Monday, May 31, 2010

Revised History as a Setting

I spend so much time on this blog talking about space, robots, medicine, physics, and the like, that I sometimes forget that there are "softer" sciences out there—anthropology, sociology, and, to a degree at least, history. I've got a pretty healthy interest in those subjects as well, which always seems to spike whenever a new discovery's made. There've been a few archaeological digs lately that I think could yield some great stories, sci-fi, fantasy, or otherwise. If nothing else, they do change the way we view our past. So, without further ado:

1. Atlantis. I was first introduced to the idea of Thera (now called Santorini, an island near Crete) being Atlantis in a documentary I watched in high school, when all we had was a good guess based on an obvious, devastating volcanic event, a few things we knew from Minoan Crete, and some stone artifacts at the bottom of the Mediterranean. Now we've got more than that: a "Bronze Age Pompeii", as the article calls it, complete with ash-negatives of furniture and rooms left in great haste. There's still no direct link, but the island was a major trading route and someone travelling back to that time would've seen a lot of familiar things—mugs, architectural models, gender equality, multilingualism. (The Therans may have practiced human sacrifice or cannibalism.) Add that to what we know about the volcanic eruption that sank most of the island, and it certain sounds like Atlantis, anyway. A few other things—we've yet to find any bodies, and Thera predated Minoan Crete, if memory serves.*

2. Miami. More specifically, the circular series of holes in a chuck of bedrock, discovered at a proposed building site 10 years ago—with tools, human teeth, and other artifacts. It's probably the foundation of a building, and the Georgian basalt that "contradicts" the leading theory probably isn't a contradiction because there's such a thing as inter-tribal trade, but the fact still remains that the site is c. 2000 years old and as such predates known settlements in the area. There has to be some kind of story in that.

3. India. I know, it seems like a year can't go by without some kind of announcement about humans/humanoids showing up somewhere before they were supposed to, and they're all good story fodder**. This story, "modern humans may have been in India 74,000 years ago, instead of 60,000", is one of many, and I'm using it somewhat as a representative. (I think the Homo florensis stuff is marginally cooler.) Anyway, we get the dates in this instance because the same tools were found under the ash of the Toba super-eruption as were found above it, giving evidence that it was the same culture both times. So, that's about 15,000 years of history we know nothing about. Could this explain the Indus civilization? How vastly does this (or could this) throw off the accepted human colonization routes? What else happened in those 15,000 years that these early humans could've been a part of?

4. Gobekliepe. I started with Atlantis, so feel I should end with something equally cool. You may have heard of Gobekliepe before, since the news broke a few months ago. It's the Turkish Stonehenge, the earliest known place of worship, one that predates*** civilization itself—assuming civilization started in Mesopotamia, which may not exactly be the truth anymore. See, the site means that nomadic people, which these probably were, could organize enough to have religious buildings. That, in turn, means that a "state religion" of sorts, and structures of this scale, don't need to have an agricultural, class-based society in order to exist. One of the theories put forward about this Turkish temple is that the religion and building projects came first, and the agriculture came second, to either make the buildings easier or as a product of people living in a single place over a long period, in order to build the thing. What would that community look like? How does Gobeklipe**** change the way we look at Sumeria, Ur, Babylon, etc? Did civilization get invented in Turkey and then imported to the Fertile Crescent?

I could probably continue with this list, but I suspect it'll be more of the same. Hominids discovered 5000 years before they were supposed to be in Location X. Tools discovered that are more sophisticated than thought. Mysterious buildings and artifacts. Conspiracy theory tie-ins. Any of these stories could provide the foundation for an alternate history, an alien society, or a fantasy world. For starters, we need more Mesopotamian fantasy and more just-the-science Atlantis stories. Go on, you know you want to…

* I'm writing this in transit, so have no net access to check that fact.
** Taking any and all datings with a grain of salt, as they're not always as accurate as some people would like us to believe.
*** There's that word again.
**** I admit it: I just like typing that word.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Four Post-Apocalyptic Shelters

  1. Concrete as fabric*. Not just to be used for apocalypses, of course. With this material, quick and effective shelters can be erected anywhere, and we could probably patch holes in existing buildings as well.
  2. Tanker truck as house. Probably not just an apocalypse thing, since somebody somewhere will actually want to do this now… or has already done so.
  3. Bunker condos. If you're going underground to survive, might as well do it with style, right? It's not as if money's going to be useful after the war anyway.
  4. Not exactly a shelter, but definitely part of the apocalypse thing: how to save America from nuclear armageddon, 1950s style.

