Thursday, February 28, 2013

This week's writing and studying music

I keep rediscovering music from the 90s that I love listening to while drumming away on the keyboard. A while back it was Mazzy Star, this week it's alternative Canadian folk group, Cowboy Junkies. Rich is the best way I can think to describe the band's sound, which is more than a little odd because their tracks are not overly complex. Somehow, Margo Timmins' vocals and the perfectly timed instrumental's shift between light and dark moods to create fantastic emotional contrast within their best songs.

Light and Dark in Characters

I like having a similar sense of contrast within characters that I write. That's not to say that everyone in my stories are a mess. Yeah, I like flawed and complex characters as much as any other pretentious writer. At the same time, I'm fascinated by the number people I've met over the years who have been successful in their fields. From the talented and gifted who manage to marry theory to practice amidst the chaos of the world, to autodidatic blue collar craftsmen whose insights frequently outstrip those of their formally educated counterparts, I like writing about people who get hard tasks done in challenging environments. Such people are often colorful, larger than life, and the clash between the competent and incompetent furnishes plenty of dramatic material.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Dubstep with awesome science fiction imagery

Or maybe it's more evocative of the Cthulhu mythos, though in a science fiction setting. Eh, either way it's vaguely disturbing, and it rocks.

I still haven't gotten too heavily into dubstep. More or less just the occasional piece that ends up incorporated into my electronica playlists.

The Crystal Castle's self-titled 2008 album is getting a lot of speaker time at the moment. With all the computer science courses and all the fiction writing, I need headphone music that hits like a decent cup of coffee. Enjoyable and stimulating, but also staying put on the periphery of my attention.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Military roundup

TARDEC: Army must re-think doctrine to cut vehicle weights | Defense Tech:

'via Blog this' has a brief article up, which touches on the internal debate about the weight of the Army's future combat vehicle fleet.

It's more than a little depressing that we're still having a debate at this point. Over the past thirteen years successive visions have come and gone, along with platforms that never got past their costly design phases. The netcentric Force Twenty One update of the Cold War Army was unilaterally scrapped by Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki in favor of an all wheeled medium-weight future. Which was shot down early in its transition in favor of the more balanced and drone-friendly Future Combat Systems. Which was scrapped after its various sub programs took on lives of their own and costs spiraled out of control.

Wash, rinse, and discard.

The Army has gained invaluable experience in counter insurgency, special operations, and light infantry operations this past decade. It's successfully introduced numerous improvements in the spheres of body armor, soldier carried weapons, sensors, and battlefield networking equipment. All the same, those years have largely been an expensive wasteland of missed opportunities when it comes to developing a replacement for our legacy vehicle force. One that could have leveraged the most promising technologies that emerged during the late 90s and 2000s.

The fact that we're also still debating the weight of the future vehicle fleet is maddening...err...interesting. There are some obvious potential benefits in attempting to reduce the weight of the force. The Army's heavily armored vehicles like the Abrams and Bradly may provide considerable survivability in the face of heavy fire, but that protection costs. Keeping armor functional in the field carries a hefty logistical and monetary price.

On flip side, the future of force-on-force combat looks to be urban. While counter insurgency operations have generally demanded lots of boots on the ground, cultural knowledge, and social mapping, big kinetic clashes from Grozny, to Palestine, to Second Fallujah have all take place in cities, and they were won by the heavy combined arms team of tanks and mechanized infantry. The ability to absorb hits at short range in restricted terrain and deal out devastating responses have been key when facing large number of combatants close in. Likewise, the heavy use of roadside bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq saw a considerable up-armoring of the Army and Marine's light vehicle fleets in an attempt to protect soldiers and Marines from increasingly powerful IEDs.

Me? I suspect that the future is as mixed as the present. Stealthy medium-weight vehicles in the countryside, linked to gestalts of sensor systems and armed with weapons that are both long-ranged and frighteningly accurate. At the same time there will be heavy gun platforms and robust infantry fighting vehicles for combat in dense terrain and built-up areas.

