Thursday, May 30, 2013

Synthetic biology: "We are democratizing creation"

Bio-Hackers, Get Ready | TechCrunch:

'via Blog this'

Two of the most cutting edge and potentially transformative technologies under development are the virtualization of DNA into software code that can be easily manipulated, and desktop gene sequences or compilers that that allow that code to be transformed back into genes and inserted into living cells.

Some of the hacks this technology makes possible are relatively simple, like copying and pasting in a single gene or small set of genes to create a bioluminescent tree or mouse. Making more significant alterations like significantly changing the morphology (shape) of an organism in a fashion that won't kill it or prove maladaptive is much more complex and safely beyond the bleeding edge of our knowledge at this point. Then again, the average software coder these days has access to the kinds of editing tools and code libraries that allow her to create applications that would have taken an entire department to write 30 years ago. The same increasing ease of manipulation will probably prove true of genes and chromosomes over the next thirty years or so.

It's entirely possible that the next generation of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Wozniaks will spend their formative entrepreneurial years noodling around with latptops and desktop compilers in their garages, creating bacteria that produce everything from pharmaceuticals to to ultra-cheap conductors and self-healing materials.

The Techcrunch article above has one of the best short writes up on these two dovetailing technologies,  and on a pair of companies who are styling themselves the hardware - software  Wintel* alliance of the coming biotechnology revolution. It's very much worth five minutes to get an idea of where this field is headed.

Also, on a totally unrelated note: Does anyone else think that it's time to pull the genome for Ebola off the internet? Or that making the genetics of the 1918 Spanish Influenza publicly available might come back and bite us in the ass in the not-so-distant future?  Maybe it's just me, but it seems like having those online in an age of desktop gene compiling is a staggeringly bad idea.

*A long-running alliance between Microsoft and Intel

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Hacking the brain: The salience map

The world around us is a landscape of emotions. It's an assemblage of entities and systems that evoke body-level feelings within us. Everything from the terror of rounding a corner and coming face to face with an oncoming car to the aesthetic pleasure of a peach-and-gold sunset over a rolling landscape of twilight hills. The parts and pieces and even the sum of the whole that is each situation all compete for our attention through the tug of emotions.

Of course emotions aren't actually a part of the physical world. They are qualities embedded in our perception by the pre-conscious valuation functions of our brains. That salience-map landscape of emotion that the brain generates is something I'd love to be able to tweak, hack, or even swap around as templates of perspective and personality.

As the term suggests, our salience maps are representations of relevance. We assess what's important among the entities and events of the present in terms of immediate emotional arousal or lack of the same. The curve of a hip and the swell of breasts are much more provocative as far as social and reproductive opportunities than a drab brick wall in the background. Or maybe it's a broad pair of shoulders and the swaggering confidence in a man's walk, depending on your gender or orientation. Such varying valuation of parts within a setting helps to differentiate us as individuals on many levels.

Our emotive response to the whole also makes us who we are as people. The bold and the frightened often see the same situation through very different emotional lenses, as do the young and the old. Whether a dark forest evokes an atmosphere of adventure or an air of trepidation depends a lot on who you are.

So what if we could swap those emotional masks? Simply pull a USB thumb drive out of a socket on the side of one person's head and slot it into another's, transferring a whole map of emotional valuations? What if we could do the same with the emotive templates of different trades and professions. There are likely some interesting degrees of difference between how a passionate artist, dedicated geologist, veteran Marine, and a writer all respond to the same situations on a gut level.

Or maybe not. It would be interesting to compare how each salience map highlights or suppresses certain aspects of the world, and see if there are significant contrasts or similarities.

How different are we really at the level of the heart? Or, well, the limbic system as the case may be.

At same time, salience maps would probably be one of the most difficult elements to swap between brains - their construction being so very individualized. These maps of feelings-based relevancy are built during the act of encoding experience into memory. A process that the amygdala and basolateral nuclei of the brain carryout based on the strength of emotions. The stronger an associated feeling, the more likely a situation will be transcribed into the long-term storage of autobiographical memory. That, and the more likely it will be recalled and produce an emotional reaction - a self-reinforcing mechanism which contributes to the flashbacks and anxiety attacks associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder syndrome.

