. Partly because these are two very different things. The distance between them is almost as great as the space between verse and prose - between poetry an the structured narrative of a novel. And partly because the technical writing involves lot of non-writing tasks. Part of my work is helping to create a new production environment for technical manuals, which is a fun challenge in its own right. Especially attempting to anticipate how a body of manuals will age, and keep the collection functioning smoothly in four dimensions rather than just three.

But mostly because the more I write, the more enthusiasm I have. It's a nice positive feedback loop to ride, round and round again.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Japan's rumbling super volcano

Fun fact: The Sakurajima volcano that had a blowup a few weeks back, and the cities it dusted with ash, all sit within the Aira "super volcano" caldera, which covered much of Japan's southern half with immense pyroclastic flows and ashfalls around 22,000 years ago.

Photo courtesy of NASA, Public Domain
The caldera encompasses the rounded top of the bay, the Sakurajima island and mountain edifice, and the cities adjacent to the bay.

So, time to panic? Not by a long shot. We still simply do not understand what drives the behavior of the large caldera volcanoes. We don't know if Sakurajima's eruptions reduce pressure, or if they in some way help contribute to the stockpiling of the gas rich, crystallized magma that drive massive VEI-7 and 8 scale ash eruptions. Yellowstone has its unpredictable rises and falls, as does the Long Valley Caldera in California, and the smaller, but more vigorously active Campi Filigrei in Italy. That's to say nothing of a mysterious large area of swelling in South America under the region that has the highest known concentration of super volcanoes, as well as the rise of  the island of Iwo Jima, which has been lifted several hundred feet during the three-hundred year inflation of the submarine caldera it sits within.

But we are learning.

There are various sources of knowledge. We're learning to read the continual outgassing of these large and complex volcanic systems to get a better idea of what's happening chemically in the vast magma chambers and saturated rock that are the hearts of these monsters. We're using earthquakes and the differences in densities that affect their propagation through the Earth's crust to create ultrasound-like images of the deep, subterranean interiors. And the discovery of an exposed and neatly cross-sectioned fossil chamber in the Alps promises to give us a snapshot of the dynamic center of a dead giant, and the processes that shaped its life.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

I Have a Dream - 50 Years

An important historical document.

In a way, it's only natural that cultural change takes a long while. There are plenty enough historical examples of change and improvement as a generational process. On the other, how can you tell the oppressed they must wait, and keep a clear conscious? How can you say it will get better, but ask them to pay a price of ten or twenty years more of steady humiliation and anxiety living in the shadow of violence from neighbors and the law enforcement community?

History and change. Neither are easy.

Monday, August 26, 2013

To Boldly Go...

...for the final time. The last "episode" of Portland's famous and absurdly awesome Trek in the Park.

"The Trouble with Tribbles"

I'm guessing the play's founders are serious about wanting to move on to an original project of their own making. Still, there's a rumor floating around that next year it's going to be Firefly in the Park...

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Another sign we are living in the future

Coping with the loss of an online world - CNN.com:

'via Blog this'

Online communities are now very much a part of the human experience for about a third of the world's population. Everything from IRCs to old school multi-user domains, social media, and massively multiplayer online games. This was largely science fiction two-decades ago.

These days we seem to be living in a twenty-year cycle: from science fiction concept to living breathing digital reality as far as information technologies go.

Friday, August 23, 2013

States and Nations 3.0: Global Empire

The empire is dead. Long live the empire.

This largest form of human social organization imploded spectacularly over the course of the past century with the collapse of European colonial empires and the Soviet Union. Still, the worm may turn yet again. While micro-states or voluntary networks of powerful transnational organizations might eventually end up being the polities of choice in our new century, we're still not free from the specter of a massively successful conquest state. Earlier waves of expansionist societies trod across the bones of their predecessors, even as they drew inspiration from those same long-expired empires. In our present age of jet aircraft, globe-spanning communications technology, and a vast, logistically networked fleet of merchant marine vessels, a next generation empire could conceivably dominate an entire hemisphere or even the planet. That's to say nothing of the potentials for one-sided global power projection in a dawning space age.

Rule From Imbalance

The rise of a global or hemispheric empire would likely require a massive technological imbalance: A single side with military tools and civilian infrastructure that vastly outclasses its opponents. Or perhaps with cyberwarfare entities capable of occupying the banking, communications, and commercial systems of subjugated client-states, while defending the online metropolitan homeland from harm in kind.

