Wednesday, August 29, 2007

You go to the future with the science you have

Posted by goatchurch at 5:32 AM
...not the science you'd rather not know.

The Lagrangian point is a popular place for Science Fiction yarns to pass through. For ten years there's been a plan to park a satellite called the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCVR) at that place in space to do things like observe the Earth from a distance, measure the activity of the sun from outside the magnetosphere, and other such things.

According to some news reports, after 90% of the costs of building this satellite has been spent, NASA has decided to cancel it. There is said to be a whiff of politics going on, and it has to do with the global warming denial industry.

One of the many bogus accounts of global warming explains that the ice is melting on Mars, just as it is on Earth, and there must be a common cause. Since there is no industrial release of CO2 on Mars, the CO2 released on Earth has nothing to do with it, so it's probably due to changes in the Solar radiation.

A detailed (sober) account of the climate studies on Mars is here, and a summary of what we know about recent changes in solar output is here (it hasn't changed since 1950).

Clearly, having a satellite out there designed to look at all these results would be a good thing, unless you already know the answer and aren't going to like it. The desmog article concludes:
Interestingly, a common complaint of climate change deniers has been that the satellite data used to develop climate models is unreliable. DSCOVR would go a long way to settling whatever honest debate remained about the reliability of those models.

Considering that these climate models are now driving enormous public policy decisions, one would think that DSCOVR would be a top priority. It certainly has been a priority of other governments. The French were so alarmed by the foot dragging by NASA they offered to send DSCOVR into space themselves at a greatly reduced cost. The Ukranian government even offered to launch DSCOVR for free aboard a Tsyklon IV rocket – the most reliable launch vehicle in the world.
Can anyone corroborate this story?

You know, from a pure narrative point of view, seen as a piece of science fiction, this story doesn't wash. A believable plot would require the President and higher officials to be part of on an alien conspiracy. After their mission of subverting and blocking all action in the proper direction of survival, the space-ship from Alpha Centauri lands and takes them away and repopulates the globe with green lizards.

It is unconscionable that such policies could be pursued by human beings destined to remain on the planet they are playing fast and loose with.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Brain downloads and death

Posted by goatchurch at 11:25 PM
Another good source of podcasts to get you through those sleepless nights and long train journeys in case aviation gets abolished (subtitle: "We are armed... only with peer-reviewed science") before our planetary life-support system collapses is IT Conversations.

From the 2007-08-16 podcast:
"This is Doug Kay from GigaVox Media, and today I am excited to bring you another edition of Tech Nation with Dr Moira Gunn... And here's your host, Dr Moira Gunn... From San Francisco, I'm Moira Gunn. And this is Tech Nation. Today we'll look at life will be like after a hundred years of biotech."
Actually the program is about nothing of the sort. It's just an interview with science fiction writer Richard Morgan and his new book called "Black Man" or "Thirteen", depending on where you are.

It's a book set about a hundred years in the future. If anyone has time to read it, please send a review. The interview points squarely in the direction of Mundane-SF, although he doesn't know it. I've transcribed it extensively because it pretty much says it all in relation to this particular banned trope.

Here is Morgan placing this novel in relation to his earlier books about a character called Kovacs:
Morgan: The Kovacs books dealt with a universe in which you could swap your body, or you could be dumped onto a mainframe and be run as a simulation. And so Kovacs doesn't really have any ties to a particular body. In a sense, that's one of the things that's scary about him. He is almost like a demonic presence. He just pops up and creates mayhem.

The point about this book, Thirteen or Black Man as it's called in the UK, is that you're tied to your skin. You are the person you are born as. The physicality that you've got is the physicality that's going to stay with you. And mortality is unavoidable.

These are things I couldn't really deal with in the Kovacs universe, because for Kovacs and for people like him mortality is avoidable: you just skip into a new body. Issues of race, gender, the kind of physicality that you exist in are also not really issues for Kovacs because he can pop out of a body and into another one at any time. Clearly a society where that's possible is pretty soon going to shed any concern about physicality because you don't know who you're talking to...