There are two other highly individualized mechanisms that may well play important roles in constructing a person's salience map. The neuromodulatory systems involving dopamine, serotonin, and other hormones associated with pleasure, satiation, and other positive and negative feedback feelings almost certainly have a profound impact on assigning emotional valuations. Then there is the matter of perspective. The associative reasoning area of the frontal lobes generates models of the world. Those models are the viewpoints that we call perspective - a mode of perception well known for it's ability to dampen some emotions and heighten other.

The role of concepts in emotion brings up another fascinating aspect of salience maps. There are times when it feels like we have two such maps. A visceral, primal one for the external reality of the physical world, and another, more rarefied internal map. An array of emotional responses to an inner landscape of ideas and concepts. One colored by feelings that are sometimes as abstract as the notions themselves. Intellectual fascination, dawning comprehension, a sense of completeness and making sense, a feeling that an idea is elegant or even beautiful, and at times the vague, unfocused unease of cognitive dissonance - that nagging feeling that something is flawed with our understanding of events.

I suspect that there is a second map, based on the fact that within our declarative memory - the memories that we can consciously recall - we have two physical subsystems. One is the autobiographical remembrance of situations we have lived through, and the other is the semantic memory, which holds words as well as concepts that are independent of the occasions in which they were learned.

We'd be terrible philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists if we had to recall when and how we learned each abstract concept in our reasoning toolkit every time we tried think through a problem or workout a cause-and-effect relationship. We should be grateful that that our semantic memory apparently managed to evolve out of a declarative memory subsystem that was organized on the basis of space rather than time, and that may have held spatial recollections of positive and negative stimuli.

The difference between these two maps raises yet another interesting possibility. What if it were possible to transfer one map a time. What would the world look like if you had Stephen Hawking's conceptual salience map? What would happen if you transferred it to a painter? Would mathematical concepts normally as dull as ditch water suddenly shine with all the emotional intensity and urgency that the artist normally associated with hues and textures? Would it radically alter his or her art, or even the very ability to paint?

How much of an impact would a conceptual salience map have on the more gut-level external one associated with personal experience?

Again, our landscapes of emotion are so very individualized and tied up in so many interwoven valuation, conceptualization, and memory systems that actually transferring one to the wetware wiring of another brain would be extraordinarily difficult if not impossible. In cybernetic terms, creating an emulation of another's mode of operation would be a much more likely solution than an actual transmission.

Of course having the control required to make an emulation would likely mean having the capability to edit one's salience maps.

That raises still more possibilities. Could a person make himself a better mathematician or physicist by artificially boosting his fascination with a set of abstract concepts? Could a terminally bored child in school create a better future for himself by plugging in the emotional focus of a peer who finds school fun? What if the elegance of a simple but explanatory idea evoked the same persistent sense of engagement that we normally associate with the desire for sex or the craving for sweet foods?

How about this: Is it possible to have the salience maps of a scientist and a skilled artist? Or are they mutually exclusive to some degree? Can we have it all, or are there underlying physiological reasons that we never will. Has evolution just not had the necessary time to go down certain paths of expanded capability, or are the different, almost stereotyped modes of emotional perception the result of neurologic engineering compromises?

I wouldn't be surprised if it's the latter to some degree. In many ways our brains are hyper-engineered for efficiency in both energy consumption and heat output. Where the CPU of the laptop or tower that you're probably reading this on is hot enough to burn your finger, your vastly more powerful brain is only warm to the touch. Which is a good thing. Not only would you light your hair on fire while thinking hard if your gray matter were as inefficient, but your ancestors would have had a nearly impossible time finding enough calories to stay alive in a world where food scarcity and spring famines were common lifetime experiences.

So having the emotional outlooks of an Einstein and a Picasso might not be worthwhile from a hunter-gather evolutionary niche perspective. Then again, given the problem of obesity in industrialized nations these days, maybe brains that are more calorically demanding might be better suited to our current surplus and sedentary lives.

