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In another forum, a colleague noted the increasing frequency of near-Earth asteroids skipping past us close enough for the Little Green Men to wave hello. You can learn more about this (if you don't have problems getting to sleep) at NASA's Near-Earth Object program site.

Whether these objects pose a major threat depends on many complicated factors, including what the asteroid is made of (e.g., solid nickel-iron will hit hard whereas loosely compacted silicaceous compounds are likely to burn up on entry into our atmospher), the size of the object (bigger = a harder hit), the angle at which it hits (direct hits being far worse than a glancing blow), and where it hits (e.g., Antarctica vs. Mexico City; the San Andreas fault).

The fact that we still don't detect these things until they're far too close to do anything about should concern us more than (say) illegal Mexican immigration. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency was allocated a budget of ca. $14 billion in 2016; NASA's asteroid detection program in the same year had a budget of $0.05 billion. Or, if you prefer an even more egregious comparison, that's $50 million invested to potentially save our species, versus more than $100 million -- without an engine -- to $340 million for a single F35 fighter of dubious reliability and unproven airworthiness.

What does that say about our rationality as a species? Which is the greater threat to national security: Mexican immigrants taking jobs that Americans are too proud to accept and working their collective ass off to become citizens, as has been true for most immigrants from most nations or ethnic groups for hundreds of years before them, or having a few large asteroids drop on Washington? (Trick question... if Congress and the Senate are in session, it might work out to a net gain.)

Bitterness and cynicism aside, we are unquestionably seeing more reports of asteroids cruising past. Most of that is likely to be due to better detection equipment and more time and money invested in using it, but it's not inconceivable that as in the case of the more familiar annual meteor swarms we lie on our backs in the middle of the night to admire, we're passing through a period when asteroid density in our neighborhood of space is increasing. (It seems likely that density will be variable and that sometimes we'll encounter more asteroids and other times fewer.) If we're entering a denser zone, things could get scary fast, particularly since we have nothing beyond a few sketches on the back of napkins* to protect ourselves if we do spot something coming towards us.

* OK, the bitterness and cynicism seems to have been a bit more difficult to put aside than I'd expected. There are some interesting designs, in silico, but none have been tested.

Isn't it time we tried to prove the sapiens part of our species name, Homo sapiens, by being a bit more rational about where we allocate our resources?
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Ken Liu burst onto the SF/F scene just over 5 years ago, and was an immediate sensation. He combined a depth of insight into the human condition with creativity and an unflinching ability to capture both the best and the worst of the human condition. And he wrote like someone who’d written—and thrown away—the proverbial million words before exposing his efforts to his rapidly growing audience. One wonders what slightly tarnished gems might have been discarded along the way. This book, Liu’s first collection, has no discarded gems, though you may have seen some of them before in other settings.

The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species delves into the meaning of books and how that meaning and its implementation is likely to vary among sentient species. Each book form is simultaneously clever and profound. In the case of the Allatians, whose noses are basically giant phonograph needles, books are recorded on metal-backed wax disks and played much the way we old farts used to play vinyl LP records. And just as with the vinyl, each book is subtly transformed each time it’s played, leaving a different book for the next reader to read. Habits ponders several other innovative ways of recording too-transient thoughts, and how those thoughts morph and slip away from our control when they enter the minds of our readers.

State Change is a more overtly metaphorical, magical realism type of story of our soul and how we can spend it on frivolous or profound things. Rina, for example, was born with a soul in the form of an ice cube, and everywhere she carries it with her, it melts just a little despite her best efforts to protect it in a thermos; in contrast, a friend carries her soul in the form of a pack of cigarettes, and once each has been smoked, it can never be regained. Some guard their soul jealously; others spend it profligately. Rina’s challenge is to learn that there is (perhaps) a law of conservation of souls, and that living one’s life sometimes involves a change of state, as in the transformation of her ice cube into water, and that living is more important than hiding one’s soul in an ice bucket. The metaphor breaks down somewhat in the sense that great souls grow over time, but it’s nonetheless an effective story if one doesn’t try to carry the metaphor too far.

The Perfect Match starts as a seemingly utopian tale of a much-evolved personal assistant (Tilly), the descendant of Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana blended with Google. Initially, the story is unusual (for a Liu story) in being overtly didactic, but we soon learn about the perils of sharing far too much information via social media and its future equivalents. I’ve always been in the camp who believes you shouldn’t publish anything online that you’re not willing to share with billions of others, and that this policy would keep me largely safe, but Match reminds us that online life isn’t nearly so simple. And just as we learn that important lesson, Liu’s writing relaxes and recomplicates, becoming less didactic and exploring the fuller complexity of the issues raised by such a story as a few souls begin to rebel against the largely unexamined status quo. This would have been a great distopian novel in other hands, but Liu says most of what needs to be said in much les space. There’s much to think on here, and particularly the realization that withdrawing from technology (rather than engaging with it) is no solution.

Good Hunting takes us further afield, and into deeper emotional waters. The setting is pre-modern China, during the period when the British were exerting their distinctly non-benevolent colonial will upon the Chinese people. It’s a tale in “the magic goes away” genre, but in this case, it’s not only technology (steam engines and the like, which slowly evolve in a steampunk direction) that is responsible, but also how the British cultural gestalt is crushing, severing, or pushing aside traditional Chinese magic. There are echoes of stories from many previous authors in which Faery is swept away by the human tide of cold iron, but this is not explicitly a tale from that tradition; the concept has undergone a sea change in its travel overseas, in its interrogation of colonialism, and in its exploration of how magic may survive, albeit transformed, in a new world. Good Hunting is told from the perspective of the son of a Chinese demon hunter who spares a fox demon in his youth, and who, as an adult, loses his older profession and takes on the new one of engineer as the native Chinese magic slowly disappears. Good Hunting is about surviving crushing colonialism and drastic cultural change, and ends in trademark Liu style: in hope of a better future, but with a lingering residue of sadness for what was lost.

The Literomancer is the first story that smacks you upside the head with a nearly unbearable mixture of harsh reality and the beauty that somehow persists in even the harshest times and places. The tale is set in post–World War II Taiwan, where American spies and agents provocateur conspire with the exiled Nationalists to overthrow the Chinese Communists by any means necessary. With scary echoes of today, there are tortures and human rights abuses in which the people of both regions are treated as nothing more than expendable pawns in the great American game of geopolitik. And they’re distasteful pawns, at that; this is a period of egregious and pernicious racism that was still present during my primary school years, when I was the ethnic kid. (In contrast, my children grew up in schools that resembled a miniature United Nations. It’s one of the few things that gives me hope in a world that appears to be sliding, year by year, ever deeper into the shit.) Our POV character is Lilly, the daughter of an American spy, who is befriended by Kan, the pseudonymus literomancer. Kan tells fortunes (the “literomancy” of the title) through his keen sense of empathy, supplemented by a profound knowledge of the etymological roots of Chinese calligraphic characters. None of this saves him when he runs afoul of the Americans. The story does not end well; it ends so horrifically you shouldn’t read this story if you’re feeling emotionally fragile. Yet you should read it when you’re feeling stronger because exactly the same shameful practices have been carried out in living memory, suggesting that we never learn from our mistakes when we forget the past. That being said, Liu retains his faith in the power of words to lead us to better places—if only people will listen.

Simulacrum is a short but punchy look into what will happen when it becomes possible to record people and their thoughts in much the same way we take photographs now. Indeed, this leads to the central conflict in the story: Anna, our protagonist, dislikes simulacra because “People shape and stage the experiences of their lives for the camera, go on vacations with one eye glued to the video camera. The desire to freeze reality is about avoiding reality.” When I travel, I bring back hundreds of photos so I can share the story with my friends, but for each photo I take, I spend far more time bathing in the reality. As a result, I return home with memories, not just photos. this issue of memory is central to the story, even though it’s never explicitly foregrounded. Anna is the daughter of the inventor of “oneiropagida”, which are simulacra of people. They’re essentially artificial, since they’re interactive, and that’s what destroys the relationship between Anna and her father: she walks in on her father having a virtual “affair” with some of the women he’s previously recorded. But rather than being primarily a tale of the technology, Simulacrum is the story of the emotional component of the father–daughter relationship and how technology changes it for the worse. In a painful irony, it’s that one memory of her father that becomes Anna’s own simulacra of her father and prevents her from accepting the reality of her father as a flawed but still loving and love-worthy man.

In The Regular, Liu takes a noir turn. This is the story of a Chinese-American private investigator, an ex-cop with a traumatic past, who stumbles onto the trail of a serial killer. This guy’s an interestingly damaged psychopath who appears to be sufficiently high-functioning to fly below the radar—as many psychopaths famously do before they’re caught. But here, there’s a difference: the technology of the story world allows implantation of a device known as a “regulator” that lets you damp down your emotional responses so you can process situations more rationally. (The lack of affect shown while under this regulation produces eerie echoes of the psychopath’s lack of affect, resulting in interesting parallels between the PI and the killer, not to mention the etymological echoes between regular (normal) and regulator (normative), which seems unlikely to be coincidence.) The story structure is conventional and the outcome predictable, but what interested me is how you can spin the ending as a triumph for the human spirit (succeeding without technology) or a failure of that spirit (unwillingness to accept a potentially better technological solution). It’s that thought-provoking dichotomy that raises the story above its plot.

The Paper Menagerie merits its role as standard-bearer for the book, since it illustrates Liu’s trademark emotional intensity and ability to mix (in this case literal) magic with life’s harshest elements. I’ve read this story several times, and always approach it with dread; it tears at my heart. Although it shares a title and focus on remembrance with the Tennessee Williams play, The Glass Menagerie, Liu spins that tale on its axis; here, the protagonist is arguably the narrator’s mother, though we learn her story through the foregrounded narrator. The title’s menagerie is a group of zhezhi creatures (the Chinese equivalent of the better-known Japanese origami) created by the mother, but with a difference: when these ones are breathed into, the spirit in one’s breath brings them to life. Here, they become a small boy’s best friends. The story is told from the POV of Jack, who has a White father and Chinese immigrant (“mail-order bride”) mother. Like all schoolchildren, and doubly so as a teenager, Jack faces the burden of fitting in, a task made more difficult than usual by his mixed-race heritage. Though the story is set in the late 1970s, a time when the post-war racism of previous decades was beginning to ebb, fear of “the other” remained a strong force in society. Faced with the choice between fitting in or prioritizing his mother’s love, Jack makes a bad but predictable choice: he chooses conformity. He has always been somewhat embarrassed by his mother, who has never fully integrated into Western society, and makes strenuous efforts to distance herself from her, eventually cutting off all communication. When he finally realizes his error, years later, his mother is dead and it’s too late to do anything about it. But his mother lives on in the story she left of her life, written on one of the zhezhi animals. It’s a bittersweet reminder of how the distances we create between ourselves and our loved ones can lead to tragedy if we don’t try to bridge the distance.

An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition starts out as a seeming riff on The Bookmaking Habits, musing on memory and thought and how we communicate, though here the emphasis is on the ephemeral forms of communication rather than the frozen thoughts that live in books. Liu provides a few superficially plausible and largely original takes on how thought might work. One, the uranium-based life form, is reminiscent of an old episode of Star Trek the Next Generation. But the story soon morphs into something richer, dwelling on the nature of marital and parent–child relationships, in ways that are uncommonly lyrical for Liu. (It’s not that Liu writes boring prose. Not remotely. It’s just that here, the imagery and approach seem more poetic than prosaic—you should pardon the pun.) As in so many of his tales, there is both joy and a deep sorrow; here, it is the formation and then breaking of a marriage because both partners, though still clearly in love, retain the distinct characteristics that first brought them together rather than morphing into something new that may lack the original attraction but that evolves into something stronger and more stable. This can be both good and bad; a good marriage adjusts over time to make room for each partner to grow. But like the chocolate that is a central image in this story, the results can be bittersweet.

The Waves is Ken Liu’s take on Tom Godwin’s (in)famous story The Cold Equations. Here, the math is equally implacable but no less cold: Earth has sent out a generation ship (a light-sail vessel) on a 400-year voyage to the nearest habitable planet. As in The Cold Equations, resources are severely constrained: the ship contains enough recyclable resources for the future colonists and the children they raise to replace them during the journey, but recycling is never 100% efficient and even with engineered-in redundancy, there’s little margin for error. And there are no gas stations along the way where they can refill and change the terms of those cold equations. When Earth transmits a genetic engineering recipe for immortality, the colonists (revealed through POV character Maggie Chao) face a terrible choice: after the first generation of children is born, each individual must decide whether or when they’re willing to die to make room for a member of the next generation to mature. Interwoven in the story are excerpts from Chinese, Greek, Jewish, and other creation stories that echo the larger problem of how life begins and the consequences of that beginning. The colonists make—and live with—their decisions, and to borrow a cliché that is very apropos in this case (and that I hope avoids spoilers), their destination is not what they expected, and it changes them in ways both expected and unexpected. The only disappointment in this story is that it merits a novel-length treatment to do justice to the many chewy issues Liu raises.