I'm kind of hoping never to use these, even if they're cool and useful and everything. I especially can't imagine myself in #4.

* Not linking to the original articles today. Rushing to work soon and don't have time…

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

(Come On, Baby) Robot Locomotion!

I came across a video on YouTube* yesterday that was just too cool not to do a post on. (Don't believe me? Just watch it.) It seems we're progressing quite nicely on the non-human locomotion front these days—as in, we're seeing more non-bipeds, and we're seeing better learning skills and problem solving techniques from the robots themselves.

So, not only do we have robots that can navigate underwater obstacle coursesclimb walls**, and go "rock" climbing, but now we also have quadrapedal bots that can navigate any terrain, stand up when they fall, and learn from mistakes:

Add to this robots that evolve, solve mazes, and possibly exhibit predatory-prey behaviours***, the wall-climbers, and other locomotive advances, and we're looking at some awesome possibilities for the future. Also some scary ones. For instance:

  • Let's say the evolving robots were given Little Dog bodies (as in the video above) and self-assembling circuits****. Would they heal themselves? Reproduce? Be easily distinguishable from "life"? What if we added in the need to eat organic matter for fuel?
  • Could we send Little Dog bots with cameras and testing equipment to other planets, moons, and asteroids? It seems that a lot of what we send to Mars has terrain issues. If we didn't need to rely on wheels, and could climb over rock piles instead of going around them, and therefore get closer to cool geology, faster…
  • What if we made Little Dog waterproof?
  • Who says our service-bots must have wheels or be bipedal? 
  • Weaponizing a lot of these bots is pretty obvious, and the Israeli bots already getting military backing. So, how would we combat a sub that could think for itself? 
  • How would we deal with a weapon/spy bot gone rogue, smart enough to evade capture? We've had stories like that, but they've always been human-like robots, I think. And then, if there were multiple rogues and they formed a pack…
  • How would vehicles be changed if we added Little Dog's self-correction routines to the "autopilot" functions we already have?
  • Could we scale Little Dog up or down, and what could we use those for? Could we make one big enough to ride in?
Anyone want to weigh in? I'm getting all excited again…

*via, of all things, a retweet of @ebertchicago
** Engadget
*** Engadget
**** Futurismic

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Late Post? No, Guest Post!

So I kind of dropped the ball on posting something earlier today because I was carried away by the excitement of this, my second guest post at Science In My Fiction. I attempted to outline what would be familiar about alien languages, and what wouldn't be.* We probably won't know if I actually succeeded until we make contact, however.

Anyway, click that link, read it, comment if you want, and then check back on Wednesday for the (ir)regular programming.

*If you were wondering why I hadn't posted anything linguisticky here for the last little while, this is largely why.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Life, 2.0

If you're tuned into the world of geeky science, you probably already know about this because let's face it, anything older than a day on the internet is Old News, but yesterday Craig Venter announced that his institute had created the first synthetic cell. You can read about the announcement and future plans here and here.

You can also listen to him talk about the fifteen-year path leading up to the announcement, and what they've done to prove it's synthetic DNA, by clicking play on the video below.