The Evolution of Irregular War | Foreign Affairs:

'via Blog this'

Foreign Affairs has an excellent long-form article on the evolution of geruilla / insurgency warfare. One that takes a long view across the breadth of history and pre-history. The author does a great job of considering issues from nomads versus agrarian states, to  the late 1800s emergence of nationalism, public opinion as a force to be reckoned with, and communications technologies from the printing press onward.


The next Future Dystopias article is now a work in progress. Midterms have come and gone, As and a B have been scored, so now it's time to get some more blogging  and futurism before the school term enters into it's home stretch.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Touching infrared, feeling sound

The Washington Post recently ran an article about the FDA's approval of the first artificial retina. An implant used to treat the a degenerative condition known as retinitis pigmentosa. It's a big step in terms of health care. Especially if you've ever known a sighted person who's been gradually plunged into darkness during the latter part of their life, when it's much more difficult to adapt to the loss. It's also an advance that raises questions about human augmentation.

Right now the technology is basic. At best it restores shades of gray and requires a set of external glasses. However, the rapid pace of advances in both implant technology and miniaturized sensors means that the prospect of artificial retinas that can see into the infrared, ultraviolet, radio energy portions of the spectrum aren't all that far fetched anymore.

That said, could the brain actually make sense of the extra information transmitted down the optical nerve? More than likely, yes.

 Interpreting Augmented Senses 

A recent study at Duke University has demonstrated the ability of the brain to interpret entirely new types of sensory data through its existing sensory cortices. The study subjects (rats, which are blind to IR) were fitted with infrared sensors that were wired into the centers that process tactical information. At first the animals touched their faces in response to the presence of infrared light, but in short order they demonstrated an ability to located infrared sources.

Another sensory augmentation type that I've seen referenced is a system that transmits bat-like echolocation signals into the brain, where they are translated into touch. This allows the user to feel the position of objects around him or her, though it apparently takes a good deal of training to develop this augmented sense. The oddest aspect of the system, however, is that it uses a device that bridges the gap between the machine and the brain via tongue stimulation.

In other words, far from being a GUI (graphic user interface), the users bites down on an electrical signal simulator to expand their perception.

It turns out that the organ of taste is a fat pipe of direct-to-the-brain bandwidth for carrying sensory signals. While that's a "well duh" observation from an evolutionary biology standpoint, it's something of a dramatic revelation as far as human-machine interfaces.

That same pathway of direct brain stimulation also holds the potential for medical application. A similar device is currently enter trials for treating Traumatic Brain Injuries.

Android vs. Terminator Vision

So how will soldiers integrate extra sensory information into their situational awareness?

The present explosion of sensor platforms on the battlefield -- and a desire to push that information down to the level of the individual shooters -- is already challenging the existing intelligence architecture. How do you integrate so much data into the flow of someone who's already immersed in an in environment of shoot / no-shoot decisions?

The short-term solution for the operators of the Special Forces Command deployed in Afghanistan has been Android. Or rather, SOCOM personal have grown adept at using Android OS phones to swap data over encrypted, peer-to-peer local networks.

In the long-run, however, augmented reality technologies like Google glasses offer the promise of being able to deliver both interactive real time maps and some types of enhanced sensory data. The latter include sound-based bullet-tracking, wall-penetrating ultrasonic, in addition to IR and thermal. Other types of augmented sense information such as the echolocation sense of remote touch, or 360 vision will likely require some means of direct machine to brain interface.

So will it look like something out of the Terminator or Ghost in the Shell films? I hope not.

As traditionally depicted in science fiction, augmented military reality is visually cluttered with all kinds of superfluous but cool-looking data feeds. It's also usually accompanied by useless and distracting audios -- beeps and other 'computer' noises that don't seem to convey anything useful, and primarily serve to block out background noises that could mean the difference between life and death.

I suspect that the heads up displays of first person shooter games are closer to the mark for future conventional data displays. The direct to brain information, however, will likely be its own type of experience--the closest thing that humanity has ever come to possessing a genuine sixth sense.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The rebuttal

A Good Fit for Small Screens, Short Stories Are Selling -

'via Blog this'

I write a blog post that touches on science fiction short stories not selling like they used to, and the New York Times does an article about how fantastically well short stories are selling on the Internet. Unfortunately it doesn't say anything about genre stories. Shame, it'd be nice to have another datum, or at least an informed voice weighing in on the topic.

