Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The year in music | 2014

Electronica and ambient is to my generation of music geeks what serious jazz was to our predecessors. The post-rock, post-pop, post-alt music of a non-mainstream adulthood.

My favorite discovery of the year: Christian Löffler, via Questionable Content author Jeph Jacques.

In particular, Löffler's Young Alaska. A sublime standout, even in a year that saw an unusual number of artists mixing energy and subtly in the same tracks.

Not that there wasn't rock. My favorite tracks in that genre are found in the absurdly awesome adult vampire romance, Only Lovers Left Alive. Which you should watch late on a quiet Saturday night. At least four or five times each year. Preferably with someone smart, lovely, and eternal by your side.

I somehow missed Broken Social Scene's Forgiveness Rock when it came out in 2009. An album which, well, rocks on multiple levels and tempos.

When embedding here on the blag, I try to stick with videos posted by the bands or music labels, and which are made available for sharing. However, the official one below is crap as far as sound quality. A much better copy can be found here. One that will let you know why you should buy the track if not the album.

As much as I try to avoid the stagnation of nostalgia, I did give into Pearl Jam this summer. A happy reminder of a decade proudly misspent wandering the high country of the Sierra Nevadas or bouncing around the world under arms.

Electronic swing. It was a thing this year. An update of the drive and sophistication of a mid 20th century American sound.

The darkest sound of the year came in Kangding Ray's Solens Arc. Gothic-cyberpunk.

The brightest was found in Lone's Reality Testing.

The most complex and evolving tracks were those of Andy Stott's Faith in Strangers.

I came across an amazing psych-rock track early in the year while knocking about the the interwebz one rainy morning. Somehow cheerful and ethereal, which had appropriately enough been used to help eulogize an insanely talented young creative who worked in kinetic sculptures, robots, and puppetry. A woman who died way too young in an accident last year while hiking in the mountains near her home in Colorado.

Creative Compulsive Disorder & Remembering Zina Nicole Lahr from Stormy Pyeatte on Vimeo.

It was a good years in music. And an amazingly productive one for me. One in which writing and other applied arts turned into a decent-paying profession. One that mixes content creation with software and library management skills. Along with more travel in the coming twelve months, what I'm most looking forward to is putting a whole lot more time into genre writing, and scoring more publications in science fiction and, maybe, possibly, with a fantasy title.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Choices for rent | Thought experiment

The Three Breakthroughs That Have Finally Unleashed AI on the World | WIRED:

'via Blog this'

Continued from: Choices for rent

This is a bit of a Gedankenexperiment concerning the nature of technological revolutions and the future of employment.

You find yourself in Great Britain sometime in the mid 1800s. You're trying to explain the concept of what a computer game developer does to a soot-faced miner fresh from the coal pits. You're doing this because the miner has asked about his descendants. In the present, your point of origin, that would be his great, great, great grandson, the developer.

Can you pull it off? Not just tell him what a computer game is, but get the miner to understand what a game developer does? Just how many basic concepts do you need to convey to do that? How many ideas underlie what a computer is, what people use them for, and what a first person shooter or real time strategy game is, let alone the generalities of how someone actually makes a living working with software abstractactions that are almost theological in their degree of removal from the physical world.

How many conversations would this take? How many digressions into related topics such as, electricity, simulations, and programming languages? What about the very nature of a society that supports gamers and developers? Imagine explaining to the miner that ordinary workers in 2015 have a dozen or more hours of potential leisure time each week. Could you convince a man who works twelve-hour days for months at a time that this is true?

Bear in mind you're trying convey all of this to an inquisitive, but unlettered individual who started his working life as a farmer laboring in fresh air under the open sky. Who, like so many others, now lives in a squalid tenement and works in a uniquely claustrophobic hell beneath the earth. All to provide fuel to factories that are slowly transforming every aspect of life, from clothing, food, the nature of work, gender relations, education, and the practice of religious faith. This change includes the famous "annihilation of space" brought about by the coming of rail roads and telegraphs.

Between this miner and his great, great, great grandson in present day East London -- the descendant downing espressos at his ergonomic workstation in a climate-controlled office -- lie almost two centuries of transformations. Radical social movements, cataclysmic wars of staggering size, European colonial imperialism, regulatory implementation, labor reform, and the emergence of weapons of mass destruction poised on a hair-trigger alert that continually threaten humanity's existence for half a century.

The Event Horizon of Futurism?

Now imagine you're in an East London cafe having coffee with the game developer's great, great granddaughter who's traveled back from 2215. Gratified by your enthusiasm for relating her family's history, she is patiently trying to describe the basic concepts underlying her work in a field that doesn't exist yet by your frame of reference. Employment and a mode of labor that depend on the emergence of industries founded on scientific and engineering concepts yet to be formulated. 

What kind of new mode of employment? Maybe something like machine-mediated periods of lucid dreaming that allow her to create efficient and intuitive data architectures for whole bodies of knowledge, any one of which dwarfs the sum total of all accumulated human knowledge in our present. That, and she can create a complete set of such functional structures in the course of a single work week. 

Or maybe working with data on a scale that beggars our imagination falls woefully short of what she actually does. Perhaps she deliberately dream-generates libraries of novel space-times. The differences between these continua create forms of information potentials, the uses of which are beyond the ability of un-enhanced baseline humanity to comprehend, let alone work with.

Between her time and yours are vast social upheavals and wholesale transformations in the way people and machines conceptualize the world. 

All the same, her work is ultimately is rooted in your now. In the present day emergence of cloud-based practical AI routines that inject pattern recognition, language-parsing, deductive reasoning, and advanced machine learning into consumer apps and enterprise applications. In the emergence of mobile computing in platforms like smartphones, which in just a few decades will each possess processing power and memory equivalent to that of a human brain.

