Friday, June 28, 2013

Summertime science fiction cinema

Europa Report looks intriguing. While I'm not big on found footage films, there's definitely a market for them, and this deliberately paced space exploration movie looks like it delivers intelligent characters dealing with dire situations on the bleeding edge of human knowledge.

As much as I'm longing for a spot of smart science fiction cinema, I'm also jonesing for some shameless tentpole action.

Especially when it comes to giant robots and kaiju monsters. Though I'm a little leery because there are elements in del Toro's Pacific Rim that feel like they hold the potential for interest-killing cheesiness with audiences. Stuff like having two pilots in each hulking mech, both making identical moves to pilot it.

That setup may have looked good while writing the script as means for generating intra-cockpit conflicts between swaggering alpha males, along with an 'uplifting' team building resolution, but on the screen it comes off as clumsy and blatant. Plot devices shouldn't be that naked, but rather appear clothed in plausibility and a sense of accident or contingency.

Also bringing old school, action-drenched science fiction and anime concepts to the screen, Niel Blomkamp's Elysium. Which will probably be gorgeously shot, hyper kinetic, depressing, and relentlessly heavy handed with its politics.

On the urban fantasy side of the house, Byzantium looks like it offers a new take on vampires and immortality. I know, vampires. I know, I know, new take. But vampires aren't going away anytime soon, and there's still lots of room - in my not very humble opinion - for those who are willing to play with the mythology and carve out new territories on its imaginative borderlands.

Also, while I've mentioned it before here, I 'm curious to see what Alfonso CuarĂ³n's big budget film Gravity will deliver.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

On those Supreme Court rulings

I normally keep politics off this blog, but I hope the readership will forgive me for this lapse and for saying that I'm pleased as punch about yesterday's Supreme Court rulings. While the decisions don't benefit me as a heterosexual male, I know several individuals for whom they mean a great deal. Both from the standpoint of enjoying the same legal benefits and security accorded other couples, but also because this change makes many of them feel like full citizens in the eyes of the law and their country.

That sense among gays and lesbians of having been second class citizens is something that I don't think most of my conservative friends have ever picked up on, unfortunately. But for other friends and acquaintances it's been very much a part of their lives. The ability to participate in the American project of moving towards a more perfect union, of being able to do things like get married, serve in the armed forces, and raise children were hopes that could not be taken lightly or be easily realized. Just as the fears of losing a job because of a careless utterance, or of being kept out of a hospital should something happen to a partner because only family and legally recognized spouses were allowed in, couldn't be easily dismissed.

So in honor of the occasion, the prescient "We Will be Citizens" speech from the end of Angels in America, written in 1993*

*A speech that captures both a sense of communal optimism that I haven't encountered elsewhere in the world, as well as the often creative tensions between the secular and the religious in American life.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Starship Troopers the anime

Yes, someone really did make a Starship Troopers OVA, complete with a gnarly / radical 80s guitar soundtrack 25 years ago. Its relationship with the Heinlein novel isn't quite as loose as that of the 1997 Paul Verhoeven monstrosity. For example, while the Bugs appear to be psychic, laser-breathing tentacle monsters, the Mobile Infantry is at least suited up and bounding along in powered armor. As a bonus, the animated suits' appearance was designed by Kazutaka Miyatake, who created several of the classic mecha in the original Macross series.

If that's not enough mil-geek glory for you, someone has posted the entire six-episode OVA, starting here, on YouTube. I've never actually watched the series prior to discovering it online today at it was only released in the US on a limited run of Laser Disks, over twenty years ago.

Sorry, Portuguese subtitles only for the first episodes, and after that it's only spoken Japanese.

Not that you're missing much. The Starship Troopers OVA is mediocre at best, IMO. Still, it's been fun to skim through this long lost bit of military science fiction arcana.

Rebooting the Film Franchise? 

The film rights to the book were purchased in 2011 by Neal Moritz, who produced the Will Smith version of I am Legend along with the Fast and Furious films. His stated intent is to do a remake that hews closer to the novel, and the screen writers hired for the project were responsible for the first Thor film, all of which is promising. However, Mr. Moritz also had the misfortune to produce the recent elevator-through-the-center-of-the-Earth Total Recall remake. That money-losing flop apparently has cast doubt on the wisdom of rebooting a second Verhoeven franchise.

