Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Black DNA Magic

My mind was screaming "Revisions! Revisions!" last night and is still screaming that, so the post today's going to be short, sweet, and hopefully inspirational.*

Fact: Possessing a piece of someone's body gives you power over them. Hair, skin, teeth, organs, blood, doesn't matter what—you can still control them with it.

Fact: DNA is the most fundamental part of our bodies. It decides what we look like, how we work, what diseases we'll get, and probably some parts of how we act.

Fact: We are capable of replicating DNA in a laboratory.

Fact: Anything that can be done for good can also be done for evil or profit (or evil profit).

Idea: It should be possible to take DNA samples from unsuspecting people, use replication techniques to get a usable sample, and then use that sample for black magic.

Idea: It is possible that blood, gamete, and organ banks (etc.) sell to practitioners of black magic on the side.

Idea: If DNA determines magical signature, it could be possible to frame someone by using a large DNA sample as the power source in a spell. A stem cell culture would work nicely.

* In my defense, I have ten pages left until the end of the manuscript this time around. However, I have no idea how long that'll take me to get through, since part of the revisions is expansion.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Images of Cities Future

Among the many topics I haven't yet touched on here are architecture and urban planning, which is a shame because there are some incredibly beautiful and futuristic buildings out there, and who knows how many architects who've stopped thinking outside the box and opted to throw it away instead.

Examples of the latter are behind the Shanghai Corporate Pavilion* and the rest of the Shanghai Expo buildings<**, the Cité du Design***, the newest Sabiha Gökçen Airport terminal****, the Liège-Guillemins train station, the YAS hotel*****, a Tokyo building with moving parts******, and the buildings in Dubai******* and New York******* which won't get built.

I'm fairly certain any story containing buildings like this would be either a utopia or a dystopia in disguise—you know the type, where eugenics and/or "government-assisted life choices" are considered normal until one person wakes up to what's happening. I'd love to see a non-clichéd storyline containing buildings like these ones, with sleekness and glass and eco-friendliness. Heck, I'd love to see a clichéd story even, if it meant getting these kinds of visuals on a regular basis.
Marta's first glimpse of Salis B contained more beauty than she'd ever seen on her desert homestead. The gleam of the city was nearly blinding as sunlight bounced off the glasses, plastics, and metal turbines resting atop the tallest buildings. And the buildings were tall, rising what seemed to be thousands of feet into the air, sometimes with square corners and straight lines, sometimes with curves and twists that reminiscent of roots or rivulets. 
Marta gasped as the tower opposite her began shifting its exterior, arrays of lights and panels winking through the air in a mechanical dance. In Salis A, even the buildings were alive!
There'll be a whole other post on ecological city planning, since I have a lot of links on the subject, but it won't deal with the problems of fitting a large number of people into a reasonably small space—something else that architects have been thinking about lately. Solutions include modular buildings††, a proposed neighbourhood on the Bay Bridge†††, micro-lofts††††, and "parasitic" pre-fab homes†††††. No longer need we be constrained to interior walls! We can colonize any structure stable enough to hold weight!

And then there's the concept art. ReBurbia‡ reimagines the suburbs. Lord Norman Foster has designed a spaceport.‡‡ David Trautrimas has created buildings modeled on machinery‡‡‡, possibly for techno-fairies, possibly for fun. io9 has a gallery of artwork by John Berkey, who also worked on the original Star Wars trilogy, and another, bigger one of sci-fi film stills. I'd love to live in any of them, though the machine houses would just be for vacations.

I'd go into speculation about cutting-edge architectural science, but I'm fairly sure every possible way to hold up a building's been tried by now, and that we've exhausted every kind of building material as well, with the possible exception of certain alloys and nanotechnology. Then again, the first buildings on a new planet would need to be shipped in or built of local materials, so possibly we'd get brick buildings with solar panels on Mars, or wooden huts on an Earth-like planet, the same as the natives would build (if there are natives). Combining such "primitive" methods with some of the futuristic images in the links above could yield some incredibly intriguing results.

Not that a novel about Pluto's first architect would likely be very exciting, but y'know, it's the idea….

* via inhabitat via BoingBoing Gadgets    ** io9    *** via inhabitat via Gizmodo    ***Gizmodo    ***** io9    ****** io9    ******* io9
******** io9    † © me, right now    †† Gizmodo    ††† io9    †††† io9    ††††† Futurismic    ‡ io9    ‡‡ io9    ‡‡‡ io9

Friday, March 26, 2010

Random links 'n' things

Once again, late blog due to Life. I'm not up to doing a lengthy, intelligent post today, but don't want to just post a video and call it quits, like I did on Monday. Instead, I'm going to link to a few things I've come across that may be useful in the plot bunny department.