It'd hardly come as a surprise if your visitor from the future described how these developments go on to destroy employment as you know it. Then remake it after decades of chronic 1800s-style depressions, recessions and mass un- or under employment.

Sadly, the descendant of the game developer is fictional, at least for the time being. Likewise, the future reality of her employment is likely beyond our ability to make accurate predictions about. 

So maybe we can sketch the broad outlines of the future of work, twenty or thirty year ahead, instead. Just like our miner would have a much better chance of imagining Britain somewhat accurately circa 1880 rather than 2015.

Continued in: Choices for rent | Centaur symbiosis

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Space cocaine

Or maybe the video game equivalent of meth for someone like me. Either way, something I'll binge on for two or three weeks during the dark and rainy month of January here in the Pacific Northwest.

Then delete. Otherwise I will never write anything again.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book review: The Court of the Red Tzar

It’s hard not to go numb when reading almost any history of the Soviet Union from the 1920s to the 1950s. The number of atrocities famously curves upward from the level of human suffering into emotionless numbers. Montefiore’s eminently well researched, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tzar, avoids inflicting such a loss of feeling by staying focused on individual and familial tragedy.

What makes this work of popular history so compelling is that the personal intrigues, birthday parties, denunciations, weddings, disappearances, evenings of cinema, torture, and ever-increasing fear or debauchery, all play out in the small but cliquish circle of families who ruled the Soviet Union during its darkest years. Then there is the fragmenting humanity of the man who dominates them all. As they rise in power, fall into exile or prison, are 'rehabilitated', or meet with the executioner’s bullet, none of the magnates, children, wives, or extended families of the Kremlin can escape the shadow of a loving father and bereaved widower already steeped in the blood of ten million Soviet citizens by the time Hitler sets the Holocaust in motion.


When I was younger, Hitler was my personal embodiment of evil. "Never again!" seemed like a goal that was both achievable and of dire importance in the aftermath of a catastrophe as unique as the Holocaust. Later, as I traveled the world and studied history, it became apparent that there were a handful of other totalitarian 20th century rulers who had matched or rivaled Hitler in number of tragedies inflicted. He was just the one that we focused on in the West.

At present, the rise of a new set of totalitarian autocrats may seem like a remote possibility. We've almost immunized our cultures against another Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot. We've enshrined Orwell, and popular entertainment feeds us a steady diet of fictional dystopias featuring oligarchs armed with sweeping propaganda apparatuses and panoptic surveillance technologies. There's a reason the Snowden revelations touched such a raw nerve here in the US. Sixty years of film and novels have implanted a deep aversion to unchecked state-surveillance.

At the same time, so many have forgotten the origins of the ideologies that gave rise to totalitarian rulers on both the extreme right and left. Communism at its heart was a reaction to the upheavals of industrialization. The economic transformations that forced millions of farmers from their homes into decades of urban poverty, malnutrition, and lifestyles alien to those of the small, family-oriented communities they'd left behind. Nazism and Fascism were the far right answers. Blood drenched responses to communism, and radical attempts to tame the instability of industrial economies.

So it's worth our while to look back. Then glance around to see if anything looks uncomfortably familiar as a new wave of technologies challenges our societies in the here and now.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Music for writing

Mostly for editing, actually, when working on both technical literature and genre material.

For either undertaking, Loscil's new album Sea Island is as close to an ideal background music as I've come across. Sublime, but with enough evolving structure to stimulate. An ambient equivalent of good espresso.

Along with "Bleeding Ink" other favorite tracks are:

Strangely enough, I do find myself favoring different musical genres depending on if it's applied or literary art that I'm working on. I seem to listen to more bebop, jazz-electronica, and classical while engaged in the various tasks of technical writing: editing text, illustrating, editing photos, consolidating interview notes, reviewing wiring diagrams for lines of functionality, and so on. Science fiction and fantasy are more frequently accompanied by pure electronica, ambient, and film or series soundtracks. 

Though not quite so much when it comes to actually writing new text. For creation in either field, silence is best. 



"More often than not," he mumbled, listening to "Angel of Loll" for the fourth time as he wrote this post.  

Monday, December 01, 2014

Choices for rent

The Three Breakthroughs That Have Finally Unleashed AI on the World | WIRED:

'via Blog this'

Wired has a thought-provoking article posted about practical artificial intelligence and its applications -- one written by founder and long-time senior editor, Kevin Kelly. 

The main thrust is that practical artificial intelligence has reached an emergence point. Several maturing software technologies are converging, allowing pattern recognition, language-parsing, deductive reasoning, and machine learning functions to be add to consumer and enterprise applications. 

A new generation of AI enhanced applications are drawing serious seed and Series A funding in Silicon Valley.

Interestingly, the new AI is not a big box, single-engine program or specialized hardware platform. Instead, IBM and others are offering its functions as scalable cloud utilities. Rent or buy and infuse as much of these capabilities into your processing as you need.

I suspect the mega hit application that really sells this practical multi-threaded cloud AI is probably one that we can’t predict at this time. If I had to bet, though, my wager would be that the first majorly profitable application will be in enabling software to interact with people through natural language. Something along the lines of conversationally asking a search engine via phone for a list of local coffee shops with high ratings, the hours and location of the best sounding one, and real time directions -- all without glancing at the screen or resorting to commands. 

Or, to put it differently and drag a related field of hardware and software into the mix: The ultimate in augmented reality is probably an AI-enabled hands-free audio interface that allows users to operate with a minimum of distraction or invested focus during life’s daily tasks. Ask questions, get answers, and develop any further lines of inquiry conversationally. Hopefully with software that can anticipate relevant complications.