Which is a shame. It would be fun to see something set in the actual Heinlein universe, even if it sacrificed some (or most) of the didactic classroom scenes in favor of more action sequences. The setting is rich enough, and the combat style unique enough to pull off something along the lines of a more traditional war film, even if we don't get another co-ed military shower scene...

Not that that was cheesy or anything.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Lifting the limits on buildings

Lifts and skyscrapers: The other mile-high club | The Economist:

'via Blog this'

Elevators have shaped our cities. Long story short, they allow for vastly greater population densities by making buildings five stories or higher practical to live and work in. While walking up ten flights of stairs might not be that big of a deal for those of us who are young or in good physical condition, it's a whole 'nother story if you're aging and need to carry your groceries up eight stories. Or if you need to routinely shift furniture or office supplies up sixty flights of stairs.

Apparently one of the major limiters on the size for present day buildings is the sheer weight of elevator cables. The steel rope needed to lift a small compartment up fifty or more stories is the heaviest part of the system, and anything beyond 500 meters (1500 ft) risks a cable that will snap because of its own weight. The solution to this limit is that favorite science fiction standby, carbon fibers. A Finish company has created a usable carbon fiber rope with a weight reduction of 90%, and the capability to function at twice the length of steel cables.

Now the questions is will elevators capable of servicing mile-high buildings lead to another great increase in human population densities? Or will things like lack of suitable foundation bedrock limit future construction waves. If you look at the skylines of cities like Manhattan or San Francisco, chances are the the clusters of tall, cloud scarping buildings you see correspond with solid, weight-bearing platforms of rock beneath.

Classic military SF week

I'm presently rereading Neuromancer and came across a section in which two hackers deploy a black market military-grade cyberwarfare weapon against a corporate system.

The Chinese program was face to face with the target ice...

"How's it go, Dixie?"

"Fine. Too slick. Thing's amazing...Should'a had one that time in Singapore. Did the old Bank of New Asia for a fiftieth of what they were worth. But that's ancient history. This baby takes all the drudgery out of it. Makes you wonder what a real war would be like now..."

With all of the state-sponsored malware packages that have turned up online in recent years - Stuxnet, GhostNet, Flame, Shamoon - and reading about government hackers purchasing zero-day exploits from hackers, it feels very much like we're living in a future close to the one imagined in Neuromancer. Or at least that aspect of it. And yeah, I too am curious what a "real war" would be like nowadays with these kinds of weapons lurking out there on the Internet.

But let's not find out, please.

Starship Troopers

I also recently reread Heinlein's Starship Troopers for the first time in several years. I can see why I liked it as a kid. It's very direct and honest and it flows well.

I can also appreciate as an adult that the fictional Mobile Infantry depicted in it was very a much a product of the 1950s.

I know: Wait, what? An all powered armor forces is very 50s?

OK, not necessarily the armor, but the fighting style and deployment of the MI in the books is laid out very much along the lines of what many military thinkers at the time saw in their near future - a nuclear battlefield with highly mobile ground forces that arrived by air, were armed with both conventional and cataclysmically powerful un-conventional weapons, and that survived by staying widely dispersed and constantly on the move.

Troopers was written before scientists and military officers had figured out just how toxic nuclear weapons were and how long the fallout would stick around for. That and just how easy it might be to tip over from the use of small nukes on the battlefield to city killers in an apocalyptic spiral of escalation. As a result, both NATO and Warsaw Pact forces went more than a little crazy fielding tactical nukes during the 50s and then in the 60s. Everything from atomic artillery shells and nuclear land mines, to a nuke mortar system.

Yeah, imagine trying to lob a mortar shell far enough to stay out of the blast radius. No thanks.

It was also a time when helicopters and air assaults (infantry deployed from helicopters) were first coming into use, with the Marines having conducted the first successful vertical envelopments, landing behind North Korea troops to good effect. Even airborne parachute operations were still new and shiny at that point, with the first major drops being made just a few years earlier during World War II.