  1. Interactive flood maps*, for creating your own Waterworld. Zoom in on Vancouver, Canada, and find out why I think the location of the airport is spectacularly poorly planned.
  2. A handy chart of supernatural collective nouns**.
  3. Unexplained artifacts that require explanations, including an ancient battery, a Turkish map of South America, and a time-travelling hammer. Also the Nazca lines, but that's a given in these lists.
  4. Rules for time travellers.
  5. Problems with the universe.***
  6. A list of millennium predictions that flopped, didn't flop, and haven't flopped yet.
  7. Predicted technology we've yet to see. (Where's my flying car?)
  8. Predictions for 2020 in two parts.****
  9. Mummified monsters.*****
Have fun with those and enjoy your weekend! 

** io9
**** io9
***** io9

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ze Cyborgs are Comink!

Thought I'd do a robot post today, since I haven't done one for a while. Or rather, I'm posting about cyborgs—real, sorta-real, and fictional.

Let's start with fictional. In case anyone needs reminding of what a cyborg is, io9 has a great gallery of cyborgs in pop culture. Each section is its own slideshow, just to warn you. There's also artwork: Ryan Begglen has drawn a number of cyborg animals* and Ron Pippin does cyborg taxidermy**. I especially love Begglen's cat and Pippin's  … everything. Oh, and John Nolan does creepy animatronics!***

In the realm of the sorta-real, the advances in robotics that will make cyborgs more prevalent, we've got:

And in terms of real cyborgs, there's a bionic hand†††††, a cyborg gosling*, a slime mold bot**, and a robot controlled by on-board brain cells***. Gizmodo's published a fantastic essay on cochlear implants, and links to a Wired piece on cyborg videos. (Not all the cyborgs are human. Someone's cyborged a cockroach, as if that was necessary.)

And then there are the exoskeletons. The Kobayashi Lab has one designed for lifting.**** Cyberdyne has one for walking*****. Gizmodo has profiled the Human Universal Load Carrier, or HULC. And finally, io9, Futurismic, and BoingBoing all did articles on a bionic arm. Funny how they all made reference to Aliens.

* BoingBoing ** io9 *** BoingBoing **** io9 and Gizmodo ***** Engadget
io9 †† Futurismic ††† io9 †††† io9 and BoingBoing ††††† io9
* Engadget ** Engadget *** Futurismic **** Gizmodo, Engadget ***** io9

Monday, March 22, 2010

Designing via Science

I'm on a role writing today and don't want to spend time on a long, involved post*, so instead, I present a video from the 2009 TED talks. Mathieu Lehanneur is a French designer who takes his inspiration from science, and whose designs necessarily tend towards the science fictional. I found his talk very inspirational (and interesting) and hope you do as well.

* hopefully any writers reading this will understand the desire

Friday, March 19, 2010

Wireless Communication in 1901

I was researching Tesla the other day, for a couple reasons including one that's novel-related, and I rediscovered one of his inventions which never really got anywhere but could've changed the world. It is too cool not to share. (Honestly, this goes for just about everything I've heard of him inventing, in my opinion, but this is even cooler.)

The Wardenclyffe Tower was an audacious attempt to give the world wireless communication. It was nearly complete before the funding was lost, so the "Radio City" on Long Island, which should have arisen, didn't happen, or the second tower that was planned for England. Nor, of course, did any of Tesla's tower-related predictions:
As soon as it is completed, it will be possible for a business man in New York to dictate instructions, and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London or elsewhere. He will be able to call up, from his desk, and talk to any telephone subscriber on the globe, without any change whatever in the existing equipment. An inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song, the speech of a political leader, the address of an eminent man of science, or the sermon of an eloquent clergyman, delivered in some other place, however distant. In the same manner any picture, character, drawing, or print can be transferred from one to another place. Millions of such instruments can be operated from but one plant of this kind. More important than all of this, however, will be the transmission of power, without wires, which will be shown on a scale large enough to carry conviction.
On the Wardenclyffe Tower, in "The Future of the Wireless Art" in Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony (1908)*
Read that again. In one paragraph, Tesla predicted: speech recognition; email/instant messaging; international phone calls without satellites; portable radio; the internet; and a global information revolution. In 1908. With wireless electricity and radio waves.

We didn't get email, or the internet until 1988, or IM until the 1960s. We didn't have portable radios until 1947. We didn't have speech recognition until 1952 and it was incredibly rudimentary. We still can't always make international calls without satellites, unless we factor in web-based or digital phones, and not everyone has web-connectivity. We hit the global info revolution in the '00s.