Mono No Aware is the Japanese phrase that refers to our ability to find or create beauty despite the transience of life and all things. Here, the transience goes beyond the simpler tragedy of personal death to encompass the likely death of our whole species. A giant asteroid, “the hammer”, is detected on a collision course with Earth. There’s no way to divert it from its course, so humanity, to the best of its ability, tries to flee the planet by building a fleet of solar-sail vessels. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of logistics knows what will happen next: the builders overpromise and underdeliver, terrorists take out some of the vehicles, and there is rioting and warfare in most parts of the world—except in the Japan of Hiroko, our narrator. Like the Chinese, the Japanese tend to have a non-Western sense of how the world works: there is a greater sense of shared communal responsibility and a greater sense of patience with the world. In saying this, I risk stereotyping and clearly, with the upheavals in both countries that have occurred since westernization began in its most aggressive (not to say toxic) form in the past half-century, people and peoples change. Still, this sense of seeking peace with both the good and bad of how life works has been fundamental to my philosophy since my early teens, and I learned it from my readings in Asian culture. The central image of the story is the casting of seeds upon the wind in the hope that some will find fertile ground. This same dandelion metaphor appeared earlier in this collection, in The Waves, and seems likely to have been growing in Liu’s subconscious for some time; indeed, it’s a central metaphor in Liu’s first novel, The Grace of Kings, reviewed here. Mono No Aware lives up to its translation, but uncommonly, Liu is less rigorous with his consequences than in previous stories. The story’s central scientific problem (as opposed to the problems raised by the lives of his characters) is that the light sail develops a rip, and if the rip is left unpatched, it will doom everyone aboard the ship, since they’ll have no way to decelerate when they reach a new solar system. This is an easily predictable risk (space engineers know full well that “everything breaks, usually at a bad time”), so it’s unlikely that a light sail would be designed with a single point of failure; for example, sections would probably be isolated so that failure of one would not destroy the whole. Were that impossible for some reason, full and rapid repair capacity would have been built into the ship; it’s how engineers think. Neither option was included in the story. Having seen the recent difficulty of moving a mere 25 000 Syrian refugees to Canada, I’m less sanguine than Liu about the prospects of trying to save a significant proportion of Earth’s population; the logistics border on the impossible. But that’s not the core of the story, and it does not detract in any way from the story’s emotional punch. Still, the problem of the light sail was a fixable blemish in an otherwise fine tale of heroism and sacrifice that lives up to its title.

In All the Flavors, one of the longest stories in this book, we hear the story from Lily, a young Irish woman who serves as POV character. In the aftermath of the Idaho City fire of 1865 (a real event), Chinese laborers arrive in town, bringing the expected clash of cultures. Some townsfolk, such as Lily and her father, are pragmatic about this: theirs is a gentler racism, expressed in terms of discomfort with strangeness (ironic in people who fled the eastern cities in search of something new). Pragmatism leads to acceptance as the opportunity to earn money from their new customers lets the first settlers replace what they lost in the fire. But, of course, more active and violent racism is practiced by others. Unfortunately for them, Liu is riffing on Gaiman’s American Gods; here, the god is Lao Guan (old Guan), the deified incarnation of a famous Chinese general from about the 2nd century A.D. who has been renamed “Logan” by those who can’t pronounce his Chinese name. This is a meditation on how names may change over time as one adapts to a new life: the root of the name remains true to its origins, but something newer and sometimes stranger grows on top of it, creating an exotic hybrid. (I also suspect it’s a serendipitous and sly joke about “Old Man Logan”—Marvel’s Wolverine character—who is himself something of a minor god of war.) The Chinese are mostly peasants who were lured to North America by men little different from the African slavers, the primary difference being that they were debt slaves rather than chattel slaves, a slightly less toxic but no less evil form of slavery. If you’re at all familiar with the history of Chinese immigrants in the “wild west” (or for that matter, in “the wild western movie”), this will be familiar to you. What will be less familiar is Logan’s story of peasant rebellion: Guan was a prime mover to create something newer and fairer in China some 1700 years earlier, rebelling against a cruel and unjust system, a story that also lies at the roots of Grace of Kings. Another difference is the focus: as in The Literomancer, two cultures can come together and understand each other when they’re willing to listen to each other’s stories. The stories themselves often say much about the minds that created them, but it’s the act of listening that may be most important. Here, Logan tells the stories to Lily, and later her father, as he recounts his life before and after his apotheosis. Yet powerful interests have no interest in allowing the newcomers to live in peace with the original settlers. This unwillingness to see a perceived enemy as individuals has unfortunate echoes in modern Western society’s attitude towards Muslim immigrants. The problem worsens when, as is the case today, the Chinese immigrants begin to outcompete some of the local widowed women who are working as launderers; it improves when they offer some of their earnings to support these women and their children and when they invite everyone to their first Chinese New Year celebration. Unfortunately, this is only a brief happy period; as Liu notes in his afterword, in our real history, Chinese immigrants were eventually banned in much of the west and were forbidden from intermarrying with white women, so most of their communities died out. The story’s title and its eventual working out are possibly Liu’s most explicit metaphor in the book: the “all flavors’ are the many immigrants who have blended to create the modern United States, the bitter melon of one of the delicious Chinese recipes is the bitterness that intrudes on and sharpens our appreciation of the savory parts, and this pleasure is how life could be if only we’d let it. Sadly, we usually have pettier concerns.

A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel is set in an alternate history in which China sued for peace with Japan rather than vainly resisting the invasion that led to decades of atrocities in China as the Japanese empire extended its reach through Asia. As a result, the pre-World War II Japanese created a powerful version of the East Asian co-prosperity sphere instead of attacking Pearl Harbor. Though this initially seems to be a marked improvement over what happened in our reality, the Japanese of this alternate timeline remain xenophobic and martial, so their form of colonialism is not any better than the more familiar Western style—it mostly differs in the details. Nonetheless, their emperor of the time publicly claims that he prefers to expand his empire through peaceful means, and starts down that road by creating the eponymous tunnel—kind of a slower steampunk version of Elon Musk’s “hyperloop”, though the story is not explicitly steampunk. This begins around the time of the Great Depression, so the U.S. eagerly joins with Japan in this project to provide employment and jumpstart the economy. As in All Flavors, desperately poor peasants are the source of cheap labor because they can easily be lured from their homes with promises of a better life. Indeed, this story is drawn directly from our history of often horrific working conditions for the Chinese migrant workers who came to North America to work on the great western railroad projects and in the mines. Our protagonist and narrator is “Charley”, a Formosan native who is one of the last living men who labored to create the tunnel, and he has a dark secret: around the time that the Depression began to recede, better employment opportunities become available, and it became hard to find even peasants who were willing to do the brutal work of building the tunnel. But the Japanese have a ready source of slave labor in the prisoners harvested from China’s nascent Communist revolution. Work conditions are even worse for the slaves (though perhaps no worse than Mao’s post-revolution work camps), and I won’t spoil the story by revealing Charley’s secret. Charley, on the cusp of starting a new life with a widowed American woman he’s come to like, reveals his dark secret to her and works with her in a courageous act of rebellion against the code of silence that has grown up around a particularly nasty incident in the project.

In The Litigation Master and the Monkey King, Liu reprises a familiar theme, namely that of the clever peasant who out-clevers his “betters” among the aristocracy. Tian Haoli, the eponymous litigation master, lives in a tumbledown hut at the edge of town, where he serves as a kind of freelance public defender for citizens wronged by the laws of the Qing Dynasty. (In Qing China, as in any other large legal system, even the best and most nobly written laws are often abused by local officials, who work far from supervision and primarily for personal or political gain.) He works for food, or for the pleasure of taking down the high and mighty a few pegs. And Tian either has the Chinese Monkey King (a trickster-ish god, though perhaps more troublemaker than Coyote) living in his head, or imagines that he does; in the end, the difference has little import. Although Tian does a good job dealing with local matters, he’s drawn into a matter of greater import: the assistant of a disgraced scholar comes to ask that he help conceal a book that contains an eyewitness account of a Manchu massacre during the military campaign that led to establishment of the Qing Dynasty. Tian is smart enough to know that the imperial secret police will kill him if there’s any suspicion that he helped, and he is at first reluctant. But the Monkey King reminds him that the book contains a great truth that must someday be told, and Tian helps the scholar escape so the book will someday be returned and the truth revealed. For Tian, this is a heroic decision, since he correctly infers that it will end badly for him. And so it does, yet in that ending, Liu asks us to reconsider the “ordinary” heroism of the Assanges and Snowdens of the world, who also risk their lives to ensure that the truth is heard.

The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary is a curious choice with which to end the collection, since it dwells on a particularly nasty incident in the past without the kind of silver-lining optimism we’ve come to expect from Liu: bad shit happens, yet humans survive and move on in an effort to build something better. Here, the story is that of Unit 731, a unit of the World War II Japanese army that performed hideous experiments on Chinese, Korean, and Mongolian prisoners—as many as 250 000 of them—in Pingfang district of the captured city of Harbin. It’s no exaggeration to call the members of this unit Japan’s Mengele corps and to call Pingfang Japan’s Auschwitz. Here, the SFnal hook is the concept of Bohm-Kirino particles, fictional quantum-entangled particles associated with photons in such a way that one of the pair travels along with a photon while its partner remains behind at the site and time where the photon was created. If such particles existed, you could observe the particles that stayed behind and reconstruct the photons they represent so as to look into the past; the unfortunate consequence is that once observed, the particles disappear, thereby “ending” the possibility to visit that particular slice of history. (Though this proposed “science” violates a few inconvenient facts of relativity that prevent such faster-than-light communication, it’s still a fun idea to play with.) In Documentary, that look will be provided by a Chinese researcher who wants to visually prove the ugly reality of Pingfang so that relatives of the survivors can achieve some kind of closure. One of the interesting side notes is the legal argument between Japan and China about which nation owns these relics of the past; only one voice of reason notes that perhaps these relics should be considered the joint property of humanity and held under the aegis of the United Nations. As the story works towards its resolution, Liu deals with the nature of monsters, the nature of history (including a nod to the irony of historians who distrust first-person narratives in favor of documentary evidence that is—you guessed it—built from first-person narratives), and the consequences of memory. It’s clear that we need to excavate the horrors of the past, “lest we forget” the victims, but not everyone wants to remember and here, as there is in real life, there is collateral damage for doing the right thing. The story starts awkwardly as a long almost-lecture on the subject, for which the “documentary” structure alluded to in the title is appropriate but insufficient. Although the text does gradually become more of a story, with characters and changes in their worldview, it never fully escapes the sense of a lecture. In that sense, it’s perhaps the weakest story in the collection, even if it has all the emotional punch and thought-provoking nature of the best histories.

Is there anything to dislike about this collection? Liu is keenly aware of the evils of racism and colonialism, and makes no attempt to (ahem) whitewash them in any way, so some of the stories have a nasty bite to them. Though it’s a good thing when a story can evoke a strong emotional response, it means you might not want to read many of these stories if you’re feeling emotionally vulnerable. These are all tales of survival, whether of one’s self or one’s legacy, and survival often means passing through unpleasant events that leave scars. One thing that’s harder to excuse is that the book’s amateurish typography; the type is tiny and overly widely spaced, and although readable, it detracts significantly from the book’s otherwise high production quality. The lack of different running headings for the stories is annoying, but tolerable. Although I received the EPUB version for review, I bought a personal copy of the hardcover edition. The EPUB is protected by DRM despite growing evidence that this only slightly inconveniences the pirates and causes the most problems for legitimate readers. That being said, it may be a better choice if you’re as typographically snobbish as I am, or have aging eyes.

Most of these tales convey, at least to some extent, the importance and power of words, the stories they let us create, and their consequences. As Liu notes in the Preface: “We spend our entire lives trying to tell stories about ourselves—they’re the essence of memory. It is how we make living in this unfeeling, accidental universe tolerable.” But they also help us survive the horrors that are a too-common part of far too many lives. Liu reminds us of what I’ve often said about my profession (editing): “Every act of communication is a miracle of translation.” And such miracles, Liu reminds us, are what can make even the harshest life worth living.

So what’s my favorite story? That’s like asking which beer in a master brewer’s sampler is best: each one has its own distinctive taste, and is perfectly suited for a different mood and palate. If you’ve tried any of the recent crop of craft beers aged in old whiskey, rum, wine, or other barrels, that’s a good analogy for what to expect: the typical Liu story outwardly seems like nothing fancier than beer based on the shape of its container, but once you have a sip, you discover a far subtler and richer brew that is made for sipping rather than quaffing, and therefore intoxicating in a very different way from traditional beer. (And if you haven’t tried such beer, stop reading and go out and get one. You won’t be sorry.) This also means that many of the stories, such as The Paper Menagerie, aren’t suitable for those times when all you want is a Sam Adams. Nothing against Sam Adams (one of my standard go-to mass-market brands), but it seems somehow very ordinary after spending time with something richer. Liu’s stories are rarely comfort food, and they’re not a good choice when you’re brain-fuzzed and just looking for simple entertainment. The writing is lucid and often elegant, but there’s so much going on beneath the surface that you’ll miss too much if your brain isn’t fully engaged.

It’s hard to imagine Liu steadily improving his skills in coming decades, but if we’re lucky, this will only be the first of many collections.
blatherskite: (Default)
A colleague recently wondered about the usefulness of readability formulas such as those that most word processors offer. My take? They're nonsense. Not only useless, but possibly actively misleading.

What evidence do I offer as proof?

First, take any elegantly written sentence of about 10 words in length, then rearrange the words to reverse the meaning. Randomize the words to make the sentence incomprehensible without heroic effort. Rearrange the words with malice aforethought to make the sentence as difficult as humanly possible to comprehend. You'll calculate precisely the same readability index value.

