Friday, May 30, 2014

Ghost in the Shell stills

The coolest thing on the internets this week. The just-for-fun, live-action recreation of thirty still shots, centered on the opening credits of the iconic OVA film: Ghost in the Shell.


The original Ghost is in my personal top five for most-influential science fiction films. The closest yet that anyone has come to capturing the spirit of William Gibson's Neruomancer. Only in an espionage setting with an emergent, rather than planned AI, and with themes of identity and personal evolution in place of a focus set solely on the advancement of software intelligences.

All the stills can be found on the website of artist and graphic designer Ash Thorp.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The things they left behind

"There is a mystery in that also. How did the anonymous millions, indistinguishably drab, deprived of any scrap of the glories that by tradition made the life of the man-at-arms tolerable, find the resolution to sustain the struggle and to believe in its purpose? That they did is one of the undeniabilities of the Great War. Comradeship flourished in the earthwork cities of the Western and Eastern Fronts, bound strangers into the closest brotherhood, elevated loyalties created within the ethos of temporary regimentaility to the status of life-and-death blood ties. Men whom the trenches cast into intimacy entered into the bonds of mutual dependency and sacrifice of self stronger than any of the friendships made in peace and better times. That is the ultimate mystery of the First World War. If we could understand its loves, as well as its hates, we would be nearer understanding the mystery of human life."

~John Keegan, The First World War

One of the better monologues on the subject of war and its effects on those who fight it, and why some of them miss combat, despite how awful the experience can be.

Oregon's memorial garden for its citizens who died in Vietnam. One of the most tranquil places in Portland.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Beautiful views from space: Live

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Astronauts and cosmonauts have talked about the sheer profundity of being there in space, and seeing the world as an immense, raw reality amid the backdrop of the cosmos. Apparently it's a vastly different point of view and than being walled off from the sight of eternity, and trapped in the narrow, sky-shrouded bowl that we call life on the surface of our home planet.

In that kind of mind space, up above the world as we know it, religious experiences have been unusually common.

I've always got one browser tab open and running the ISS Ustream. While I'm certain that it's nowhere near the same as being there,  I never get tried of taking breaks to see what the world looks like on the opposite side of the sky. And I suspect I never will.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the science performed on the ISS, the space station's time in orbit,  along with the flood of pictures from Mars and the outer solar system, and Hubble's view of the great beyond, have rekindled a love of spaceflight in the public. Most especially in the Millennials and the younger half of the GenX cohort. Space is suddenly cool in a way that I've never seen it in my lifetime.

If the above screen if grey or black, hop on over to the ISS view site and check out where the space station is. Black usually means its above the earth's night side, and an orbital sunrise will be coming up shortly.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Coastal stones and biome

A Friday diversion on the Oregon Coast, away from the keyboard and monitor for a little while.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Fast-moving human evolution

Oldest most complete, genetically intact human skeleton in New World -- ScienceDaily:

Credit, Sklmsta. Creative Commons License
One of the most interesting stories making the rounds this week is the retrieval and analysis of an approximately 12,000-year-old skull in a submerged cave on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. Two things make this fascinating. One, is that the intact DNA within the skull establishes it as a strong datum point for helping to confirm the origins of modern American Indians. The other is that it's a reminder that human biological evolution moves a lot faster than we used to assume.

Until recently the common assumption was that we hadn't evolved much during the Holocene era. In other words, since the end of the last major glaciation period around 10,000 years ago. However, gene analysis has kicked the legs out from under that hypothesis. While the African pygmies predate the Holocene by around 40,000 years, other forest-dwelling peoples around the world have similarly shrunk in stature since then. Gene variations that support survival at extreme altitudes have become common place in Andean, Ethiopian, and Tibetan populations, and Northern Europeans took on their paleness and fair hair, only very recently.