More importantly, it would require a willingness to periodically use lopsided kinetic or cybernetic force against conquered civilian populations - or perhaps against their infrastructure - whenever they grow restless under the yoke. Past empires were ultimately maintained with waves of brutal repression. The history of large conquest polities, from the Roman to the Spanish to the early Chinese and the Russian empires, all involved long bouts of ethnic cleansing, the enslavement of beaten populations (sometimes in a very literal sense to help pay for the cost of conquest), the killing of intellectuals, mass mutilation (thousands of slit noses in the case of restive Cossacks incorporated into the Russian Empire), the destruction or suppression of the cultural works of the conquered, as well as public torture and executions on a nauseating scale.

At present, the return of empires isn't the most likely of scenarios in international affairs. Technological power is too diffuse, and as technology continues to put greater amounts of lethal force into individual hands, the ability of a conquered population to create grief on a mass scale for the occupiers makes empires less than economically feasible. We also have trade agreements and international organizations like the WTO, which have helped to create global markets that allow the great powers to buy the kind of resources once commonly referred to as being strategic, without any need to go to war with one another. That's a testament to the success of these pacts and soft power economic organizations, which were created during the 1940s and 50s specifically to help prevent a third world war.

Additionally, there exists a never before seen ability to communicate news of atrocities in graphic form. An aspiring imperial power would likely face increasing resistance abroad and possibly at home as photographs and video clips emerged online. The world is smaller place these days, and killings that would have once remained only dry rumors or bloodless written reports can end up confronting people with scenes of horror on the screens of computers at home and at work.

Rule From Above and Within

Past empires typically had one or two advantages over those they forced to submit. In the case of classical Eurasian empires, it was often the ability to marshal large bodies of well-organized soldiers. Enough to beat and, just as importantly, successfully occupy the nations and chiefdoms they went to war with. With later European empires, it was typically a lopsided advantage in industrial arms technology, which let small expeditionary forces defeat Non-European enemies on their home ground during key engagements.

What would be the near future equivalents?

Space: If one nation should come to dominate low orbit in the next few decades it would be in a position to rapidly project punitive force around the globe, and control or block satellite communications. It could also deny or at least restrict access to the moon, resource-rich Near-Earth Asteroids, and the high ground of geostationary orbit.

Cyberwarfare: Dominance in cyberspace might be even more decisive. A nation that could occupy the critical online spaces of other countries' financial, infrastructure, and commercial networks with malware entities might have unparalleled power. More so than any previous empire with the mere ability to put boots (or sandals as it were) on each important street corner and in major public buildings. Imagine instead a centuries-long occupation in which the conquers are equipped with surveillance powers over beaten populations that the Soviet Union could have only dreamed of. That, and the ability to damage markets, cut power, and deny basic civil infrastructure services by remote control.

The recent surge in online eavesdropping competency and software weapons in the hands of nation-states makes this one worth thinking about.

Autonomous weapons and augmented troops: Another possibility is that several leading post-industrial nations could chose to forsake weapons automation and human enhancement technologies for ethical reasons, leaving one state free to pull ahead decisively in the sphere of military affairs. This might lead to the necessary out-of-kilter military balance required for the rise of an empire, and it could also give an imperial state wholly new abilities with which to enforce an occupation. Sufficiently advanced bio- and nanotechnology capable of interfacing with the brain could occupy the minds of its victims, rewriting their emotions along with their perception of the world and their place in it.

Rule and Division 

Empires were built as much on strategy as technology and fighting organization. A near-future empire might follow a one of several roads to power.

Among these are

Hit 'em in Their Failed States: A rising empire could first occupy failed or near-failed states, and then ruthlessly oppress the majority of the population while exalting an ethnic or religious minority to ruling class client status. Or, conversely, suppress violent and disruptive elements that make life in a failed state so miserable, causing the majority to tolerate the occupation for the relative peace and prosperity it brings. This could be a tricky strategy to pursue, however, in areas where power and violence go hand-in-glove with firearms-backed chieftainships. An attack on the violent elements means wading hip if not neck deep into a morass of revenge killings, feuds, and extended families, all of which are tied into the local power structures.

Even then, a successful occupation of several failed states, however bloody initially, could gain a conquest society access to resources in a future age of global economic uncertainty, and also provide a network of launchpads for future conquests.

Throttling globalism: We live in a world of 10,000 mile supply chains and just in time manufacturing and in-store inventories. Terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, and an Icelandic volcano that got uppity for a couple of weeks a few years back, were both sufficient to give that physical network of transported goods and materials a case of the shivers. One route to empire could be for an aspirant power to take control of the physical choke points critical to our globalized economy. This might include occupying key points for international shipping (probably some of the same narrows associated with piracy during the past ten years), nexuses of international fiber-optic lines, and establishing air dominance over major air traffic corridors, which are based on a combination of the shortest international routes between cities and the curve of the Earth.