Anyway, link's included in case non-genre sales is a topic of interest for anyone.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Russian meteor strike

The video below is certainly hair raising. The blast noise has that crisp, high-pitch quality and rolling reverberations that let's you know something just dumped a frightening amount of energy into the air.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Short films vs short stories

I enjoyed this one. Moon Dust was a well executed piece, and I liked the classic science fiction twist at the end. Shades of Planet of the Apes or Soylent Green, but with out the over-the-top Heston acting.

via Io9

An Observation

The proliferation of four to twenty-minute films that range from fun to mind bending has got me thinking. Namely that short films on the Internet are the future of the science fiction short story.

Allow me to unpack that statement.

For several decades, short stories published in pulp magazines were one of the primary venues for literary science fiction. That began to change during the 1960s. Or at least that change accelerated in that period, with full-length paperback novels coming to dominate the genre, and magazines steadily losing readership ever since.

Recently there's been debate about magazines making a comeback with the introduction of the iPad, but I haven't seen hard numbers that I'd feel comfortable betting on, one way or the other. Even anthologies, book collections of shorts, tend to be bottom feeders, scraping along on the low end of sales in a field that's already lost a lot of market share over the past two decades.

As someone whose sole claim to fame in traditional publishing is a short in an anthology, it's a bit depressing that none of the genre fans whom I know (excepting other writers) read science fiction short stories in any format. I've never read much in the way of short stories either, despite having been a fan of speculative fiction  for almost 30 years now. Sure I'll buy a copy of Asimov's or Analog if a friend has a story in the issue, but that's about it.

Short films on the Internet? I watch a couple of those each week. Thanks to YouTube, I know that many shorts reach a viewership that's considerably larger than any circulations or sales numbers that I've heard for literary SF.

Which is something to think about.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The misc. military blog post

Here's a bit of automation that's been a long time coming. An Austin, Texas company has embedded a reliable ranging and computational ability in a scope to create a precision infantry fire package, similar to the fire control systems introduced to armored vehicles back in the 1980s.

Prior to the deployment of fire control computers on tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, first round hits were a rarity in the world of mounted combat. Typically an armored vehicle came to a halt and fired two to three sensing rounds before finally bracketing a target and scoring a kill. During the 1991 Gulf Conflict, fire control computers changed that, allowing American and Coalition tanks from Western European allies to make first-shot kills at ranges far beyond the effective engagement envelope of their Iraqi opponents.

Facing an opponent with fire control systems -- especially fire control systems mated with weapon stabilizers that allow vehicles to shoot accurately on the move -- is no mean feat for a lower tech force. It frequently means abandoning the open countryside and potential low friction maneuver and resupply corridors to the enemy, and concentrating on close combat in broken terrain and built up areas like towns and cities. The latter is rarely a good thing for the defender's society.  

So will automated scopes have a similar effect on infantry combat? What will it be like when every soldier is, if not a potential sniper, then a long-rang marksman? That's something to think about.

Mil Nerd News: Evaluating the Battle for Hoth

Defense Nerds Strike Back: A Symposium on the Battle of Hoth | Danger Room |

'via Blog this'

Wired Magazine's Danger Zone blog, whose journalists handle defense issues, recently performed an analysis of the Battle of Hoth, from the Star Wards film, The Empire Strikes Back. Yes, it's silly, but it also started a broad debate that pulled in some learned pundits from military and academic circles. A sample of some of the well-written and well-considered responses can be found here. It's fun,  and worth the time if you're into military and political affairs. Or if nothing else, it shows why a multidisciplinary approach with experts from many fields providing contrasting views can be so illuminating when looking at both history and warfare.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The man who shot Bin Laden

The Shooter | Center for Investigative Reporting:

An intense and very interesting look at the raid that killed Usama Bin Laden, life as a member of SEAL Team 6, and the rough transition to civilian life after a decade spent at war. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and Esquire Magazine.

Update: Slate Magazine ran an analysis of the story, and pointed out that "the shooter" is in fact entitled to five years of free healthcare through the VA health care service as a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan  That was something that I've been wondering about, as the VA has traditionally provides health care to veterans without coverage. I've used VA health care myself, when I first moved to Portland and was stuck in a three-month window, waiting for my new employer's coverage to kick in.