As an aside, I suspect that the most common civilian uses of visual augmented reality will probably be for sit down problems that demand a high degree of focus and persistently displayed information.

So that’s the pragmatics of what's kept me fascinated with this article. Much of it has been bouncing around as individual threads in software development circles for some time. Kelly, however, does a solid job of synthesizing some of the major elements and thinking about where they might go taken as a whole.  

Not that it also doesn't have any application in writing speculative fiction or anything…

Next Up: Choices for Rent | Thought experiment 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Wanderers - exploring the solar system

The most visually striking depiction of exploring and settling our solar system that I've come across. That, and the voice-over by Carl Sagan, who was pretty much the voice of space exploration here in the US when I was a child, is sublime.

Wanderers - a short film by Erik Wernquist from Erik Wernquist on Vimeo.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Awesome ISS footage

Two minutes, fifty seconds of mind-numbingly awesome HD footage shot off the International Space Station. That, and set to dub step.

Astronaut - A journey to space from Guillaume JUIN on Vimeo.

via Spoild

Image compilation by Guillaume Juin. The music is "Astronaut", by Vincent Ton.

Fall In Portland

I'm presently rereading Karin Armstrong's A History of God. A fantastic comperative text that describes the evolution of one of the most important components of human thought: The various concepts of god.

An interesting topic in part, because naturally there are some very divergent ideas that have emerged in historic time about of the ultimate being or chain of being. These ideas are often more complex and nuanced than commonly depicted in popular secular and mainstream religious sources. Especially when getting into to what degree humans can apprehend an elevated reality believed to predate the universe. That, and the sheer impact of these ideas in shaping one of humanity's major family of paradigms.

More on this thread in the evolution of our species' worldviews later.  In the meanwhile fall. One of my favorite times for wandering my lovely city with camera in hand.

The Goose Hollow Inn: A neighborhood institution and haunt of the pre-hipster middle class. Because a post about Portland wouldn't be complete without mentioning hipsters.


The mast of the old heavy cruiser USS Portland. One of the US Navy's most decorated vessels from the Pacific theater during World War II.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Developing military technologies: An aside

One of the specific what-ifs in the previous "Developing Military Technologies" article looks like it's becoming a real possibility. British Aerospace Engineering is apparently pushing a rail gun to replace the chain fed auto cannon on the US Army's Bradly Fighting Vehicle.

Railgun pitched for Army upgrade to Bradley Fighting Vehicle - Washington Times:

'via Blog this'

As an aside, there's also a video showcasing a DARPA agility concept armored vehicle that was drawing a lot of verbiage from online pundits a few weeks back. The video, and a lot of that commentary, have annoyed the hell out of me.

Dodging or blocking a slow-moving RPG round traveling at a hundred or so meters per second? Possible, I suppose. As long as the crew has some great seats to absorb the whiplash.

Dodging a tank main gun shot based on detection of the round in flight? Or even the light flare from the muzzle flash. Are you people fucking high? Seriously, that's a projectile moving at close to Mach 5 in some instances.

Good luck with it, I suppose. And with not turning your vehicle crew into jelly while trying to accelerate fast enough to get out of the way on any axis.

But that's all minor stuff. What really bugs me is the is the following graphic that accompanied the video:

I mean, but damn. Have the people who came up with this spent anytime around actual armor units? Probably not. Use of terrain for cover and concealment, not sky-lining the vehicle by moving over ridge lines, making use of hull down positions and camouflage, and moderating speed and engine noise, have all been part of the tanker's bag of tricks to "avoid detection" since at least World War II.

Likewise when it comes to avoiding engagement. Armor crews have been seeking to slip around unnecessary fights or unfavorable conditions by making use of one of the tank's best features for well over half a century. Namely that of mobility. Often that has taken the form of bypassing enemy defenses or units by choosing unlikely avenues of approach. Risky avenues that may even be constricted, but which provide concealment from prying eyes and even ears so long as the vehicles are traveling slowly and deliberately. It's dangerous, but it's also allowed armor units to emerge into an enemy's rear or flank with little if any warning.

Then of course there's the use of speed to sweep around an opponent in open country.

Tank and armored reconnaissance units can be almost fluid in their movement, flowing around terrain low and slow or rushing low and fast until the right moment.

Anywho, perhaps DARPA is intending to automate some of these actions much the way that stealth technology automates some functions of an aircraft's avoidance detection. If they are, I'm not seeing how. Or at least any realistic how.

Also, it's worth noting that the trend for armored vehicles in urban combat has been towards heavier, rather than lighter. Mainly because as the Russians, Israelis, and US have rediscovered, avoiding everything from detection to taking hits is much, much harder for vehicles in constricted urban environments. Hence the Russian and Israeli armies' adaptation of tank chassis for use as survivable infantry APCs, and the uparmoring of US vehicles in Iraq this last decade.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Augmenting free will

How new brain implants can boost free will – Walter Glannon – Aeon:

'via Blog this'

Aeon magazine has an interesting article up, which discusses a brain implant technology that restores normal decision-making capabilities to individuals with degenerative conditions such as, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. The piece then goes on to speculate about the possibility of future implants "that can boost free will" in healthy individuals.

Short and very much worth the read.