Second, take any sentence and insert random (or deliberately malicious) punctuation after every word. Surprise! You get the same readability index.

Third, take any easily comprehended sentence and replace all the words with nonsense words of the same length (use random letters or change all the letters to "z"). You'll generally get exactly the same index value.

Any soi-disant "readability" index that cannot provide realistic differences in readability values for the different phrases in each of these three tests is useless. Q.E.D. To obtain a valid measure of readability, it's necessary to parse the sentence for structure and meaning. Currently, it takes human eyes to make this judgment.

But if you want proof from a real expert, try Brad Connatser's article "Last Rites for Readability Formulas".
blatherskite: (Default)
If you pay any attention to the Marvel and DC comic book universes, or know someone who does, you've undoubtedly heard about their periodic "reboots": whenever the storytelling environment (or a specific character in that environment) goes stale, they wipe the slate clean and start over. It's kind of a shoddy tactic, but it does elegantly solve the problem that after nearly 80 years, guys like Batman really shouldn't be standing without mechanical aid, let alone kicking supervillain ass.

Could the same approach work in written fiction? Maybe. Here's a scenario that explains the delay of more than 5 years between books 5 and 6 in George Martin's "Song of Fire and Ice" series (better known as "Game of Thrones"):

George Martin, having tired of the unending slaughter of characters (who haunt him when he sleeps) and having written himself into a corner, decides to borrow from the Marvel/DC examples and reboot his entire universe. The delay in releasing the next book in the series stems from simple physical logistics: Martin must reread all existing books to ensure that he's up to speed on his own story universe. This takes years, further delayed by the need to reappear in public every few weeks to reassure everyone that he's still alive and announce that book six will be coming "real soon now". (Rumors arise that he's paid the same folks who created hologram versions of Michael Jackson and Tupac to do this for him; they quickly deny this, pleading the lack of markets for holograms of literati who are actually still alive.)

In the rebooted universe, the Seven Gods each contribute a gem from their respective crowns to create a "finity gauntlet" ("infinity gauntlet" having been trademarked by Marvel), which they throw down to "Earth". The gauntlet confers the literal power of the gods to alter the universe; in the wrong hands, it could prove catastrophic. It ends up in the hands of long-suffering Sansa Stark, who uses it to reset the story universe to the point before the Starks leave for King's Landing (from which point everything goes to shit), and make the universe a shiny, happy place in which everyone is like the Dornish: polymorphously perverse (they'll sleep with anyone or anything), yet also fighters so skilled that they need never actually harm their foes. Instead, they subdue enemies through superior gymnastics and repartee/banter.

Widespread tournaments are held around the land to use up all that testosterone that would otherwise go to waste, but with Nerf weaponry and dedicated cadres of Maesters to heal anyone who is inexplicably wounded despite complex rules of engagement intended to avert any injury. Those who break the rules of engagement (e.g., the prohibition against aiming for the face) are sent for a "time out" at The Wall, where they spend some time (the duration depending on the seriousness of the crime) in a four-star hotel run by the Night's Watch. In a nod to political correctness, the Night's Watch is now a combination of all-volunteer army (mostly stocked with those who can't abide the summer heat in the southlands), and the former criminals who formed the Watch are rehabilitated and turned into valuable members of society. "Taking the black" becomes the polite way of saying "fucking off north to avoid one's responsibilities".

The occasional amputation (usually with farm implements) regrows itself without medical intervention; as a result, Jaime Lannister once again becomes the most feared Nerfsman in the seven kingdoms. Psychological wounds heal equally fast; Ramsay Bolton turns in his dissecting kit and roams the land, healing the sick and doing charitable work. When he dies under mysterious circumstances, his body ascends into the heavens and national days of mourning are declared in five of the seven kingdoms.

The dragons return, led by Puff, the Magic Dragon, and discover the joys of veganism. (There are also unicorn infestations, about which the less said, the better.) Veganism doesn't really catch on, other than among the peasants, who make a virtue of necessity. (Sansa having been raised in a royal enclave, she never quite "gets" the whole poverty thing.) Modern agriculture and supply management are implemented, banishing the specter of starvation forever. There is talk about "geoengineering" to eliminate the harsh cycle of long summers and decade-long winters, but the gods quickly quash that notion. (Translation: the editors at Bantam refuse to allow science fiction to intrude on this epic fantasy.)

Surprisingly, sales of subsequent books (starting with the hastily retitled "The Gentle Winds of Winter") plummet, and George Martin becomes a hermit. He no longer receives invitations to Guest of Honor gigs at SF/F conferences. Rumors arise that he is working on his capolavoro (masterwork), a romance novel with the working title "Fifty Shades of Pink". Every few weeks, Martin resurfaces to reassure us that it's coming "real soon now".

And so it goes.
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I belatedly noticed that my blog post from more than a week ago never arrived, so here's an update:

We're currently on vacation in Italy, and if you're interested, you can see a summary of our adventures, and selected photos.

Enjoy! Comments should be via this blog page, since there's no commenting feature on my Web site.
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Was recently chatting with a colleague on Twitter. He was wondering about the color of plants under suns with different colors (e.g., red vs. blue vs. Earth’s yellowish-white sun). It’s an interesting and complex question you’ll have to consider if you might be interested in trying to plausibly describe what plants would look like on other planets. Here’s my attempt to describe some of the key factors that affect the answer.

In summary, three main factors will affect what you’d see:
  • the peak wavelengths of light absorbed by the plants

  • the peak wavelengths of light emitted by the sun, and their intensities

  • the subjective effects of background colors

  • First, what wavelengths of light will the plants absorb? (Everything they don’t absorb will be mostly reflected -- which creates the colors that we see -- and partially transmitted.) For most terrestrial vegetation, chlorophyll is the most common and most important light-absorbing photosynthetic pigment. Its peak absorption occurs in the blue wavelengths (between 400 and 450 nm) and the orange-red wavelengths (between 620 and 680 nm), which is why green light is mostly reflected -- it falls between these absorption peaks -- and this is why most leaves look green.

    But plants have a serious problem with light absorption: if they don’t absorb enough light energy, they can’t manufacture enough sugars and they starve, but if they absorb too much light energy, it damages them*. Fortunately, plants have evolved ways to dissipate the excess energy by emitting heat and by various other complicated means I won’t go into here (e.g., non-photochemical quenching). So plants must evolve photosynthetic pigments that strike a difficult balancing act between capturing enough energy for the plant to thrive but not so much that the excess energy kills the plant. On Earth, that means developing complex mechanisms to capture just enough blue and red light and reflect most of the unnecessary green. Evolution will inevitably pick pigments that achieve this balance, but for alien plants, that balance won’t necessarily be achieved by anything that resembles chlorophyll. Or it might. Convergent evolution means that organisms will “choose” similar solutions to a given problem.

    * I can imagine a situation in which you disabled the plant’s energy-dissipation mechanisms, causing the plants to spontaneously self-combust. Hmmm... interesting possible mechanism for seed dispersal! At the end of the growing season, when the seeds are ripe, the genes that encode energy-dissipating structures stop working and the plant harvests so much energy that it literally blows up, scattering its seeds to the wind. Too bad if you’re hiking through the woods at that time of year and haven’t been on the planet long enough to discover this phenomenon. Houston, we have a problem!

    Second, what wavelengths are emitted by the sun and at what intensity? Red suns will emit primarily red wavelengths, which is why they look red; similarly blue suns will emit primarily blue wavelengths, and look blue. And so on for other colors. (That’s vastly oversimplifying, of course, since suns tend to fall into certain categories of color output that are determined by their age and the fusion conditions inside the star. But the description is accurate enough for the purposes of this blog entry.) If the sun emits too much energy at its peak wavelength, then by definition (of “too much”) plants will need to find ways to reflect or transmit most of that light and capture only the remaining parts of the spectrum (i) that provide enough energy for survival and (ii) that they can safely absorb without spontaneously self-combusting.

    So, for example, an alien sun that emits roughly the same amounts of blue and red light as our sun is likely to lead to the evolution of plants similar to ours that absorb the blue and red light and reflect the green. But a high-intensity blue sun might produce plants that reflect most of that blue light to avoid overheating and that instead emphasize absorption of red light; their leaves would therefore appear blue. The opposite would occur with a high-intensity red sun: too much red, so the leaves would need to reflect the red wavelengths and would thereby appear red. The intensity of light received in a given wavelength band will also depend on how far the planet is from its sun and atmospheric chemistry: different chemistry will lead to different absorption profiles.

    Third and last, color is only an objective parameter if you’re a spectrometer. (That is, light with a wavelength of 450 nm will always be blue to a spectrogrometer.) The problem for us humans is that our perception of light is highly subjective: light receptors in our retina that specialize in wavelengths around 450 nm (nominally, blue light) will always detect that wavelength, but we might not perceive it as “blue”. The problem is that we account for background colors and the color of the light source when we judge a color. If you’ve ever been shopping for house paint, you’ve encountered this problem: a swatch that looks great in the showroom looks horrible in your living room, with different light.

    Let’s bring this back to plants. Have you ever noticed how the same leaf seems to change color between high noon and sunset on a sunny day, and how both these colors differ from those that you perceive on a heavily overcast or rainy day. (The reductio ad absurdum is, to borrow a phrase and mix a metaphor, “all cats are black after midnight". When there’s no light or only dim light, you can’t see the color at all.) We still see roughly the same part of the color spectrum (i.e., some shade of green), but the details of how we would describe that color change remarkably. The problem is sufficiently important that people who do prepress work for print publications use scrupulously color-adjusted monitors and background lighting to ensure that what they see on the screen is what they’ll get from the printing press.

    So what’s the poor science fiction author to do when it comes time to figure out plant colors on their alien world? Come up with plausible descriptions of the three abovementioned factors and use them to infer a defensible plant color.

    For example, let’s assume a primarily red sun that’s far enough from the planet in question that sunlight arriving at the planet is weak, and plants have to focus on capturing the dominant wavelength to ensure that they get enough energy. (How far is that? Personally, I don’t care. If you need to know, buy an astrophysicist a beer and ask them to do the calculations for you. If you're a writer rather than a scientist, the only answer that's important is this one: "Far enough to create the color I described. You're the scientist; you tell me!") In any event, this means the leaves will primarily absorb the red wavelengths; there might not be enough blue and green light to justify the cost of producing blue- and green-absorbing pigments, so it would be reasonable to predict that the plants would appear a pale blueish-green because they’d reflect those colors. On the other hand, if the light energy reaching the plant is low enough, the plants might also have to harvest all the blue and green light too if they want to capture enough energy to survive; as a result, their leaves would tend towards black (because very little light is reflected). Contrast this with plants that evolved close to a blazing red sun: in this case, there’s probably too much red light, and they’ll need to reflect most of that light to avoid spontaneous combustion from absorbing too much energy. As a result, the leaves will appear red.

    If you’re feeling particularly bold (or perhaps just masochistic), throw in complications such as light absorption by the atmosphere or the ability of plants to shift their dominant pigments over the course of the day to optimize light capture as the sunlight’s spectral characteristics shift*, thereby ending up with leaf colors that change over the course of the day. I haven’t even thought about the third factor (subjective color perception)... that way lies madness. But I imagine you could manipulate a vegetation image in Photoshop by color-shifting all the leaves and the background color (perhaps using a subtractive filter) to create a credible subjective image of your alien vegetation that would guide your description of the fictional vegetation.

    * Because more of certain light wavelengths will be absorbed by the atmosphere as the sun approaches the horizon.

    Diehard plant physiologists will undoubtedly still tell you that you got it all wrong, but if your assumptions are plausible, you can look them in the eye and confidently state that you chose plausible conditions for your working assumptions and plausibly extrapolated the perceived leaf color based on those assumptions.


    Some additional thoughts on this subject from people who have actual PhDs (with thanks to John Freeman, @MadScientistJo):

    Colors of Alien Plants by Vikki Meadows

    Alien plants may come in all colours but blue by Heidi Ledford
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    Suburban Montreal isn’t exactly the wilds of Siberia, but we live in a lushly vegetated part of the western ‘burbs, where there’s lots of interesting things going on if you pay attention while doing your chores.

    Yesterday and today, I was doing basic lawn cleanup: an hour or so raking up the dead grass thatch from last year, then whacking some woody vegetation that had intruded upon the garden -- which is nature green in tooth and claw and a Darwinian exercise in survival of the fittest, since I don’t have much time to garden and mostly just encourage the flowering wild plants that have taken root amidst the original vegetation. But still, the woody vegetation has an unfair advantage, and I try to level the playing field. It’s a nicely zen activity, even though it’s more fun while the geese are still overflying and giving me an excuse to pause and admire.

    So what are those little hidden treasures?

    The day lilies are just beginning to poke their heads timidly out of the ground. About a thumb’s length, and the kind of pale yellow-green that seems as hesitant as the plants themselves. Thus far, only hints of green at the crowns of the grass, but now that the thatch is gone, they should green up quickly. But still: green, amidst a sea of dead grass and leafless trees.

    In damper areas of the yard, the moss is greening up too. It’s hard to rake up all the windfallen twigs and final leaves from last year without disturbing the moss. Still haven't decided whether to restrict it to part of the lawn and resod, or let it flourish. Probably the latter. There's plenty of grass in suburbia, but not so much with the moss.

    Flagrantly blueish-magentaish forget-me-nots have popped up all over the lawn, along with wild strawberry, whose leaves are just visible amidst the grass stubble. The violets haven't yet made an appearance. In a week or two, we’ll have flowers on the strawberries, then a few tiny fruits that escape the birds long enough for me to find them.