So I couldn't explore what I wanted to explore in the Kovacs universe. This is one of the reasons I ducked out and produced a stand-alone [novel]. This book is about physicality and the constraints of physicality and the fact that you are locked into who you are and there's not a whole lot you can do about that. Not only at the level of what colour your skin is or whether you're a man or a woman, but also in the sense of what kind of personality you are.
Then from the end of the interview after being side-tracked into why the book has two different titles:
Gunn: We started on this when we were comparing this character to characters in your earlier novels and that the consideration of what death means is really important. A lot of people think that with bio-tech you're living another ten, twenty or thirty years, but what it really means when you start to live that long is that while you may see your great-great-grandchildren, you will witness a lot more death through your family line...

[In the past before medical science] many children never made it out of childhood, mothers died in childbirth, people were dying for all kinds of reasons, and death was much closer to humanity. And it will become more close in the century we're going into, even though we're depicting it as life extension. You really gripped that idea of death and what that means.

Morgan: I think that mortality is an important thing to deal with. I lost my mother last year to a stroke. And that's really the first time I've had death affect me closely... It does make you think. And, yeah, I'm not getting any younger either... At some point I'm going to lose my father as well, and then it will be me... As you get older this does concentrate the mind...

In a way the Kovacs books are quite young. They do sidestep that whole issue. They're quite unpleasant because of the way they do it is pretty traumatic, but fundamentally there is the sense that dying is no big deal. And so I wanted a book where dying is a pretty big deal, because that's your lot.

Sunday, August 12, 2007


Posted by goatchurch at 7:49 AM
Today's english newspaper has an interview with William Gibson, who has just written a new book.

There are some good quotes, which can be read with a Mundane-SF interpretation -- that the SF genre is being left behind by events and circumstances of the present day.

That's the diagnosis. The treatment is to either abandon the genre somewhat and simply report things as they are happening, because they are so ridiculous you cannot make them up. Or you can hypothesize that the problem is due to the pernicious weeds that have grown up within the genre, such as faster than light travel, aliens, brain downloads, etc. which strangle all other development. Gibson, below, mentions that he dropped the space travel and aliens in order to make his seminal book, Neuromancer. Mundane-SF suggests getting rid of the rest of the non-existent clutter and seeing how that works.

There is no one right answer. All approaches to the problem should be tried out. Mundane-SF is only one of them.

The interview. Boldface added:
[Gibson's] latest novel, Spook Country, is a dystopian thriller set in presentday New York, LA and London. I ask him first why he has stopped prophesying and started simply observing.

"It's been a gradual thing for me... I don't think it was deliberate. For Neuromancer, I think it is virtually impossible to date the action of the text, though I assumed it was about 2030 when I was writing it. I did that for a simple reason: though I never imagined anyone would be reading it after a year, I wanted to give it its longest possible shelf life.

"When I wrote my fourth novel, Virtual Light, I set it in a very near future - probably about now - to punk things up a bit, not honour the sci-fi rules and write a book that would date terribly. But for my last two books, I have become convinced that it is silly to try to imagine futures these days."


Things, technologies, now happen too fast and in unpredictable locations. "What I grew up with as science fiction is now a historical category. Previous practitioners, HP Lovecraft, say, or HG Wells, had these huge, leisurely 'here and nows' from which to contemplate what might happen. Wells knew exactly where he was and knew he was at the centre of things."


These days, 'now' is wherever the new new thing is taking shape, and 'here' is where you are logged on. What he has learnt is that the tools of the science fiction writer are perfectly applicable to describing the jump-cut present. He does exactly this with characteristic black comedy and inventive edge in Spook Country, which involves trademark riffs on such diverse subjects as the ethics of viral marketing, the whereabouts of the billions of dollars of banknotes sent by the Bush administration to Iraq, the elegant scam of boutique hotels, and the potential for the use of satellite global positioning in art (to recreate, in this case, virtual celebrity deaths - River Phoenix, John Lennon - on the exact spot they took place).

"I'm really conscious, when I'm writing now, how Google-able the world is. You can no longer make up what some street in Moscow looks like because all your readers can have a look at it if they want to. That is an odd feeling. It is a genuine way that cyberspace is, to use a word from Spook Country, everting the world. It is turning itself - and us - inside out. It's where we transact so much of who we are these days."


Gibson started writing when he married and had his first child in his late twenties. He had stopped reading science fiction, but went back to it to discover it had ceased to be 'cool'. It was still all about space travel and little green men. "I remember thinking: what can I do that is alien without aliens? That is where Neuromancer came from."