We could've had this by 1920. Among the things that would've changed with this technology (though I don't know how, not being an expert in these fields):
  • the Great Depression
  • World War II
  • the Korean War
  • the Vietnamese War
  • the Cold War
  • the Third World
  • the USSR's dissolution
  • the space race
  • nuclear power
  • the progression of technology (of course), including computing
  • the layout, demographics, and economic power of New York City (viz. the Radio City)

There would've been less of a lag before everyone knew of news events, so anything dependent on news (economics, politics) would have been affected. We'd have developed mass media faster, had a completely different approach to Hollywood and superstardom. We'd probably have seen multicultural awareness happening much faster, because anyone with a tower could've transmitted. Fashions may or may not be more unified across the globe, and they may or may not've been Teslapunk in nature. 

I definitely see the youth of the Roaring Twenties latching onto this "instant" communication (a flapper with a cell phone?). I see scientists running with it and pushing its boundaries—the same scientists and aficionados who started Golden Age SF and comics. I see the Classic American Family of the 1950s with Web 2.0 and color TVs. I see something very, very cool happening in the materialistic 1980s. I see pirated movies in 1940. I see conglomerates by 1960. I see Gernsback having a heyday. I see The Jetsons.

Note that I haven't mentioned Tesla coils, motors, force fields, particle beams, electric submarines, death rays, man-made earthquakes, the "dynamic theory of gravity" that predated Einstein, or the electric aircraft.

Steampunk's a crazy right now, so why not Teslapunk? I'd love to see someone with a physics degree run with that alternate history.

Yes, if you're wondering, this does tie in somewhat with that post I wrote at the start of February. Theme-wise, anyway.

* yanked wholesale from Wikiquote

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Build-Yer-Own Language (Part 5)

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

To date in this series we've taken sounds and made morphemes, and taken morphemes and made words. Now it's time to take words and make sentences. This is called syntax. There a few current theories of syntax, but the one I learned as an undergrad, and the one I think most linguists hold with, is generative grammar and its offspring, X-bar theory.

"Generative grammar" basically states that everyone's born with a very rough form of linguistic programming, and that they alter this programming to match the language(s) they hear around them. No matter where someone's born, no matter what race they are, they'll have the same coding.

It follows from this that a syntactic theory that complies with generative grammar has to account for every possible word ordering in every single language. My syntax prof spent a month walking us through a progression from "incredibly simple and doomed to failure" models to "mostly useful" models to "X-bar theory", which isn't perfect but is the best we've got at the moment.

It looks more or less like the following.

Spec: specifier, or high-level qualifiers like "the", "some", and "his"

Adjunct: something that adds to a phrase's meaning without being necessary—like a prepositional phrase following a noun

Complement: something that has to be there for the phrase to make sense—like an object after a verb

Head: the core of the phrase, the word that has to be there for the phrase to even exist—noun, verb, preposition, adjective, adverb, whatever

There are three other cool things about this theory. 1) Specifiers, adjuncts, and complements can appear on either side of the X or X' *, depending on the language (French puts adjectives after nouns, English puts them before). 2) Specifiers, adjuncts, and complements can be and very often are phrases in their own rights. To get an idea what I'm talking about, click here. 3) There can only be one specifier and one complement, but you can have as many adjuncts as you want.

I like X-bar theory because it's fairly simple to manipulate, operating largely on a drag-'n'-drop principle. There are some funky things that linguists propose to solve various problems of the "this sentence appears to go against the basic syntax of the language ohgodohgod" variety. I'll get to those in a sec, but first I want to say:

This is how humans do syntax. This may or may not be how aliens, trolls, and/or dolphins do syntax. Go ahead and build your own syntactic tree, and make up your own rules, if you're dealing with non-humans, but try to keep things simple.

The Funky Stuff***
  • Because specifiers, etc. are often phrases and the only limits on adjuncts are memory and breath, you can get some fantastically long phrases by dropping phrase after phrase into the adjunct slots: The man with the dog in the basket with the fancy weave by the car with the blue paint and the dent above the door on the right with the scratch is annoyed.**
  • An X' can become X' + adjunct, or it can become X' + conjunction + X', as in "with the blue paint and the dent". There is, again, very little limit on how often you can stick conjunctions in.
  • Pronouns stand in place of noun phrases. "The blue car" becomes "it" not "the blue it". 
  • Some languages, like Italian, drop subjects because the verb endings give that info anyway. The noun phrases in the subject position are said to be filled, but unrealized. These are pro-drop languages.
  • Embedded clauses are assumed to be full sentences acting as complements or adjuncts. 
  • The top of the X-bar tree is the complementizer phrase. Complementizers are words like that and who and which, which start off embedded clauses and replace the subject noun <-- see what I did there? 
  • That subject noun swings up from a lower position on the tree, then essentially morphs into the appropriate pronoun. 
  • Below the CP is the tense phrase. Tense is, of course, "past" and "future" and various other things. The specifier of the TP is the subject of the sentence (or the gap from a swinging subject). The complement of the tense is the verb phrase. In many languages, tense swings down to attach to the verb.
  • Whenever you choose to make a phrase "more important" to the sentence, you swing it up into the complementizer slot. Tomorrow I go shopping vs I go shopping tomorrow.
  • There's a lot of invisible swinging in X-bar trees, but it works. 
  • There are probably exceptions to all the above. There are always exceptions.