Just a thought.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Your brain is virtual

Apparently the brain uses a virtual machine architecture when solving problems or imagining the future. It takes a slice of the forebrain and midbrain to generate a model of the whole brain and run a simulation, complete with emotions, memory, and symbolic reasoning. It runs several of these virtual brains in parallel to solve each problem, creating new ones and retiring others as it hones in on a solution. Even stranger, many parts of the brain spend a lot of time simulating the behavior of other parts of the brain. The reason: Long-ranged communication within the brain is expensive in energy consumption and heat generation, and requires some fairly bulky infrastructure. Hence simulations shaped by a minimum flow of outside data is an efficient way to get things done.

Simulations. It's simulations all the way down.

Postmodernism, BS, and Constructed Realities

If you've spent anytime around academia in the humanities during the past thirty or so years you've probably had to wade through the stinking heap known as postmodernism. To keep things short and sweet, postmodernism is the most infamous of the there-is-no-objective-reality schools. According to many of it's followers there are only cultural constructs such as Text that we can deconstruct and analyze within the context of the current oppressive patriarchal power structures.

This is the same school of thought that tells us that science has no special power when it comes to describing the world -- it's just one more social construction erected by evil dead white men. We're all blank slates with no essential nature as biological beings, and because of that we can never really know what's going on in one another's heads. Even our emotions are social creations.

In other words, it's a whole lot of flagrant solipsistic BS. But not entirely. Our realities are flawed constructs. The postmodernists got that right. But rather than blank slates arbitrarily filled in by the environment, biology plays a major role in both the choice of content and the construction of our more complex psychological structures.

We're each a slate born mostly empty, but we also come with innate content that guides what gets written down. Those basic drives and preferences bias us towards paying attention to those aspects of the universe that aid us in survival, reproduction, and the pursuit of the emotional and physiological balance known as homeostasis. That and they make us hunger for the socialization and meme-swapping behavior that is the basis of culture. The latter two are so crucial to our ability to survive and reproduce that our brains are extraordinarily sensitive to all the trappings of culture. More than one luminary in the field of neurology has commented that the organ of thought is made in part to be shaped by such bodies of shared concepts and values.

So it's complicated. We're neither nature nor nurture, but rather products of nature through nurture as they say in the sciences these days. Not hardwired by genes or programmed by the environment, but softwired to generate the feedback loops that adapt us to the world.


School, the job hunt for this summer, genre writing, and self-teaching myself computer science skills outside of school are still keeping me plenty busy this week. That said, there are several dozen Hacking the Brain, States and Nations, and military technology articles on tap for this blog. Hopefully things will slow down in week or two and I'll be back to posting here with greater regularity. In the meanwhile I've got to make sure I'll be able to keep a roof over head and eat once school is done. You know, small stuff :)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

More on 3D printing

Shelly Palmer: 3D Printing is Way Scarier Than Plastic Guns:

'via Blog this'

A good article on 3D printing, that touches on an important point: There are presently 3D printers that can work with a variety of materials. Printed metal firearms or even carbon fiber guns or their components will be a reality in the very near future.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The first music video filmed in space

And it's a David Bowie cover, of course.

I'm sad but glad of course to see astronaut Chris Hadfield returning to Earth. He's had a great run on aboard the ISS, and in addition to the science conducted he's produced some amazing photos and videos. That and the tweets. Checking up on a stream of tweets from orbit detailing things a spacewalk in real time never failed to add a sense of wonder to a day behind the keyboard here on the ground.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Midterms this week

So it might be a few days until the next post of substance.

Until then, have fun looking at colorful close ups of strange and beautiful animal eyes via Wire Magazine. My psyche class has me delving into the biology and neuro-processing of the senses this week, so it's thematic.

Friday, May 10, 2013

"Tonight's Finale" shot by Canada's Col. Christopher Hatfield aboard the ISS.

Also in orbit, the trailer for Gravity looks intense.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Ender's Game

Am I going to see it? Almost certainly, though I'm more than a little torn about it because of the author's politics.