Was he a prophet? "Not a very good one: there are no cellphones in Neuromancer. A 12-year-old would spot that straight away. There's no email either, no websites, no internet really. But there is a lot of heightened language about the possibility of computers to transport us out of ourselves."
What have we come to when one of the leading SF writers of our generation says: "it's silly to try to imagine the future" ? It's completely outrageous. If our leading scientists are expected to do their job of imagining the future (though many people don't like results, and so tell us that the future will be exactly like the present), it is a derogation of duty if the Science Fiction writers abandon them at this time.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

It's grim up North

Posted by goatchurch at 10:31 AM
A friend of mine is off to do his PhD in Spitsbergen, some town in the north of Norway, he said. I said I'd like to come and visit.

Now that I've seen just how far north it is (roughly level with the north coast of Greenland), I don't know if it's possible. There is no cheap way there. Further web-surfing corroborated the fact that there is a university at the place. The current news for the UNIS mentions a lot of research to do with ice, wind, and weather, not surprisingly. My friend is a physicist who's going to do something with the Aurora Borealis. We might hear from him on-line quite a bit during the eternal night from October to February.

In the life getting ahead of Science Fiction department, they've started building the Svalbard Global Seed Vault there:
The proposed seedbank will be built by hollowing out a cave in a sandstone mountain. The bank will have dual blast-proof doors with motion sensors, two airlocks, and walls of steel-reinforced concrete one metre thick. Seeds will be wrapped in aluminium foil to keep out moisture. There will be no full-time staff, but the vault's relative inaccessibility will make it easy to track human activity.

Spitsbergen was considered an ideal location due to its lack of tectonic activity and its longtime permafrost, which will help to preserve seeds. Coal from a local mine will also be used to power refrigeration units which will further cool the seeds to the internationally-recommended standard −20 to −30 C. Prior to construction, a feasibility study determined that the vault could preserve seeds from most of the major food crops for hundreds of years. Other seeds, including those of important grains, could survive far longer, possibly for thousands of years.

The goal is to prevent important agricultural and wild plants from becoming rare or extinct in the event of a global disaster such as global warming, a meteorite strike, nuclear or biological warfare, or gene pollution from transgenic plants. There are already over 1400 local seedbanks around the world, but many are in politically unstable or environmentally threatened nations. When this seedbank is built, the vault will be secure and isolated from much of the world's population.
Well, it's a relief to see some people are thinking ahead here, and not relying on any Fi-Sci (Fictional Science) developments to preserve the basic technology our species depends on to thrive.

I wonder if there's a story here of an expedition to the north to rescue these seeds after a disaster. Maybe there are a series of "Indiana Jones"-like traps so as to only let in people who are going to understand how to cultivate the seeds, and not just any old numb-skull who doesn't know to plant things properly in whose hands they would be completely wasted.

What devices would let a Nikolai Vavilov through, and stop me, whilst persuading me to go fetch him?

Friday, August 03, 2007

Man plus tech equals what?

Posted by Dr Ian Hocking at 2:26 AM
Frederick Pohl's Man Plus introduced us to the squishy geekment of computer-enhanced human sensory abilities and bionic prosthetics - but that, of course, was the future, back in 1976. If you really need to tool-up, cyborgically-speaking, with today's technology, how might you go about it? Over at Free Geekery, there's a guide for enthusiasts that includes implanting RFID chips in your hand (give your house a wave and it will open up), wearing contact lenses to improve the acuity of your vision beyond 20/20, and connecting a computer to your actual brains.

All of this is technically mundane, and if you're up for submitting a story to Interzone's Mundane issue, maybe something in that post will provide inspiration. From the article:
If you continue to carry out your transformation research with earnest, you eventually will encounter Kevin Warwick, a professor at the University of Reading and the first human cyborg. Warwick carried out a series of experiments that involved the neuro-surgical implantation of a device into the median nerves of his left arm. This device linked his nervous system directly to a computer so that he could assess the latest technology for use with the disabled. He also has been successful with the first extra-sensory (ultrasonic) input for a human and with the first purely electronic communication experiment between the nervous systems of two humans — actually, between Warwick and his wife, Irene.