    The rake uncovered a chestnut so vibrantly and glossy brown that it should have a dictionary entry beside that color. Oh wait... chestnut brown. But now I know why it deserves its own entry. There was a teeny little radicle protruding from the otherwise perfect nut, so I planted it. If it survives, I’ll find somewhere to transplant it. The tiny hickory I transplanted a few years ago and fed by hand (fertilizer and water) is now taller than the roof, and thicker than my arm. Surprisingly, it has a cousin that blew into a neglected corner of the yard. In a few years we may start getting nuts.

    Up on the roof, where I'm doing my annual inspection to check for winter damage, there’s shiny grey lichen on fallen twigs, patches of moss in places you wouldn't expect. And a birdseye view of the neighborhood. The tar patch I put in to keep the bathroom vent water-tight is still there and looking almost professionally done. (If you look under "handyman" in the dictionary, I'm listed under antonyms.) The eavestroughs are clean again and should do their job until the fall.

    On the deck, there are surprising glistening pill bugs when my brown sweeps away the occasional pile of winter debris. My favorite tribe of ants, the midsized non-carpenter-ant black ones, have begun spring foraging. It's warm enough today that I shed my coat when I came down and began trimming back the cedar hedge. Love that conifer scent from sunwarmed broken branches. I've put aside some of the branches for the fireplace this autumn.

    A lovely break from the computer, where I’ll shortly return to working on the Web page that will accompany the 3rd edition of Effective Onscreen Editing. Probably in late May, depending on how fast the copyediting goes.
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    Just finished Max Gladstone's second book, Two Serpents Rise, and it lives up to the high standard set by his first book. Gladstone has a gift for dropping you into a complex and fascinating world with just a few deft strokes of the pen, and once you're in, draws you along the road to the denouement with nary a detour and precious little padding. Lots of information ends up being delivered on a complex milieu, but never at the cost of infodumps. Smooth!

    Two Serpents is kind of like the love child of Michael Moorcock and John Grisham. Imagine, if you will, a world after the Craftsmen (powerful sorcerors) have stood toe to toe with the old gods and defeated them, replacing a world of superstition and blood sacrifice with a world of "scientific" magic, bound together by a web of powerful sorcerous contracts both among people and between humans and extradimensional horrors (demons and the like). But of course, just because (most of) the gods are dead -- except for those that have gone into hiding or been chained and used to supply mystical power for the new society -- this doesn't mean they're all dead, nor does it mean their followers are willing to accept defeat.

    Into this situation comes Caleb, who straddles the two worlds: his father is one of the last Eagle Knights, defeated but not yet ready to quit and lurking in the shadows, striving to restore the old ways -- or at least protect those who cling to them. Caleb, on the other hand, stands firmly in the "modern" world. He doesn't precisely hate his father, who is striving to bring the old ways back, but resents him and doesn't quite trust him, seeing him as a relic of an older, not very nice age. Enter Mal, a woman who Caleb meets while she's doing this world's equivalent of parcours (aka "parkour" or "free running") -- but who's also a powerful Craftswoman. They're immediately struck by something special about each other, thrown together and then apart by events, and a difficult and thorny romance ensues. But both members of the couple have secrets, and things don't go quite as you'd expect. (Or perhaps they do, since all the surprises stem from well-prepared leads. But no spoilers here!)

    Gladstone writes economically, but with occasional flashes of humor and beauty. There's a ton of delicious weirdness, such as "dragonfly" taxis: you wave an arm to summon them, they carry you off, and they take a bit of your soul in payment. Buried beneath a compelling thriller plot are some interesting messages. First, and most obviously, there's the important point that if you give up one form of sacrifice, you need to carefully consider what is taking its place. Second, there's the issue of ecological sustainability, since the Craftsmen are more about economics than they are about ecology, which provides an uncomfortable parallel to our modern world. But it's all submerged beneath a great story, so it's never preachy.

    Brilliantly done, and pulled me through the book so quickly I almost regretted when it was over. But then, I have two more of his books on the way. Stay tuned!
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    Apologies for the long delay between posts... crazy busy, plus working in the few free moments to update Effective Onscreen Editing. The good news is that I now have a first draft of the 3rd edition. The bad news is that I now have to revise it and send it for editing. Stay tuned!

    In the meantime, one of my stories was accepted for Superhero Universe, volume 19 in the Tesseracts anthology series. Corey Redekop, one of the authors, offered a series of interview questions so that participating authors could publicize the anthology and express some thoughts on what we'd written. The original interview appears here, on Corey's site, and is republished here with his permission. Herewith, my responses to Corey's questions.

    1) Tell us about your story.

    Blunt Instruments undoubtedly emerged from my subconscious in response to Marvel’s “Civil War” series of stories, which focused on registration of superheroes so the government could keep an eye on them. To me, the obvious question was what would happen if the government took the obvious next step and weaponized them. The original goal may have been good, but knowing how governments work and how they tend to abuse power...

    2) How did the idea for your story come about?

    Schenectady. (Reader, if you don’t get the reference, Google the name but add “Ellison”. It’s a whole thing, but it was a long time ago.) More seriously, it was probably motivated by a nearly forgotten quote by a long-ago Canadian politician (a former prime minister, as it happens):

    "Politics is the skilled use of blunt objects."—Lester B. Pearson.

    Cross that with “civil war” and the results seem inevitable.

    3) Were there any superhero-related pitfalls/clichés that you struggled with?

    This kind of question always comes down to a subjective response: one person’s archetype is another person’s cliché. The answer always depends on whether you like the story, not whether what you’ve done is objectively cliché or archetype. There’s not much objective about how you respond to fiction, if you’re being honest with yourself. But in my story, I took a few clichés and tried to own them by creating a sympathetic narrator who had no choice other than to deal with them while keeping his sanity.

    4) What do you think of the resurgence in superhero movies and television shows?

    Society tends to valorize the storytellers who evoke and then soothe their fears, witness the current Trumpzilla craze. (Seriously! You’d never get away with telling that kind of story in fiction. Anything that stupid and illogical has to be truth, not fiction.) I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that the same underlying forces (fear of the way our world is heading and the heartfelt desire for a saviour who won’t require us to think or make any sacrifices) are at work behind the popularity of both superheroes and Trump.

    But just to be clear: though I’m sure some superhero fans are also Trump supporters, in no way am I tarring the whole group of fans with that same odious brush. After all, I’m one of that group [superhero fans, not Trump fans]. My point is that the same existential fear expresses itself in different ways.

    5) Which superhero could you see yourself being best pals with?

    I could see myself befriending any of the good guys. I’ve always had a Galahad (or sometimes Gawain) complex, you see. Which one would I most like to befriend? Probably Hank McCoy (The Beast). He’s got serious geek cred, yet also one of the sweetest personalities imaginable when he’s allowed to be himself.

    6) What makes a good hero/villain?

    Heroes have to evoke something in us that hungers to be better than we are, to rise above our limitations and be loved despite them. To accomplish something. To make a difference. Villains have to create fear that goes beyond cheap visual effects (splatterpunk). They have to really reach into us and undermine something fundamental about what we believe to be normal, such as the stability of our world. (That’s what makes Lovecraft -- and Stross’ current take on Lovecraft -- work.) One of the best and creepiest examples was Neil Gaiman’s Sandman story about a serial killer’s convention, where one of the killers comments about how he can’t understand why people rhapsodize about their lover’s eyes. After all, if you put them all in a big bowl, I defy you to recognize which ones belong to your lover. *shudders* Guy Gavriel Kaye, in the Fionavar Tapestry, also did a great job of creating a Big Bad who was really, really scary. There, it was the complete lack of empathy for anything human that got me.

    7) Best/worst superhero? Why?

    I’ve got a weakness for Spiderman; Peter Parker does the “smart outsider who’s really a mensch when it comes right down to it” better than anyone. On the other hand, I’m not fond of Superman. I’m sure he’d be a great neighbour, but as a literary character, he’s just too powerful. His limitations are so limited that you have to twist yourself into convolutions to come up with something that will challenge him. And then it becomes a game of continuously trying to out-super him with new villains that up the ante to unbelievable levels. (This is the pre-reboot Superman; I lost interest before John Byrne and others began trying to make the character less super, more man. I’ve heard good things, but haven’t followed up.)

    8) Best/worst supervillain? Why?

    The best supervillains are comprehensible: anyone who makes you go “actually, that makes a lot of sense... no, wait!” Any of the ultimately powerful ones are pretty lame and fall on the “worst” side -- take your pick. If they’re that powerful, why are they wasting their time with us?

    9) Most underrated/overrated superhero? Why?

    I have a fondness for the “big dumb lug” characters, who are usually underestimated because nobody sees that there are depths. Hence my choice of a character in Blunt Instruments. He’s my hommage to Ben Grimm/The Thing, with a little of Guido Carosella/Strong Guy thrown in for good measure.

    10) Most valuable/least valuable superpower? Why?

    I’d like to say the most valuable power is empathy, since the ability to really “get” someone else gives you enormous power to bridge the distance. But turning every comic book into a rap session about “feelings” would get boring awfully fast. So in terms of bang for the buck, brainpower is what gets you through each new crisis. You could turn me into Superman, and I’d still get my ass kicked -- I just don’t think fast enough on my feet. Least valuable? No power is inherently useless (e.g., Squirrel Girl). It’s all in how you use it.

    11) What’s the one superhero cliché you hate above all others?

    Can’t think of one, offhand. They’re all clichés because they speak to something we all want to hear more about -- repeatedly. That tells me there’s something powerful underlying them that bears closer examination, and when you really get what’s at the root of the cliché, you can turn it into something powerful. On the other hand, I dearly love the whole cliché about the villain telling the hero about the master plan while there’s still time to stop it. Alan Moore’s bit with Ozymandias subverting this cliché in Watchmen is one of the finest moments in comic fiction, bar none. (Speaking of which, I have to give a shout-out to the Evil Overlord site in case readers haven’t seen it before.)

    12) If you could have the powers of one particular superhero for a week, whose powers would you choose and what would you do?

    I’ve always fantasized about being a healer -- the kind of character who lays on hands, takes on the wounds of another, and heals them. But after a week, your life would be over: nobody in the world would believe your powers were gone, and you’d be endlessly harassed by people you could never help, and saying no would be excruciating. More practically, I’d want a week of super-brains: enough mindpower to be able to think through the really difficult problems and solve them. To be someone like Reed Richards or Tony Stark who could solve global warming, the energy crisis, clean water, viruses, psychopathy... and on and on. Ideally, earn enough money from doing so to found something parallel to the Gates Foundation that would enable those good works to continue in the long-term by bringing together the finest minds to work on these problems.

    13) Favourite/least favourite particular superhero media? (i.e. a particular comic book issue, movie, book, or television show)

    No opinion: If it’s done well, the medium is irrelevant to me (except insomuch as the medium shapes the message, so some messages may be impossible without appropriate support from a specific medium). I haven’t seen any live-action theatrical superhero fiction, but there’s something about in-person performances that can be magical in a way that TV and movies can’t be. I’d love to see someone do that well. The Spiderman musical, only done on a much smaller and more human scale with more heroism and less special effects and stunts.

    14) Which do you prefer, superhero stories of a “realistic and gritty” nature or stories of a more fantastical bent?

    Different stories at different times, but definitely more on the realistic and gritty end of the spectrum. The problem I have with the fantastic end of the spectrum is that it’s too open-ended, and tends to make things too easy for the hero. I prefer heroes who have to work hard, using only what they’ve got, to win. If they can magically come up with any solution necessary to solve a problem, that’s much less interesting to me than someone who has to stretch limited resources (mental or otherwise) to solve their problem.

    15) Where do you hope future superhero stories will take us?

    There’s still so much to explore: issues of race, poverty, all the -isms that are destroying the world or making us fight over problems we should be cooperating to solve. Heroes, super or otherwise, inspire us to grapple with the problems and find solutions.

    16) Add your own question.

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Alan Moore, who is brilliant, points out that this is perhaps the central question about any great power. In the end, we have to self-police, and when we can’t, things can get ugly fast.
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    I'll start with the negative so as to end on a somewhat positive note. First off, let's dispense with the obvious targets: if you don't enjoy Star Wars physics, this film won't make you any more of a fan. Not so much with the hard science fiction. More like hard fantasy (i.e., fantasy with lots of tech thrown in). Which is fine so far as it goes... I loved the first Star Wars film.

    But several big problems largely ruined the film for me. First and most obvious, there was no situation in which the writers were inspired by the original three films to boldly go beyond what had previously been established and thereby create something new. In fact, you could have made about 90% of the current film using clips from the first three films and a little bit of CGI. This isn't the "fan service" or "working with established tropes" that some have proposed; it rarely went beyond slavish and uninspired imitation.

    Plot logic? Feh. Such plot as there is could be tidily presented in a single commercial break between segments of the film when it's eventually shown on TV. And I predict it won't be long before one of the Internet's many freelance comedy groups creates a 5-minute version of "The Force Awakens" that sacrifices nothing of significance from the original.

    Pacing was an interesting problem, and one I'm not sure how to describe. The film that started the franchise whizzed along at a snappy pace, with appropriate pauses in the action and a tempo that carried me along so that the film felt like it was over before I noticed any passing time. In contrast, the current film seemed like a bunch of badly paced set pieces that stopped long enough for everyone to admire the technical wizardry before lurching into motion again. Granted, all films are composed of set pieces; these ones just didn't flow somehow. I didn't find myself tapping a foot waiting to leave, but neither did I feel swept away.