In the case of the Yucatan skull, the changes are largely cosmetic. The skull has the narrow facial structure associated with Paleo Americans - the oldest known inhabitants of North America. Some of those features are distinct from the features common to modern North American Indians, which has been a data point in the argument that the American Indian peoples are the descendants of a second wave of migration to the continent.

However, the unique lineage of mitochondrial DNA within the Yucatan skull is the same one carried by present day native peoples. Which makes a strong case that the Paleo Americans were both their ancestors and the only migrants to the New World at the dawn of the Holocene.

One skull is not conclusive, of course, but the well-preserved condition of both the genes and the cranium gives it a lot of weight. It also fits well within the current spectrum of archaeological and fossil evidence. It will be interesting to see if additional finds reveal further instances of Paelo bones with American Indian genes.

Public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia

The other recent and fascinating find about the oldest Americans is that Paleos themselves emerged as a group with distinctive features during thousands of years of isolation between North America and Asia, hemmed in by glaciers to the east and west. What we've long thought of as a land bridge between continents was in fact a vast region with its own biota, ecosystem, and pre-history. A homeland for a people, long since lost beneath the sea.

Now, that is a hell of an origin story!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

My Writing Process Blog Tour

Normally I don't go in for this kind of thing. Especially when it comes to discussing the craft of writing. But, a friend, genre writer, beta reader, and US Army cavalry brother, C.S. Nelson talked me into to participating in a blog tour.

What's a blog tour? It's one of those things that writers do, where we pass along a topic and a format from blog to blog, and create a hyperlinked chain of thoughts. In this case, it's a set of questions about writing.

Again, I'm usually adverse to this. In part because writing is a deadly boring business. Aspirants and fellow practitioners may love the ugly details, but few others share any interest. Friends and innocent readers who get caught in the conversational crossfire tend to glaze over eyes first the moment us keyboard pounders start holding forth on THE PROCESS or MY METHODS.

"And normally we go on and on with way too much enthusiasm, anger, and a scary amount of emotional investment," he said breathlessly, from not having taken a breath during several sentences worth of run on.

So, consider yourself forewarned as we veer away from our normal territory here on Consilience and head for the cliff.

What am I working on?

A sequel to a military science fiction thriller of mine that one of the big five science fiction publishers has been considering for about eighteen months now. That, and outlining a pair of short stories set in my "Lisa with Child" near future universe. And maybe something for the Baen's fantasy short story contest...

How does my work differ from other works in the genre?

Big picture ideas. Lots of them. And woven together in big conceptual packages. The kind of interlinked exploration of ideas in action that's been mostly absent from the navel-gazing funk that literary science fiction has descended into over the past twenty years. Also, my work isn't dark or depressing like many of the critically acclaimed SF novels of the most recent decade. There's understated determination and ideals pitted against the chaos and confusion of life in my stories. My characters are not always nice people, and certainly have their issues, but there are enough of them vested in trying to figure out the right thing, or at least the least messed up thing to do, that a fairly broad readership seem to empathize with them.

Also, lot's of realistic biotechnology based on what we've learned about the human body, brain, and nature over the past two decades. If "realistic" sends cringing shivers of incipient boredom down your spine, you probably haven't been looking around at recent developments. The things we've discovered about who and what we are on the cusp of culture and biology, and all the environmentally interactive biological processes that drive this, are strange, and at times alien, and utterly fascinating. Especially when looked at in the broader contexts of real world human evolution and history. There are so many story opportunities, dilemmas, character experiences, and oh-shit or fuck-that's-awesome moments going to waste right now.

Also, I write some amazing kinetic actions scenes!

Why do I write what I do?

I have a degree in history, and when I was an army cavalry (reconnaissance) scout I saw history inflicting itself on people in the Balkans during our peacekeeping period there. Also in Korea, as a massive famine played out on the other side of the border. A lot of those 1990s conflicts were part of the aftermath of the Cold War, which had been this huge life-and-death, future-of-the-planet conflict. One with root causes in some ill-considered responses to the social upheaval unleashed by the Industrial Revolution. Now we find ourselves in a new age of mounting societal unease. One in which the early stages of the information revolution are helping to destroy the old structures of employment along with the relative degree of equality in opportunity, wealth, and social mobility that we achieved during the late industrial period.