Venter and his team have already put forward ideas for using this achievement to create hydrocarbons, clean water, manufacture vaccines and the like, and have said this will give us a better understanding of "life". If that isn't science fictional enough for you, here are some other ideas:

  • synthetic epidemics (zombie plagues, etc.)
  • ways to combat epidemics (Can't get a vaccine or antibiotic fast enough? Infect the population with a bacteriophage!)
  • seeding moons and planets to initiate terraforming (bacteria could turn CO2 or CO4 into O2, or start aerating and fertilizing the soil, hundreds of years before human touchdown)
  • escaped synthetic eukaryotes disrupting an ecosystem
  • space-adapted food 
  • synthetic higher organisms (in a few hundred years, though)
  • quicker recycling
  • quicker decomposition of garbage
  • grey goo scenarios
  • better understanding of "life" leads to discovery of alien lifeforms (finally)
  • Maker culture goes wild, a.k.a. build a new lifeform in your living room (see bullet #1)
  • synthetic life that acts like coral and builds houses organically
  • synthetic life that does your mining for you by eating through rock
Further suggestions in the comments are welcome. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Human Regeneration

As Anthony Atala points out below, we have more people waiting for organ transplants than we have organs to give them. One of the solutions for this problem involves stem cells and triggering natural regeneration—basically, growing the organs out of the patients' own tissue. Atala's lab does just about everything you can imagine*, though not everything's ready for human trials yet.

This has a lot of potential, not only for saving lives and curing diseases like diabetes but possibly for giving immortality. If every part of the body could be rebuilt and put back into the body once it wears out, old age would be pretty much banished. (Until we achieve working brain transplants, we'll still have mental degeneration.)

His institute isn't the only one working on the issue, though. And we're making progress with stem cells, too.

* pretty sure they haven't done brains yet

Monday, May 17, 2010

Giant Storms and You

Last night I heard about a series on the National Geographic channel*, all about extra-planetary weather. It promised me storms and giant lightning bolts, which are relevant to my interests. Unfortunately, I don't get the channel in my cable package, but there were videos online.

So I watched them. There was information on what the weather on gas giants (and moons of gas giants, in the case of Titan) looked like. There were CG views of Titan, and CG-enhanced views of San Francisco succumbed to various storms. There were explosions as lightning hit landmarks. And, after making me more nervous about climate change, they added that we'd never get such devastating, longterm, out of control storms on Earth, because we're such a small planet that weather keeps running into things—including other weather.

That put an end to my fantasies of apocalyptic stories in which we do get thunderstorms of toxic gas and acid rain that last for centuries, but sparked a whole other set of ideas—namely that we may have to deal with the aforementioned Storms Of Death during our period of space colonization.

Of course, I'm assuming that we'll be aware of anything screwy with a planet's weather before we send the landing party, but that's not necessarily going to prevent the landing party from leaving the ship. If there's a planet with high plutonium content and we needed plutonium for our spacefleet, we'd probably start a mining colony on it despite just about anything, if the demand was high enough. If a spaceship was having engine/navigation/pirate/police troubles and the only way to solve the problem was to land, they would. And then they'd have to deal with whatever the clouds dropped on them.

Or—if a sentient alien species evolved somewhere like Titan or Venus, what sort of biology would they have to let them cope with their environment? Would we get insectoids with metal carapaces that they shed every six months because of damage from hydrochloric acid rain? Slug-like creatures with acid-based biochemistry, rather than water-based, and who breathed methane? I'm not even getting into what the culture would look like.

Anyway, I've probably talked long enough so here are the videos in question. They're worth watching just for the explosions.

* @NatGeoChannel

Friday, May 14, 2010

Suspended Animation (video)

Still busy with life, so still sharing videos. Today, it's a TED speech on suspended animation. Mark Roth starts off by discussing natural suspended animation, including that of humans, and how he used that as a springboard for artificially inducing it. Very cool!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

More talk about the future

Life's happened to me this week, so I don't have time to do detailed, thoughtful posts with links and everything. Instead, today I'm sharing two videos that build on my post from Monday, both from The first is on big picture news—what textbooks 100 years from now will pinpoint as pivotal moments. The second extrapolates from current society and population growth, and paints a picture of life 200 years from now. Enjoy!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Imagining the Future's Future

Two things have always slightly bothered me about the "look" of science fiction:

  1. It dates very rapidly. If a film is shot in the 1960s but set in the early 2000s, everyone looks like they're in a slightly updated 1960s. If a film's shot in the mid-1990s but set in "the future", everyone looks like they're still in the 1990s. And the technology isn't much better. Ever notice how futuristic computer graphics are only as good as what was possible at the time of filming?* 
  2. There's a distinct lack of science fiction. Is SF really going to become passé once we've travelled to Alpha Centarii with the warp drives donated by Rar-Kla'rk? Is humanity going to stop dreaming of what else it could do? Are we going to start looking solely backwards, as Star Trek would have us believe?**
What this boils down to, in my view at least, is a lack of imagination. If we're able to take current technology and our knowledge of what's possible in terms of machines and create worlds where augmented reality is so much the norm it's nearly outdated or where children play laser tag in altered gravity space stations, why aren't we able to do the same with clothing*** and come up with something insane? I know Hollywood's an indescribably huge influence on the visuals of sci-fi, and they seem to say fashions can't be too unfamiliar to the viewing audience, but I think we can still do better than carbon copies of current clothing.

The same of course goes for my secondary point about computers. Right now we're on the cusp of quantum computing and holograms. We can generate photo-realistic images and near-perfect synthetic voices. We can store and transport terabytes of data with ease. So on and so forth. Speculation seems largely limited to quantum processors, augmented realities, robotics, Uplifting, and the Singularity, but is that really it? Are the future's infographics really limited to interactive holograms and touchscreens, technology we already have? Are AIs going to be a) kind and human or b) evil and alien, instead of c) in between, and therefore even more unfamiliar? Can we design a useable, popular AR system that isn't based on a real or fictional reality, but is more metaphoric, along the lines of human cognition?

Right now I think we're deriving most of our "Future" by taking an idea and running as far as it'll take us, then writing about that end point. Fair enough. It's a useful technique. But what if instead of writing about the result as we see it, we took the result as the beginning and extrapolated again? 

If the "end" is an alien-human clone/hybrid with an occasional consciousness transmitted wirelessly, where could that then take us? The ability to download human memories into animals and robots (and animals into humans), followed by a fuzziness of what could be called human based on the fact that Fido-Clone-7 is now Grandpa and there are six dolphins-in-human-form living in San Francisco, followed by a global shift in perceptions about and knowledge of animals, followed by a spaceship crewed solely by ex-animals? Or maybe we went through those stages on the way to the hybrids.

The idea of recursive extrapolation takes me to my second point of bother: the lack of SF in sci-fi. Why don't we see Montgomery Scott reading about an inter-species battle over the building of a new planet, or the crew of the Heart of Gold sharing a quiet raucous evening watching a holodrama about a detective and his time-travelling, six-armed, two-tailed lover?**** (Does Doctor Who never run into a geek for the same reason that horror movie characters never watch horror films?) I really don't think we're going to stop hoping for Greater Things when we reach the future—after all, 2010 is the future, though not the one envisioned in the 1960s. Where are the stories within stories? Where're the holodeck terraforming narrative or the AR aliens?

I realize the issues I'm ranting against are due to a general human inability to envision anything that doesn't already have a foundation. I know we're limited by that. I just want us to try to take our current visions and push their envelopes past the event horizon—or at least get them halfway so scientists and inventors can take over.

* I saw an online article about this recently. Danged if I can find now I want it, though.
** Interestingly, I don't have the same quibble about fantasy. There's quite often a fairy tale or myth that surfaces within the story. However, the fashions still date, especially the hair.
**** At least the main Stargate teams seem reasonably familiar with contemporary canons, to the point of them becoming a fictional canon of their own, but they're the exception, not the rule.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Build-Yer-Own Language (Part 6)

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

At the end of the morphology "lesson", I gave two sentences*:
Your boys sit - klen-bal-xmal tuk-laubu-ba
They become childish - klen-bal-laubu-mifs
These are going to serve as my launching point on Pamak syntax. More specifically, we're going to use first one, because we can't get much word order out of a single word.