I'm not going into tense here. Tense gets a whoooooole post just to itself, because it's that messy. What I will do, before I melt your brains any further, is give a quick run-down of possible word orders. Each word order will imply certain positions for specifiers, adjuncts, and complements, so do a bit of research, unless you're dealing with a non-human language, in which case anything's fair game, of course.
  1. Subject Verb Object (English, Chinese)
  2. Verb Subject Object (Arabic, Irish)
  3. Verb Object Subject (Malagasy, Fijian)
  4. Subject Object Verb (Japanese, Latin, Turkish)
  5. Object Subject Verb (American Sign Language, several Brazilian languages)
  6. Object Verb Subject (Basque, Esperanto)
There are also two ways of ordering the modifiers of nouns: "time manner place", and "place manner time". English uses the latter: I am going to the store in the car tomorrow.

I think that's it for the night. I'll be demonstrating further with Pamak next time around. Stay tuned!

*X + bar, or X-bar, hence the name of the theory
** parsing that noun phrase into sections: The man with the dog in the basket with the fancy weave by the car with the blue paint and the dent above the door on the right with the scratch . Blue = specifier, purple = phrase in complement position, red = phrase in adjunct position. Notice that there are multiple phrases in the subordinate phrases.
*** my apologies to anyone who's forgotten their parts of speech

Monday, March 15, 2010

Troublesome Soul-utions*

I watched a sci-fi film with a friend tonight. I'm not going to say which because I don't want to spoil anything, but it involves, among other things, human cloning.

This got me thinking: If there is one soul for every human, and that human is cloned, do you get a) multiple copies of the same soul? b) multiple souls as every clone is its own person and personality? c) soulless clones, or d) a fragmented soul? And what would the repercussions of the above be?

Extrapolation time! I'm assuming that souls, memories, and personalities have some kind of intrinsic connection**. I'm also going to name our template Horace because cloning him and messing with his soul isn't mean enough.

  1. Multiple copies - Each Horace would have identical memories and therefore identical personalities up to the point of "awakening". After the Clone-Horaces are up and running, they'd have individual experiences that would shape their personalities further, of course, but they'd all remember the same parents, same pets, same scenery, and so on. From a fantasy point of view, this could be highly unnatural (copied souls are black magic and/or using up the aether souls are made from) or entirely natural (one step away from reincarnation; easier to copy a soul than to make a new one).
  2. Multiple souls - Each Clone-Horace would awaken without memories or personality, and would be like a child regardless of physical age. Personality could be downloaded, but the composition of each soul would skew the personality fairly quickly. (A soul with a lot of innate rage would approach a patronizing doctor differently than a soul with innate compassion, even if they both remembered really nice pediatricians.) In fantasy, this process would probably be seen as unnatural or dark if each soul came from a reserve and deprived an infant, but preferable to a copied-soul situation.
  3. No souls - Horace would retain his personality and memories, but none of the Clone-Horaces would awaken with them. Instead, they'd be essentially shells, completely devoid of personality, and either existing in a sort of animalistic state (trainable, short-term memory unless reinforced) or forming memories but having no way to reflect on their meanings and values. I can definitely see someone with strong enough tech or magic using these clones as physical puppets. A fantasy world, depending on their ethics, would abhor soulless clones or see them as even better than the multiple-soul versions***.
  4. Fragmented souls - Each Clone-Horace would suck a little bit more soul/personality/memory from Horace (and any previously-created clones), resulting in one personality trait or subset of memories existing in one clone, along with various moral codes. Get all the clones together and they function as a single being. Separate them, and you start having problems à la sci-fi comedies. A possible offshoot of this type of cloning would be that the soul fragment of any clone that died would fuse with the fragments in the others, giving them fresh memories or traits and/or making the whole clone network harder to kill. (Like a Horcrux.) I'm not quite sure how a fantasy world would handle these clones, but I bet Voldemort would've liked the idea.

