Friday, April 30, 2010

Making Magic with Clarke's Third Law

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Clarke's Third Law

Corollary: Everything magical can be achieved with sufficiently advanced technology.

Most fantasy I've seen takes the stance that "magic just is and people are born able to use it". Some of it applies real-world physical laws or posits science-like processes, and some of it doesn't, but magic's always just there as an independent entity. That's fine by me. I enjoy those stories. I don't think magic itself can be done any other way.

However, can we replicate it? Can we, in a science-rich, magic-poor world, create the effects and creatures we associate with fantasy? (Or, can we create magic-poor fantasy worlds where all the "magic" is advanced science? A kind of blend between sword-and-sorcery and cyberpunk?*)

Some Thoughts
  • Transformation spells: We'd need a way to quickly and efficiently alter bodies or objects. I suggest nanotech keyed to genetics and/or morphological qualities. Easiest way to initiate the "spell" would be injection, though I'm sure we could find a way to make ingesting a "potion" a better option.
  • Location spells: It's going to be tricky to find a distant person with technology, assuming tracking devices aren't an option. The simplest method I can think of is locking onto a DNA signature or the personalized vibration of atoms in a human body.
  • Premonitions and prophecies: This'll involve a form of time travel or access to information from either alternate time streams or time waves.** We'd get this with a) supercomputers b) lab-based evolution c) brain implants.
  • Hybrid creatures: Obviously, highly-advanced gene splicing. How else are we ever getting a gryphon?
More ideas, anyone?

* I should be fair and point out that there is fantasy out there that already does this, to a degree. The Artemis Fowl and WebMage series, for starters.
** Not exactly mutually exclusive.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Build-Yer-Own Language (Recap)

Part 1 (phonetics and phonology) Part 2 (more phonology) Part 3 Part 4 (both morphology) Part 5 (syntax)

It's been a while since I wrote Part 5 of this series, so before I launch into Part 6 (Examples of Syntax in Use), I should probably do a quick recap. I know I've got more readers now than I did the last time.

The goal of this series is to cover each subfield of linguistics as it relates to creating fictional languages. I know it probably doesn't seem so all the time, but it's all useful information, really. Once I'm done with the more technical aspects, I'm going to be discussing "soft" subfields like sociolinguistics, acquisition, cognition and psycholinguistics, and elicitation.

The fields I've covered so far are:
  • Phonetics, the study of how we make and perceive speech sounds
  • Phonology, the study of how individual sounds become syllables and how the sounds vary depending on what other sounds are beside them
  • Morphology, the study of how syllables are given meanings and made into words. 
  • Syntax, the study of how words are put together into sentence
More details are naturally available if you click the links above.

I've been using a fictional language, Pamak, as my main example language in this series. So far, I/we have established the following rules for it. (Yes, this post is intended as a reference for later posts. As much for me as for you guys.)

Rules for Pamak
  1. Pamak has the following consonants: p b t k m n f v s x l
  2. Pamak has the following vowels: i e a o u
  3. Pamak syllables fit one of these molds: CV CVC CCVC CVCC CCVCC (repeat all with VV)
  4. Vowels will be nasal before nasal consonants.
  5. A nasal consonant will always be produced in the same spot as the consonant that comes after it, if there is a consonant.
  6. No other consonant needs to match for place of articulation. (This isn't a rule in the linguistic sense, but I'm writing it to remind myself.)
  7. Any consonant preceding a high vowel (/i/ or /u/) will be palatalized, meaning that a faint y (/j/) sound gets added. Think "cute" [kjut].
  8. If two adjacent consonants are made in the same spot, but one is voiced and the other is voiceless, then the second consonant will change its voicing to match the first, unless the second consonant is a nasal. If the second consonant is a nasal, the first consonant doesn't change.
  9. Unstressed vowels should be dropped if the word is 4+ syllables and dropping the vowel won't result in a non-syllable. 
  10. If two adjacent syllables result in a very awkward consonant cluster such as xpxm, add /e/ in the middle of the cluster.
  11. Pamak is an agglutinative language.
  12. Adjectives will be made from nouns and verbs by adding -mis to the root
  13. Adverbs will be made from adjectives by adding -san to the root
  14. Words become verbs when you add -mifs
  15. Words become nouns if you add vlan-
  16. The information we put in pronouns will be indicated by prefixes, not separate words. 
  17. pa-, tuk-, and klen- give us 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person, respectively. 
  18. bal- means "plural". 
  19. There is no grammatical gender.
  20. The prefixes in 17 and 18 can be put on nouns to signal possession, or verbs to signal subject and object.
  21. fa- is past tense. Future is signalled like in English, with a separate verb.
  22. -ba makes nouns plural.
  23. Compounds can be formed from noun+noun, noun+verb, verb+verb, or verb+noun.
If you're going to take away one thing from that list, it's this: languages have a lot of rules. And we're not finished with rules yet. There's still syntax to get through, and then some niggly things as we get into semantics, pragmatics, tense, aspect…