If Mr. Card wants to oppose gay marriage at the ballot box and in public forms, that's his right. I'd even fight to defend that right, though I see his choice to exercise it in this case as being just as much on the wrong side of history and morality as opposition to the Civil Rights movement was in the 1950s and 60s. I'm also willing to separate an artist from his work when the work is not overtly political.

However, his advocating the destruction of the United States government is completely unacceptable.

How long before married people answer the dictators thus: Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.

~ "Orson Scott Card: State job is not to redefine marriage", Desert News, July 24th 2008

He uses the term dictators in his statement, but so far the legalization of gay marriage has come from majority decisions by electorates and by constitutional state courts. In other words it's come through the rule of law.

Violence in response to losing at the ballot box or in the courtroom is not how democracy operates. It's certainly not how our democracy operates. If he wanted to stage some form of civil disobedience, I could respect that, even if I didn't like it. But one of the most important traditions we have in the US is sucking it up and bearing with it when the decisions of our fellow citizens or duly appointed judges don't fall the way we want them to. Even when it comes to institutions we despise. And for two good reasons.

One is that once violence starts, it's incredibly difficult to bring it to a halt. Not only that, but it rarely ends in the manner that either side imagined, frequently spiraling out of control and inflicting death on a scale far beyond the naive expectations of those who started it. That was very much the case with the American Civil War and the slave holders who revolted. Then there is the fact that the ultimate remedy to injustices will always be enacted through law. Even the overthrow of slavery made possible by mass bloodshed and sacrifice in war was cemented in the Constitution's Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, the language of which made possible the final legal assault on Jim Crow laws and discriminatory hiring practices almost a hundred years later.

If Ender's Game addressed opposing gay marriage. I'd boycott it in a heartbeat. Since it doesn't, I'm probably going to see the film. The book remains one of my absolute favorite science fiction novels even thirty years on. As kid in the Cold War 80s it spoke to me like no other novel in the genre had until I read Dune. I still get emotional when I get to the part where Ender discovers the true consequences of his actions. Hell, I couldn't even make my renegade Shepard kill The Rachni queen in Mass Effect because of because of the thought of being likewise responsible for a similar atrocity, no matter how pragmatic it might be.

Still, I can't say that my conscious will be entirely clear if I chose to go and see the film. Nothing good will come from Mr. Card's call for violence. We've already got enough ideologues polarizing the nation, and his words are a step down a slippery path that leads to a place none of us wants to go to in the end.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

More on self-sustaining cities

Cities Are the Future of Human Evolution:

'via Blog this'

I09 has an good article up on self-healing / self-sustaining cities of the future, which dovetails nicely with this week's States and Nations 3.0 article.

Also, fellow Oregon writer and military science fiction author Lael Salets shared an excellent short film with me on augmented reality over on Facebook. Feel free to drink in the noir and ponder how an added overlay of virtual art and marketing media, selectively filtered the new generation of augmented reality glasses, might affect the world we live in, for good and bad.

I see the new technology as a continuation of the current trend of blending the online world and physical that was kicked off in earnest by the arrival of smart phones. Only with the glasses it will be much more graphic, interactive, and add an audio component.

Or maybe it will go the way of Second Life and 1990s-style virtual reality.

If it makes the cut, however, then the street really will find its own uses for it, as St. Gibson once spake.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

States and nations 3.0: Microstates

For 10,000 years the arrow of social evolution has pointed upwards.

It's steered us into larger and more complex groupings, moving us from tribes, to chiefdoms, to nations and modern nation-states. All that might be about to reverse course as new micro-manufacturing and onsite resource-harvesting technologies shatter the necessities of mass infrastructure and economic interdependence that have bound us together within our modern states.

Upwards...for Now

As a species, our polities have grown since the end of the last major glacial period. They reached their apex in sheer size with the European empires of the 19th century. Those conquest states then fell apart during the first half of the 20th. While we've seen a revision to firearms-backed cheiftanships in some failed states, and a few pockets of longstanding tribalism remain in both hemispheres, nation-states are presently the dominant form of human collectives.