More questions:

  • If someone's mass-cloning is depleting their world's soul-bank, causing infants to be born with no souls, what challenges would be involved in raising such an infant and how long would their soullessness go unnoticed or the Hero connected the dots between soulless infants and mysterious gatherings of identical warriors?
  • What would a fantasy world where cloning was the norm look like? What kind(s) of magic would be involved in cloning? Would there be both light and dark routes? Would there even be a light route?
  • Has anyone even created a fantasy world with clones, or is that just a sci-fi thing? Would anyone read a cloning fantasy?
  • What would it be like to be a fragment-clone who randomly receives other fragments of the parent-soul as his clone-brothers die?
  • Could multiple souls be used as a magical reservoir? Spend a sacrifice-worth of magic to create one and get a ten-fold boost in power? Would doing this and then sacrificing the clone give you ten times the potency for a spell? How many clones can be created by sacrificing a clone?
  • In fantasy, would clones share a telepathic bond? Even if they had no souls?
  • How many clones can a Dark Lord puppet at one time? Would he delegate?
  • What would Sauron do?

* Yes, it's a horrible pun. I couldn't resist.
** Kind of personal fiction-philosophy. Feel free to contest it.
*** Which may well give me nightmares tonight. Eep.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Manipulating Gravity (For Fun and Profit)

Anti-gravity and artificial gravity* technologies are staples of far-future and space-set sci-fi. Even if it's not explicitly stated, it's there whenever people walk on space stations, tow anything under their ship, or fly their car into the sunset**. It's been used so often that some people would say it's nearly cliché.*** 

I'm inclined to agree—to a point. The gravity applications in my first list are great, even if common and largely in the background. I think they probably will (and probably should) stay that way, unless there's a really brilliant unwritten story out there that uses them as a major device. But, and this should come as no surprise to regular readers, I want to see the boundaries pushed. What else can we do with technology that manipulates gravity?

(I feel I should warn people: I've been reading in the Vorkosigan Saga**** by Lois McMaster Bujold lately and this is necessarily going to influence my examples.)

6 Fictional Things We've (Over?)Done With Gravity Technology
  1. Earth-gravity on spaceships and space stations - This one's pretty straight-forward. If people are walking normally while in space, it's because a) they can manipulate gravity or b) they're really in Hollywood.
  2. Anti-gravity spaceship propulsion - This one too. Usually it involves spewing out gravitons or pushing against the gravity of a planet or star.
  3. Flying vehicles - Again, straight-forward, and using the same ideas as for spaceships, as far as I know. This doesn't just go for cars or intercontinental vehicles: the Vorkosigan Saga has float-chairs. (I'd also like to point out that Back to the Future II is set in 2015 and has flying cars in it. The clock is ticking.) 
  4. Tractor beams - The technical term for those rays that shoot out of spaceships to catch other spaceships, causing dramatic tension and endangering the heroes/villains. There are probably ways to pull this off without anti-grav, but messing with gravity in a localized area is probably the simplest.
  5. Weapons - Granted, I haven't seen this lots-lots, but it's out there, blowing up (or imploding) things. Again, a Bujold reference: the latest in space combat is the gravitic imploder lance. It does really nasty things to spaceships.
  6. Forcefields - Another could-be, could-not-be anti-gravity application. Usually I see a plasma screen of some kind, but I can definitely see anti-grav functioning in this capacity. Nothing would penetrate a gravity wall because everything would bounce away.

6 Fictional Things We've Underdone With Gravity Technology
  1. Colonized planets - There are a lot of exoplanets out there, but very few are going to have Earth-like gravities. Therefore, being able to manipulate the strength of gravity will prove useful in forming our galactic empire. We can make low-grav planets "heavier" around our colonies, and high-grav planets "lighter", and gravity forcefields could be used to keep the atmosphere in inhabitated areas. We should also be able to use a combination of these technologies (and basic "hovering" anti-gravity and general spacecraft building) to form colonies in the dense atmospheres of gas giants.
  2. Colonized oceans - See above, except in the Marinara Trench.
  3. Non-Earth-gravity on spaceships and space stations - Because not every alien species is going to come from an Earth-gravity world.
  4. Utilitarian tractor beams - This is something I've seen in Bujold's work, but nowhere else*****: portal tractor beams used to dig holes, haul prisoners without cuffs, dredge lakes, etc. I'd like to see more of it, or a story where these utilitarian beams are the only ones and we haven't perfected ship-hauling sizes of them.
  5. Clean energy - It should be possible to set something spinning in a null-G vacuum chamber and use the spin to generate power. It wouldn't be a perpetual motion machine, but it would probably get close.
  6. Dieselpunk spaceships - Based on the "gravitator".