Troopers and its discontents 

There are readers who either hate Starship Troopers with a passion or who find it chilling. Particularly individuals whose first exposure to the story was the 1997 Verhoeven film that took its name but little else from the novel.

The criticisms are a mixed bag in my opinion. Charges that Starship Troopers is Fascist because only military veterans are allowed to vote in the book's Federation stem from not paying attention. Heinlein is explicit in the text that military veterans make up only a small percentage of the enfranchised, and that most citizens earn their vote through a semi-stressful two year period of civil service work. On the other hand, there is a section that implies that population pressures invariably leads to war, with the strong implication that co-existence with alien species is impossible. Which pretty much only leaves genocide. may be verified by observation that any breed which stops its own increase gets crowded out by breeds which expand. Some human populations did so, in Terran history, and other breeds--moved in and engulfed them. 

Nevertheless, let's assume that the human race manages to balance birth and death, just right to fit its own planets, and thereby becomes peaceful. What happens?

Soon (about next Wednesday) the Bugs move in, kill off this breed which "ain'ta gonna study war no more" and the universe forgets us. Which still may happen. Either we spread and wipe out the Bugs, or they spread and wipe us out...

There are some unfortunate and very close echos of Hitler's stated concept of Lebensraum in those words. I've wondered several times if Heinlein - a former socialist and newly minted libertarian - thought through that section of the book and realized the implications of what he was writing, or if the similarities to Hitler's writings and speeches were lost on him. It wouldn't have been the first time that Heinlein demanded a frighteningly drastic and final action. In one of his non-fiction essays (collected in his Expanded Universe) he called for the United States in the late 40s to immediately nuke the Soviet Union before the USSR could also develop nuclear weapons. This was premised on the idea that co-existence between two powers armed with the ability to annihilate each other at short notice was impossible.

Fortunately history proved Heinlein wrong on that and on population pressure as an inevitable driver of war. Overpopulation does contribute to conflicts, and some of the participants in the attempted Rwandan genocide during the 90s have stated that overcrowding and the struggle for resources was a trigger for the mass violence that played out there. But at the same time there are alternatives. Other means and the people who develop them, such as an American scientist during the 1950s who invented a new strain of wheat that doubled yields, sparked an agricultural revolution, ended famines in Central Asia, and fed the rest of the world for decades after. A feat that won him a much deserved Nobel Peace Prize.

Of course Heinlein, being Heinlein, was a complex individual, and went on to write the decidedly Un-Fascist Stranger in a Strange Land. Then there's the fact that several of his earlier and later works also feature benevolent world governments or transnational organizations that effectively manage to end war or at least prevent major overt wars between humans. With that in mind, I'd place the scary statements in Starship Troopers within that larger canon of Heinlein's writing when it comes to an overall interpretation of the author and his works.

Geek Note 

As a closing aside, I'm the proud owner of the original 1977 edition of the Avalon Hill Starship Troopers wargame that Heinlein authorized, complete with all its glorious and goofy 50s-style art, and a very 1970s long-haired, bell-bottomed photograph of Johnny Rico and his hippy classmates on the day of their enlistment. 

If that won't land me some hardcore nerd cred, I'm not sure what will. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Printing in metal

3D Printers Open Up New Options in Aviation | Defense Tech:

'via Blog this'

General Electric Aviation plans to use 3D printers to produce cobalt-chromium fuel nozzles that are 30% lighter than their more complex, conventionally assembled counterparts.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

States and Nations 3.0: A History of the global state

Time was when the future and everything in it was bigger and better. Larger, faster cars, supersonic planes the size of aircraft carriers, and even a benevolent world-spanning state. Often the latter was something like an idealized version of the UN write large in the golden age of science fiction during the first few decades after World War II. On television, in books, and even at the movies there were future federations that would end poverty and make war an outdated practice, or at least an actively repressed one.