But what if that's not the case in twenty, thirty, or fifty years from now? What if the arrow of societal evolution continues the downward trajectory it tipped over with the death of European empires and the Soviet Union. Will we see high-tech city-states and cyber-democratic chieftainships take their place? Are self-sufficient villages and independent households whose inhabitants produce everything they need to live with 3D printers, hydroponics gardens, and local or family power-generation systems our future?

Nations were originally products of conquests that turned collections of regional chieftainships into larger, if often fractious countries. Later, the infrastructural, resource, and administrative demands of industrial economies transformed them into modern, bureaucratized nation-states. The byzantine labyrinth of roads, canals, courts, labor-mediation, licensing, social services, and professional police forces that make stable industrial societies possible were simply beyond the ability of markets or earlier forms of social organizations to provide. But what if future technologies did away with that interdependence and the accompanying necessity for broad state oversight?

What if technology from here on out makes us less rather than more dependent on one another?

It's not likely to happen at the moment. Many of the candidate technologies are in their infancy. 3D printing is developing quickly, but it's still nowhere near cost-effective for producing large structures or complex devices. Hydroponics and urban food production are still dependent on significant rural inputs and haven't achieved anywhere close to the necessary scale, and technology in general remains dependent on sprawling power grids for electricity.

Food, Power, Fabrication

As time goes on, however, and 3D printers continue to rapidly improve at manufacturing a variety of goods with just a few basic ingredients, households may become less dependent on factories and power grids. Particularly if the primary component of fabrication turns out to be carbon in the near future - which we're already using for everything from car to bike chassis, and are on the verge of manufacturing batteries and electrical systems with.

Carbon, of course, can be harvested from the air.

That might sound more than a little optimistic, but  trees have been pulling the bulk of their biomass out of the air for some 200 million years now, and only a truly massive scale. The production of leaves alone draws in some tens of billions of tons of carbon from the sky each spring, transforming it from gas to living solids.  

Additionally, we're learning to use bacteria to produce exotic and useful biological compounds. Bacterial biosynthesizers could pump out anything from plastics and exotic raw materials for 3D printers, to pharmaceutics compounds within desktop units.

Power generation could also be poised to become a lot more local. High-efficiency solar cells, wind turbines, fuel cell technology, and carbon-based supercapacitors for electricity storage could end the dependency of both cities and households on grids.

Urban and household food production through hydroponics, gene-engineered food plants, or vat grown-flesh could also break or reduce our current network of food interdependence. Amateur and professional city-based agriculture have already become something of a fad in recent years. Down the line, circumstances ranging from space program technologies used in attempts to establish long-term off-world habitats, the necessity of dealing with the kind of decades- or centuries-long weather upheavals that have accompanied past natural climate shifts could force us to learn how to grow food inside stable man-made environments. Then there's always the potential of a multi-year volcanic winter to upend up the world of food production.

Self-sustaining high tech towns, households, and cities make for attractive vision of the future. While this model may sound more than a little Utopian, it's worth keeping in mind that our species has lived in largely self-sustaining communities for most of its existence. The past three or four thousand years of trade networks and our recent hyper interdependence are something of an anomaly, and it remains to be seen if they're truly viable in long run. Especially when faced with some of the global or cosmic from-the-sky catastrophes our species as endured before.

If nothing else, establishing long-term settlements elsewhere in the solar systems will eventually demand the ability for small to mid-sized communities to extract what they need to sustain themselves bodily and technologically from their local environment. Deployed on Earth, that same technology could transform terrestrial life into something both modern and much closer to the rural self-sufficiency that was long the norm for us..


Of course it's unlikely that we'll abandon living in nation-states without good reason. Especially since states have given us the most equitable distribution of political power and wealth ever seen outside of hunter-gatherer tribal life. An equality that comes without much of the instability and endemic violence associated with the tribal and chieftainship modes of governance.

That said, there are several possibilities that could drive the move to city-states and independent towns or rural regions.