My pick of enhancements for augmenting the cognitive wetware of human volition goes as follows:

Attention augmentation. The brain has several mechanisms of neuron arousal and desensitization that underlie our ability to focus in on one phenomenon out of many. That, and pay attention for a limited duration before losing interest. There are also structural features that play a role in this such as, essentially firewalling the decision-making prefrontal cortex so that only the most urgent neuron firing patterns elsewhere in the brain can engage with it. Boosting the ability to delay loss of interest in an activity or subject would give individuals a greater control over the content of their thoughts. The same would go for an artificial ability to focus intensely for superhuman durations.

Enhanced awareness. The brain generates varying grades of awareness. On the low end there is awake but incoherent. On the other, a heightened mindfulness of surroundings and immediate potential consequences found in performance artists, rescue works, soldiers, and some meditation practitioners. Being able to invoke mindfulness or hyper clarity on command could be interesting. That, or the narrow attention-to-detail of unthinking mechanical task engagement. Even more interesting, enabling simultaneous mindfulness and the kind of task-focus level that normally excludes awareness of one’s surroundings and the passage of time.

Improved working memory. Working memory is in many ways the RAM of the brain, though with several elements. Those include a phonological loop that holds small amounts of audio information and a kind of sketch pad in the visual cortex. Also, varying degrees of ability to quickly call up salient facts and personal experience from the semantic and autobiographical sub-systems of conscious memory. Plenty of room here for interesting tweaks and mods leading to improved decision making.

Enhanced emotion control. The brain has its various arousal and reward networks, such as, the dopamine feedback channel. These can and do go awry. Sometimes disastrously so. Implant technology has already come a long way in restoring mood stability for people with severe issues like clinical depression. For healthy individuals, an increased indirect or a novel direct control over these systems could grant a much more immediate ability to govern emotional responses. Something beyond the traditional means of consciously constructing a contrary perspective to modify a strong or persistent emotional reaction. Enhanced control over the very feelings that drive us to make decisions could prove to be a very popular technology. One with all sorts of potential benefits and pitfalls depending on the app.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Short film: Inspirational

An spectacular short commissioned by the European Space Agency to mark the Rosetta Probe's meeting with comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

I have to admit that I'm a bit bummed out. The trailer for this piece had me thinking that it was for a full-length far future nano-tech drama. Still, it's the most awesome short done by a space agency since NASA's 2012 "7 Minutes of Terror"

Also, very much looking forward to Interstellar. There are early 35mm film screenings in one of Portland's artsy, old-school 1920s theaters. Yeah, I'll most definitely be there for one of them.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Short Film: Tragic

Sad, but well put together short science fiction by Jason Ho. Somewhat along the lines of Luke Scott's Bladerunner-esque Loom 4K.

Into Dusk - Short Film from Jason Ho on Vimeo.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Developing technologies in the military sphere: II

Continuing on with hypersonics: Rail guns are one of several technologies that look likely to debut on near future battlefields. Magnetic acccelerators firing projectiles at speeds greater than five times that of sound, along with hypersonic missiles, hold transformative possibilities. Among these is the potential to blur the line between air-defense and ground-to-ground direct fire weapons for land warfare platforms.

A vehicle carrying the railgun equivalent of a 25mm chaingun could not only hit other ground platforms at ranges and with striking power well in excess of current rounds, but also engage air targets at ranges and altitudes well beyond those of present day air-defense guns, if equipped with a suitable fire control system. The same is true of vehicles carrying hypersonic missiles. An unguided line of sight air-breathing or rocket-powered hypersonic missile would outrace any current main gun tank round or air-defense artillery cannon shot. It could be both targeted at an aircraft or fired at armored vehicles like a tank cannon.

With main gun and chain gun shoot downs of Iraqi helicopters reported by US Abrams tanks and Bradly fighting vehicle crews going back to the 1991 Gulf War, this isn't something entirely new. Still, in the near future even fast movers at high altitudes might find themselves under fire from rail guns and hypersonic anti-tank missiles on just about every armor platform. Additionally, if the missiles have some guidance and maneuvering capability, a ground vehicle with multiple launch capability could theoretically target and simultaneously fire on several ground and air vehicles at the same time.

Why would guidance be in doubt? Maneuvering at hypersonic is difficult in the sense of it being tricky to not shred the vehicle. Turning at those speeds involves tremendous forces. Imagine air as the fluid medium equivalent of liquid concrete. Especially for weapons traveling at around Mach 10.

It's likely that tactical hypersonic missiles might preform leading course corrections to compensate for a target's movement during the early seconds or fraction of a second of acceleration, then fly straight on an interception course. If that seems like an unlikely arraignment because of lag time, remember that we're looking at missiles that will fly faster, possibly even twice as fast as current bullets or even main gun tank rounds.


Currently there are hypersonic missiles that can put explosive warheads anywhere in the world within thirty minutes. Their use would be devastating in the opening hour of a war, destroying military airfields, naval ports, and command and control centers, as well as actively tracked warships. Additionally, since these are missiles with near orbital speeds and steep warhead descent paths, they'd be difficult to successfully engage for almost all current air-defense systems.

In present day conflict most combatants would find them all but unstoppable.

The main drawback to the use of these missiles is that they're all ICBMs. Even if their nuclear payloads were swapped out for conventional warheads, any nation with a missile tacking capability would not be able to tell if the ballistic packages arcing were nuclear or not. Faced with the possibility of mass casualties, national annihilation, or being rendered helpless on the global stage, they might not be willing to wait for confirmation before launching a nuclear response.

Complicating the use of ICBMs as conventional global strike delivery vehicles, the shortest flight paths are generally over the poles for any conflict involving the United States. Which means passing over Russia -- a country that could be touchy to say the least if it spotted a system built for nuclear warfare in use. In a purely Eurasian conflict the arcs of ICBM or long distance ballistic missile flight paths traveling from their launch point to target would almost certainly pass over countries who might respond in kind, unable to be entirely certain who the ultimate intended recipient is.