These days the idea of a global state has largely ridden off into the sunset. While living in Scandinavia I met several people who still saw a global state as the solution to the world's ills. Back home in Nevada, I've known a few on the far, far right, who see a world state as the ultimate bugbear. The Clinton / Bush / Obama administration have all been noted by the latter as conspiring with the UN to strip God-fearing Americans of their firearms so that UN vote observers can complete their takeover of the planet.

Those two far polls, however, distant Utopian and conspiracy theorist nightmare, are pretty much the only place where the global state appears in any kind of serious discussion. In the mainstream national and international forums it's almost entirely absent. And for several good reasons. During the Cold War the Soviet Union and much of the western communist block were only interested in a single global government, and that was a red one established by nationalist post-colonial wars of liberation supported by the KGB abroad. In the United States a wide-spread enchantment with the UN wore off by the 1970s as the organization increasingly saw use as a venue for criticism of US foreign policy, and by the 1980s the organization was widely perceived on this side of the Atlantic as being deeply corrupt and inefficient. During the 1990s the UN stumbled and saw several tragic failures when it failed to contain or end outbreaks of Post-Cold War ethnic cleansing and mass murder in places like Rwanda and in the Balkans - just as its predecessor, the League of Nations had proven unable to prevent the Second World War.

Presently there are so many countries split by internal ethnic and religious violence that the idea of ending war by bringing everyone under a single nation-state has largely lost it's credibility. This shows little sign of changing. With the UN deeply unpopular in the US, the European Union project in disarray, the Chinese government strongly against anything that encroaches on its national sovereignty, and several decades of a very rocky performance by the UN in the Third World, there doesn't seem to be any chance of the UN or any other institution ascending to become world-uniting entity.

Or maybe not...

The arrow of evolution for human collectives has ticked downwards this past century with the collapse of the European empires that ruled most of the world at the height of colonialism, and with the death of the Soviet Union. But it's worth keeping in mind that this is a relatively recent downturn that could prove to be an anomaly. From the end of the last ice-age glacial period until the early 1900s human societies have for the most part grown larger. Previous periods of decline have been temporary. Collapsed empires in Europe, Central Asia, and in East Asia, from Rome to the Han, were eventually succeeded by even larger states.

In the next article we'll look at some of the transnational problems ranging from de-regulated financial markets and shadow economies in the globalized world to terrorism and the spread of cheap, easy to produce weapons of mass destruction that could lead to the creation of a something like a global state or a web of networks and soft power organizations like those that presently run the different aspects of the Internet. We'll also be looking at technologies that might transform us into a global-integrated species, ranging from automated real-time translations that could break of the barriers of languages that currently keep the Internet segregated into linguistic blocks that have few interactions, to human augmentations that alter our outlook enough to make a global state or even a self-organizing global anarchy desirable.

Next up: Mega States

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Evolving Light

Day two - changing light and weather

Day one - sunset. Because the sun going down really should come at the end of the set. Pesky chronological order. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Leadership of a certain style

One of the best put together speeches on military leadership that I've seen in a long while.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Portland photos

It's been a while since I posted anything here about Portland or the Northwest. Too much writing, too much studying, not enough traveling or even just getting out.

So, the annual Rose Festival, and the surrounding neighborhood, which has all kinds of narrow winding streets to explore.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Nature and a pair of short films (NSFW)

The prettiest thing on the Internet today is this footage of a supercell thunderstorm forming near Brooker Texas and caught on pixels by photographer Mike Oblinski.

via IO9

If you're in the mood for something artsy, West European, sci-fi, and heavy on symbolism German-based Reynold Reynold's The Secret Machine is worth the view at 14 minutes in length. It plays with time and space and questions whether there is more to existence than that which can be quantified. It's also more about the exploratory journey than reaching its destination. NSFW with nudity, brief sexual imagery, and some potentially disturbing minor surgical images.

The Secret Machine one of three films in the Secrets trilogy. The first, Secret Life covers the viewpoint of the world of plants and is shot using a time-lag method meant to evoke the time scale that slow-moving plants live in, rather than the one that us quick, hot-blooded mammals are familiar with.