The Internet

Just as the arrival of the printing press helped to break up conquest-based empires and aid in turning collections of princedoms and clans into nations -- as was the case for Germany, India, and Kurdistan among others -- the Internet appears to be strengthening regional and political-based identities, often at the expense of national ones. It's already helped to fuel political polarization here in the US. As regions continue to lose their ideological diversity and become associated with one pole of the political spectrum or the other we could see a push for each side to divest itself of the other's perceived cultural and legislative interference. At its extreme this could even include regional rural vs. urban splits. By way of example there are some significant differences politically between rural Northern California and much of the rest of the state, and similar disparities can be seen within other US states.

Then there is religion and ethnicity. The politics of ethnic, regional, and religious identities have already played a major role breaking up nation-states in the Post-Cold War world. Even Western Europe has its regional separatist movements, from Scotland, to Belgium, to Catalonia and the Basque country, to Brittany. That same drive toward smaller cultural communities appears to be accelerating in other regions around the world.

Related to that is...


There are plenty of individuals for whom self-sufficiency is an ideal here in the US. While I don't see that as being remotely practical in our complex and vastly interdependent present day economy, it may become a realistic possibility at some point in the future. If that's ever the case, I'd expect to see the emergence of some very passionate groups -- mostly on the right but some on the left -- working to roll back laws and regulations they see as a hindrance to self-sufficient communities. Or at least more so than their present day counterparts may already be trying to. Likewise, the technology of self-sufficiency could be a boon for ethnic and religious minority groups seeking independence for their traditional homelands elsewhere in the world, and drive them to adopt similar ideologies.

Surfing the Chaos

Another possibility is that nation-states might be too big and clumsy to adapt to what's on the way.

Technology is accelerating, and disruptive economic revolutions are coming faster and faster. The sixty-year period between our grandparents and great grandparents taming the formerly tumultuous industrial economy at the end of World War II, and the arrival of the disruptive early effects of the information revolution in the 2000s, was an eye blink compared to the long centuries or even millennia between earlier agricultural and paleolithic technology revolutions. At the moment we're still in what are probably the early days of the IT revolution, but nanotechnology and biotechnology are already drawing into sight. Imagine revolutions stacking up on top of one another, each one shaking up the rules of employment and investment. Each one making education and job skills obsolete so quickly that by the time laid off workers are done retraining they're once again unemployable.

Think about the kind of social upheaval that would bring about.

Faced with a single technological revolution it took nearly a century and a half of revolutions, street violence, activism, politics, and two cataclysmic wars before European social democracies emerged and were finally able to create stable industrial economies. Even in the US, where the open lands of the west served a social safety valve and a source of employment, labor violence and anarchist bombings and assassinations became issues from the 1870s up until the 1920s. Depressions and bank crashes remained problems until the 40s. The next time around societies might not have the luxury of a century or even decades to come up with answers.

Why? Increased firepower.

The industrial revolution placed tremendous power into the hands of small groups or even individuals. From compact explosives, to firearms that can kill dozens in just a few minutes, to cars bombs and or even unarmed hijacked airplanes, the power of an unstable teenager or a small cell of would be revolutionaries has never been greater. Additionally, cyberwarfare is generating software weapons that can be easily copied and operated by individuals and small groups. Weapons that have the potential to cause widespread disruptions to financial services and possibly damage critical infrastructure.

That's today, but what about tomorrow?

Biotechnology as well as nano and microbotics technology may ultimately continue the trend of distributing more destructive power to individuals through easily copied weapons of mass destruction. It's possible that in the near future desktop gene sequencers and garage 3D printers maybe able to churn out lethal pathogens and swarms of destructive microbots. It's not at all a comforting thought that the genome for Ebola is already available online, and there has been talk of posting the reconstructed variant of the Spanish Influenza flue virus as well.

Imagine a world in which the agitators, anarchists, and Utopians of the 1800s had access to those kinds of weapon. To keep social tension down and reduce the chances of radicalization or violence among the well-armed disaffected, future polities may have to be able to respond far quicker and implement significant changes much faster than nation-states have demonstrated themselves capable of to date.

Economic and social stability might be a matter of constant adjustment, including the occasional rapid shift.