I/we have also come up with the following words and syllables:

Nouns (N): snopt vlant snaif tlant mamf vlask vlaxt
Verbs (V): xmal flaxin natuft laubu pavbam xoiktap
Affixes: pa tuk klen mifs bimf plan san mis bim fa bal ba vlan
Unassigned: bimf plan bim ba

We haven't given meaning to all of them yet. More meanings will come later on, during the Syntax in Practice post. However, in Part 4 I did do up the following, to demonstrate the word-formation rules in action.

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, I wrote some simple sentences.

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

Yes, that last sentence is also one word. One of the coolest things about agglutinative languages is that they can do that and nobody blinks.

I'm hoping to get Part 6 up sometime next week, and then keep up a semi-weekly schedule. Hope you keep reading!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Making Electricity Out of Water

Have you ever wanted a portable, eco-friendly gadget charger or battery? Something to take to the beach, on long flights, on roadtrips, to Disneyland, to Everest? Something that relies on readily-available materials, and is fast and effective?

If yes: Excellent! Read further.

If no: Too bad, because I'm telling you about it anyway.

Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies will be releasing its portable hydrogen cells and charger sometime this year.* The Hydrofill still uses standard electrical outlets (or solar panels) to generate and store the hydrogen, but after that, the energy can be taken anywhere, safely.

All well and good, but how does the Hydrofill generate hydrogen? By breaking down water you pour inside it. That simple.

If you need more energy than these fuel cells can provide, there's always the Backpack Power Plant produced by Bourne Energy**, which uses river currents, or the Sun Catalytix system, which is another just-add-water one. That's in addition to the other proposals using ocean*** or river currents, which I'd definitely like to see soon.

Those aren't the cool proposals though. The really interesting water-to-electricity proposal has to do with leaves—and I don't mean these ones. It turns out that, if you use wafers of glass to build leaves with water-filled "veins" inside them, you can use the evaporation of the water to not only draw more water into the veins, as per nature, but also to generate electricity****. It's more of a supplementary technology, as it generates nothing close to hydrogen cells or solar panels, but unlike the hydrogen cells, this technology doesn't destroy water, so the same 6 L (or whatever) can be reused.

This has phenomenal potential for aesthetic power options, of course. You wouldn't need to stop with leaves or a small "plant" as my sources point out. You could have trees! Gardens! Forests! Right in the middle of a city, like an powerplant version of Central Park! Or you could move away from plant appearances and build a house of this material. (It would almost definitely need to be opaque glass.) I'm betting you could even take this technology into space without too many, if any, adaptations.

I won't try to build a world based on this tech (as always, too many variables), but I can tell you it will be pretty. Very, very pretty.

* Engadget and BoingBoing, with a short video here
** PhysOrg
*** BoingBoing
**** Engadget. Also, that's a NewScientist link again, so I can't quote it even though I want to. Bah.*****
***** Yes, I know I'm being passive-aggressive.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Friday Robot Video

I may or may not have gotten sidetracked this morning, when I was supposed to be doing today's post, requiring me to write this within minutes of running out the door, meaning that instead of discussion and a bunch of links, you're getting a video, but it's a video about robots which hopefully makes it better and besides, I wanted to write about robots anyway…

*takes a deep breath*

Sorry for the run-on. May I present robots?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Where's My Jetpack?