6 Stories Using Gravity Technology
  1. The anti-grav mechanism on the Ford Nebula tends to fail at inopportune moments. Is it a fault in the technology, an oversight in the engineering, or is it deliberate? 
  2. An intrepid first-contact team encounters a trading fleet that proves to be friendly, but comes from a low/high gravity planet. Major diplomatic problems ensue when the members of one race board the other's ships and fall ill/can't move/get crushed. 
  3. The null-G vacuum turbine is now cheap enough to be purchased en masse by developing nations. How does access to cheap power transform their societies? What applications do locals apply it to that more technologically-advanced nations miss?
  4. Earth, 1950: gravitators become strong enough to lift large vehicles just as the Cold War is beginning. Nuclear fusion proves to be enough to power intercontinental vessels and/or spaceships. Does America co-operate with the U.S.S.R. and head for the stars, or does the technology become just another part of the arms race?
  5. A salvage team is sent to a recent deep-sea wreck to recover everything they can, but discover that the wreck holds a secret….
  6. Before the colonists settle 55-XB-194-alpha, they need to set up the gravity dome. This proves more difficult than expected because of natives/wildlife/geology/ruins/malfunctions/etc.
(I'd like to thank WikiCommons for providing today's images.)

* technically nearly impossible under general relativity, since gravity now results from warping space and no longer involves gravitons, but who's listening.
** usually, for that last one
*** I don't know these people, but as there're folks who'll argue or dismiss anything, it's safe to say anti-grav detractors exist.
**** Fabulous witty space opera series. Read it.
***** Not that I've read a ton of sci-fi, so maybe I've just missed it

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Life in the Solar System

I don't think a month's gone by lately without some major revelation in the Wild And Wacky Solar System department, and excitingly, a lot of those revelations seem to have to do with life—as in xenobiology or the possibility thereof. It's probably redundant to say there are some very, very cool novels in the following:

And finally, even though the Orion nebula isn't part of the solar system, there are life-enabling molecules there, too.****

**** @sandykidd

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Ice is Coming!

Climate change. Fear it. Stop it. Dispute it. … Use it?

Sure, why not? After all, global warming isn't warming the planet as much as it's throwing weather patterns out of whack, and some of the naysayers claim this is just what happens between ice ages—therefore we're heading towards another one and there's nothing we can do to stop it. Either way, it's entirely possible we're heading for a massive freeze*, something that's been used in Hollywood blockbusters and certainly fiction (click, click, click, click, click, click), the latest being in 2002.

We wouldn't cope very well with an ice age. Watch the movie below, then read this link, then come back here.

I doubt all the possibilities of a 21st century ice age have been dealt with. The Day After Tomorrow shows us the slightly silly, slightly scary entertainment value of the event, and the summaries for the novels I linked to** seem mostly to be stories of survival after the fact, revitalized civilization, new cultures, and people moving on.

What about a gritty, hard-SF take on an ice age as it's happening?

Problems for modern civilization as taken from the 1998 ice storm

  • lack of electricity as the power lines fall, unless you have a generator
  • lack of heat as the electricity goes, unless you have a wood stove 
  • travel made difficult, as cars will be iced in or too cold, the roads will be undriveable, few people in cities have skis or snowmobiles, and planes can't take off
  • difficult travel means difficulty rescuing people and difficulties getting food 
  • difficult travel also means difficulties getting to work, which means economic trouble
  • lack of heat means animal deaths, esp. of pets and food animals (wild animals tend to have better survival instincts and back-up plans)
  • lack of communication, as computers, phones, televisions, and radios all rely on electricity
  • exorbitant costs to repair infrastructure (and is it even worth it, if the ice'll just wreck it again?)
  • the ice's weight nearly took out bridges, and did take out buildings (and power lines)

This will (and did) result in dead people, and it lasted only a second, geologically speaking. What if it'd gone on longer, or over a wider area? The last glacial maximum covered all of Canada and northern Europe, and some of the US. If that happened again, there would certainly be millions of refugees heading to South America and Africa, which could cause all kinds of interesting changes to those continents. New England would be leveled, so there go New York and Washington D.C., causing massive political and economic upheaval. (And you thought the recession was bad!) And places that are tropical and/or balmy now would be cooler. There would definitely be extinctions.

In the long run, we'd probably deal with the ice by inventing new vehicles and buying skis, by living a simpler life without electronics, by not overeating, and by shifting our centers of power to more southern latitudes. Our ancestors would've hunted for food, but we'd endangered a lot of game animals through overhunting and ecological mismanagement, so we'd have to keep relying on cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens, but that would mean finding a way to keep them alive to grow and breed. We'd also need to solve the warm clothing problem—How will we manufacture it if we don't have electricity? How will we transport it? Will we go back to fur?