    Won't someone tell Hollywood that you can't use a sword like a baseball bat? It takes training and practice to develop even basic proficiency. (I say this as someone's who has significant, though not expert-level, training in kendo and a single training session with a German longsword.) Ditto for staff weapons. You can handwave this for jedi, given that they have mystical combat powers; you can't handwave it for someone like Finn who's probably never seen a sword in his life; if he had, he'd have been carrying one as a sidearm. Also, Finn is clearly a mutant: he's the one storm trooper in history who can actually hit a live target.

    On a side note, I have no problem with Kylo Ren's much mocked cross-hilted lightsaber. It actually makes far more sense than a non-hilted weapon. With a physical blade, a glancing blow that skips past a katana's hilt is likely to be survivable. Not so much with an energy sword.

    Finally, diversity or its lack: It's great to have a white female and black male lead, and perhaps given the moral thrust of these films, it's appropriate that the universe seems entirely black and white. I recall no Asian, Indian, or other characters who were not white or black, but possibly they were there somewhere in the background or wearing masks. At least Abrams avoided the overt racism of the three prequel films. [Looking back: A colleague pointed out that there was one Asian character in the council scene. Too little, but perhaps not as whitebread as I'd originally believed.]

    Speaking of Abrams, "Awakens" showed no signs of the seeming contempt for the franchise and its fans that characterized his Star Trek reboot. Neither did he seem to get what people loved about the original trilogy. He was going through the motions without recapturing any of the magic. I'm not saying this as an offended fan boy; I don't take Star Wars that seriously. I'm just saying that the film felt flat.

    On the plus side, the film is largely saved by the actors, despite mostly uninspiring dialogue. Our old favorites from the original trilogy did credible jobs reprising their starring roles, yet without stepping between us and the new characters. (And may I just say, when did Mark Hamill turn into Oliver Reed? Love it and can't wait to see what he does with his role in the next film!) The new actors did credible jobs, and Daisy Ridley in particular. Though she starts out as a "being rescued princess", she quickly grew into her role and I suspect she'll take over in the rescuer role in coming films. [A look back: a colleague noted that apart from the first scenes of the swordfight with Kylo Ren, Finn starts out trying to rescue Rey, but Rey ends up doing most of the rescuing. Possibly a running gag?] John Boyega's Finn is lots of fun; he has charisma and humor and hidden reserves of courage. Kylo Ren does not strike me as a convincing character, and Adam Driver looks nothing like any of his parents or grandparents (over whom I'll draw the spoiler curtain), but he did a decent job with a limited and weakly written role.

    Apart from pacing problems, the film's execution was decent. The backgrounds were spectacular, particularly the crashed warships in the desert. The CGI was excellent, and I imagine much fun will be had scanning the backgrounds (particularly in the bar scene) for easter eggs once the DVD version of the film is out.

    Overall rating? Meh. The new characters carried me through the film without too much griping, but on the whole, it was a disappointing outing.
    blatherskite: (Default)
    A writer friend who has mostly focused on heroic fantasies is switching focus to write a space opera and wondered whether it’s possible to create plausible, planetary-scale dust storms, and what the fictional consequences might be. That inspired a few thoughts on the subject based on my academic background in ecological science and the research papers I’ve been editing for the past couple decades for Chinese desertification researchers. There will be obvious echoes of Frank Herbert’s Dune in this essay, some implicit and some explicit.

    For what it’s worth, if your only experience with Dune is the David Lynch movie -- something so appallingly bad and distasteful I feel the need for mental mouthwash even thinking of it -- you owe it to yourself to read the actual novel; it’s good, and in places, very good indeed. Possibly stop after the first novel; the quality slides rapidly downhill from there. Haven’t read his son’s subsequent novelizations, but a few excerpts I’ve seen don’t bode at all well for their quality.

    A caveat before I begin: First, I will not even come close to touching on all the potentially important aspects in this essay. Thus, consider it woefully incomplete, and it will remain so until it’s expanded to textbook length. Someday. Second, although I have tried to stay within the limits of what I know, I am not an expert on many of the subjects that I’ll touch on. Thus, treat what I’ve written as a decent first draft of a fuller and more accurate description. The final draft will have to wait for the aforementioned textbook. If you need the *ahem* nitty-gritty details of these subjects, you’ll need to hunt down a real expert to obtain those details.

    Nothing to fear but dust itself... and sand

    A couple brief etymological notes before I begin: “Dust” (the really small stuff) and “sand” (the less-small stuff) are often used interchangeably in words such as “sandstorm”. This is because a significant storm will transport large quantities of both. Lighter particles will be transported by the first significant winds, and as the wind intensity increases, larger particles will be transported. I’ll use “sandstorm” promiscuously to describe all such events, but will try to use “dust” and “sand” appropriately for the specific particle sizes I’m discussing at any point without recomplicating things. The process of transforming quiet surface particles into windblown particles is called “entrainment”; the heavier the object, the stronger the wind that is required to entrain it (i.e., to carry it along for the ride).

    First, let’s consider the overall special effect one might be striving for. Mars is famous for its planet-covering sandstorms, and you can’t do better than NASA’s The Fact and Fiction of Martian Dust Storms Web page for a primer on the subject. These sandstorms are known to cover continent-sized areas quite frequently, and to cover most of the planet occasionally (about every 3 Martian years according to NASA). One unique thing about Martian sandstorms is that the atmospheric density is only about 1% of that on Earth, so the wind doesn’t exert much pressure; pressure results from the joint action of many atoms or molecules, and this means there’s not much pressure in a Martian wind. Furthermore, Martian winds seem not to reach the extreme velocities we see here on Earth. Taken together, these two bits of trivia mean that Martian winds are unlikely to be strong enough to propel particles that are big enough to cause significant damage to hardened structures or even to soft humans in vacuum suits. Even when a Martian wind is moving fast, there aren’t enough air molecules to generate significant thrust.

    A consequence of this problem is that most of the material transported by Martian sandstorms will be dust rather than sand or gravel. That dust won’t carry much of an impact, but it will work its way into every exposed nook and cranny of things like a space suit or vehicle. Worse, it is likely to adhere electrostatically to every surface. When you break sand and larger things (gravel to rocks) into fine dust particles, you break a lot of bonds between particles. The surfaces of the particles are likely to develop negative or positive electrostatic charges*, depending on their mineral composition. Removing the adhered particles from a surface is likely to require more than just brushing the particles with a broom; without first neutralizing that charge, the particles are likely to spring back into place. Water works, but on the kind of desert planet most likely to generate ongoing sandstorms, you probably won’t have a lot of water to spare. In any event, a lot of cleaning will be required.

    * This is related to a property called the “cation exchange capacity”, which represents the number of sites on a particle’s surface that can bind to free-floating positively charged atoms or molecules. All broken surfaces have such sites, but because there may be hundreds or thousands of dust particles for each grain of sand, the finer particles have a correspondingly higher capacity per unit volume. This capacity is important for soils used to cultivate crops, since it determines the quantity of nutrients such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium the soil can retain until plants take them up.

    In some cases, various chemical properties of the dust will create additional problems. For example, Martian regolith (immature soil) seems to have a high perchlorate content. Perchlorates are chemical groups made from a single chlorine atom and four oxygen atoms. They don’t mix well with living things, since they become perchloric acid (a strong acid) when dissolved in water. Even in the absence of water, perchlorate is a strong oxidizer (i.e., it’s eager to donate its oxygen to or steal electrons from other substances), and will therefore be highly corrosive to many substances. If you want to simplify your description of sandstorms, best avoid planets with soils that have high contents of perchlorate or other substances that would not usually be present in large quantities unless you’re willing to explore the consequences.

    If you want a planet where people can walk around in normal clothing, yet where sandstorms can be problematic, we can turn to Earth for an example. Earth has many dry regions that are likely to create sandstorms. Particles from African desert sandstorms blow annually across the Atlantic in clouds dense enough that they sometimes block the sky, and parts of these clouds reach as far as North America and South America. You can see a fairly spectacular picture at NASA’s Dust storm sweeps from Africa into Atlantic Web page. Similarly, dust from sandstorms in northern China sweeps across the Pacific annually during the prime sandstorm season, as described in NASA’s The Pacific dust express Web page. The quantities of dust transported annually are huge, and they have important consequences for air quality (e.g., pollutant transport). They also increase the fertility of large areas of the ocean (which is relatively nutrient-poor compared to land) and of land where the dust falls to earth -- or is washed out of the atmosphere by rain.

    An important difference from Mars is that Earth’s atmospheric density is high enough that significantly large particles can be “entrained” by the wind and carried at high velocities. If you’ve watched the annual hurricane reports on TV or the Web during the Caribbean hurricane season, you’ve seen just how powerful terrestrial winds can become. My brother lives just north of Miami, and every year he has to put up massive storm shutters to protect the windows; one year, a window was shattered through the shutter when a windblown coconut struck the shutter with the force of a cannon shot. There are stories of pieces of straw (dried grass stems) being embedded in a tree by storm winds; the cheerfully nihilistic investigators at Mythbusters confirm this to be true, though perhaps not as exaggerated an effect as reported in some tales. This means that both humans and human structures will need to be armored against windblown projectiles, and if there’s a significant sand source upwind, they should be highly resistant to abrasion. Imagine having several miles of coarse sandpaper run rapidly across your skin for an hour or more and you’ll understand why you really don’t want to be caught out in a severe sandstorm. After all, there’s a reason they use sandblasting to clean building surfaces down to the bone.

    Even leaving aside the issue of abrasion or impacts, significant sandstorms can bury fields of crops and other human structures. China invests remarkable amounts of money annually on engineering to protect people and infrastructure from sandstorms. People living on a sandstormy planet would have little choice but to learn from the Chinese. The Dust Bowl in North America during the 1930s is a good period to study if you want to learn about the consequences when ill-considered agriculture meets climate change and to mine those accounts for story material. Or perhaps just wait a few more years and see what happens to the American Midwest if current farming and climate trends continue.

    Atmospheric circulation patterns

    To provide a realistic description of how wind interacts with surface sediments to create sandstorms, you first need to know a little bit about the effects of wind. This is not a trivial subject; some of my Chinese clients have been studying these phenomena for decades, and each new study reveals how much more they and other scientists have yet to learn. Since this article is written from the perspective of supporting fiction, I’ll keep to the essentials. But if the subject fascinates you as much as it fascinates me, you’ll want to pick up a good book on geology to learn more details about the interactions between winds and surface materials.

    First, let’s start with global-scale effects, since the subject that inspired this essay was global-scale sandstorms, and use familiar examples from Earth. The first thing to understand is that on a planet with a reasonably dense atmosphere, convection becomes a highly significant process. Convection occurs when air at ground level is heated by the sun, becomes less dense, and rises above the more dense surrounding air; as it rises, it cools, becomes more dense, and falls again to the ground. At a local scale, this is part of the process that leads to thunderstorms. At a global scale, heating is greatest at the equator, so that’s where convection is most intense. This convection creates three large latitudinal bands between the equator and the poles, each with its own convection patterns, and the boundaries between these bands are defined by the positions of the rising and falling convected air. Although large bodies of air can certainly cross these boundaries, much of the circulation occurs within (rather than between) the bands. Wikipedia’s Atmospheric Circulation article provides a good explanation and illustration of this phenomenon.

    At the same time, the planet is spinning beneath these bands. You can imagine the effect if you go to the local playground, climb onto the merry-go-round, start it spinning, attach yourself to a rope, loosely wrap the rope around one of the bars, and then jump into the air; the surface continues rotating, carrying the rope with it, whereas your momentum is perpendicular to the rotation direction, causing you to fly off that surface and possibly collide with something. In effect, the part of the rope attached to the merry-go-round keeps traveling in a circle, but you don’t, and this causes the rope to twist. In a similar manner, at least by analogy, air masses still touch the surface of the rotating Earth, so their bottom gets dragged along with the surface due to friction while their top gets left somewhat behind, causing the air mass to twist.

    The latitudinal bands of air circulation dominate global air circulation patterns, and therefore affect wind patterns and how they transport dust on a global scale. These patterns affect all kinds of story-relevant things, including prevailing wind directions and the strength and frequency of major storms, such as hurricanes. The Wikipedia article on Hadley cells will provide additional grounding on these effects. But winds and climate are more complex than this simplistic description; for example, local obstacles such as mountains and local heat sources such as cities and large bodies of water can act on the patterns at smaller scales. Thus, treat my description as only the starting point for your explorations.

    Next, let’s look at smaller-scale surface effects. First and most obvious, there’s the law of physics that says “what goes up must come down again”. As I noted earlier, sand and dust transported by the wind eventually get dumped back on the surface. This means we can’t ignore the final destination of the materials transported by sandstorms. For example, unless the storm is eternal, it will eventually deposit its burden to form sand sheets and sand dunes, which have bewilderingly diverse and beautiful morphologies. Moreover, each evolves in its own way -- yet another of those “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” things that Nature does so well. From a story perspective, several factors must align before you create sandy deserts, their dunes, and sandstorms: wind strong enough to cause erosion, a supply of erodible sediments (river sediments, dried lake bottoms, exposed soil, etc.), and factors that make those sediments vulnerable to erosion (e.g., low precipitation, high evaporation, and low coverage of the ground by vegetation*). In northern China, a combination of climate change (a warming and drying climate) and unsustainably intense human activities (agriculture and grazing animals) have combined to create one of the most severe desertification crises in the world. China’s not alone in this problem, and when you consider your story world, don’t neglect the effects of human activities on the sandstorms.