Back when I was earning my history BA, I was a much more prolific blogger. At least it looks that way, skimming back through the 2009 and 2010 archives. This time around as a CIS student, the blog output has slowed.

Part of it's the new topic. It's much easier to make history and its trends interesting for you, gentle readers, than are the nits and grits of the Internet's TCP/IP protocol stack, or the minutia of Linux, which I'm immersed in at present. That'll change as time goes by, and I get a better handle on the subject matter. Maybe the details won't get any less technical, but I'll be able to better communicate a sense of significance and urgency about Internet issues, the practicalities of augmented reality, and realities of cyber espionage.

Another issue is, that unlike the last time I was in school, I'm doing a lot of fiction writing. So there's just not as much keyboard time left over for Consilience. Lastly, what I'm using for the blog for just now is also slightly different.

At present I'm updating the future.

Or rather, I'm updating my ideas about the future might look like. Hence the States and Nations and Dystopias series of mini-essays -- essays that take a fair amount of time to think over and write. That drive to update is also behind all the talk about cyberwarfare issues, and why 3D printing has been making appearances in this word space.

Hopefully next term will be a little calmer as far as academics. In the meanwhile, I'll do my best to make at least two posts a week here. Probably one essay, and one shorter post on some random topic of interest, from technology, to genre issues, to wandering around the Pacific Northwest.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

States and nations 3.0: Scale and the arrow of evolution

Topical Reading

The information age has yet to spawn a new type of human collective. No cyberdemocracies - vulnerable or resilient - for us so far, and to date no one has been oppressed by a totalitarian government built around intrusive software networks that treat human beings as peripheral hardware devices.

The lack of radical change isn't too surprising at this point. It's still early days by the standards of past agricultural and industrial revolutions. It took several decades for industrial technologies to generate the kind of catalyzing economic and social turmoil that rocked Europe and North America during the 1800s. Nor has it delivered radical new types of infrastructure comparable to rail roads and freeway networks, which greatly reduced the impact of geography and distance on commerce and travel.

With that said, there are signs of change on the horizon.

There is a growing acknowledgment that the previously stable middle class professional jobs are being lost not just to globalization, but to software automation, even as accelerating robotics continues to hollow out employment in manufacturing. We may already be facing an economy like those of the 1800s, in which the number of warm bodies outnumbers available jobs.

If economic-driven social upheaval or new infrastructure types--asteroid mining or local, 3D-printer based manufacturing, for example--necessitate making big changes to our societies, will we simply adapt existing nation-states to new realities, or will we remake our collectives, as our ancestors did during previous economic transformations? And if we create something new, will it be larger or smaller than the nation-state?

Past Arcs

Since the end of the last major glacial period, 10,000 years ago, until the latter half of 19th century, the arrow of societal evolution has largely flown upwards towards increased complexity and larger scales. Much of that growth in both populations and sophistication came from successive improvements in agriculture. Food surpluses supported growing numbers of people, and also made it possible for individuals to earn a living as non-farm laborers, craftsmen, and professionals. These specialists created infrastructure like roads, long distance canals, public irrigation projects, and a crafts-based manufacturing sub-sector within farming economies.

Several of these technological and food production shifts also helped to drive the creation of new types of societies. Early advances in agriculture and craft manufacturing helped move us from simple tribes to much larger chieftainships, and then to city-states with never-before-seen population densities and specialized governance systems. The industrial revolution gave us the modern bureaucratized nation-state, which is vastly larger and more complex than its predecessors.

While much of the increasing size of polities can be attributed to growing agricultural populations, some of it came from conquest. There are exceptions (usually involving protective mountain ranges or vast swaths of deserts or grass lands), but typically larger agrarian societies have conquered and absorbed neighboring pastorialists and hunter-gatherer tribes.