After all, why conquer nations directly when you can starve them of the external flows of data and materials they've become dependent on?

Next up: Global democracy and bio-nano collectives

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Other Places: The Normandy

A gorgeous high-resolution Mass Effect 2 tribute film by game-environment enthusiast Ultrabrilliant, which explores the spaces of the Normandy SR2. It evokes some of the sense of being elsewhere - someplace very other and different - that the ME series was so good at creating.

Via Kotaku

Earlier this year, between the Winter and Spring school terms, I was dead broke and the weather here in the Pacific Northwest wet and crappy. So I stayed home and played through the entire Mass Effect Trilogy in a week. The sense of transport felt like being on vacation. The immersion in one-hundred hours of game play made it seem like I had gone away and stayed gone for two or three weeks. It was an amazing experience, though not one I'm likely to repeat unless I'm independently wealthy at some point in the future. Even then, I'd probably elect to travel out in the physical world rather than stay in.

Still, it was a good reminder of the experiential intensity of genre fiction when it's done right. Well executed works can make us feel like we've experienced another volume of time and space, both in terms of culture and physical environment. That, and a sense of immersion in issues that either once troubled us as a species, or that may do so in our future.

Also by Ultrabrilliant and worth checking out, a gorgeous and heavily modded tour of Skyrim.

If you enjoyed either of these you should hop over to Ultrabrilliant's YouTube channel and give him a couple of Likes.

Monday, August 19, 2013

3D printing failures

BBC News - 3D printing failures shared online:

'via Blog this'

Printing out three dimensional structures is still a new art form. Sometimes the execution matches the plan, and other times the process runs amok. The results from 3D printer misfires can range from form-warping mistakes that look like they came out of a Salvador Dali painting to a beautiful, Jackson Pollock style mess.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

World's first lab-grown burger

BBC News - World's first lab-grown burger is eaten in London:

'via Blog this'

I'm still impressed with this recent development. Call it faux flesh, call it a vat burger, lab-grown meat for human consumption has been a staple of science fiction story settings for a long while. Or a plot enabler technology, in the case of last year's beautiful and Blade Runner-like short film, Loom, by Luke Scott.

Now vat grown meat is real, at least in a non-production, non-commercial, laboratory sense.

I don't know if it will ever be a major component of the human diet in the future. In fact, given the recent improvements in vegetarian meat alternatives, it's hard to see lab flesh as ever being a viable food product. Vat grown meat would still require a lot of inputs in the form of prepossessed calories and nutrients, rather than open fields and planets whose primary inputs are solar energy, water, and carbon from the air. Then there are factors like contamination and all the costs and technical hurdles of maintaining a sterile environment in which to grow the otherwise defenseless mass of flesh.

Still, if it's even marginally more efficient than traditional husbandry and ranching, then it'd  be a good thing for this crowded planet of ours. Food animals require a lot of land and a great deal of feed. Much more resources than growing direct-to-human crops like wheat and corn or vegetables in any kind of pound for pound comparison. Raising animals to eat is also associated with a lot more pollution than plant agriculture.

Or if not on Earth, then off it someday, in environments in which raising food animals is not even remotely viable.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The War


I've gotten into the habit of rewatching Ken Burns' heartrending World War II documentary about once a year. It's the one popular work that truly matches up with my grandparents' descriptions of the war: Both what it was like to be deployed abroad, and at home in the US on the industrial front. The series does a gripping job of conveying how uncertain and at times how dire events were, and what it was like not truly understanding the significance or necessity of the conflict until its final, ugly days. The War also depicts a very different United States. One that is fast receding behind us as historical change moves ever quicker and grinds ever finer.

Growing up, the conflict was woven into the backdrop of daily life. Everything from the stories of grandparents to the Japanese-influenced home decor of those who'd served in Japan during the occupation, to bridges and enormous steel building and other West Coast infrastructure that had been hastily built to help send history's largest armadas steaming out into the Pacific. Even forty years later The War had a physical and cultural presence, which didn't begin to fade from view until the 1990s.

A Different Narrative 

Public domain, courtesy of Wikicommons
Another narrative that was part and parcel of life growing up as a member of Generation X (the 1965 - 1980 cohort), was that the generation that fought in World War II was racist. In Hollywood action films of the 1970s and 80s you almost always knew who the white baby boomer hero was because he had "ethnic" friends, and he stood up to old crusty whites guys who hated "those people." Racists at movies and on television overwhelmingly belonged to a specific age group.