In the short term, though, we'd be scared, desperate, cut off from anyone outside our city or town, and probably resort to a band mentality, with the requisite hunters and group defenders, and one or two people taking control. How would that play out with the current social classes and current professions? Yes, it's cliché to have the lawyer try to seize control because he's used to it, and failing as the lower-class man proves himself, but I still kind of see that happening. There'd probably be murders for control as well, as everything progressed and bands met up with each other.

Of course, I can't imagine everything, but hopefully I've inspired someone enough to a) further discussion or b) see a book like this on the shelves in four or five years.***

*and entirely possible we're not
**what, do people expect me to read everything?!
***that's about how long it takes.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Build-Yer-Own Language (Part 4)

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

It's been a while. Sorry. To review: last time on BYOL, I talked about what goes into making words—types of morphemes, types of combinations, variants in morphemes—and promised I'd do a "show" to match the "tell".

This is the show.

I've already proposed the following morphemes for Pamak: pa tuk klen mifs snopt bimf plan vlant snaif san mis bim fa tlant bal mamf ba vlask vlan vlaxt xmal. They're all single-syllables, so far, but morphemes don't have to be. I'm going to add flaxin natuft laubu pavbam and xoiktap to that list, for variety. (I'm getting all these by playing with that chart I made in Part 1:

Consonants: p b t k m n f v s x l 
Vowels: i e a o u
Types of Syllables: CV CVC CCVC CVCC CCVCC (repeat all with VV)

Now that I've got a basic list of morphemes, I need to separate them into categories. I'm going to need root morphemes, to form core meanings, and non-root morphemes (or affixes), to give grammatical meaning or change the part of speech (noun to verb, let's say).

It'll probably be slightly helpful right now to decide which kind of language I want Pamak to be, because some require more affixes than others. Because I'm want to demonstrate word formation but don't want to confuse anyone with massive amounts of grammatical terms, I'm going to say it's agglutinative.

From Part 3: "Agglutinative - Most if not all words are formed by adding lots of morphemes together. There's probably a morpheme (with allomorphs) for most kinds of inflection, and plenty for derivation too. Every morpheme will have a single meaning. The words will tend to be mid-length to longish. Examples: Japanese, Bantu, Turkish, Quenya, Klingon"

This is a fairly simple type of language to make words for. It basically follows the pattern of x + root + y (+ z +…), with every segment have a single meaning or purpose. Possibly this is why Quenya and Klingon are examples.

I'm also going to state that Pamak roots are more complex than Pamak affixes. This can totally happen, because roots have the more distinct meanings and we need them to stand out as a result.

Roots: snopt vlant snaif tlant mamf vlask vlaxt xmal  flaxin natuft laubu pavbam xoiktap 
Affixes: pa tuk klen mifs bimf plan san mis bim fa bal ba vlan

Further divisions! I need nouns and verbs, as well as adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, and morphemes that give gender, number, person, tense, etc. For nouns and verbs, I can be lazy and divide the root list in two:

Nouns (N): snopt vlant snaif tlant mamf vlask vlaxt 
Verbs (V)*: xmal  flaxin natuft laubu pavbam xoiktap

For the rest… that'll take some thinking. Which grammatical bits are Pamak speakers going to deem important? Will they care enough to want adjectives and adverbs separate? Do they care about gender? Number? Tense?

Fortunately, since I'm making up this language, I get to play God and lay down the rules.
  1. Adjectives will be made from Ns and Vs by adding -mis to the root
  2. Adverbs will be made from adjectives by adding -san to the root
  3. Words become verbs when you add -mifs
  4. Words become nouns if you add vlan-
  5. The information we put in pronouns will be indicated by prefixes, not separate words. pa-, tuk-, and klen- give us 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person, respectively. bal- means "plural". There is no gender.
  6. These prefixes can be put on nouns to signal possession.
  7. fa- is past tense. Future is signalled like in English, with a separate verb.
  8. -ba makes nouns plural.
  9. Compounds can be formed from N+N, N+V, V+V, or V+N.
Note that I haven't used up all the affixes I put forward. I still have bimf plan bim ba to play with, and I'm keeping it that way for now. I'm sure I'm forgetting uses I'll need affixes for, and want to have them handy when the time comes.

Morpheme order is just as important as word order. "Pronoun" prefixes in Pamak (the inflectional morphemes) will be placed outside the past tense prefix (also inflectional), which goes outside anything that changes part of speech (derivational).