Some of the current set of hypersonic strike vehicles under development by China, India, and the United States are more akin to cruise missiles than traditional ballistic missiles. Vehicles with a near global, or at least transoceanic reach that hit targets nearly on the far side of the world less than an hour after launch, with the ability to make multiple course corrections while underway.

Hypersonic is the New Stealth 

The above is a tagline or summation I've come across in several articles and discussions about hypersonic weaponry. That in the near future hypersonic will have the kind of transformative impact, that stealth aircraft have had one modern war. Which is actually kind of a crap comparison. Why? Because stealth in combat has largely been limited to a handful of US platforms used against Iraq and Serbia during the 1990s. And almost entirely against a small set of high-value targets. For the most part the evolution of aerial warfare has been dominated by improved targeting and bomb guidance systems at a time when optically and radar-guided air-defense cannon systems and a proliferation of handheld systems pushed ground attack craft up above 10,000 feet (3048 meters).

On the other hand there is something instructive about the comparison taken at another level. The sheer speed of hypersonic weaponry may render them difficult to acquire for engage. The American SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft possessed a combination of speed, low radar cross section, and operational altitude that made it untouchable, even after the Soviet Union began fielding systems designed to shoot it down.

Hyerpsonic global strike vehicles as currently conceived would be well beyond the ability of current air-defense systems to engage, let alone alone destroy. Traveling faster than than any current direct fire cannon round, they'd offer only a the narrowest of interception windows -- assuming the ground or air stations detect the missiles far enough out to successfully acquire and fire on.

Hypersonic as Peer Technology and Destabilizing Force

In another fifteen or twenty years hypersonic may be the dominant force in strike technology, with unmanned missiles and mach 5+ delivery drones filling the niche currently occupied by bombers. carrier-based aircraft, and medium to short-ranged ballistic missiles. Mounting an effective defense will require a panoply of hypersonic air-defense systems along with a new generation of sensor systems capable of finding and targeting those weapons. Nations without the tech will essentially be as vulnerable to devastating air strikes as most countries presently are to the US Air Force and Navy.

Or perhaps more so. At present use of the United States' combined air fleets against an opponent demands a large and impossible-to-hide mobilization. Even deploying a squadron-sized element to strike ISIL targets in Syria or movement to reinforce South Korea against threats from its belligerent brother to the north have proven impossible to conceal in a world of crowded air travel corridors and urban skies. On the other hand, hypersonic strike weapons could appear over the horizon with little to no notice thirty minutes after launch from another hemisphere, and moving so quick as to demand an automated response governed or even initiated by machines rather than people.

Combined with the instantaneous strike capabilities of cyberwarfare, peer competitor countries could find the technology both a useful tool and source of immense anxiety. One not limited by the fears that have so far governed the use of ICBMs as war-opening weapons system. The potential consequences of developing and deploying hypersonic strike vehicles is something that the present day powers and emerging powers should give much thought to. Especially during the 100th anniversary of World War I. An immensely tragic conflict started in large part by recognition on the part of belligerents that maturing rail road technology and new national mobilization requirements meant that any nation that hesitated in the face of an enemy movement to war could find themselves overwhelmed with a speed unthinkable less than a generation earlier.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Fall: Science fiction short films

Haunting. Well executed!

Somewhat slow off the mark, but interesting mid section.

Mis-drop by Ferand Peek from Ferand Peek on Vimeo.

Quantum horror story, by Tony Elliot of Orphan Black fame.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Oregon's science fiction landscape

During the mid-1950s a journalist named Frank Herbert flew to Florence, Oregon to conduct research for an article. His subject: the use of poverty grasses to control the drifting migration of sand dunes.

By the time he left Florence Herbert had developed a fascination with ecological engineering. An interest that would drive him to write one of the all time best-selling novels in science fiction.

I finally got around to reading the first three follow-on Dune novels this summer: Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, and God Emperor of Dune. They're good. Very good, even though they lack the depth of Dune itself.

Each mostly follows a conspiracy to its ruin or fulfillment over the course of weeks or a few months. Nothing as epic as the semi-mystical enlightenment, vast sweep of planetary engineering, and years-long dynastic conflicts that made the first novel such an experience. And nowhere near the level of intense character development that accompanied the rise of the Fremen messiah, Paul Mau'dib. Revisiting this series, I immediately saw why I had such a hard time finishing the relatively terse and dry Dune Messiah as a twenty-something

That said, the follow-on books pull off a mind-bending exploration of post-human entities writen decades before post-humanism became a staple of the genre. A journey-look that kept me fully engaged this time around, a few years down the road.

By the mid-1960s Herbert was well along in exploring the headspace of humans who sense and conceptualize the world in ways not accessible to most of their family members, let alone the masses they rule as semi-divine sovereigns -- or as an apex predator in the case of Leto. At the same time, these are characters who remain anchored in the human world, even though it's a cultural and biological space in which Paul, Alia, Ghanima, and Leto II experience enormous difficulty making their intentions understood.

These ruling Atreidies are products of genetic augmentation through a centuries-long breeding program. Though environmental factors including the spice melange and their upbringing as nobility play a role in the expression and mastery of their powers.