An idea that is infinitely fascinating for me is that based on having different senses and brain wiring some organisms experience an ecology and their life within that organic system in a vastly different manner than the other beings around them. For example, a blind mole rat and keen-eyed falcon might live and participate in the same desert ecosystem, but their experience and the way they process it are two largely separate sensory universes.

Secret Life from Artstudio Reynolds on Vimeo.

Other films

It's been more hit than miss recently as far as short science fiction films on the Internet. I keep coming across some beautiful pieces that fall just shy of being good enough to share here. That and there is a glut of dystopian or post-apocalyptic films with minor-tone soundtracks and deliberately sparse or terse dialog.

Dear film students of the world. Yes, science fiction is a genre that lends itself to storytelling that can be powerful, symbolic, evocative, and even frightening. But it's also broad field that covers a lot of the human experience and as well as potential experiences that we or our descendants may one day live through. Please, please, pretty please try to get out of your collective rut and show us some of the terrain outside the one narrow slice you all have fallen into.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Stark, savage, and minimalist

The leaked version of Boards of Canada's Tomorrow's Harvest feels very much like a stark and at times almost savagely minimalist take on Daft Punk's recent Random Access Memories. It's like they both share the same genome, but where Random Access was brought up in a warm and loving household, raised by nurturing bon vivants, the equally intelligent Harvest grew up lonely and alone in the deserts of the Southwest, reading Edward Abbey and other nature mystics, and spending a lot of time filling up the barren spaces around him with the creations of his imagination.

Silent War

The Changing and Terrifying Nature of the New Cyber-Warfare | Vanity Fair:

'via Blog this'

A worthwhile long-form summary in Vanity Fair of all places on the current cyber-tussle between Iran and the US. My worry about the ongoing attacks on financial institutions, oil companies, and infrastructure nodes is the potential for events to spiral out of control. No one's done any of this before; no one has a good sense of what the limits or thresholds of pain are, or what the Archduke Ferdinand of our online world might be. There are some days when reading through the news when I wonder others felt the same way in 1914: concerned that economically intertwined world powers could find themselves suddenly sucked into an rapidly escalating conflict fought using new weapons with implications and destructive effects that will take years to fully fathom.

The Vanity Fair article is certainly timely. Especially with this week's revelations regarding the wide net of online intelligence gathering being conducted by the US National Security Agency and the Obama administration's attempt to get the ball rolling regarding a developing a more focused cyberwarfare capability

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Dystopias: Nightmare software states

Your Cellphone is Listening, Comrade. Facebook is Mandatory

You're issued your phone when you turn five and are welcomed into the greater collective. It listens to you and keeps you safe. It hears what goes on around you. It always knows where it's at, and lets your parents know where you are, in school and at home. You are encouraged to talk to your friends or text them on it. You should photograph them with your phone and share on the webspace society provides you. If the policeman stops you, your phone provides proof of identity as a brother or sister citizen. In darkness it gives you light. When you're in trouble it summons the aid of the security or health services. 

Your phone is an avatar of the collective, always at your side. 

It also corrects you and helps keep you on the path of optimized thought. It quotes relevant doctrine to you each time you use it. It suggests passages to read and video clips of the Great Leader to watch each night before bed based on keywords within your text messages and conversations. Your phone and the gestalt of software it belongs to graphs your social interactions, tracing out all the network of all the people whom you know or pass by each day. You're never quite sure which words or connections will land you in trouble, for your phone is subtle, but you know it lets the state track bad people and their friends in ways that earlier nations could have only dreamed of.  

Human peripherals 

"Hardware, brother citizen," said the old man. "That's what we are. We're peripheral devices devices that plug into the motherboard of the state at birth, and unplug at death. In between we serve and are served by the resources of the system."

On the other countertop between us he traced out the letters WW with a gnarled finger. Whether we like it or not. A common shorthand between citizens that served where earlier generations rolled their eyes or shrugged resignedly.   

"And the software? Well, I can remember that started out as cooperative task management tools that let us share documents and schedules, and alert others about problems that cropped up. We first started using 'em at work early on in the century. They were common in businesses with flat hierarchies where a lot of creative work was done, like in software development and hardware design shops. After the revolution they became a part of everything. Families have them. Schools have them. Businesses do to, and they're all linked together for the optimization of society."

