Monthly Archives: November 2011

A short post in memory

I spoke about him at length on Friday for Veterans Day, but today is the one year anniversary of my grandfather passing away. No entry today as a result, I just don’t have it in me. He was a great man, and I will forever live in his shadow.

Science Saturday – October 29, 2011

Science Saturday

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Today’s Science Saturday is a bit short as training for my new job this week has pulled me away from reading and writing for the most part. I did find a few interesting articles however, ranging from a new super-black material to virgin materials of our infant universe recently discovered.

New Super-Black Material Absorbs 99 Percent of All Light That Dares to Strike It
A new blacker-than-black material developed by NASA absorbs virtually all the light in every spectrum. I’m excited to see how much this helps with light back scatter on the next generation of telescopes. I’m sure the military will be interested in finding ways to use the material as well. Some sort of stealth technology could probably be developed from this. Carbon nanotubes are amazing things with such a wide range of uses, I’m excited to see what else they’ll find their way into.

An ‘Operating System’ That Runs on Cells Could Create Whole New Life Forms
Think of your cells as computers. These researchers have just created Windows to install on those cells. Well, on synthetic cells. And it’s probably more on the level of DOS in terms of sophistication at the moment, but I digress. The possibilities with this “software” solution to customizing cells on the fly are quite amazing. The article lists out quite a few, and it really is a situation of your imagination being the limit on this sort of technology. Very exciting to think about, this technology could be massively useful to all of humanity.

Fresh Start: Scientists Glimpse Unsullied Traces of the Infant Universe
For the first time we’ve glimpsed a gas cloud unsullied by star stuff. We are all the stuff of stars, the heavier elements developed within them exclusively. So the discovery of a gas cloud made up of the lighter gases is quite amazing (though as an MIT astronomer says in the article, what’s more amazing is that these unsullied gases seem so hard to find), because it shows just how good our abilities to detect the chemical make up of extremely distant objects has become. Our ability to image the universe around us is absolutely spectacular.

Happy Veterans Day

The end of my first week at my new job, and though it has eaten into my writing and reading time a bit I think I’ll be able to strike a good balance. But really I don’t want this to be a blogpost about me or my job, I’ve already done one of those and I don’t want to bore you with the minutiae of my life.

No, this post is about our veterans. Veterans Day began as Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of The Great War. In the years since it has been morphed into a day to honor the veterans of the military, not just to honor the end of World War One. All our veterans, save the ones like Staff Sgt. Gibbs who are absolutely sickening and don’t deserve to be called veterans at all, deserve to be honored for their service.

My grandfather fought in the Second World War in the Pacific theater of operations. He’d joined the CCCs in 1938, lying about his age by two years in order to get in despite only being 16. That lie followed him the rest of his life, to the point that even the obituary printed by the funeral home read his false birthyear, because that’s how the government knew him.

During WWII he was a machine gunner, and indeed after he passed away last year we found a Japanese rifle he had secured from a soldier he’d killed. The story, as my father relayed it to me, is that the Japanese soldier had been out of ammunition and charged my grandfather. He engaged the man in hand to hand combat and ultimately prevailed; he was a bear of a man at 6’4″ and north of 200 lbs. of muscle in his youth, not to mention a bare knuckle boxer, so I’m not surprised by the outcome. He took the rifle as a war prize, and more than 65 years later I was holding it in my hands.

He fought on multiple islands during the war and indeed his unit had been one slated for the initial invasion of the Japanese main islands, Operation Olympic. Thankfully–for me at least, though it ended badly for the Japanese people–that invasion never came, because likely he would have died during that invasion if the estimated casualty rate had been accurate.

To my Granddad, may he rest in peace, and all the other veterans out there, I want to say thank you for your sacrifice. Even if you don’t agree with the war, you should always support the men and women sent into it.