Short answer: in New Zealand, but they'll send one anywhere, for money.

Long answer: The Martin Jetpack, produced by a Christchurch, New Zealand company, has a "is capable of reaching heights of about 2400 metres and can travel up to 100kmh but further safety testing is required before it [sic] ready for commercial production."* The jetpack's actually been around since 2008, but so far it's only been available to commercial customers. That's about to change, though.

From their site:
It is expected that early orders for sales to private individuals will commence late 2010. If you would like to register your interest in purchasing a Jetpack for private use, please do so through our contact page. We will note your details and contact you when pre orders are being taken.
(bolding mine)

Careful, though:
Martin Aircraft has built several prototypes so we have a good idea how much they cost to manufacture. Depending on production volume, the initial cost will be about the same as a high-end motorcycle or car. As volume increases this will drop to be similar to a mid-range motorcycle or car.
Not quite sure how much that comes to, because my various sources say $75,000, $90,000, and $100,000, but hey, I … guess it's affordable? And it's classifed as an ultra-light aircraft in the U.S., so you don't even need a pilot's license. (Speaking of pilots, Martin Aircraft is now working with an unidentifed international aircraft company.**)

Super-long answer: available at PhysOrg
Super-long answer with speculation: available at io9

What mostly concerns me is that this runs on standard gasoline, which means 1. exhaust fumes and 2. it's not as green as some people might like. Even if we find a way to do the same thing with biofuel, I'd be worried about arriving at the office smelling like the back end of a car. (I worry the same about motorcycles, though.)

What concerns me secondarily is how bulky the thing seems. Where are you going to store it? How much is it going to mess with our back and neck muscles?

What concerns me thirdly is the cost. How can we have that beautiful future we were promised, of people zipping through the air and few cars on the ground, when they cost that much money? I know, I know, "same price as a car", but if we're going to encourage the jetpack, I'd like the cost to be less than a car.

Not that I'm not excited. I totally am. I imagine people flying into gas stations and unnerving attendants, and I imagine a hilarious conversation starting with, "I'd like to take out a loan so I can buy a jetpack." If I didn't think I'd be too afraid of the heights and speeds, and if I thought I could afford it,*** I'd probably buy one.

I think io9 covered most of the immediate speculation on this subject, so I'll defer to them, but with one addition: now that we've got workable jetpack technology, can we convert it into a flying car?
** I'm hoping for Bombardier. It's my patriotic duty, eh?
*** Me? On a retail/writer's salary? In this city? Pfft. Maybe next millennium.

Monday, April 19, 2010

10 Things We Can Do With Lasers

  1. Start your car. * Igniting fuel with lasers is supposed to be more efficient, especially in cold or damp weather. This will not only get rid of a source of winter anger and reduce emissions, but will provide criminal masterminds new ways to blow up vehicles
  2. Put a touchscreen anywhere.** Now you too can project menus, computer screens, powerpoints, and images onto flat surfaces such as tables and walls. We'd need to expand past the current 10-inch limit to really realize the applications, but someday this could contribute to augmented realities and give us animated "wallpaper"—not too far from a customizable ceiling.***
  3. Play music. **** Kind of like a theremin, I'm thinking. Along with the laser harp, we could have laser guitars, laser violins, laser piano wires, laser touchscreen piano keys, and laser-powered amps. Not sure if laser trumpets and laser clarinets are feasible, but laser drums—absolutely! (We've already got laser microphones.)
  4. Connect bionic limbs to the nervous system.***** They'd be more accurate with lasers than electrical pulses because lasers can hit exactly the right nerve fiber, while the pulses hit the right one and a bunch more. Greater accuracy equals greater dexterity equals a) less stigma towards amputees and b) more dangerous cyborgs.
  5. Move liquid uphill. This is probably best used, as the article says, to cool computer systems. I can't think of any other useful applications right now, at any rate.
  6. High-speed data transmission. † If this becomes widespread, it will revolutionize communication, and through that developing countries, globalism, and quite possibly space colonies. In fact, there's probably some very good potential in terms of space colonies and space travel.
  7. Nuclear fusion.†† Enough said, no?
  8. Prevent photography.††† Lasers taking out cameras could become commonplace, given current paranoias about privacy.
  9. Destroy missiles.†††† (More at Gizmodo—video!—and io9) Also enough said.
  10. Etch fruit.††††† Using lasers to help ID foodstuffs is useful, but boring. Where's Mrs. Jone's Patented Laser-Based Garnish Maker?
†† Engadget. More at Gizmodo and
††† BoingBoing
†††† Gizmodo
††††† Gizmodo