Why more agile?

Why would city-states be better able to respond? In part, smaller populations, smaller bureaucracies, and greater ideological homogeneity. With less chance of polarized political deadlock, a greater sense of shared communal risk, and smaller government agencies, city-states could have faster response times and decision-making cycles. Maybe not in the tactical sense of dealing with individual emergencies, but rather in the political arena of debating and adopting new policies, and having those policies accepted with a minimum amount of protest by the public.

In an age in which radical shifts, major educational curriculum revisions, and big infrastructural changes are the norm, smaller, faster, better might be a dire necessity.

Additionally, smaller communities on the level of city-states might be well suited for making use of cyberdemocracy. Direct participatory democracy on some level might be an important part of securing citizen buy-in when it comes to important decisions -- even if that direct participation is a Kickstarter-like network of funding and resource sites that private parties use to fund supplemental research or to supply independent troubleshooters.

Meanwhile, small towns or rural regional governments might be likewise agile, or they might be small enough and well enough out of the way to sit out the chaos on the sidelines.


Total food self-sufficiency might remain outside the ability of cities to meet for a long time to come. In that case microstates in which cities remain tied to the surrounding countryside in a web of mutual economic and political interdependence are a possibility. Regional identity here in the US, or shared ethnic and religious ties in other regions might also facilitate this structure.

Another factor shaping hybridized polities is the question of how much work would total self-sufficiency involve? Would the maintenance and operation of 3D printers and biosynthesizers, the  upkeep of a dwelling, and overseeing food production systems demand eight or more hours a day from two adults? Would one adult be able to meet all of a household's basic needs, allowing the other to work outside the home in a specialist field like scientific research or education? Or would self-sufficiency take place at the level of extended family or a neighborhood with shared resources and systems? Does total food independence mean being able to produce specialty items like chocolate at home, or is home food a strictly bland fare of tube-grown potatoes, tank-raised fish, and plain greens? If it's the latter, currency and international or at least inter-regional trade will surely continue to exist, along with opportunities for work outside the home to earn money.

Who knows, maybe cities will have chocolate co-ops or indoor specialty farms built on an industrial scale in old industrial parks.

There's also the question of if a home will ever be able to produce a car, or will there always be a need for major consumer goods manufactured outside households? How about medicine? Will expert systems and home synthesized pharmaceuticals ever replace medical doctors? That's hard to see in the near future of the next few decades, though with sufficiently advanced robotics -- both micro and macro -- who knows. It's possible that the road to total self-sufficiency for households might be a long and uneven one of decades, or it might never fully arrive, just draw closer and closer with greater degrees of independence and fewer required outside inputs in material, parts, and expertise 

Technological Tribes?

There are a number of aboriginal peoples whose members might like to create self-sufficient tribal or chieftainship regions in a world of microstates, towns, and rural alliances. Though that might also be complicated by the fact that many, like most American Indians in the US, live in cities, and might not want to give up the urban lifestyle that they're accustomed to.

How about people whose ancestors have been living in settled agrarian societies for hundreds if not thousands of years? I can certainly see the appearance of ideological tribes. People and families with a desire to adopt the egalitarian social structure of tribes and move out to the countryside to live in communes and co-ops. There's certainly enough hippy communities here in Oregon already. Living on self-sufficient ocean-going vessels that extract minerals from sea water is another interesting possibility that could provide a feasible nomadic lifestyle. That said, I suspect people seeking to live in small settlements will probably not self-identify as tribes. As cool as it might be to see us explore updated version of our oldest forms of polities, the term has connotations and meanings that most people living in nation-states do not associate with themselves. Not yet at any rate...

Next up: The History of the Global State

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Downloading iPods

One day in the not so distant future your kid will illegally download the iPod along with the songs.

Napster For Pirated 3D Printing Templates? | TechCrunch:

'via Blog this'

More space beauty

Our mother star in action, three days ago.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Tracks stuck in my head

A club-style remix of one of Classic Trek's most gloriously cheesy songs -- the famous Kirk - Spock Pon Far fight scene. This song was on the playlist for last week's Portland Geek Trivia night, and it's been fastened on my brain's audio cortices like a parasitic remora on a shark's ass ever since.