On the often lethal stage of intrigue and war they mostly contend with other orders of enhanced human intelligence. The Bene Gesserit remain powerful actors on the extreme edges of human potential thanks to their refined training regime with its synergies of mind and body. The Guildsmen, enhanced by both specialization mutations and constant spice ingestion, share something of the Atreidies' prescient abilities as well as the dangers that go hand-in-glove with oracular powers. However, they experience nothing of the complex internal communal lives that the pre-born twins and Alia struggle to master. At the same time the trained superhuman empathy of the Facedancers makes the Teliaxians more dangerous to the other factions than even their shape shifting or advanced biotechnology. The only rivals to all of these enhanced or post-humans are technologists who are largely kept off screen and bounded by legalistic restrictions during the first four books.

It's this tense ecology of trans-, post-, and training-enhanced human intelligences that helps make the Dune universe such an exotic and high-concept place.

The three follow-on novels are very much worth your time if you're interested in byzantine politics, the viewpoints of post-humans living among humans, or just seeing what becomes of the Atreidies dynasty over the course of three thousand years. The biggest letdown, for me, is that the elite female adepts of the great schools and the post-human women of the Atreidies all end up foils for their male counterparts.

The novels are most definitely products of their time in that they ascribe several character traits and viewpoints to inherent differences between the sexes.

There are, in fact, some consistent differences between the sexes that we've zeroed in on over the fifty years since Dune was published. However, these are almost all subtle, exist largely on the borders of statistical significance, are often counter-intuitive. They're also best understood within an even larger spectrum of biology and culture that doesn't match up with the cultural assumptions that underlay the system of superhuman powers and military structure in the Dune novels. In God Emperor, Herbert's exploration of the differences between men and women in military environments is driven far more by Freudian psychology than historical militaries or anything found in biology.

All of that said, Frank Herbert was still a pioneer in the sheer amount of screen time and internal narration that he gives female characters. These books are, after all, 1960s and 70s science fiction novels. At that time women were often embodied ideals as seen by men in the pages of the genre, rather than actual characters whose perspective we get to inhabit. Herbert was well ahead of nearly all his peers in climbing that particular curve.

Even at a time when we've gone from seeing human nature as discrete poles to a spectrum with distributed probabilities, these novels are still well worth picking up. Largely because they offer a no-holds-barred glimpse of humanity as it might become, rather than what it was once thought to be.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Global entanglements

Those of us born between the end of World War II and the year 2000 grew up in what was probably one of the most peaceful periods of human history. That might sound like a gross oversight given some of the genuinely horrific events of those fifty plus years. After all, the best we can hope for is that the depredations of Mao killed only 30 million citizens of the People's Republic of China during the late 1950s. The separation of India and Pakistan set off waves of forced human displacement on a scale that dwarfed the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s in Eastern Europe and Africa. While the Cold War remained frozen in a tense deadlock in Europe for nearly four decades, clashes elsewhere between Soviet- and US-backed states or forces claimed the lives of millions in developing countries.

In the aftermath of the second world war there was much ongoing bloodshed in a world deeply wounded by 19th century imperialism and which continued to be wracked by conflicts spawned from Europe's totalitarian ideologies. Yet compared to the two centuries that preceded it, the Post War Era was considerably more peaceful. There were no direct wars between the great and superpower states, aside from short and clashes along borders, such as those between China and the Soviet Union during the late 60s. De-colonization reached its conclusion, and nothing remotely approaching the scale or intensity of 19th century imperialism took its place. Perhaps most importantly we not only avoided a third world war, but the intensity of wars dropped off.

The overall frequency of wars killing more people than present day traffic accidents has gone down dramatically following the end of World War II. In an even longer view, conflicts between nation-states during this period took place at a rate far lower than those occurring between early states, chieftainships, ancient empires, and tribal societies throughout much of the world.

This is certainly not a universally accepted thesis. Especially among those who view US participation in the Cold War and it's more recent military involvements abroad as crypto- or not-so-crypto imperialism. Others make an interesting argument that while the creation of modern bureaucratized states has lowered the frequency of war, it's also lead to a sharp rise in lethality of armed conflict when practiced by wealthier countries.

For me, an overall decline in human violence is an idea I feel largely comfortable accepting given the sheer scale of past wars and violent upheavals back when affected populations were vastly smaller. That, and when looking at the dramatic decline in homicides that accompanied the recent development of professional police forces. While far from complete, historic data, archaeological evidence, and (much more questionably) the paleo fossil record for humanity point toward a dramatic plunge in the number of deaths per 100,000 people attributable to war or peacetime murder.

Not coincidentally, a significant part of this decline took place in an age of unprecedented and deliberate global economic integration. This network of institutions and agreements was established by members of three generations who had paid an appalling human cost during two world wars, and who feared a possible dark age or even extinction level event that might accompany a third global conflagration.

Stringing the Loom

While the United Nations is the most visible and well-known diplomatic institution from that period, it was the cooperative monetary and trade agreements that did the most to enforce the peace between industrial, and more recently, post-industrial states. Primarily by deep entanglement via trade and making critical natural resources reliably available in international markets, rather than through the uncertainties of imperial maneuvering, conquest, and the small wars abroad that lead up to the cataclysm of World War I.

In this cooperative environment, European democracies with long histories of colonial rivalry and warring with one another as monarchies made it through the Post War Period and achieved a profound economic integration without armed conflict. At the same time, nations including Brazil, China, Ireland, Singapore, and South Korea successfully modernized, or at least brought modernization to large sections of their populations. With the collapse of the Soviet Union during the final decade of the period, the once widespread dread of World War III suddenly became almost quaint.

It's telling that instances of large-scale violence in the aftermath of the Cold War took place almost entirely in nations and failed states only loosely integrated into the global economy. The major exception was the 1991 war between Iraq and a coalition bent on preventing a major disruption to Persian Gulf oil supplies.