Friday, April 16, 2010

Mars, Mars, Mars

Yesterday, Barack Obama announced a plan to send humans to Mars by 2030. To celebrate this news, I have links on Mars. (We've got to prepared, right?)

The first question to ask is: what does Mars look like? A little like Earth, actually. Okay, sure, the dunes are covered in dry ice*, the canals are made of ice**, not water, , riverbeds made by lava, and there are all kinds of geographic features that look like Earth objects and feed conspiracy nuts***, but it's similar enough to make terraforming seem possible.

Anyone for a video (below)? Or maybe an interactive map?

Unfortunately for terraformers, there's the lack of breathable atmosphere. However with the amount of frozen CO2 and H2O Mars seems to have, we might be able to create one with plants. We'll need to keep that atmosphere stuck to the planet, though. Apparently, solar winds carry it off. While we're solving that problem, we should probably tackle the questions of what happened to all the Martian waterwhat the heck those "blueberries" are, and how we'll protect ourselves from radiation storms.

Once we've acquired a livable environment, we'll need to build a base. Mars dust will probably get everywhere, so we'll need to blow it off with sound waves***** whenever we come inside. (For a history of Martian colonies, go here†.) We'll probably all be wearing these††, or something similar. Then again, maybe we already have a colony†††. I hope they didn't get there in a nuclear rocket.

Is there life on Mars? Maybe, maybe not, but there's a microbe that could cope with conditions†††† there. Possibly. We may need to tweak it slightly.

Another video?

** io9
*** and writers?
**** io9
***** BoingBoing
†† io9
††† io9
†††† io9

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sci-fi Armor, Made Real

The next generation of armour is almost here. Good thing, because so's the next generation of weapons. I'm not sure yet if we've got anything that will stop an alien invasion or zombie plague, but the following have all been announced within the last six months (or updated, anyway):
  • Dragon Skin® smart armor*, made of overlapping ceramic and titanium scales that dissipates bullet impacts, identifies bullets by the kind of impact, generates its own electricity through piezoelectrics, and predicts its own failure. Useful for both people and vehicles, but who else is seeing a flying flamethrower modeled on a lizard? Just me? Okay then.
  • Armor to target "X-threats"**, which are exactly what they sound like: threats that haven't been discovered yet—though probably they mean better bullets. The armor takes the form of plates (not the dinner kind) made of the same materials as current ones, but somehow stronger.
  • Stab-proof vests*** inspired by a deep-sea snail that uses a three-layer shell design to protect itself from getting eaten (iron sulphide followed by sponginess followed by calcium carbonate). Replace  the iron sulphide with iron-based nanoparticles and voilĂ ! Material that can protect anything that comes in contact with sharp, pointy things.****
  • Body armor made from cotton fibers dipped in boron solution, to produce flexible, lightweight fabric that stops just about anything. As Dr. Xiaodong Li, who co-authored the article on the stuff, suggests, this could be used not just for protecting our bodies, but also on our vehicles and planes—and it stops most UV light, too. Pretty impressive, though I'm betting you'd have to be covered in the stuff to avoid grenade damage, and you'd have absolutely no luck against missiles. (Boron carbide, by the way, is used for tanks and bulletproof vests.)
That last one also conjures images of a very scary future where all our clothing, and possibly all our buildings, are made of this stuff just from necessity. No clue why we'd need that level of protection, but there you go.

* Engadget
**** I'd quote NewScientist's ideas on applications, except they want me to contact their syndication department first.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Even Roads Can Produce Energy!