Also on my mind, the promo track from one of my most anticipated albums of the year.

Daft motherfucking Punk! But damn it's been way too long since they've dropped a new album. Or it least it feels that way to me.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

"Our Radical Future" | The Awl

"In the United States, the 1890s are an almost forgotten time. The whole stretch of American history between the end of the Civil War and the 1920s is gray area in popular memory, but the 1890s are especially blank, occupying a dead zone in between "Deadwood" and "Boardwalk Empire."
       ~Jacob Mikanowski 

Below is a link to an interesting long-from article on the economic and climate chaos of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and how people responded to it around the world. Grim, but very much worth reading.

The Cults and Utopias of the 1890s | The Awl:

'via Blog this'

Why are the 1880s - 1920s a largely forgotten time period here in the US? My best guess is that it's because those of us born into the Long Prosperity that followed World War II have lived our lives exempted from the forces of history. Wars haven't touched us at home, and our parents or grandparents tamed the previously violent forces of economics with a regulatory and tax framework that took the harsh edge of of capitalism. So much so that unlike many of our recent ancestors, the state of the economy rarely intruded into our thoughts or our plans for what to do in life. We've also been immune to the fickleness of the natural world, never knowing hunger or uncertainty because of droughts or things as mundane as crash in the local deer population. We've even been spared the lash of disease, not having seen a major epidemic.

In other words, we've lived most of our lives in a cushioned bubble that our immediate ancestors could have only dreamed of. Those were people whom history inflicted itself on in a big way.

Less Darkness 

I'm aware that some of topic matter here on Consilience has been dark as of late. It's almost over. I've got one more Dystopias piece left to write, and then it's back to the more upbeat States and Nations 3.0 articles, spiffy science, and amazing things we might be able do with technology in the not so distant future. But to write meaningfully about those things I needed to take a look at things that are going wrong and have gone wrong in the past with technology. Getting to tomorrow's heaven means knowing how others arrived in yesterday's hell. And there were a lot of hells over the last century and a half. That, and as I writer I'm always looking for challenges and sources of danger or upheaval to pit characters against. Those kinds of darkness are much more engaging for readers when they'er rooted somewhere, at some level, in the real world. Or at least that's my best guess intuition on the subject.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Hacking the brain: Desensitization

If I could hack my brain...

I'd play around with the mechanisms that control desensitization. I'd love to hear a favorite song with all the intensity and focus of the first five times I listened to it. I'd like to be able to stare at a magnificent looming tree for an hour and absorb all the aspects of its beauty in an almost religious trance. Or to not lose the intensity and sense of utter engagement the goes with the first weeks or months of being together with a new lover.

Of course there are some very obvious dangers that would go along with not being desensitized to the above stimuli, no matter how pleasant or profound they might be. Our brains deaden us to them for some damned good reasons. Losing oneself in the loveliness of a massive redwood out on the coast might be moving, but it's also an invitation to be eaten by a predator. And no matter how physically intense those first few months of chemistry are with a new love, being submerged in one another like that for too long would damage the larger weave of relationships that gives us our place in social and familial circles.

That and there is the small matter that our brains desensitize us to much of our environment because there is simply too much information. We don't have the processing power needed to pay attention to more than a small fraction of the inputs flooding into our gray matter at any given moment. Becoming deadened to varying degrees to the presence of objects and entities around us is a crucial act of neuro prioritization.

So, the ability to control those mechanisms would have to be extremely selective if wasn't going to be a burden or danger. That kind of fine control would likely require a network of tiny machine implants. Devices that could make the effects temporary and cut out after pre-set amounts of time.

Or maybe not. It would be interesting to experiment with lessening the level of desensitization so as not to take important things for granted in the long run. What's important? That leads us into topic of salience maps: the process that our brains use to embed emotions in the world around us, as well as imbuing the same feelings in the landscape of ideas and interrelated concepts within our heads.

Next up: Hacking the salience map.