This successes of this system were not without their costs. During the 1950 and 60s open trade was a boon to the working class here in the United States, but the subsequent migration of industrial production overseas helped contribute to a long-term decline in blue collar wages and upward mobility. The movement of industry from democracies with strong environmental and workers rights regulations has also created environmental catastrophes in developing nations along with the re-emergence of sweat shop labor on scale not seen since the low points of the first industrial revolution during the 1800s.

It's also well worth noting that this cooperation and integration has been a driver for many of the economic activities and consumption patterns presently changing our planet's weather and oceans.

Wear, Tear, and Forgetfulness 

The Post War system of international cooperation that's helped keep the peace between major powers has been showing signs of fraying lately. In part from technological developments and deregulation that have made the world so tightly integrated that vast sums of capital can now flow between nations and reside offshore beyond the ability of states to regulate or effectively control. Some of the great powers have also recently staked open or apparent claims to ocean and land territories outside their borders, well beyond anything recognized under international law or tradition. This is taking place at time when cyberwarfare weapons allow states to hit each others' financial systems and national infrastructure with little warning and varying degrees of deniability. That, and to strike across distances that previously formed effective barriers to conflict.

Even more worrisome, the generations able to recall firsthand the devastation of great power warfare have largely passed away.

Just as depressing, in the West the economic institutions and agreements that made much of the current prosperity and peace possible have come under sustained fire from both sides of the political spectrum. The far right and even members of the moderate right often see voluntary international institutions as violations of national sovereignty, or even part of a sinister conspiracy against their homelands. Members of the present day left in Europe and North America often deride the mid 20th-century treaties and institutions of economic cooperation as extensions of the very imperialism they were meant to help end. There's certainly a wide lack of recognition on that side the political aisle here in the US that it was earlier generations of statesmen and activists largely on the left who were the proponents and architects of the international cooperative system.

At this point it's too early to pronounce the system in terminal or even steep decline. At the same time, a widespread failure of popular imagination around the world to compare the stability of Post War economic cooperation with the chronic warfare and financial upheaval that proceeded it is deeply worrying. However cliche it might sound, people who fail to look to the past risk the tragedy of repeating its worst episodes.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Terraforming robots

Abiogenesis (Short Film) from Richard Mans on Vimeo.

I need to step up my game when looking for science fiction shorts on the internet. This is twice in the past two weeks that I09 beat me to one.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Three technologies in the military sphere

Three technologies have been making headlines in defense circles, all of which hold the possibility of significantly impacting how we fight wars.


First up, old-school kinetics. Weapons that shoot faster, farther, and hit harder. Or in this case, vastly harder, at much longer ranges, and with speeds that put these systems in a category of their own. 

Hypersonic is a blanket term covering a number of weapons ranging from magnetic accelerators to air-breathing and rocket powered missiles. What these have in common is exceeding Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound) for nearly the entire duration of munition flight time. Much or all of the associated damage from these systems comes from the sheer kinetic energy imparted into the targets.

Enough energy in some cases to set fire to metal.

The US Navy will be conducting at sea trials in the near future.

In science fiction, rail guns have been largely depicted as slightly longer-ranged cannons. Hypersonic missiles and the effects of their speed on shaping battle spaces have been largely absent.

One of the most likely near-term real world applications of accelerator technology is as defensive weapons to shoot down incoming missiles and indirect fire projectiles such as, artillery shells. Where present day point defense weapon systems are essentially point blank in range, defense accelerators on naval vessels hold a very real potential to extend the envelope for accurate defensive fires to the horizon. An inbound missile or shell tracked by a radar or even sufficiently advanced optical network can come under sustained fire the moment it clears the curve of the Earth.

Currently, sustained shoot down attempts only take place during the terminal seconds of a weapon's flight.

Additionally, a rail gun round can reach the horizon traveling near the velocity it departed the weapon muzzle at. This, where standard chemical projectiles move with significantly decreased velocity at much shorter ranges. That drop in speed necessitate an arced flight path to get as much range as possible. Such an arc exposes conventional rounds to all sorts possible of disturbances. Rail gun projectiles by contrast have a nearly flat flight path, which increases accuracy through both reduced deviations and simplified targeting.

Likewise, rail guns could make air-defense artillery a significantly more lethal threat to manned and unmanned aircraft with the ability to accurately and nearly instantly engage high flying targets. For the first time since smart bombs allowed bombers and fighters to nail targets from above 3,000 meters, air-defense cannons may once again become a significant factor in shaping the battle space.

On the offense side of the equation, naval rail gun artillery is poised to extend the range of wet bombardment platforms farther inland when used for indirect fires. With significantly a higher rate of fire than conventional artillery, a rail gun-equipped cruiser could lay down the kind of firepower associated with battleships on inland targets well outside the historical reach of naval warfare units.

Meanwhile, accelerators and hypersonic missiles mounted on ground vehicle could end up blurring or erasing the distinction between anti-armor and anti-aircraft weapons.

Next up: Hypersonic missiles and supper capacitors. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mid year science / science ficiton shorts

The cutest science fiction short film of the year so far.

Orbitas | by PrimerFrame from PrimerFrame on Vimeo.

Also, a rather beautiful motion capture study of Olympians. Highly abstracted.

Citius, Altius, Fortius from Felix Deimann on Vimeo.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Music states

For those interested, what I'm listening to this summer. Or at least the bands whose labels have OFFICIAL YouTube pages with sharing and embedding enabled.

I shouldn't like Metric's Synthetica. It doesn't fit within my normal spectrum of taste states. Also, not a big fan of synth-inflected pop, but...

But it's brilliantly constructed with amazing lyrics and energy appropriate to summer.