Then there are other revolutions I've glimpsed in the offing.

While working as lab tech, I saw monkeys up and running about not all that long after their spinal columns had been surgically damaged, and then given a regenerative treatment. And there was much, much more. We've got new revolutions in biotech and robotics descending on us even before we've felt the full impact of the information technology shift that's presently rocking the social and economic landscape beneath our feet.

Someone really should be taking a look at these huge changes. That, and floating some scenarios about what we might become or some of the approaches that we might take to meet these challenges, without falling back on the word "singularity." Or how we might fail to work things out, and then find our way back from a disaster.

Doing so would help expand science fiction beyond a very narrow and much-gone-over set of ideas about what we've failed to do in terms of gender and race relations in recent history. Or imperialism. Or some of the enormously simplistic, chest-beating works that complain about our cultural decline from a traditional utopia that never existed.

In other words, we could really use some educated, post-ideological science fiction at a time when sci fi is polarized, and very much vested in ideologies that formed back during the industrial era.

There seems to be very little casting about in the genre for how all this new information on genetics, neurology, computational biology, robotics, and a shifting economy might shatter our present worldviews and societies. Much as earlier discoveries did with traditional religious paradigms, before giving rise to new politics, updated religions, and new types of polities. Polities like monotheistic kingdoms rising out of animist tribes and chieftanships in Northern Europe. Or the deist Liberalism of the Enlightenment appearing to challenge old monarchist assumptions in Western Europe at a time when kingdoms were starting down the road to becoming nation-states. States in which religion was separated from the governance structure. Or the humanist transformation in Song China, as the international Silk Road trade and booming domestic mass production brought about big shifts in how city dwellers saw the world and humanity's place in it.

How does my writing process work?

It's gotten a lot more formalized over the past three years.

I used to wing it by cobbling together cool character interaction scenes and action sequences that occurred to me pell-mell. This worked after a fashion, but I also painted myself into a lot of plot corners trying to connect those moments. The struggle to get out of having boxed myself in with lots of implausible character choices often sucked the joy right out of several nights worth of writing.

Now I outline, then write a synopsis and character bios. After that, I review the preparatory material and write a timeline.

At first there wasn't a whole lot of fun in this. Aside from the character building and some setting notes, it felt like homework. However, the more times I've done it, the more I've come to enjoy the prep work. Writing the outline is still very much an act of storytelling. At the same time, it also frees me from all the immediate distractions of constructing a scene. That lets me focus on the overall story I'm tying to get across. Also, since I'm not trying to shoehorn characters into the next "awesome" scene that I imagined in isolation, there's a lot less pressure to impose unrealistic choices on them.

It's also turned out that the timeline, outline, and the character bios provide a lot of  inspiration for scenes that need to be written in order to make the plot happen. Both the oh cool stuff and the kind of minutia that comes from taking the time to think about the characters and their relationship with each other and the setting. That in turn lends itself to pulling off the kind of cinematic moments that generate plot tension and set up events one, or two, or three scenes down the road.

Over all it's a hell of a lot more holistic than the winging it approach. Of course, your mileage may vary, there's no disputing tastes, what works for me might not not float a boat for you.

Bouncing back

On a blog tour you're supposed to end by tagging others who will do the next round of posts. However, since as mentioned above, this isn't really my thing - and me being a rebel and all - I will redirect you back toward the awesome Mr. Nelson, who writes amazing characters, horror, and diesel punk. And whom I fully expect to find one day laughing atop Stephen King's grave as the next crown prince of dark mind-fuck cool stories.

