Saturday, August 31, 2013

Japan's rumbling super volcano

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

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

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

But we are learning.

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

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

I Have a Dream - 50 Years

An important historical document.

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

History and change. Neither are easy.

Monday, August 26, 2013

To Boldly Go...

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

"The Trouble with Tribbles"

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

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Another sign we are living in the future

Coping with the loss of an online world -

'via Blog this'

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

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

Friday, August 23, 2013

States and Nations 3.0: Global Empire

The empire is dead. Long live the empire.

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

Rule From Imbalance

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

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

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

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

Rule From Above and Within

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

What would be the near future equivalents?

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

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

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

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

Rule and Division 

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

Among these are

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

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

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

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

Next up: Global democracy and bio-nano collectives

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Other Places: The Normandy

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

Via Kotaku

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 19, 2013

3D printing failures

BBC News - 3D printing failures shared online:

'via Blog this'

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

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

World's first lab-grown burger

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

'via Blog this'

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The War


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

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

A Different Narrative 

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

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

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

A Different Perspective 

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

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

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

Monday, August 05, 2013

That most insular of cortices

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

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

More Accurately Put

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

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

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

Disgustingly So

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

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

Getting Social 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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