Pairs-based Lebanese singer and songwriter Yasmine Hamdan. I've been a listener since seeing her in Only Lovers Left Alive. Particularly for sounds slow and intense.

Jolie Holland's "Dark Days" from this year's Wine Dark Sea. Yes, it is in fact darkly dark. But also fun, riding as it does on Holland's throaty vocals, building power, and warm, complex sound. So there.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Audio hallucinations and loving machines

Two articles got me thinking about human nature and its future this week.

Stanford researcher: Hallucinatory 'voices' shaped by local culture:

'via Blog this'

One is a Stanford News piece covering a recent study's findings about the influence of culture on the expression of schizophrenia. Namely an anthropologist's take on how the hallucinatory voices are perceived by schizophrenics in differing societal contexts. Professor Tanya Luhrmann's interpretation of her data is that in individualist cultures the voices are more likely to be experienced as hostile or as deficits. Those with the illness in more collectivist societies have a better chance of interpreting the voices as friendly and as aspect of the world.

First, the normal disclaimer. As a rule of thumb, it's best to wait for three studies done by three teams at separate facilities to come to similar conclusions before declaring any set of findings "fact". Second, the sample populations in this study appear to have been very small. Also, the discussed definition for what constitutes individualist and collectivists societies is...broad. Calling western societies individualist is throwing a wide blanket over a group of cultures strung out rather than clustered on that spectrum.

To me, this study looks like an interesting start point. An inroad on the contextual presentations of schizophrenia that's deserving of a lot more follow up.

That said, I've always wondered if it was easier to be schizophrenic, or at least more accepted, when the voices were often seen as aural manifestations of angels, demons, or saints. I've also suspected that it'd be even easier to deal with the audio hallucinations in animist cultures, where the dominant paradigms frequently imbue everything with the potential for voice and consciousness.

It's also amazing how period and technology specific the voices can be. While living in Scandinavia ten years ago, I spent quite a bit of time hanging around doctors in general and psychiatrists specifically. One of their more interesting observations was the hallucinatory universality of spy satellites, in particular CIA spy satellites, used to steal or read thoughts on both sides of the Atlantic.

Rather than individualist versus collective, I wonder if it's paradigm that's the stronger influence. An individual's broad worldview in the sense of technology base, religion type, general acceptance of the existence of clinical disorders of the mind, and more in that vein.

Assuming that the differences hold up with larger sample populations.

I also wonder if people might choose to cultivate useful forms of schizophrenia in the future, with implants and gene augmentation. To give literal voices to the various analytic functions of the brain.

How? One of the more intriguing hypotheses I've come across about the disease is that an individual's inner narrative voice is a composite of several analytical and simulation functions. Schizophrenia, in this model, is in part a timing error in which the inputs that make up the singular voice of the mind fall out of sync with one another. A lack of cohesion that we might eventually take deliberate advantage of to construct a new style of processing our world awareness with parallel internal narratives.

That said, it's been several years since I've encountered the voice timing hypothesis in a medical journal. I have no idea how or if it's held up in light of recent discoveries about networks in the brain, and our ongoing refinement of neuroanatomical functions.

Failing the Third Machine Age: When Robots Come for Grandma — The Message — Medium:

'via Blog this'

Robots as emotional caregivers and sources of solace?

That's actually something I've given a fair amount of thought to. Though for reasons other than those articulated by assistant University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci.

Where Tufekci is understandably concerned about the destruction of much needed medical and caregiver jobs and all the violent turmoil associated with past technological revolutions, I'm more worried on this issue that humans will quit or greatly reduce their socializing with one another.

Especially if the robots or software agents are kinder than people. Nicer and either capable of genuine emotion or a facsimile convincing enough for people to buy into.

Why? Because I've seen it happen with monkeys. Not monkeys and robots, but monkeys and humans.

Usually with juvenile and young adult rhesus macaques who became accustomed to socializing with people. Hanging out with the lab techs was all about the constant grooming opportunities, treats, and all those encouraging friendly noises (words) that humans tend to vocalize around monkeys they like. Life in the troop, on the other hand, was endless macaque infighting and politics. The sharp-edged conflicts over status, jockeying for position, and slapping down or humiliating those underneath to keep them in their place in the rhesus hierarchy.

That's not to say life in all troops was brutish. Leadership styles of the elites and combativeness within each culture varied. Still, it never looked fun at the bottom, and in some groups not even tolerable in the middle or at the top.

Monkeys acclimatized to human-levels of friendly interactions and lack of common social violence tended to do poorly when introduced back into a communal housing unit.

Not that human society is anything close to perfect. There are those who would almost certainly be healthier and more emotionally stable with loving machines rather than their squabbling fellow human primates. Still, I'd rather see technology help make us better social animals rather than seclude us from one another. The future of human augmentation, in my eyes, is as much about improved emotions as enhanced reasoning or augmented talents.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Beautiful Space Photos: Summer edition

Some of these were featured by NASA on Twitter earlier this year to celebrate the Academy Award nominations garnered by Gravity. Which, even with its shortcomings and lack of orbital mechanics realism, was an amazing film. Also, the first movie that truly benefited from being presented in 3D. Or at least it did for me. The technology gave the cinematography an edge and..well...depth that very much contributed to the sense of transport and wonder.

Also: Apollo photos to celebrate the 45th anniversary of humanity's first landing on another world.

Public domain, courtesy of NASA unless otherwise noted. 

For some lovely and colorful copyrighted images, check out the astrophotography website of Hungarian astronomer, Ivan Eder. Eder has produced some amazing shots of our solar system's various celestial bodies, as well as photos of the deep sky including nebula and galaxies. Very much worth your time.