Granddad and Granny, circa 1945

Characters and Plot

The science fiction genre has often been accused, like much genre fiction, of being so focused on plot and setting that it actually becomes detrimental to character development. Indeed one of the criticisms often levied upon Isaac Asimov, one of the greatest and most prolific sci-fi writers to ever live, is that many of his characters seem like mere caricatures. The old tired tropes seemed to be all sci-fi writers used for character stock: the damsel in distress, the heroic and righteous starship captain riding in to her rescue, thinly veiled xenophobia in the form of aliens that are just a little too human but “not,” etc.

Cyberpunk did a good bit to turn those tropes on their head. The razorgirl Molly Millions, for example, in Neuromancer is far from a damsel in distress. Case is far from heroic and righteous.

I like to think I have a good grasp on character development. I’m a student of the human condition, a watcher if you will. From my earliest years I absolutely loved people watching and still do to this day. Some psych classes in college gave me an even deeper understanding of the human condition, and honestly economics has a lot more to do with human behavior than most people realize. After all, the economy is a human construct: wealth, money, competitive advantage, inflation, etc. are all simply human concepts, thus the study of these concepts must necessarily involve understanding people and what makes them tick.

Science fiction can absolutely be literary, and I like to think I’ll have the ability to write “high brow” science fiction while melding it with the pulpy plot-driven aspects that many sci-fi fans truly love. At least that’s my goal. I guess I’ll have to get published and get some reviews to know if I can actually do that. ;)

 

New job

Short post today because I started a new job. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail due to NDAs and such, but basically I’m working for a consulting company with a large financial institution on a foreclosure-related project. Cryptic huh? I’m pretty tired at this point since it was my first full day of working in quite a while; my last job was a part-time contract position, and before that as a part-time bookseller. In fact my last full time job ended in May of 2008, so it’s definitely quite an adjustment.

Juggling writing and work  will be a challenge, like today I haven’t written anything. That isn’t exactly ideal given that I’m in the middle of NaNoWriMo, but it is what it is. Hopefully tomorrow I can get some writing done. This real life and job stuff getting in the way is kind of annoying.

But I’m thankful for the job because it is going to provide me with a level of financial freedom I’ve never had. If that means I don’t quite complete NaNoWriMo, that’s a small price to pay (as long as I still get my writing done, that is). After all, with my financial house in order I’ll be able to devote more of my free time to writing rather than worrying about my finances.

Science Saturday – October 29, 2011

Science Saturday

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This week’s Science Saturday entry includes everything from the glory of big data to the discovery of a planet orbiting in a binary star system. As always, I’ll have a bit of reaction following each link. Also this week a couple of stories came via twitter and I’ve noted both the twitter name(s) and their link where applicable.

The Glory of Big Data
This was one of the first articles of PopSci’s Data Week, where they provided several articles on data. What it is, how it works for us, how it can help us define our universe, and what many of the world’s largest data crunching devices, mammoth supercomputers such as Ranger and Jaguar, are up to recently. I encourage you to check out all the articles under the “Data Age” badge on their site, as each one is interesting, but this (and one other below) stood out to me as the most interesting of the bunch.

The glory of big data, they hypothesize, is the fact that with our growing ability to understand and harness the massive amount of data in our world, anticipated to be 1.8 zettabytes (or 1,800,000,000,000,000,000,000 gigabytes, if like me prior to this article you had no clue what a zettabyte was) in 2011, we are very quickly reaching a point where can use that data to actually construct new forms of existence. I’ll allow a quote from the article to explain what I’m driving at far better than I can:

We of course know quite a bit about how life is expressed—in the four letters of DNA, in more than 20 amino acids, in thousands of proteins. We can copy life through cloning. Now we are beginning to be able to rewrite life, not just gene by gene, but entire genomes at a time. This is the difference between inserting a single word or paragraph into a Tolstoy novel (which is what biotechnology does) and writing the entire book from scratch (which is what synthetic biology does). It is far easier to fundamentally change the meaning and outcome of a novel, seed, animal or human organ if you write the entire thing.

That is a massively exciting and scary prospect.