    * Water creates cohesion between particles, helping them to resist the wind. This is particularly true if it dissolves salts that form a glue of sorts that binds the particles together, forming what’s called an inorganic or salt crust. Evaporation removes water from the soil, either weakening cohesion between particles or creating a salt crust. Vegetation stabilizes soil by breaking the force of the wind, thereby reducing its ability to entrain particles, but also captures blowing particles. The net effect of all these factors acting simultaneously is, predictably, complex.

    Plants and animals

    Here’s our first explicit mention of what’s been called the “Dune problem”. First, some context: For a planet to have significant amounts of oxygen in its atmosphere, current consensus suggests that it will need large amounts of plants or comparable organisms capable of releasing oxygen.* On a hypothetical alien world, you can choose something more exotic to produce the oxygen, but whatever that may be, it will most likely need involve extraction of oxygen from water, which is likely to be the most readily available oxygen source in most habitable worlds**. These organisms can range from extensive areas of forest and grassland (an easy, familiar solution) to seemingly barren areas that nonetheless contain a surprisingly high level of cryptophytes, which are tiny, inconspicuous plants that hide in places you’d never expect to find plants. Such places include the biological crusts that form in the soil surface when microorganisms bind the particles together with their metabolic byproducts. They also include -- surprisingly -- rocks, as in the case of endolithic species that survive beneath the surface of rocks, between the grains. Endoliths are particularly interesting because they must live deep enough in the rock to be protected from harsh environmental conditions that would otherwise kill them, but close enough to the surface that light will penetrate to allow them to photosynthesize.

    * Physical processes that liberate oxygen undoubtedly exist, but the problem is that free oxygen is highly reactive; it combines with just about anything it touches, becoming chemically unavailable to support life. Thus, it must be renewed on an ongoing basis to prevent the atmosphere from becoming oxygen-depleted. Purely nonbiological processes seem less plausible as a source of oxygen. You’d probably have to invoke some reasonably whacky geochemistry. For example, large deposits of exposed platinum (a powerful catalyst) might do the trick if you could create a mechanism for moving inorganic oxygen across the catalyst. In fiction, if not in reality, this could perhaps be done through sandstorms that are a plague upon the land, but that nonetheless are essential to provide oxygen for the atmosphere. Photolysis (the breakdown of water and nitrogen oxides by intense light) is another possibility, but it’s a slow process and not particularly important to the big picture. For it to be important, you’d need to propose an alien race who tuned the emissions of their sun to optimize photolysis. Which would be interesting, albeit implausible.

    ** Here, I’m assuming plain vanilla biology, which (to the best of our knowledge) requires oxygen and water. That system is simply the most efficient we know of. Anaerobes, of which there are many, can live without free oxygen and sometimes without any oxygen, but they are not energetically efficient for complicated reasons related to chemistry. To the best of our knowledge, there are unlikely to be environments populated by thriving communities of higher organisms that have based themselves on biologies other than oxygen-fueled carbon-based aerobes. The problem is rooted deeply in the laws of thermodynamics and the chemical properties of the only elements sufficiently ubiquitous to support life. Metabolic reactions and biosynthetic reactions simply wouldn’t be very efficient for breathers of (say) methane or ammonia that rely on a silicon-based metabolism (rather than carbon-based).

    The aforementioned problem with Dune is that Frank Herbert’s description suggests there were essentially no plants on the planet’s surface; thus, there would be no organisms to produce oxygen and no inputs of organic matter into the soil to sustain organisms such as soil bacteria and fungi, let alone the giant sandworms the planet is famous for. Since Herbert would not have known about endoliths and probably did not know about biological soil crusts, his planetary ecology simply couldn’t work as described. (You could, perhaps, speculate that the giant sandworms processed oxygen-rich minerals into forms that provided sustenance, releasing oxygen as a byproduct. Possible, but still a large logical leap of faith because such minerals would not provide any usable energy to power the sandworms. Like Earth whales, they'd need to consume large quantities of smaller organisms.)

    Ecological consequences

    Let’s make the literary assumption that sandstorms are sufficiently frequent to be natural parts of a planet’s ecology rather than rare phenomena invoked solely for the purpose of a momentary plot diversion. This has many consequences for the planetary ecology.

    First and foremost, all living organisms must have evolved a means of surviving these recurring natural disasters; indeed, what we know of terrestrial ecology suggests that many species will evolve in ways that let them actively benefit from these events at the expense of other species. This adaptation is most important for the plants, since these are the primary producers in most ecosystems; that is, they’re the organisms that capture energy that is then distributed throughout the rest of the food web. Thus, a routinely sandstormy planet will require highly sand and dust-tolerant vegetation, which is likely to have some or all of the following features:

  • It will need to be sufficiently robust that it can shed the heavier sand particles before it is crushed. A good Earth example would be something like Norway spruce, a tree whose branchlets trail downwards from the branches to help them shed snow before the weight snaps the branches.

  • It will need to be self-cleaning to shed the dust that will block the light it requires to survive; if not, it will need to store sufficient nutrient and energy reserves that allow it to stop photosynthesizing (or switch to an entirely different metabolic pathway) for days, weeks, or even months until full light intensity is restored. Sandstorms are typically not followed by large rainfall, since the climate that produces sandstorms tends to be dry. An Earth example might be something like the mimosa “sensitive plant”, whose leaves collapse when touched. Alternatively, the plants might have leaves that tremble easily in the wind, and thereby shed the dust.

  • Dust particles are, by definition, small, and therefore have a high surface area per unit volume. The minerals that comprise the dust have certain chemical properties, including the fact that most develop a surface electrostatic charge that causes them to cling to a surface. To shed such dust, plants would need to develop a mechanism to cancel that charge, unless they can wait long enough for rain to wash away the dust.

  • If the dust is at all acidic or a powerful oxidizer, as it’s likely to be on Mars, the plant will need a powerful acid neutralization mechanism. The problem isn’t just that acids and oxidants are caustic; they also strongly affect nutrient dynamics, cell membranes, and the chemical reactions involved in normal metabolism.

  • Plants that survive will have fast growth or other mechanisms to survive burial. (As noted above, plants block the wind; this tends to cause deposition of windblown particles around the plant.) A plant that is buried is cut off from the sunlight that it needs to survive. As a fun survival mechanism that doesn’t involve fast growth, consider the possibility of alien plants that have a mechanism for retracting their roots and squirming upwards through the dust until they reach the light and can re-extend their roots.

  • Dissemination of seeds during sandstorms will also be ecologically important. Since sandstorms require a large source of wind energy to move dust and larger particles, they will also provide enough energy to move seeds. Thus, it would be reasonable to expect that many plants will have evolved to harness this energy; think of the familiar dandelion seeds or the less familiar “tumbleweeds”, for instance.

  • Plants that can survive burial by shedding the sand and dust and by outgrowing the rising soil are likely to find themselves in highly rich soil, as in the case of China’s extensive loess deposits. The soils of such regions are deposited over the millennia, sometimes reaching depths of tens of metres. Because the particles are so fine, the soils are chock full of important nutrients. This is because the soil particles often have a high cation exchange capacity, as I noted earlier. The flip side is that such soils are highly vulnerable to erosion, and if the plant cover is lost, they can disappear rapidly, leading to severe sandstorms downwind. This commonly happens in agricultural areas; during the fallow season, farmers who aren’t aware of the problem of wind erosion may fail to plant species that can protect the soil during the fallow.

    Animals that live in sandstorm-prone environments face many challenges. First, they need plants to survive, and if the environment is as dry as it’s likely to be in most sandstormy regions, there may not be a lot of (or any) potable surface water. Most desert animals have evolved to obtain their water entirely from vegetation, or to strongly conserve water until the next rainy season; examples include the Arabian oryx and many desert rodents and reptiles. It’s also true of insects, though some insects have evolved to harvest moisture from the air, such as the Namib desert beetle. Second, conditions must permit the survival of some food source for the animals; that means plants, and most desert plants are tough (they must survive the occasional animal that wants to make a meal of them) and may not be very nutritious (because they live in nutrient-impoverished environments). Finally, you won’t see many herbivores (there won’t be enough vegetation to support large populations), and you’ll see even fewer predators, since predators must consume relatively large numbers of herbivores to survive.

    As a lagniappe, I feel obliged to throw in a mention of something non-ecological for the human animals: sand yachts. What adventure yarn would be complete without thrilling chase scenes across Lawrence-of-Arabian expanses of dunes and that final climactic battle between the sandblasted pirates and our intrepid adventurers? (I someday hope to try sand yachting; as a teen, I occasionally sailed iceboats on a frozen local lake, and because the drag is far less than that created by water, the acceleration and speed have to be experienced to be believed. It’s exhilarating.)

    A final factor to consider is the nature of the sand or dust being transported by the wind; apart from the externally abrasive characteristics I’ve described above, the animals must have a way to cope with the finest particle-size classes. Particles in the PM2.5 and PM10 classes (smaller than 2.5 µm and 10 µm, respectively) are highly damaging when inhaled. Thus, humans will need high-efficiency masks to exclude these particles. PM10 particles are unpleasant enough, since they can penetrate into the deepest parts of the lungs, where they abrade tissues and cause diseases such as silicosis. PM2.5 particles are worse, since they can penetrate directly into the blood; details of the consequences are still being discovered, but once transported throughout the body, these tiniest particles can wreak havoc throughout the body.

    And in a fiction context?

    Deciding how to deal with these matters in a fictional context requires you to start by answering a crucial question: Am I trying to write a story sufficiently convincing that the physicists in the audience will write me glowing fan letters, or am I just trying to tell a cracking good yarn? In most cases, you’re going to want to aim somewhere in between: carefully think about what I’ve written so you can retain enough veracity to prevent amateur physicists like me from flinging your book across the room, but not so much that you sacrifice a good story on the altar of science. (I’ve been wanting to use that latter phrase for years. Thanks for the opportunity, Martin!)

    Your hardest job, as in any case that involves writing in an ecological context, is to think through the consequences of your authorial choices. In ecology, everything is linked and every change has consequences for other parts of the system. For example, a hypothetical world with frequent, severe, recurring sandstorms will have severe effects on plants, which will in turn affect the herbivores that consume those plants and the carnivores that consume those herbivores. The sandstorms will also affect the humans on that planet, and in turn the humans will affect the sandstorms, whether by exacerbating their severity through unsustainable agriculture or mitigating the damage through preventative activities such as planting windbreaks to break the force of the wind or building artificial sand barriers. This may even extend to large-scale efforts to reduce the severity through geo-engineering. Of course, we have little hope of successful planetary-scale geo-engineering based on present knowledge and technology; the ecological system is far too large to be easily changed and far too complex for us to predict the likely consequences of such changes (not to mention the unexpected ones) with any confidence. Of course, therein lies fertile ground for fiction.
    blatherskite: (Default)
    A paradox is a situation in which seemingly profound and rigorous reasoning leads to an impossible result -- or, in the case of reductio ad absurdum, an absurd result. Writers often encounter this in the guise of an overextended metaphor; metaphors are simplifications of reality, not full descriptions thereof, so you can only extend them so far before they crumble under their own weight. Paradoxes form a specific sub-class of the larger category of contradictions: two or more conclusions about a given subjective or physical aspect of reality that point in different and incompatible directions. Paradoxes represent a large red flag that tells us that we don’t understand something nearly as well as we think we do. In the case of reductio ad absurdum, the misunderstanding most often depends on our forgetting that there are limits or constraints to even the most logical statements (probably including this one!) and that we failed to account for them in framing our point of departure on this particular chain of logic.

    A common problem I encounter in my scientific editing arises from an author’s assumption that a relationship between two variables is linear simply because they see what appears to be a single overall trend in a scatterplot (the pattern in a graph formed by the various combinations of values of the variables). This leads to an occasional paradox that is easily explained by taking a step back to examine the basis (the underlying assumptions) for inferring a single trend. In nature, most phenomena are bounded, and don’t follow a constant pattern ad infinitum. For example, trees can only grow to a certain maximum height before they topple over, and as they approach that height, their height growth slows because increasing amounts of energy must be devoted to building a thick stem and a widespread root system that keeps them from falling over when the wind blows*. Thus, the tree’s growth curve (a graph that shows its height at a given point in time) resembles something of a tilted and horizontally stretched S, referred to as a sigmoidal growth curve. There are many other bounded biological functions, and they have their roots in something profound: biological systems need to maintain homeostasis because homeostasis represents the state in which the system performs optimally. You can’t extrapolate much beyond the boundaries of that state without encountering contradictions.

    * Trees are also limited by their ability to transport water up to the top of the tree, which is where the height growth occurs. (Trees grow from what’s called an apical meristem, not from the stump.) Water relations of trees involve many complex processes that we still don’t completely understood, though we’re probably about 95% of the way to a complete understanding.

    Chemistry and physics also provide many paradoxes that lead us to important insights. For example, consider a chemical reaction in which ingredients 1 and 2 combine to produce a product. The rate of reaction between the two products is often constant, so that the amount of product increases at a constant rate. But eventually that rate will slow, even though we have complete faith in our observation that the reaction rate should be constant. This is a simple paradox because a little thought tells us that as we use up the ingredients, it becomes increasingly unlikely that the few remaining bits of ingredients 1 and 2 will encounter each other, thereby permitting a reaction to occur. This leads to the important realization that in any chemical reaction for which the inputs are limited, the reaction rate will slow down or decline abruptly to zero at some point as you run out of ingredients.