If you compare the sentence "klenvalxmal tuklaububa" with the lists of morphemes I gave, you'll notice that the word for "sit", xmal, is the root of the first word, and the word for "boy", laubu, is the root of the second. This means that Pamak is either a Verb Subject Object (VSO) language or a Verb Object Subject (VOS) language**. To make it simple on everyone, I'm going to say it's VOS.

Now that we know that, we know more about what the x-bar tree for Pamak will look like.

Remember the tree?
Remember how I said any of those nodes could be flipped the other way? And how I said we could move bits of the sentence up and down in the tree? Good. Keep that up.

Let's assume that top XP is a Tense Phrase. This means that the Spec position is the subject of the sentence. Since we know that in Pamak the subject follows the object, and the object follows the verb, we can reason that Spec has to go to the right of X', instead of the left like in the diagram. That way, we don't have to assume any internal rearranging to get Verb + Object-as-Complement-to-Verb + Subject, in that order.

Languages are generally internally parallel. If you've got a voiceless consonant, you're likely to have a voiced one. If you've got a word for "he", you're probably going to have a word for "she". In terms of syntax, if you've got one X-bar node on the right, you're likely to have all X-bar nodes on the right.

This means that Pamak will have the following rules:

  1. adjectives, prepositional phrases, and relative clauses follow nouns (car blue, cars with windows, cars that rock)
  2. adverbs and prepositional phrases follow verbs (said happily, said with vigor)
  3. prepositions come before what they refer to (before noon, over mountains)
  4. possessives follow nouns (car Kevin's, mountains Canada's)
  5. tense markings precede verbs, at least before movement (is seeing, rather than seeing is)
If memory serves, languages with right-sided nodes are more likely to have suffixes than prefixes. There'll still be both, of course, but you'll see more suffixes than anything else.

Note that no human language is perfectly symmetrical on the surface, either because there's an exception to the "deep structure" (X-bar) rules, or because the language moves pieces around ("transformation"). To this end, I'm adding three more rules for Pamak:

  • prepositions are suffixes, not individual words, so transform downwards in the tree
  • Pamak has no word for "the" and no word for "a"
  • possessive prefixes move from after the noun to before the noun

And now I think we're ready for some sentences.

klen-bal-xmal tuk-laubu-ba 
he/she-plural-sit you-boy-plural.noun
Your boys sit. 

They become childish.

stax-mifs bim pa-vlask 
red-verb roof I-house
The roof of my house is red.

no vlask-tal bim stax
is/are house-on roof red
The red roof is on the house.

"tuk-laubu-mis-mifs?" klen-lavan-gar bimf-mis-san
you-boy-adj.-verb he/she-ask-past anger-adj.-adverb
"Are you childish?", she asked angrily

(This format's used by linguists to make it easier to match meaning to morpheme. Hope you don't mind.)

I could go on, but I think you probably get the basic idea. Pamak, like most agglutinative languages, has a lot of words with complicated structure. You probably also noticed that it can get away with "verbing" nouns and adjectives more frequently than English does ("is red" and "becoming childish"), which makes it both easier and harder from a learner's perspective. There are real languages that do that as well, just like there are languages without gender and languages without "the".

Next up is either semantics or tense and aspect. Haven't decided yet. Does anyone care either way?

* I know, I know, I gave them in a recap too, but they were originally in morphology.
** or that it has some other basic word order, but shuffles things around, and that's unlikely with such a simple sentence
*** don't worry, that's still coming up

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

On our way to invisibility

Invisibility is a dream that's featured in everything from fairy tales to Harry Potter to science fiction, and it's slowly but surely edging into reality. For starters, we've had stealth technology for decades.