New galactic survey reveals relatively few stars have the right stuff to create life
(via tweet by @io9)
Trailing last weekend’s post about the apparent abundance of planetary systems and relatively low-mass planets orbiting other stars we’ve studied, this article might serve as a “pump the brakes” reality check on the prospects of finding life elsewhere. There is more to life than just a planet in the right area, it begins before the planets even form. If the right materials aren’t in the gas cloud surrounding a young star, organic compounds will have a very hard time forming. The amount of methanol, one of the primary building blocks, seems to vary significantly from gas cloud to gas cloud, as you would expect.

There seems to be a goldilocks zone for gas cloud make-up as much as for orbital distance. Too much of certain elements and methanol won’t have time to form before it gets iced over in the depths of space, too little and there won’t be enough of a reaction to actually form methanol. So it takes a lot of luck for life to form. It should be noted that the article ends optimistically: our own solar system was relatively methanol poor and it didn’t stop us from coming around.

One Step Closer to the Borg
(via Alexia Reed’s blog, retweeted by @RoniLoren from @alexia_reed)
Machines and human beings are incompatible technology. I’ll admit that I wasn’t really aware of this. Electronics as we know them, as the term might suggest, transmit data via electrons. The human body, and indeed pretty much all biological life as far as I can tell, uses protons and ions to do the same thing. So while plugging a piece of electronic equipment directly into our bodies wouldn’t necessarily yield the destructiveness of, say, plugging an AC device into a DC power supply, it would be rendered pretty useless and unable to interact directly with the human body.

This new research, using equipment constructed from the shells of crustaceans, seems to be the first major step toward true cybernetic implants becoming a possibility. Machinery we can quite literally control with our minds. This breakthrough makes another of science fiction’s holy grails that much closer to being science fact.

Evolutionary Timeline for Machine Intelligence
(via One Hand Publishing/Ralph Ewig’s blog, tweeted by @OpenAerospace)
The machines are becoming more intelligent at an exciting rate. Or an alarming rate, I suppose, depending on how things ultimately shake out. Within 20 years the idea of having a robot with rudimentary, human-like intelligence will no longer be outlandish. If Moore’s Law holds (and there is some genuine debate as to whether it will or not, as you can see on the wikipedia link), machinery with human level intellect could be in existence before the end of the century.

That will raise all sorts of moral conundrums, I imagine. What happens when the machines start demanding the same rights as us? What happens if the machines decide we’re inferior and they no longer need us (the Terminator franchise comes to mind)? A sci-fi writer’s dream, questions like that.

PopSci Q&A: How Digging Through Discarded Data Uncovered A Real Tattooine
Another feature from PopSci’s data week, this story describes how one group’s “trash” is treasure for another set of astronomers. Kepler-16b, a circumbinary world discovered sifting through data from the Kepler Space Telescope, is a world with two suns. Not that long ago I’d thought it would be almost impossible for a system with two close binaries such as this to exist, one would think the physical forces would prevent a planet from forming and give any rogue worlds captured such unstable orbits as to send them plummeting into one of the two stars or slingshotting back out of the system.

Shows what I know I guess. Questions of physics aside, this article struck me because of the sheer amount of data Kepler has produced for the scientific community (a key point of the article, you might imagine, given its presence as part of data week):

In the pantheon of modern astronomical explorers, the Kepler Space Telescope ranks right near the top, uncovering more than 1,200 worlds outside our solar system while staring at just a small fraction of the sky. Kepler has unveiled searingly hot, tiny terrestrial worlds, planets potentially sharing an orbit, an especially inky light-absorbing planet, and 54 planets comfortably ensconced in the Goldilocks zones of their stars.

Further:

Kepler has looked continuously at 155,000 stars for going on three years now. That’s kind of a lot of data. And in addition, you’re looking at data that is 100 times more sensitive than has ever been done for stars before. We’re looking at light curves. Kepler doesn’t measure color or spectra, it just stares and very precisely measures the changes in brightness of stars. You can learn a huge amount about stars just with their variability with brightness over time.