Christopher S. Nelson

Texas native and Army Scout, C.S. Nelson lives in the high desert of Southern California where he carves his love of dark fiction into short stories and novels. Zombies, diesel mechs, witches, ghosts, prop fighters, and conspiracies. Anything goes as long as it can deliver a solid sucker punch and steal a kiss before the fight’s over.

Sergeant First Class Nelson has served two combat tours in Iraq, played rocket roulette with the insurgencies, and speaks enough EspaƱol, Hongul, and Deutsch to order take-out on two continents. His work has appeared in US- and Canadian-based e-zines and printed anthologies. He loves metal, jazz, swing, pop art, old cars, and anything Americana. He has an aversion to owls. Find him at:

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Immortality and its seasons

I have a new favorite vampire movie. One that nails everything that is cool and awesome about vampires.

Or at least all the things I find fascinating about biologically immortal beings.

What would it be like to live for centuries and keep your mental faculties? Would you use the time to take in all the world's art? Or not just observe, but also master an art form by devoting two or three lifetimes worth of practice and study? With that much accruing skill and the perspective of centuries, a person might be able to create works that surpasses everything that came before.

Or why not several arts, if we're talking hundreds of years? Or several fields of science and engineering and one of the humanities thrown in for context and good measure?

Today we're all specialists. We can know a decent amount about one field, but all most all of us quickly run into the upper limits of human memory, focus, and above all, time, when we try and go beyond that. There're damn good reasons for why there aren't many individuals who are physicist - medical doctor - cellist - mechanical engineers wandering around out there.

Then there's the tricky matter of feelings. You know, those experiential sensations rooted in our biological drives and body mapping, and which motivate us to do everything from getting out of bed to becoming a Nobel Laureate.

How would your emotions evolve absent the normal constraints of growth, maturation, and age-related decline? Could you still find meaningful engagement with the world and with other humans after a 120 years or more? Can your emotions adapt to an unnaturally long life, or they set to run a course of eighty or ninety years and then peter out? A truly long life could marked by episodic struggles to spark enough new passion to stay invested in not kicking off the mortal coil.

That's ground that the literature of vampires has covered. that immortality could have it's own seasons of investment and withdrawal, of passion and detachment.

But, to stand the issue on its head, what would happen if the mechanisms of desensitization and its bastard offspring, boredom and ennui, changed for the better over the long run? You could find yourself becoming even more engaged, more invested, and more emotionally involved with the world around you without the contextual pressures of a short life. Or from changes wrought in your brain as the years go by. Desensitization is, in the end, a biological mechanism that can not only be trained, but that sometimes goes disastrously off the rails in a clinical sense due to a genetic copying errors, neurological insults, or grievous chemical imbalances. For an immortal, desensitization might simply mellow out over the extreme long term. That could allow for a much greater cognitive control over what an individual finds boring, or how quickly, or even if, they lose interest in a topic, person, or pursuit.

Of course all of this inquiry on the effects of an unnaturally long life also raises a perfectly valid meta question: Why the fuck is Alex prating on about vampire of all things? Isn't this supposed to be an uber hip science fiction / history / technology / military affairs / Pacific Northwest blog?

How did urban fantasy leak into the mix?

Mostly because Ann Rice's Interview with a Vampire is one of the best science fiction novels I've read. Or at least its exploration of the psychology of immortality made it into a fantastic quasi SF novel that my futurist teenage self enjoyed on a strange genre-hopping level. It was, for me, the first real look at what the life of truly long lived, post-humans might look like, good and bad.

The new film, Only Lovers Left Alive, does it one better than Interview, with its deliberate and sustained intensity, and relatable characters. Characters who have made the most out of their ongoing existence, immersing themselves in the arts and sciences. In a way, Tilda Swinton's and Tom Hiddleston's Eve and Adam represent a kind of ideal for how biological immortals might cope with and make use of the lifetimes at their disposal - minus the heroin-like blood addiction, of course.