We're getting closer, though—mainly through the use of "metamaterials" designed to reflect various wavelengths. Some of the most recent advances include:

  • a "cloak" that masks distortions caused by hidden, cloaked objects, but only at the nanoscale and only from microwaves and infrared (though that's an advance in and of itself; mostly it's just microwaves or infrared). It's three-dimensional, though, so you couldn't peek behind the cloak and see anything.
  • silver plated nano-particles in water*, which react to a magnetic field to essentially form a mirror
  • a metamaterial** that makes objects impervious to low level magnetic fields
  • another metamaterial*** that can make one object appear to be something else, by bending light
  • a third material that not only makes something invisible, but also creates an illusion of something else (similar to the above)
  • a fabric of tiny gold corkscrews, to bend light****
  • a material that can be made to reflect/absorb different wavelengths, and which remembers configurations ****
Yeah, we're not there yet and maybe we never will be, but this advances still have some pretty good fictional potential. For instance, it could be possible to cover a vehicle, even one as big as a space freighter, with that cloak from my first bullet. It wouldn't work at close range, but if you were coming into a planetary system and using infrared to gauge how many enemy ships are there, you'd prefer they weren't using this technology. You'd also want to be using it yourself, so they didn't see you coming.

Being able to make certain objects impervious to magnetic waves could mean new kinds of experiments and new electromagnetic engines, and could even be used for educational toys. 

The suspended nanoparticles could fill walls or smaller objects, to hide what was inside. However, you'd need a way of blocking foreign signals, or the invisibility wouldn't work so well—and there'd be all kinds of hijinks involved after someone uses the wrong frequency on the device.

Creating illusions would lend itself well to pranks, of course, but would also supplement holographic media. Imagine a holodeck containing Wii-like objects that "morphed" into whatever the game or simulation demanded. A simple rod could become a gun, a sword, a cane, or an oar, for example. Alternatively, you could create the illusion of having more weapons, more people, bigger weapons, bigger people, or use illusions to lure thieves.

And then, of course, there are the armour possibilities, but those are so obvious I'm going to gloss over them. 

Anyone else have ideas?

*** io9
**** io9

Monday, May 3, 2010

Exoplanets, Let Me Show You Some

You can't have aliens without an alien planet. Fortunately, astronomers the world over have been providing planets for roughly 18 years, and they're not looking to stop anytime soon.

Of the 453 planets* confirmed to date, here are some highlights:
  • "free-floating" planets, including S Ori 70, though it's debated whether these are really planets
  • B1620-26 b, in a circumbinary orbit around a pulsar and white dwarf, and which also happens to be the oldest planet known
  • Mu Arae c, the first terrestrial** planet discovered orbiting a main sequence star
  • Gliese 876 d, the first super-Earth orbiting a main sequence star
  • OGLE-2006-BLG-390Lb, the first icy super-Earth around a main sequence star
  • Gliese 581 d, which may be an ocean planet
  • WASP-17b, the first planet with a retrograde orbit
  • PST B1257+12's three-planet*** system, the first system discovered
  • Upsilon Andromedae's three planets, the first system around a main sequence star, and the first around a binary
  • HD 209458 b, whose atmosphere we've learned a lot about
  • HD 149026 b, which has a giant core
  • TrES-4, the planet with the lowest known density (equivalent to balsa wood)
  • HD 189733 b, which has water and methane, but is sadly a gas giant
  • HR 8799, whose three planets have been imaged
  • COROT-9b, the first known temperate planet (again, a gas giant)
I love how we're getting a wider range of planet types these days, and how we're able to study atmospheres long-distance. I also love that we're getting more accurate and refined, and finding smaller planets as a result. Hopefully we'll reach the stage where Earth-sized planets are commonly in the headlines, rather than the gas giants we're best able to detect at the moment. I'm also looking forward to our first long-distance detection of a planet with a moon.

Something else that's cool? Extrasolar planets don't have to orbit in the same plane, or follow the direction of the star's rotation.

Want to look up exoplanets? It seems to be a popular pastime, because there's,, the Star and Exoplanet Database, and the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia.

Want to participate? It's not quite out yet, but there's a computer program in the works.

*and counting
** maybe
*** planet #4 currently unconfirmed