The Eclipsing Binary Working Group had to go through 155,000 light curves, and pick out the eclipsing binary stars. There are about 2,000 of them.

Kudos to the builders of Kepler for creating an instrument of such amazing quality and fidelity as to flood astronomers with this quantity of data, but even more kudos to the eight (that’s right, only eight!) astronomers of the Eclipsing Binary Work Group who spent two years sorting out the star systems that matched their desired criteria before they could even BEGIN looking for planets around them. That is the coalescing of data and persistence in its most beautiful form as far as I’m concerned.


Why I write sci-fi

Over the last several days I’ve been trying to piece together where my interest in science fiction grew from. As a child I was a voracious reader, but I don’t really remember reading much science fiction. I saw the Star Wars movies and watched some Star Trek: The Next Generation with my dad when I was really young. While they were cool to my young (5-6 year old) mind, they didn’t really capture my imagination.

Same with Jurassic Park. I saw it in theaters in 1993 and, while it is technically science fiction I suppose, I just thought of it as a really cool dinosaur movie. And I still hadn’t really read any science fiction, even though I was a regular at the local library (I vividly remember bringing home stacks, literally STACKS, of books from the library every couple of weeks and motoring through them. But I don’t remember any sci-fi standing out).

Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin changed all that. I stood in line with my father for a couple of hours to see a little film called Stargate  in 1994 when I was nine years old. It captured my imagination. It set of sparks in my head that I’d never experienced before. I wanted to be Kurt Russell’s character (the depression and suicidal tendencies kind of went over my head at the time, he was just a cool soldier guy!). I wanted to visit this far off world.

I watched a bunch of science fiction movies after that. Blade Runner, Alien, Logan’s Run, and what seems like a million more. In 1996 Emmerich and Devlin again resonated with me in their send-up to War of the Worlds, Independence Day. Looking back on it now I can see the plot holes and action-driven nature of the plot, but it nonetheless captured my imagination.

I read Frankenstein, regarded by many as the first properly science fiction novel, the same year. I picked up some H.G. Wells too, and began to explore many of the classic science fiction writers. My first Clarke book came the same year, a tattered old paperback copy of Rendezvous with Rama that my father bought sometime in the mid-1970s.

But 1997 was my first exposure to new science fiction. 1997 is when I mark my true infatuation with science fiction as literature; while I had dabbled in reading some of the old sci-fi greats before that I saw it more of a movie form than a literary one. Peter F. Hamilton changed all of that. My parents bought me the two-part paperback edition of The Reality Disfunction for my 12th birthday. I remember reading the first half, Emergence, in one day. To this day I don’t think I’ve read another book in a single day (especially one of that length; even split in two each half of it weighed in at about 500 pages).

That was a game changer. I was voraciously reading science fiction and science fiction alone from then on. Asimov, more Clarke, Heinlein, Alistair Reynolds, William Gibson, and a myriad of others all crowded into my head with their visions of the future. Gibson in particular struck a chord, as I covered in the previous blog entry to an extent.

In 1998 I began my first venture into writing science fiction by joining an online writing collective where each contributing author built an entire civilization and wrote stories within it and interacting with the other civilizations. Sadly I believe these early writings may be lost forever, I would love to go back and see my 13 year old take on writing science fiction, but it nonetheless let me sink my teeth into science fiction.

Over the years since I’ve floated away from science fiction in my writing, or rather tried to get away from it. Even as I wrote short stories and even attempted longer pieces that weren’t at all science fiction, I found sci-fi ideas rolling around in my head trying to crowd out all else.

I sat down to write The Selenian Quarantine primarily because my brain wouldn’t let me write anything else. I was in the midst of a piece of literary fiction when the idea grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I spent an entire day staring at a chapter heading of From Within a Deep, Dark Place, literally my entire waking day, unable to even think about that novel. Ideas for science fiction kept crowding out any efforts to think about that work.