From everything I've read and researched over the past twenty years, biological immortality is most likely not beyond the reach of our species. It might require another generation or two to achieve, but in the end, aging derives from a finite number of causes, and we're presently pinpointing, narrowing down, and honing in on several of those.

Assuming we can deal with the limited memory capacity of the brain and aging-related changes in the wetware that mediates emotions, immortality and its consequences might not be bad things. Especially given the falling or already very low birth rates of industrial and post-industrial nations. Toward the best-case end of the scenario-spectrum, it might even mark the transition from childhood to adulthood for our species. The chance to make mistakes and acquire wisdom, then stick around to use it, might make up for the loss of our constant reinvention and re-exploration of the world each generation. That, or immortals might also be perpetual youth voyeurs.

Good or bad, biological immortality is not something I'm expecting to see in my lifetime. Which is kind of sad, because there are so many trends in human affairs that I'd like to stick around for, and see how they play out.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

The chirality of worlds

Public Domain, Courtesy of NASA
New Bacteria Discovery --"Implications for Organisms on Earth and Worlds Beyond" Science Daily

Assuming we don't transform ourselves into silvery machines to survive the lethal amounts of radiation involved in any realistic voyage between stars, there's a whole spectrum of possible outcomes for humans interacting with the biosphere of another world. At one end is mass death - something along the lines of the Colombian Exchanges of biota between the Old and New Worlds here on Earth. Scenarios in this cluster involve pathogenic microorganisms (viruses, bacteria, fungi, etc...) running rampant in either the alien biosphere or the visiting humans, and killing, and killing, and killing.

No one is sure what the actual body count was in the Americas in the years that followed Columbus' arrival. Estimates often correlate with a scholar's political beliefs, but it does look like we can safely say that malaria, measles, and above all small pox killed 70% or more of the population during the first few generations of sustained contact between the hemispheres since the Siberian - Alaskan land bridge of Beringia closed at the end of the last major glacial period. And then it a happened again. Over and over, with subsequent generations of North and South Americans succumbing to new epidemics, some of which appear to have claimed up to 90% of afflicted populations. Even as late as 1800s, the movement of European, Canadian, and US missionaries or settlers into new areas sparked major epidemics among populations that had already experienced mass die offs during earlier Columbian pandemics.

By the time the United States appeared and began its westward expansion, the American Indian peoples were essentially living in post-post-post apocalyptic age after the centuries of repeated outbreaks. The full cultural dimensions of this tragedy will probably never be fully known since there are only sparse artifact records and no written primary source documents to tell us about societies whose first contact with Eurasian and African pathogens came at one or two removes from the European carriers.

There are hints though, about the magnitude of the subsequent social transformations that took place.

Enough early first contact accounts and physical evidence appear to show that the Great Plains were not probably not dominated by the nomadic tribes that populate popular imagination today. Rather villages or agricultural settlements that were inhabited for much of the year seem to have housed the bulk of the population, clustered heavily in riparian zones. The full-time nomadic lifestyle did not become the dominant mode of life until waves of foreign illnesses devastated the more vulnerable villagers, who lived in close quarters. This human population crash may have also enabled a massive spike in the population of Great Plains bison.

The arrival of one of the most prolific Eurasian invasive species, the horse, seems to have sealed the deal as far nomadic hunter-gather dominance. It did so by opening up a vast new realm of protein dense calories in the form of bison meat, while retaining a low population density lifestyle. As historian Elliot West describes the coming of the horse and its adoption by American Indians, it "...ended the bison's advantage against hunters afoot. In effect, man and animal fused into a single hunting creature, the ultimate bison nightmare: a fast, big-brained, grass-eating predator."

Biology Says No

The history above gives a glimpse of how the worst case scenarios might play out during planetary biosphere encounters when it comes to microbiological exchanges. Or at least how they might go without a lot of advanced biotechnology, evolved quarantine methodologies, tremendous professionalism, and above all, ethical restraint. With all the biological data, new flavors, potential pharamacological agents, genes, valuable imagery, and other resources at stake, it will always be much, much cheaper to take shortcuts and chances. Especially if the risk is primarily to the other biosphere and its inhabitants.