"Of course nobody calls it a hardware - software relationship. It's just "the system" these days. You don't have to participate in it, but then again you don't have to eat either." 

"Well, huh. Look at that. I just got called in for a counseling session with the my team," he said, furrowing a brown that the years had already wrinkled with their passing. "I hope it's nothing serious." 

"Me too," I said, knowing full well it would be. After all, that was my task in the system: knowing and telling. "Being seeing you." 

What makes dystopia dystopian?

In historical totalitarian states like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, human beings were subordinated to the superorganism of the state. They became appendages that could be sacrificed in staggering numbers -- sometimes on the altar of war, and sometimes to sate the paranoia of the state's internal security apparatus or its national leadership. Where the lives of citizens in a democracy are an ends in themselves, the lives of those trapped in such nightmare states were a means to the survival of the collective.

What's really terrifying about that is that we humans are very much collective animals. Alone in institutional confinement or lost in the wild we slowly go mad. We depend on the presence of others for the maintenance of our psyches or souls. In that sense dystopian states are one of the ultimate perversions of human nature. They take our sociability and the desire for a common group membership twist them into something destructive and extreme.

Fictional and real world dystopias come in variety of flavors. What they share, however, is an underlying loss of agency. Whether the inhabitants suffer through one dehumanizing misery after another in an unending existence of bleakness, or if they are unnaturally happy when they should be in agony, it's a near total loss of control over one's destiny that makes these states so frightening. Sometimes the inability to choose is externally imposed through violence and direct intimidation, and other times it's through a fearful rewriting of who we are through forcible indoctrination combined with the corrosion of constant fear or anxiety. That might be the greatest terror of dystopias: The potential of a dehumanizing system to remake us so completely that we want to conform to its demands. It's an obliteration of the self worse than death.

So what could future totalitarian states do with information technology or bio and nanotech?

Next: Biotech Nightmares

Sunday, June 02, 2013

The first evidence of other universes

Astronomers Find First Evidence Of Other Universes | MIT Technology Review:

'via Blog this'

Back in 2010 an analysis of the Big Bang's microwave afterglow suggested that our universe had collided with others during its birth. There are impressions visible in the current snapshot of the microwave background that look like the after effects of such impacts. That and other structures we'd expect to see if our cosmos was cyclical - if multiple big bangs had played out within it over vast spans of time.

This is all very exciting because there's never been any evidence of other universes. The Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics and every multiverse model out there are all purely theoretical constructions. Accounting tricks that invoke the possible existence of other cosmi and world lines to explain oddities in the most esoteric branches of physics, and without a drop of empirical data back back them up.

Until now. Maybe.

That maybe comes from two sources. One is that the visual data set these collision artifacts appear in is of fairly low resolution. So what look like telltale structures may disappear in the future when seen with a greater focus and pixel density. Something like how the fuzzy face on Mars that appears in a 1970s photograph looks nothing like a face when seen through the current HD optics in orbit of the Red Planet. The other source of maybe-ness is that the explanation of these structures as collisions artifacts has not been embraced by the cosmological scientific community. Which isn't surprising given the low resolution of the data and the higher resolution information that's on the way.

Mapping the Universe, Take 2

At present there is a high-definition observation platform in space. The European Space Agency's Plank Observatory went online back in 2010 and recently released its updated map of the cosmic microwave background in March.

So now we're waiting on the analysis.

Hopefully the collision structures will draw into sharper focus in the new data and confirm their existence. A bumpy, foamy multiverse of universes jammed together cheek and jowl would be a vastly more interesting and inspiring place rather than a single cosmos. There are all kinds of philosophical and theological implications for different faiths in the former, as well as the potential for an entirely new period of physics. An almost infinitely interesting expansion beyond our current models. A multiverse filled with universes is also a lot less bleak than the current predictive models of our lone cosmos gradually boiling away into a light-less, high-entropy heat death, or being torn apart and transformed into a ratified vastness of rapidly expanding distances.

So here's hoping.