    Physics provides more complex examples, such as the paradox of water. Most substances shrink more or less continuously as their temperature decreases, but water shows a radically different behavior: at some point, it instead begins to expand. (This is why water that enters cracks can shatter stone as it freezes: it begins to occupy more space than the space it originally filled, and having nowhere to go, forces the constraining materials around it to move apart to make room. For something relatively rigid like rock, the substance shatters. For something plastic (capable of stretching), like a metal water bottle full of water that has been left too long in the freezer to chill, the substance stretches, and sometimes the stretch is irreversible*.

    * Yes, that happened to me. I now own a spherical-bottomed water bottle that can no longer stand up on its own.

    To many, a paradox is something frustrating to be avoided, because it introduces undesired complexity into a situation we thought we understood. Worse, it may require us to rethink our understanding of a problem we’d considered until now to be “solved”. But that’s the wrong way to look at a paradox. Rather, the power of paradox is in how it leads us to re-examine a flawed understanding and sometimes learn something new and important. Consider a situation in which we have two conclusions, A and B. The two may be reached by entirely different chains of reasoning based on entirely different bodies of evidence (a process called “triangulation”), or B may be a logical consequence of A, arrived at through logic rather than experimentation. The important thing is that in both cases, they contradict each other, or seem to. Fortunately, we have a relatively limited number of possible explanations for the contradiction:

    If A is right, B can be right, wrong, or partially right.
    If A is wrong, B can be right, wrong, or partially right.
    If A is partially right, B can be right, wrong, or partially right

    This gives us nine possible explanations we must test to determine which combination explains the contradiction.

    One of the things I love about working with really good scientists is that they don’t throw up their hands in despair when they encounter a paradox. Instead, they roll up their sleeves and set about the hard work required to narrow down the possible explanations. Arthur Conan Doyle famously had Sherlock Holmes state that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. Hart’s corollary is that when you encounter a paradox, you should apply Holmesian logic to identify whether A, B, or both are incorrect, whether totally or partially, so that you can revise the offending assumption or propose a constraint that defines its boundaries. That way lie the big discoveries.

    Note that this way of thinking isn’t limited to the sciences or philosophy. It’s also a powerful tool for thinking through problems with human interactions*, personal problems, plot problems in fiction, and other whole categories of thought problem. So the next time you encounter a seemingly paradoxical situation, allow yourself a moment to experience frustration, or even existential despair about the abnegation of your cherished notion. Then take a deep breath, muster your courage, and re-examine that notion to determine which aspects that led to it in the first place are right, wrong, or partially right. The resulting insights can be amazing.

    * Psychologist George Miller described this as follows: "To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of." Communication often fails when you (person A) and your partner in paradox (person B) have different understandings of just what it is you’re talking about. As the saying goes, “it ain’t always about what it’s about”.
    blatherskite: (Default)
    As I child, I generally had a great Hallowe'en, with hours spent greedily gathering enough candy to rot the teeth of a small army. In one year that will live in infamy, when I was living downtown, I changed costumes twice (that is, had three costumes prepared, and moved fast enough to return home, change, and run back out again before people began running out of candy) -- and went back to all the best houses a second or third time. To this day, I'm not sure whether I actually fooled anyone (after all, these were home-made costumes, made by me) or whether the grownups were just amused enough at my perseverence to feed me again.

    In any event, I no longer go trick-or-treating myself. But I always get chocolate for the kids instead of the crappy disappointing pure-sugar stuff. Pay-forward for all the good junk I harvested many years ago. And if we don't manage to give it all out to kids... well, I suppose that having to dispose of the leftovers personally will be my karmic reward.

    Chocolate notwithstanding, a large part of my pleasure was in how the families who participated decorated their homes. I don't do costumery or major set dressings, but I do take a certain pleasure conceptualizing and crafting pumpkins that will entertain the kids. I'm also not a sculptor -- as will shortly be evident -- but with help from Shoshanna, we usually manage to produce something credible. It's helpful, as we aging folk eventually come to notice, that darkness and faint light hide a multitude of blemishes and other imperfections.

    In this blog entry, a link to pumpkins past from recent years. Enjoy!
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    “Yet our universe has one good gift for everyone, a generosity beyond all measure: We are wrong. Often and loudly and in embarrassingly gigantic ways, each of us is an idiot.”—Robert Reed, Empty

    Reed’s words come from a science fiction short story that has little or nothing to do with learning, but like readers everywhere, I choose to exercise my vexatious right to reinterpret an author’s words and take them wildly out of their original context. (Yes, I’m aware that much like asking “what could possibly go wrong?”, this is a risky tactic for a writer. It's rarely wise to encourage readers to second-guess what you're saying.) Here, my new context for the quote will be about learning.

    Over the years, I have been frustrated by and envious of those for whom learning was easy. They were the ones with the prodigious memories—the ones who could read something once with scant attention and remember all salient details. For me, learning has always been hard: it required a conscious effort, often a prolonged one, and more often than not, began with misunderstanding or an egregious error that left scars. Learning the hard way, in fact. And despite my envy of those who are spared those wounds, I’ve come to believe that the hard way is often better: it’s typically left me with a more lasting and thorough understanding, since erring and correcting those errors provides insights into both the right way and the wrong way. Those who learn too easily only learn the right way, and that’s only half of the picture.

    I’m my own worst enemy some days. Indeed, back in 2005 when someone asked me how I could possibly be as productive as I was, I set out to figure out what I was doing right. The answer turned out to be sobering: it wasn’t what I was doing right so much as what I was doing wrong. I would often take an extraordinarily long time to recognize when I was being a bonehead and fix that behavior. Usually after being slapped upside the head by Life or one of its many agents. But being sobered up that abruptly apparently made a big impression, because once I started fixing the problems I was formerly tolerating, I kept right on ensuring that they stayed fixed. This led to what I call my “Captain Obvious” presentation, which I’ve given to various groups roughly every 1 to 2 years since 2005. It’s hands-down my most popular presentation because everything in it is (dare I say) completely obvious. Yet like me, most people aren’t doing the obvious until someone calls them on it. You can get the gist of the presentation from the paper I presented at the 2005 STC Seattle annual conference, Improving your editing efficiency: software skills, soft skills, and survival skills.

    Nowadays, I still find myself reluctant to sit down and force myself to scrutinize what I’m doing and why it isn’t working so well. I don’t necessarily fix things immediately, but I at least keep a Word file full of lists of things I need to fix. When the frustration level finally breaches my tolerance threshold and I’m motivated to do something about it, I have a list of things to do. Apparently I've taken my own advice and started learning despite myself.

    Why do we learn so well from bonehead maneuvers such as tolerating a problem instead of investing time to solve it? I speculate that it’s precisely because those errors are “loudly and embarrassingly gigantic”, and therefore make more of an emotional impression. Most people don’t notice or care about the small errors, which are soon forgotten, but the big ones leave scars, particularly if friends and family helpfully remind us of our most dumbass moves at every opportunity. It’s that extra poignancy (in the same etymological sense as “poignard”, a dagger) that makes the lessons memorable. Much though I’d prefer to find ways to learn less painfully, I’m generally proud of the scars I’ve accumulated along the long road that I’ve traveled; they remind me of just how much I’ve learned along the way.

    Of course, not all learning involves stupid mistakes or mistakes that leave scars. A lot of learning is gentler, and comes because the rewards are differently intense. Raking autumn leaves is one of my favorite activities; great exercise, and I can slip into a zen state for an hour or so until I’m done. But in my current home, I have this blasted honey locust tree in the back yard that drops millions of tiny little elongated leaves, like shorter versions of willow leaves, that slip between the tines of the rake with each stroke. Almost without realizing what I was doing, I learned that using two strokes gathered the majority of the leaves: the first stroke aligned most of the leaves parallel to the direction of the stroke as they slipped between the tines so that a second stroke, at roughly right angles to the first one, caught the leaves across their long axis and stopped them from escaping.

    I've also learned the simple pleasures of pausing every so often and enjoying the fall sunlight. This afternoon, for instance, just as the sun was approaching the horizon, I was rewarded by a glimpse of the white underside of a gull, gilded (gullded?) by the golden rays of the near-horizon sun, there for an instant and then just as quickly gone upon the wind.
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    A student recently interviewed me for a class assignment, and asked several intriguing questions about the past and future of technical communication. Since the questions seemed to be of reasonably broad interest, I thought I'd republish them and my answers, with a few updates and afterthoughts.

    A note before we begin: I'll mostly confine my thoughts to Western Europe and its descendants, since my knowledge of "Eastern" aspects of these questions is far weaker.

    (Q1) What significant event in history made technical writing a force to be reckoned with?

    I suspect this evolved as a result of several interacting processes rather than being triggered by a single key event.

    First, of course, you would need to have an evolved body of "techne" (accumulated knowledge of a craft) that must be passed on in fixed form. Depending on how strictly you want to define techne, this could date back as far as the first codified Western religious works, the Jewish Old Testament and subsequent Christian Bible being most familiar to Westerners. I discuss the concept of techne in more detail in my article Technical documentation in Canada. If you prefer a more technological definition, you could instead date this to the industrial revolution, when large clanky things became sufficiently common to require some form of documentation. Other types of techne would have evolved technical writing somewhere between these times.

    Second, reading and writing would have to become sufficiently widespread that formal documentation would become relevant. That is, there would need to be a sufficiently large body of readers to justify the effort of creating documentation. (Alert: gross oversimplification coming:) Before roughly the Renaissance, I suspect that most knowledge was passed on orally, though with many exceptions such as bodies of religious teaching that had to be standardized to ensure a consistent doctrine; that would date back to (in Christianity) the formation of the Christian church, and to a much older time for early Jewish writings. There would have been much interesting documentation in "the East" in the form of Greek histories and medical manuals, as well as their Islamic equivalents, before the Renaissance. And, of course, a rich written tradition in China and Japan dating back millennia.

    Third, there would need to be a means of mass distribution of knowledge, since manual copying of large manuscripts was prohibitively time-consuming (thus, expensive) for a large reader community. Thus, the development of the printing press by Gutenberg (again, I emphasize in the West) is the obvious watershed moment for mass technical communication. China and probably India would have developed comparable technology far earler, but I'm not expert enough to provide specific examples.

    If you enjoy Victoriana at all, you'll be fascinated by Sydney Padua's graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. It's a charming, hilarious, irreverent, and remarkably insightful foray into many aspects of the Victorian period. Specifically, it's a fictionalized story of the development of the first computer, which is the technology most people associate with technical writing these days.

    (Q2) The year is 2051, what role do you envision technical writing or communication playing a significant role?

    The world is becoming increasingly complex to navigate, and the growth of that complexity is accelerating. I see an increasing need for clear, concise communication of complex concepts and thus, a growing need for skilled technical communicators. I see no evidence that engineers, scientists, and other subject-matter experts are becoming better writers, so there will be a growing need for good writers and good editors who understand how to translate between an expert's brain and their audience's needs.

    I think we'll see more artificially intelligent assistants for our work. The modern spellchecker software, for instance, is no better than the spellcheckers I used nearly 30 years ago, and would benefit greatly from a complete overhaul, particularly in terms of support from software that understands context. But I don't see us being replaced by software in the next 40 years. It may happen some day, but my understanding of currrent artificial intelligence is that we've still got a long way to go before that happens.

    (Q3) What are some of the prevalent gaps in this field of technical communication?

    Particularly with organizations such as the Society for Technical Communication (STC), I see far too much focus on tools and technology, and not enough focus on core communication skills. We will definitely need technologists, and much of what we do is difficult without help from modern tools, but the communication skills are far more important: a communicator will always find a way to communicate, but people who are only tool users often prove to be incoherent and incomprehensible.

    A second and highly significant gap that STC and other groups have failed to close is the gap in understanding of the need for our profession. Everyone learns to write, however badly, in grade school, and written material is ubiquitous -- though most of it of low quality. Thus, there is no sense that writing is anything special. But good writing is remarkable and instantly recognizable; it turns on lights that bad writers don't even know exist. We desperately need to find ways to make employers understand our value. To my knowledge, nobody is doing this, and it makes workplace life difficult for us at times. We need to find ways to clearly demonstrate our value to employers and to society in general. I've written about our need to escape from the shadows and make what we do known to our workplace colleagues. This is crucial for survival in the workplace.

    (Q4) In the former of intelligence or private sector how will technical communication play a powerful role?

    I'm not sure I understand the distinction being drawn between "intelligence" (government sector?) and the private sector, so I would answer this question from first principles: The role of technical communication is always to bridge the gap between the minds of the producers of information and the minds of its consumers. I always describe technical communication as "translation" because of this role, but that ignores a more important underlying aspect: both producers and consumers of information do so to satisfy certain needs, and those needs may not align. Good communicators help the producers understand the needs of their audience and communicate those needs to the producers of information.

    For "intelligence" in the context of spycraft and national security, there will be an additional matter of ethics: spies seek to conceal information, not share it, so there will be thorny ethical questions raised by intelligence-related communication. These include whether it's acceptable to conceal information from those who need it and the crucial importance of getting the message right when a failure to understand can endanger lives or even nations.