Devastating macro exchanges in the wild are another possibility when it comes to the meeting of biospheres. The enormous ecological damage wrought by European rabbits in Australia gives an idea of what could happen on the low end. Then there are scenarios more akin to the movie Aliens.

Or, on the far side of the spectrum, there might be few or no biological interactions at all. Chemistry, including the chirality of proteins, might render the lifeforms of two biosphere largely agnostic to one another.

Chirality? It breaks down like this. Bioactive molecules such as proteins come in two broad types, left- and right-handed, depending on which side a symmetry-breaking carbon atom is attached. Earth's biosphere is left handed. Why left handed? No one knows. Many chemists and biologists think that the choice was an arbitrary lock in. The earliest life, by sheer chance, synthesized slightly more left handed amino acids than right.

Dextro-based (right-handed) organisms cannot consume, incorporate, or interact well with levo proteins. Levos likewise find dextro proteins toxic. So once a preponderance on the left was reached, even very early on, right-handed chiral lifeforms would have found Earth's biosphere a lethal place when it came to most of the building blocks of life.

The hugely popular Mass Effect franchise worked this neat bit of chemistry into its mythos, with dextro and levo sapients interacting in a galactic society, but unable to eat each other's food.

In reality, there could still be some sharing of foodstuffs. Carbohydrates and sugars are not chiral. That said, you can also only go so long without proteins before malnutrition sets in. The fuel of life maybe largely non-discriminatory, but again, those more advanced, synthesized building blocks lean one way or the other.

Fusion or Segregation?

What does this mean for biosphere encounters?

Science fiction television series, movies, and most novels never address an interstellar version of the Columbian Exchange. Instead, beings from different worlds meet and speak, war with, or even mate with one another without a smallpox outbreak or plague epidemic to slow things up. Sapients even settle in each other's biospheres with nary an disease incident, 'cept for the occasional, ridiculously exotic illness. Typically a one-off throwaway sicknesses with a cheesy sounding name, designed to generate cheap plot tension. In other words, nothing close to the series of exchanges we can expect if humans ever visit another levo world.

When it comes to dextro worlds, however, those kinds of easy disease-free interactions might actually be possible. Right-handed chiral viruses would probably be completely incompatible with human DNA and cells, and dextro bacteria would probably find the environment of the human body uninhabitable. It might be different, though, with some fungi, which are notoriously adaptable when it comes in living in harsh or toxic conditions.

Of course it'd be difficult for us to live on a dextro world. So while we could probably interact with sapient life from these planets without too many issues, we probably wouldn't want to invade or settle alongside them on their home turf. Or at least not in our present form.

When it comes down to it, I hope we never colonize a world with its own biosphere. Or at least a biosphere with multi-cellular life. Doing so would make the Gaiasphere - the sum total of Earth's life - into a kind of virus. An infection obliterating the diversity of complex biological life in the galaxy. While there are no doubt those who'd like a carefully mediated fusion of biospheres, I'm hoping that we choose to terraform lifeless worlds and bring life to the inorganic, while allowing already existing forms to continue their own development.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

The largest known galaxy

IC1101 is jaw droppingly huge. A vast and diffuse halo of over a trillion stars, large enough that it would encompass the Milky Way and its two nearest major galactic neighbors, Andromeda and Triangulum. Which is something considering that the Triangulum is roughly 3 million light years distant and Andromeda 2.5 mly away. Yeeesh!

Speaking of galaxies: If you want to see something gorgeous, NASA has done up a sequence of images for what our night sky will look like in a few billion years when the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies meet and merge.

Sadly, Earth will likely be a husk of its former self at that point, but this new sky will be awesome to behold, at least if our machine descendants are around to witness it.

Public Domain, courtesy of NASA
Check out the full article about the coming collision here.