Test Run

to sit - xmal
seat - vlan-xmal
my seat - pa-vlan-xmal
I sit - pa-xmal
s/he sits - klen-xmal
you sat - tuk-fa-xmal

boy - laubu
his/her boy - klen-laubu
their boys - klen-bal-laubu-ba
boyish - laubu-mis
boyishness - vlan-laubu-mis
to become childish - laubu-mifs

And to give a hint at the syntax lessons**, here're some simple sentences:

Your boys sit - klen-bal-xmal tuk-laubu-ba
They become childish - klen-bal-laubu-mifs

I'd like to add that my lists of morphemes aren't anywhere close to the number I'd need if I was planning on using Pamak in a novel. For that, I'd want at least 100-200 nouns and 50-100 verbs, probably 10-15 more affixes, and a handful of function words (conjunctions, exclamations, possibly prepositions). A toolkit that size would let me cover daily life but probably not much more. My English dictionary contains 130,000 entries, and I've seen longer.

Till next time!

* I'm lazy
** dum dum dum…

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

My Living Room Is Too Spartan

This is a follow-up to my post about kitchen technology, but not related enough for me to demand you read that first. Sadly. See, when I have enough money to furnish my kitchen with state-of-the-art machines, I'll also be able to afford some of the following.


Collapsing Volume.MGX from Studio Dror on Vimeo.

Other things my Living Room Of Awesome will have are: invisible speakers; an iPhone projector†; an interactive TV; multiple Rambler Sockets††; a wooden humidifier solely for the pretty; a foot tanner†††; a DDR-esque game pad†††† (see video); and bomb-proof wallpaper††††† (video below).

Dynamic Ground from Gizmodo on Vimeo.

Best Of What's New 2009: Bombproof Wallpaper Test from on Vimeo.

I'm taking donations. Anyone? Anyone?

* Boing Boing ** Gizmodo *** Boing Boing Gadgets **** Gizmodo
Engadget †† Gizmodo ††† io9
* Engadget ** Gizmodo (do you see a pattern yet?) *** Gizmodo **** Gizmodo ***** Gizmodo
Gizmodo †† Gizmodo ††† Gizmodo †††† Gizmodo ††††† Gizmodo

Monday, March 1, 2010

Linking to Competition (and Neanderthals)

A new blog started today, going along the same lines as mine. It's called Science In My Fiction, and is run by the editors of Crossed Genres* and a bunch of other really smart and cool people. The first post extrapolates from "if dolphins qualify as people" and is a very interesting read. I'm intrigued by a few of the scenarios they come up with, and will be following the blog.

On a related note, there's an article up at on the ethics of cloning Neanderthals.** After all, we've got bits of their DNA*** so why not? Well…
  • Would they be classified as humans or animals under the law? 
  • Would there be anti-Neanderthal racism, and how fair would it be to subject them to that? 
  • How ethical would it be to clone Neanderthal tissue for organ transplants or medical tests? 
  • Given the risks with current clones—they die a lot—how can we bring sentient life into the world knowing we've just sentenced it to death?
  • Especially since they wouldn't be immune to a lot of the stuff we are?
All of that's prime fodder for fiction. A Neanderthal clone in modern New York, trying to deal with the concept of "city" while being mocked incessantly for his looks and followed by paparazzi? A caged Neanderthal studied by anthropologists and biologists trying to determine how different she is from a human? A Neanderthal exhibit in a zoo? A clone who knows he's only got 5 years to live, obsessed with proving his worth as a person?

Another question that's brought up in the article is: Would Neanderthals be able to cope with modern society? The writer quotes from both sides of the debate. Personally, I think they'd be able to deal. There'd be an adjustment period, but they'd cope. Why? Because there hasn't really been enough time for humans to evolve to cope with cities. We've evolved a culture that demands them, but we're still working on getting everyone the evolutionary adaptations that condition us for crowds of people, vehicles, and cramped living quarters.**** If we can (mostly) deal, why couldn't a Neanderthal? They had a pretty sophisticated society themselves.

That said, could they cope with space travel?

(The article includes some more mundane questions, which have been thrown around for a while—Did we interbreed? Are we really separate species? Who was smarter?—which are also interesting from a science POV, but I'm pretty sure they've been covered. Somewhere. If not, they should've been.)

I haven't read the Neanderthal Parallax series (yet), but from the descriptions, I'm betting it covers some of these questions. Same goes for the Thursday Next books, which have cloned Neanderthals in a parallel universe, and whose clones brought their very passive culture with them and are now more a curiosity than anything. (I've read some of those.) There's still a lot of room to play, though, especially in a more hard-sf vein than … whatever Thursday Next is.

* which you should totally subscribe to, or at least read, because it's awesome
** found via Futurismic
*** not nearly enough for cloning yet, unfortunately, and then we have to find a way to do it without Neanderthal cells
**** At least, that's what my science reading's told me. It could be outdated.