So I’ve decided I have to get it out of my head. And that’s why I write science fiction I suppose: my brain won’t shut up about it. As good a reason as any, I guess. :)

Is cyberpunk relevant today?

Before getting into the meat of today’s post I want to wish luck to all the others out there participating in NaNoWriMo this year. I wrote about 2,800 words yesterday and, once I finish this blog post, will work on my writing for this evening. I hope the writing is going well for all my fellow NaNoers (though I must confess, given that the daily minimum to hit 50,000 in November is less than two hundred words more than the daily minimum I’ve set for myself already, the shine has come off the challenge a bit and it doesn’t feel quite so daunting).

The science fiction subgenre of cyberpunk took the mid-to-late 1980s by storm following the publication of William Gibson‘s Neuromancer. Many writers have spoken at length on what cyberpunk is and why is struck a chord with the 1980s counter-cultural movement. In the years since cyberpunk has become integrated into the vast continuum of science fiction and its tropes have become part and parcel of many types of science fiction.

I consider my current work in progress a piece of cyberpunk fiction, though as with any subgenre born nearly thirty years ago there have been so many permutations that I wouldn’t dare call it PURE cyberpunk. But at its core The Selenian Quarantine is thematically a work of cyberpunk.

Being born in the mid-80s–indeed, Neuromancer’s publication came more than a year before my birth–I was never really exposed directly to the culture that spawned the punk movement and with which the book, and ensuing genre born around it, resonated so thoroughly. Nonetheless I consider Gibson, Sterling, Rucker and the other cyberpunks to be massive influences on my writing right alongside the traditional big three of science fiction.

The singular “flaw” of cyberpunk, as I see it, is the fact that given its near-future time frame and extrapolation of current technologies into that future, we very quickly diverged from the technological paths taken in those early works. Today’s iPhone seems more powerful than the decks of Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, though lacking of course the immersive cyberspace environment. That is in no way an indictment of Gibson’s work, indeed much of the technology and lingo we have today was born out of trying to create real world applications of the technologies he envisioned nearly thirty years ago.

But given this flaw, people often ask if cyberpunk can be relevant in today’s world. I say yes, yes it can and indeed it is. Not necessarily because of the technological future it builds for us–after all, what science fiction author can ever be said to get the future exactly right?–but rather because of the themes it explores. 1980s America was a corporate smorgasbord during the Reagan/Bush Sr. years. 2000s America was a corporate smorgasbord during the Bush Jr./Obama years, culminating in our more modern case with the spectacular collapse of our financial markets late in the decade.

With occupy protests across the nation, people in the top 1% basically doing their best Marie Antoinette impression from the rooftops of their skyrises (let them eat cake!), and a growing distrust of both multinational corporations and an ever bloating government, one can’t help but imagine the cultural forces that shaped the 1960s and 1970s and led to the rise of the punk movement are once again on the move.

Likewise the Great Recession mirrors the gas shortages of the 1970s and the general feeling of malaise and decline–American exceptionalism was no more, our noses were bloodied and we seemed powerless to stop the bleeding–is as palpable today as it was during the Carter years. America seems on a crash course with its own downfall, as it was then, and that is almost exactly the cultural zeitgeist that spawned the punk movement that latched on to the work of an unassuming debut novelist born in South Carolina.

The lessons cyberpunk taught us then are just as relevant and revelatory today. The world seems to function in cycles, and though the economic success of the 1990s tended to push aside cyberpunk and replace it with a less dystopic post-cyberpunk and downright optimistic cyberprep, it appears we are cycling back to a low-point. Punk rises again.

In suffering we find creation, and cyberpunk is a manifestation of the suffering we all feel. Though steeped in the technological extrapolation that is its trademark, at its core cyberpunk is the story of human suffering in a world that has gone to shit. It is a story of people abandoned by the world, forced to find a way to eke out a life in a world that is at best apathetic about them, and at worst downright hostile toward them.

Those are themes I think many of us can relate to in these times.