The reality, as always, was vastly more complex. Before the baby boomers graduated high school, the World War II generation, both black and white, had done nearly all the heavy lifting of the Civil Rights Era. They'd organized protests and boycotts in the south. They marched and were beaten, or had acted as observers and Freedom Riders (the latter were more the Korean War generation) and were clubbed down. They tried court cases and won. They sat in judgment on the bench, and struck down Jim Crow laws across the southern states. In the legislative bodies they enacted laws to dismantle institutionalized discrimination in employment, housing, and most importantly, at the ballot box. When militant southern politicians of an older generation tried to block the court-ordered integration of schools by inciting mob violence or mobilizing the organs of law enforcement and the National Guard, members of the World War II generation went into the south as regular army troops and federal marshals to open those schools to black children. In national elections they installed legislative majorities and presidents who finally tackled America's most contentious and long-lived political issue: full equality for blacks under the law. One that in many ways had been the third rail of American politics since the 1880s.

And all before most the boomers were old enough to start voting.

A Different Perspective 

During my undergraduate days (a whole three years ago) I spent several months immersed in the 1940s - 50s courtesy of some cultural and regional history courses. The view found in documents and cultural artifacts from that period was far more complicated than the one I grew up with in boomer-produced popular culture. The World War Two generation had flocked to hit Broadway shows and award-winning movies that addressed race, as well as wrote and read numerous works of literary science fiction and later produced and watched television that explored the same. More interestingly, most members of that generation saw themselves as more enlightened and opened minded than their parents on these issues. Earlier, whites of the WWII generation had been condemned by many of their elders for the amount of "race music" they listened to in the form of jazz and swing in their youth and during the war years. Traditionalists during the 1930s had despaired about the future of the country in their hands.

One of the more interesting interviews I came across as a student, touching on the 50s was one with the NAACP's first field director in Portland, Oregon, recollecting his arrival here in the city. The local status quo had been upended during the war when thousands of black workers had moved into the area to work at the Kaiser shipyards on the Columbia River. Steady progress was underway after the war in dismantling practices like redlining, in which white realtors and bankers would only sell and fiance houses for black people within segregated neighborhoods. The director credited most of those advances to funerals. Namely that it was an older generation dying off during the 1950s that cleared the way for more open-minded individuals to move into power and enact changes they had been fighting for during the 30s and 40s.

There were of course racists in what Tom Brokaw termed The Greatest Generation. Almost certainly more as a percentage than in succeeding cohorts. Which makes the accomplishment of so radically altering the legal and social fabric of the US all the more laudable. In the end, it wasn't easy, and it was certainly much more complicated than our present and often self-serving political narratives let on.

Monday, August 05, 2013

That most insular of cortices

Public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia
I've developed a fascination with the insula - a small cortex wedged between areas of the recently evolved outer portion of the brain. It talks to just about all the other interesting parts of our wetware. Specifically, it processes a lot of traffic going back and forth between the decision-making, rational-ish frontal cortex and the emotion-mediating structures of the limbic system. It's an astoundingly multifunctional bit of gray matter heavy tissue, but what most intrigues me about the insula is that it's a part of the brain that sits astride one of the functional marriage points of instinct and culture.

OK, that's a little misleading. We human beings don't appear to have much in the way of instincts - that is to say innate behaviors. Rather we're born with drives: emotional propensities, desires, and some general fears that bias us towards modes of behavior, as well as honing in on certain features of our environment. Most of our behavior-specific instincts appear to be an early life array of reflexes such as, turning towards the source of a soft brush on the cheek (a nipple-seeking feeding behavior), and that automatic wiggly leg attempt to walk when an infant is held in the standing position with its feet on the floor. That, and lots of language acquisition behaviors in the form of all the cooing, babbled consonants, and an amazingly powerful drive to imitate adult speech. All things that completely deaf toddlers do.

More Accurately Put

So it's fairer to say that the insula sits at one of the marriage points between biological drives and cultural outlooks, as well as the emotions that underlie them. It's also an exemplar of how evolution bootstrapped an early neurological function from a simple reptilian representation into a complex and dynamic component of our present day sapient consciousness. Namely, the transformation of bodily sensations into emotions - reactions that describe to us the urgency of everything from the changes to the body (horror at mutilation, satisfaction at weight loss or muscle gain) to abstracts such as success at solving a math problem or the results of a political election.

Reactions we continue to feel in our bodies. We experience emotions in our viscera and muscles and on our skin because those are the collective birthplace of our feelings.