Being green and sustainable is very much in vogue right now, and for good reason. You wouldn't believe how many links I've archived regarding solar panels, alternate energy, energy conservation, and sustainable cities. (141 hits when I search for 'solar' alone, in case you were wondering.)

I've got one and only one today, though, and so what if the story's* 8 months old? It's still awesome.

Last September, Solar Roadways was awarded a grant to build a prototype solar panel that can be used to replace asphalt.
When shined upon, each panel generates an estimated 7.6 kilowatt hours of power each day. If this electricity could be pumped into the grid, the company predicts that a four-lane, one-mile stretch of road with panels could generate enough power for 500 homes. Although it would be expensive, covering the entire US interstate highway system with the panels could theoretically fulfill the country's total energy needs. The company estimates that this would take 5 billion panels, but could "produce three times more power than we've ever used as a nation - almost enough to power the entire world."
Assuming that heavy or repeated use doesn't damage the things, this could easily be a godsend for the Green Future Dream, but there's more!
The Solar Road Panels also contain embedded LED lights that "paint" the road lines from beneath to provide safer nighttime driving. The LEDs could also be programmed to alert drivers of detours or road construction ahead, and can even sense wildlife on the road and warn drivers to slow down. The roads could also contain embedded heating elements in the surface to prevent snow and ice from building up on the road. Further, in the future, fully electric vehicles could recharge along the roadway and in parking lots, making electric cars practical for long trips.
It sounds suspiciously utopian to me (I'm a bit of a cynic, and probably understating how much), but I'll buy into it up to a point—largely because my speculating machinery's started whirring.

  • If paving the US with solar panels could power the world, how much power would come from paving the world? Would it be enough to boost us closer to Type I Civilization status?
  • If the US produces enough energy to power the world, how will that energy be transported to where it's needed? What economic upheavals are in store?
  • If we replace asphalt with solar panels, what do we do with the asphalt? Can it be broken down, melted, or repurposed for anything other than building new roads? Could we turn asphalt into plastics?
  • To recharge vehicles while they're in motion, we'd need some method of wireless electrical transmission. What would that look like, how durable would it be, and what other applications for the same charging technology are there? We'd got wireless electricity now, but on a very small scale (size of a room). Would we be able to power neighbourhoods or even cities wirelessly?
  • Why stop at alerting drivers of hazards? Why not use the road to pilot the cars, period?** (You'd need emergency overrides, but more most situations, autopilot would probably work.)
  • Why stop at using the panels to absorb light? Why not build in ways to generate electricity from friction or pressure too?
  • And finally, listening to my inner cynic: how can we turn this utopian dream into a dystopia?
** Yes, I know this has been done in fiction. It just hasn't been done with solar panels.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Computers at Skin Level

So by now everyone's read my guest post on nanomedicine, right? Well, one of the advances I was considering discussing I opted not to because it's really a whole 'nother idea, and that post could easily have been twice as long if I'd included it.

What's the advance? Electronics that can be implanted in your skin.* It's really not as gross as it sounds. The electronics are placed on silk, which then "melts away" leaving the circuitry in place. Simple, really. Why haven't we thought of it before?

These electronics are being touted as a medical tool, mainly a diagnostic one, which is why the link ended up in the medicine folder of my blog folder in bookmarks**, but I realized while writing the guest post that medical applications barely scratch the surface of possibilities.

First of all, the main article itself mentions "LED tattoos". Think about that: instead of inking your skin, you could have arrays of light, kind of like a Light Brite, only cooler. You could even hook up those lights to a computer (or brain), and thus be able to change the image at will by selecting which lights and which colors you wanted displayed. And you'd glow in the dark, too!

Secondly, there's all this talk about wearable computers***, as in computers in or on clothing. It's even briefly been the Next Big Thing in computing—until quantum computers and the iPad took over. There are books, too. My question, why use clothing when you can put the circuits right on the body? That's got to be more sensitive to movement than anything woven into cloth. Something similar in concept's being done with "skinput"**** and the Digital Tattoo Interface*****.