Industry at War

During the 1800s, those European societies that were absorbing the turbulent burnt of the Industrial Revolution gained a level of military power unmatched in earlier history. Some of these same nations had previously succeeded in subjugating many New World tribal societies and empires that been terrifyingly vulnerable to Eurasian diseases--such as smallpox and measles. Now, with reliable factory produced firearms and steam power they were able to conquer previously unbeatable chieftainships, city-states, and princedoms, in Africa, Central Asia, and Oceania, and even challenge much larger, long-established states in East Asia, such as China and Japan.

For a short span of decades, much of the world was ruled from London, Paris, and Berlin. During that period, this set of empires surpassed nation-states as the apex of human collectives in terms of sheer size--both geographically and as percentages of the Earth's populations.

The Arrow Pivots

And then they crumbled away, challenged by emergent nationalism among the conquered, and at home by changing norms and activism. Where previous empires of conquest had endured for centuries, those built in the 19th century vanished in a matter of decades.

Some scholars and pundits, like Robert Wright, have argued that it was the printing press that ultimately killed the multilingual empire. The ability of private groups and individuals to cheaply produce pamphlets and books helped to create common national identities. From the mishmash of German-speaking princedoms in Central Europe, to the tribal territories of Kurdistan and the patchwork subcontinent that would one day be India and Pakistan, individuals began to identify themselves less with regions and extended clans, and more with nations based on shared languages and cultures. Nations that would not let themselves be dominated by outsiders, and that unlike tribes and clans could effectively resist European conquerors.

The fall of Europe's empires, the disintegration of ethnically divided former colonies, and the implosion and subsequent crumbling of the Soviet Union and some of its Warsaw Pact client states created several discrete waves of larger states and empires breaking apart into smaller entities. At the moment, the most recent pulse of Post-Cold War devolution appears to have largely petered out, leaving a relatively stable constellation of nation-states punctuated by pockets of tribalism.

Up or Down?

Whether or not any new forms of human community emerge in the next few decades will depend on a combination of the new technologies and how they're employed. There are scenarios that could result in a scaling up of polities, a paring down, even a move towards extremes in which regions, cities, and vast international organizations supplant nation-states as the primary actors on the world stage.

In the next States and Nations article we'll go big small. I'll sketch how issues such as unstable international financial markets, the anonymity and potential destructive power of cyberwarfare, and an acceleration of the current proliferation of weapons of mass destruction could result in the consolidation of power on a global scale. Along with the classical world state, we'll take a look at the potential for confederations and federations of nations, as well a world dominated by nation-states sharing power with supranational entities.

After, that, we'll go small, and look at some scenarios in which 3D printing and localized power production has created a world in which city-states or even villages can be self sufficient.

Go to: States and Nations 3.0: Microstates

Friday, February 01, 2013

And the Washington Post

Chinese hackers suspected in attack on The Post’s computers - The Washington Post:

'via Blog this'

It looks like the Washington Post may have also been hit by Chinese hackers looking for journalists' notes pertaining to interviews with Chinese dissidents and activists. One of the most interesting items in the article is the possibility that the Post may have turned over one of it's servers to the NSA for forensics purposes. There's little to say if that's true or not, but if it happened, it would be a significant development. Traditionally the media companies in the US have gone to great lengths to shield their sources and data from government scrutiny, as part and parcel of maintaining journalistic independence.


It looks like the the current wave of cyberattacks against the US banking sector continues, with the Bank of America experiencing extended outages. I'd be surprised if these attacks stop anytime soon. With the US economy in its current fragile state, and with banks having been allowed to consolidate into too-big-to-fail institutions, the banking sector represents a target of opportunity where a single point of failure could generate significant economic damage. Given the number of regimes like Iran's that have suffered economic losses from US sanctions, it's hard to imagine that they aren't seeking to retaliate.


via I09

Here we have the first-ever video of thoughts being formed in a brain. Albeit simple thoughts in the brain of a transparent zebra fish, responding to the presence of food in a neurological study at Japan's National Institute of Genetics, but thoughts in motion and execution nonetheless.

Thoughts, the very fundament of our existence as thinking entities. Odd how it is that thinking and existing as consciousness is a matter of doing, of constant iterative loops of execution, and not just some static form of occupying a space consistently.

Something beyond our understanding occurs...the transformation of an objective cerebral computation into a subjective experience.

 -Oliver Sachs