Our emotions are descended from simple descriptors of bodily states. The conditions of organs and muscles as read by the embedded autonomic nervous system system, and then routed to early versions of the brain, which in turn generated responses that altered the functioning of those organs and the states of skeletal muscles. As brains grew more adept at generating representations of the outside world based on sensory data and modeling functions, the mind triggered reactions on its own, feeding them into the autonomic nervous system from the top down. For example: The flight or fight response sent through the sympathetic sub-system upon sighting a crouched predator, or encroaching wildfire, or a nearby cliff edge, readying organs and other bodily systems to participate in the ramped up metabolic and cardiovascular modes that enable peak physical performance.

Disgustingly So

One of the bodily state descriptors that the insula helped bootstrap is that of disgust. Originally this feeling started out as a representation generated by the viscera in response to the detected presence of the toxic byproducts of problematic bacteria in the digestive tract. Since these kind of bacterial pathogens are invisible and often lethal - particularly for organisms living out in the stressful environment of the natural world, subject to heat, cold, and sometimes yearly periods of near starvation - it was a good idea for the brain be born with an in-built aversion to some of the most dangerous vectors and formites that carry pathogenic microorganisms. Hence, human beings come into life with a deep-seated disgust for pus, most other excretions, open wounds, and rotting flesh, among other things.

Lesions or other forms of damage to the insula sometimes remove the ability to feel that disgust. An individual with a damaged insula might lose all sense of revulsion at sights and smells that  would have provoked nausea and reflexive gagging or vomiting, pre-injury. That's not to say such affected persons forget that these things were once disgusting. Only that the emotional reaction is largely gone. However, disgust is evolutionarily old enough that some of its processing still resides in the guts. Toxins in the machinery of digestion can still generate a negative bodily experience in some individuals with compromised insulas.

Getting Social 

More fascinating for me is the insula's important role in generating complex social emotions in humans, including revulsion triggered by cultural rather than biological cues. That previously mentioned marriage-point of biology and culture in the brain-mind entity.

Where most emotions appear to be heavily mediated by the limbic system, we, and to a degree our cousins, the great apes, appear to process several dualistic social emotions such as gratitude and resentment, atonement and guilt, in our cerebral cortex. More specifically, we do it through the insula. That said, it should be noted these processes are also linked to parts of the frontal cortex that appear to be heavily involved in processing social norms, and even gender roles.  More on the latter in a bit*.

Thanks to the insula we can learn to experience revulsion at the violation of deeply held mores. Sometimes these take the form of strong reactions to atrocities and crimes that we've heard about secondhand, but not actually witnessed.

While revulsion against such wrongs is useful in building and sustaining a society in a often hostile world filled with individuals willing to shatter social bonds and trust thresholds for selfish gain, there is a clear dark side to the processes. The insula also allows us to learn culturally induced revulsion towards people of the wrong caste, the wrong orientation, and disgust at the thought of having sex with a person of the wrong ethnicity or race. In that sense, neurobiology and biology in general are like technology. They're amoral systems whose uses can be good or bad, depending on things like context, intention, and outcome.

*Gender roles and the brain: Gender roles are one of those interesting universals in human societies. All our cultures have them, but they can vary greatly. It's a bit like a how a smile means happiness among all peoples, though the degree of width matches up differently to how much happiness is being expressed. Then there are differing conditions in which it's appropriate to show joy or any emotion at all. And having an associative frontal cortex that can fuse concepts and generate novel behaviors, we can choose to subvert the meaning of a smile, turning it into an ironic grimace. 

Not too surprisingly, given the universal cultural existence of gender roles, there appears to be an area of the brain that plays an important role in processing them. Insults to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex correlate with specific difficulties in recognizing gender-specific cultural cues. That's not say that any one set of cultural roles is hardwired into our brains. Rather, it looks like the brain is softwired to broadly support and possibly help generate broad gender roles. 

As mentioned above, such roles manifest a fair amount of variety around the world and throughout history and varying economies. Many societies, from seal-hunting Inuits to medieval European agrarian societies, allowed widows to assume their deceased husband's profession or even a man's cultural role in order to continue providing for her family. Some, such as Classical Sparta, institutionalized homosexuality as a means of strengthening social bonds, other societies have worked to suppress it. Some societies generate stark differences between genders, and others weaker. Such a flexibility helps with the creation and maintenance of durable bodies of group behaviors suited to specific environments and modes of production, and then helping to adapt to moments of historic change, when new technologies alter what is possible or when massive ecological shifts from climactic disruptions or local resource collapses take place. As has happened to our species on regional scales many times over the past ten-thousand years.