I realize that daily wear could easily rub a lot of the electronics off unless they were really, truly embedded, so in reality we'd probably only get circuits in low-traffic areas, but even then, the possibilities…

  • So long, tracking criminals by GPS bracelets. Stick the tracker on the small of their back, where they can't reach.
  • No more medical bracelets reading, "I have [insert disease here]. If I'm unconscious, call 911". Your skin will call the ambulance for you and check if there's a doctor in the house.
  • Why stop at 3D when you can feel the movie?
  • Why buy a keyboard when your finger positions are all you need.
  • The Back-of-Hand Mouse and the Hand Position Steering Wheel
  • Calling your friends couldn't be easier with a lip-and-ear connected circuit

And so on, and so on, and so on.

** Yes, I have whole folders within folders of links. Yes, I might be slightly anal.
*** Gizmodo
**** Engadget
***** Gizmodo

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Creepy Side of Science (Includes Zombies)

Here's something for horror fans. A while ago*, io9 published a compilation of creepy science experiments. They range from fingers regrown from pig organs to the Stanford prison experiment to optogenetics, and any one of them is excellent story fodder. I won't go into all of them, because io9 does a pretty good job.

I think one of the more relevant experiments to current trends** is the one about the Russian dogs. Who were decapitated. And whose heads were reanimated. And who were also reanimated without decapitation. Wikipedia has more info here, and then there's the video (not for the very weak of stomach).

It's entirely possible this was some kind of hoax. After all, we know of it through Soviet propaganda, which kindly didn't show us the connections between dog and machine. However, I'd like to think there's at least a hunk of truth there, because I read a book last year that mentioned head transplants, among other fascinating topics that will earn it a review here at some point. They've been done with animals, but not with humans, and are horrifically creepy in their own right. ***

Long story short, you don't need a virus or a spell to create a zombie. You just need a mad scientist such as Victor Frankenstein or Vladimir Demikhov. They don't even have to be evil to want to do this. There are perfectly valid medical and scientific reasons to want to reanimate corpses, or stitch them together in creative ways. But when the subjects escape or rebel or fall apart …

* October
** Zombies
*** If you don't believe me, go read the descriptions Wikipedia quotes from the aforementioned book.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Visiting the ISS, and link to guest post

Nothing super-cool here today, just the International Space Station. The cool content is actually over at Science in My Fiction, where a post written by yours truly is going up sometime today. I say sometime because I'm spending much of the day traveling and I don't quite know when I'll be in the Land of Ubiquitous Internet. (Yes, this is a scheduled post.) Head on over there, and keep checking back, because there will be a post, I promise!

Meanwhile, enjoy the tour.

via BoingBoing

Friday, April 2, 2010

Possibilities for Aliens

It's been almost a month since I did a post about aliens, and I'm sure you'll agree this is a travesty. Today, I present two opposing viewpoints, for sheer food for thought.*

In the "not like us" camp is Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society:

Joining him is the History Channel, though I don't count them as a highly creditable source.

In the opposing camp of "possibly quite like us" is Simon Conway Morris, professor of paleobiology at Cambridge, who has been quoted by The Guardian as having said, "Extra-terrestrials … won't be splodges of glue … they could be disturbingly like us, and that might not be a good thing – we don't have a great record."

The article was about a two-day lecture series at the Royal Society, and goes on to state that
Conway Morris will argue that alien life is most likely to occur on a planet similar to our own, with organisms made from the same biochemicals. The process of evolution will even shape alien life in a similar way, he added.

"My view is that Darwinian evolution is really quite predictable, and when you have a biosphere and evolution takes over, then common themes emerge and the same is true for intelligence.

"If you have a planet much smaller than ours, the gravity is so weak it loses its atmosphere. If the planet is much bigger, its gravity is so strong that everything crawls around on the ground, because you don't have to fall far to break everything. It's fantastically dull."
io9 has a post-conference article, and there are, of course, Youtube videos:

And finally, here's Michio Kaku on whether or not aliens are out there, and whether or not they want to contact us. Please ignore the weird kaleidoscope transitions.

* Just to make this absolutely clear, the people quoted below aren't the only people to hold their opinions. There are masses and masses of people that take either stance, and masses more who don't think there are aliens at all.