    (Q5) As it pertains to technical writing and communication, what is it that you do daily (job)?

    My primary work is as a scientific editor. Almost all of my clients are research scientists who have English as a second or third language, but who need to communicate in English to reach their international audience. I was trained as a scientist (physiological plant ecology, genetics, community ecology), so I understand most of the science that they're doing. Over the last 28 years, I have developed expertise in helping them communicate that science clearly: I ensure that they fully explain their social and scientific context, explain what they did (research) within that context and how they did it, clarify what the results were, and explore the implications for society and other scientists.

    You could probably call this developmental and substantive editing, although they rarely bring me in at the start of a writing project to help them outline, plan, and refine their manuscripts. As I do these things, I do a lot of basic copyediting for grammar and clarity, but I also do a lot of information design work to help them with their tables of data and with their data graphics. I do a bit of French translation occasionally, and an occasional bit of technical writing (e.g., my books on effective onscreen editing and writing for peer-reviewed journals).
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    I subscribe to the weekly Brain Pickings newsletter which, despite its somewhat unsavory name, provides a weekly feast of interesting new ideas. In a recent issue (I’m always running a few weeks behind), I came across a fascinating discussion of the concept of reality. The part I’d like to focus on here is a quote by physicist David Bohm:

    "Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality."

    Although this might be splitting definitional hairs, I consider this to be the functional equivalent to a zen koan because it captures some of the same elusiveness of concept that the best koans provide: the tighter you try to grasp the concept, the more it slips from your fingers, at least initially. Like the best quotations (with which I sprinkle my Twitter feed), it gives one pause to think and often sets off that flashbulb of sudden enlightenment that the Japanese refer to as satori. The brilliance of a koan or of a humble quotation is how it conveys so much once you unpack it, all in such a wondrously concise format.

    What I love about the Bohm quote is how neatly it circles back upon itself, like Ourobouros swallowing its own tail. That journey neatly captures the concept of how difficult it is to pin down the nature of reality: there appears* to be an objective reality we cannot escape (day continues to shade into night as night de-shades into day, whether or not we choose to believe in this cycle), but how we perceive and describe that reality can be so subjective as to make objectivity seem like an impossible goal. More intriguingly, we pass through a cycle in which every new thing we learn changes how we perceive reality, and that changing perception can lead to still more new insights that again change our perception. It’s a wondrous, never-ending cycle of change.

    * I say “appears” to acknowledge the fact that though I fully believe in this external reality, I can provide no evidence that would persuade an extreme solipsist that it “really” exists. An old favorite quotation provides some defense for my position: "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away."—Philip K. Dick

    To tie Bohm’s koan to the subject of this blog, namely communication in all its forms, I return to the concept of subjectivity. Specifically, one of the things I’ve learned from science -- possibly our best tool for approaching a “true”* description of objective reality -- is that all “truth” is provisional. As our metaphysical tools (ways of thinking) and physical tools (measurement instruments) improve, we gradually discard old beliefs that provided only a blurry image of the truth and replace them with sharper images that provide a more accurate and holistic image of the truth. As in the case of Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, we sometimes seem to never quite to get there, but if we continue long enough, we may some day do as the bodhisattvas do and achieve that final truth. Or not. The universe is a complex place, and the deeper we dig, the more we find.

    * To avoid a long and messy argument about the nature of truth, I retreat to a paraphrase of Dick’s quotation: truth is what doesn’t change when you stop believing in it. If you want to delve into the great and murky depths of this subject, check out Wikipedia’s handy summary

    When we try to communicate with someone else, particularly over issues that are freighted with emotional overtones, it can be very difficult to take a step back and remind ourselves of the subjectivity of what we see as truth. One of the subtle problems that disrupts communication is that how we perceive a truth affects how we perceive what our communication partner is saying about that truth. They’re going through the same process. To communicate successfully, it’s necessary for both partners to understand where they and the other partner are coming from and how this might constrain our ability to hear what the other is actually saying. One of my favorite quotes captures this concept neatly. Psychologist George Miller (in a January 1980 interview in Psychology Today, notes: “In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.” It’s perhaps helpful to remind our communication partners of this important concept so they can make an effort to understand what our statements might be true of.

    Communication, at its finest, allows us to recapitulate the journey of discovery embodied in Bohm’s koan, with which I began this essay: our beliefs and perceptions change iteratively and dynamically as they clash with the beliefs, perceptions, and thoughts of others. In that clash of beliefs, we collaboratively establish a newer, clearer, richer shared image of the reality we share.
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    With the recent release of the movie The Martian, it seems timely to review the possibilities of sustaining human life on Mars in the long term. A recent journal article (Wieger Wamelink et al. 2014, Can Plants Grow on Mars and the Moon: A Growth Experiment on Mars and Moon Soil Simulants) suggests that it may be possible to grow crops in Martian soil. This is an important issue for those of us who dream of Martian colonies (and for science fiction authors who write about such dreams) because it will be crucial to grow food locally; the distance from Earth and high transportation costs mean that a colony would have to rapidly become self-sustaining.

    So is this likely to be possible in the near future? In this essay, I'll discuss several key issues. Because each issue that I raise would require a separate essay to cover adequately, please note that I have (over)simplified many points to focus on the essence. Details will vary widely among crops, soil types, and so on. Please treat this essay only as a "general principles" overview of the subject.

    A side note before we begin: why not hydroponics?

    It's reasonable to ask why growing crops in soil is necessary in the first place. The answer is complex, so I'll simplify. Even though many crops such as tomatoes can be grown using hydroponics, this may not be possible for all crops because of the large space requirements (e.g., wheat, corn). The larger problem is that this won't be possible for some time at the scale of a potential Martian colony. The biggest obstacle is the prohibitive cost of shipping a sufficiently large collection of hydroponic gear to Mars; given current technology levels, it's implausible to suggest that we'll be able to manufacture the equipment on-site for the forseeable future. (3D printing may solve this problem once we're able to set up "mining" operations on Mars to provide the necessary raw materials.)

    The need to produce viable seeds during many generations of hydroponics is also a concern. Nowadays, hydroponic crops are harvested and then re-established from new seeds, but those seeds are usually grown in conventional farm fields. The micronutrient composition of the solutions used to nourish hydroponic crops is a related and important issue. You've probably noted that hydroponic vegetables taste different and worse than field-grown vegetables, likely due to differences in the micronutrient supply; wine growers emphasize the importance of soil qualities as a key part of the "terroir" effect. To the best of my knowledge (and I emphasize that I have not performed a literature review to support this point), researchers have not tried to create a completely self-sustaining ("closed cycle") hydroponic crop production system and confirm it's viability over periods of years. Over long periods (several years), hydroponic crops may suffer from subtle nutrient deficiencies that eventually sabotage the crop or decrease its utility to humans. On Earth, we'd never notice this problem because our diet is primarily composed of field-grown crops.

    Thus, finding ways for terrestrial crops to survive and grow in simulated Martian soil is an essential research goal, and this preliminary study by Wieger Wamelink et al. is great news for Mars fans. Unfortunately, the results are hardly definitive due to gaps in our current knowledge and some significant deficiencies in the Wieger Wamelink study. Some of these deficiencies are methodological problems that should perhaps have been fixed, and others represent defensible limitations of the study based on logistical and other constraints. (Specifically, it is never possible to study all relevant factors in a single research study; sometimes a career is too short.) Based on my training as physiological plant ecologist, here are some thoughts on the article, its limitations, and its implications for a future Martian colony:

    Making light

    First and foremost, the article does not explore the consequences of the light intensity and quality on the surface of Mars. Neither is a trivial issue, since Earth's plants have evolved for millennia to optimize their use of the amount and quality of the available light. It would not have been logistically possible to investigate these factors within the scope of the authors' study, so I'll frame this section in terms of needs for future research.

    Light intensity on Mars would clearly differ from its values on Earth, but I can't speculate about the magnitude of the difference because this would involve a rather complex calculation: the amount would decrease greatly as a function of increased distance from the sun following the inverse-square law, and would increase due to decreased light absorption by the nearly nonexistent Martian atmosphere (i.e., there would be less light interception by molecules of air and water). Large and dense dust storms are common on Mars, and this would lead to frequent changes in the amount of light.

    The spectral characteristics of the light would also change due to the different characteristics of light interception by the Martian atmosphere. Plants are keenly sensitive to subtle variations in light quality; these variations govern all plant developmental phases and plant responses to many types of environmental stress. Photoperiod (the length of the daylight period) is also an issue, since the lengths of the Martian day and of Martian seasons differ (respectively) significantly and greatly from those on Earth; plants have internal "biological (circadian) clocks" that govern every phase of their development, and those clocks are keenly sensitive to daily and seasonal changes in light intensity and quality. On this basis, Martian farmers will either need to provide large amounts of supplemental color-adjusted light, or will need to breed plants that are optimized to take advantage of the available sunlight on Mars.

    A final issue is that of ionizing radiation, which will be present at much higher levels on Mars due to the lack of a dense atmosphere to absorb this radiation. This may kill plants directly, or cause ongoing mutations that will eventually kill the plants or render them useless as a food source. It may also significantly affect essential soil microbes (discussed in the next section). Providing shielding won't be trivial or maybe even possible.

    As a result of these factors, plants will likely have to be grown underground, with artificial illumination. This will require significant and difficult engineering.

    Soil microbes

    Most (possibly all) terrestrial plants either require or benefit strongly from the presence of a diverse soil microbial community, and the characteristics of that community have resulted from millennia of coevolution between the plants and organisms in their rhizosphere. Examples include mycorrhizae, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and others. I'm not even considering essential macroorganisms such as earthworms and collembolans, which play an important role in maintaining soil structure and promoting nutrient cycling. Although the authors quite properly did not sterilize the soils they used in their study, neither did they have the resources to monitor long-term changes in the microbial community and the consequences for plants. These changes are likely to be significant, since the composition and functional characteristics of this community are strongly determined by interactions among various characteristics of the soil and the plants being grown in the soil; in turn, these changes determine the suitability of the soil for the plants. Of particular note, they can significantly affect the risk of disease development.


    The issue of pollination is not trivial. Most important crops require some combination of insect and wind pollination. Bee-pollinated crops include some of our most important crops, and bees are just one example of insect pollinator; many other taxa contribute. To grow such crops on Mars, we'd need to confirm that the pollinators could survive under Martian conditions. Manual pollination is feasible on a research scale, but not on the scale required to grow enough crops to sustain a colony. The survival of such insects under Martian conditions is by no means guaranteed. As a specific example, I note that the geothermally warmed and powered greenhouse I recently visited in Iceland requires ongoing imports of bees from the Netherlands; I did not ask the owner, but it appears to be impossible or economically impractical to cultivate the bees in Iceland rather than importing them. Warm-climate readers may find this difficult to credit, but Iceland is actually far more hospitable an environment than Mars would be.

    Soil simulation

    The biggest problem I had with the Wieger Wamelink study is the use of "simulated" soils. This was required because we simply don't have access to real Martian soils, and the authors did a good job of choosing an appropriate simulation material. But in evaluating their results, it's essential to note that this is a simulation, and the underlying assumptions may turn out to be unrealistic.

    The first problem with a simulation approach is that we don't know how common the simulated soils are in the Martian soil. That is, we have surveyed only the most miniscule proportion of the Martian surface, and even on Earth, soils are highly spatially variable. Thus, we don't know how good their choice of a simulation material will prove to be. The authors note this and other problems; the lack of strong evidence of abundant nitrogen in Martian soils is a particular concern, since nitrogen is crucial for plant growth, and modern crops require enormous amounts of supplemental nitrogen to produce their current high yields.

    An additional problem is that what I have read of Martian soils suggests that perchlorates and other strongly oxidizing materials are abundant, which would make things rough for both plants and their associated microbes. The high aluminum levels that seem common in Martian regolith could also cause enormous damage to crops, particularly in acidic soils; this is one of the reasons why "acid rain" on Earth is so damaging; it mobilizes toxic aluminum compounds.

    Another problem is that, to the best of my knowledge, the analyses of Martian soils have examined "total" amounts of elements, not the amounts of "plant-available" versions of the elements. This is an important difference, since the available level is often far less than the total level. The authors of the article suggest they analyzed total element contents, which will not provide an adequate prediction of long-term plant growth. (In their defence, it's very difficult to estimate how non-plant-available forms of elements would change into available forms as a result of chemical weathering and biological activity. That would require a long and complex series of additional studies.) Even if Martian soils would support a first crop, it's not clear from the present results whether they would support subsequent crops, since key nutrients would be removed from the soil with each harvest, and would be restored primarily by adding human feces and urine (suitably composted) to the soil before the next crop. Unfortunately, such nutrient cycling would be difficult to implement in practice; such systems are notoriously "leaky", with significant ongoing losses to the environment that would have to be replaced somehow.

    The biggest problem would be losses of organic matter, whose final fate is to be converted into carbon dioxide or methane. The former would be taken up by the plants, though not without some loss; the latter would represent a net loss of carbon from the system. One consequence of this point is that you'd have to add organic matter to the soil at least as fast as it is depleted by biochemical and chemical degradation; this is necessary to increase the soil's water-retention ability, preserve the structure of the soil, and provide a nutrient supply for essential soil microbes. Human wastes would be used for this purpose, but since those wastes would initially come entirely from food supplied from Earth, it's likely to take some time to get crops growing well enough to become self-sustaining from a carbon perspective.

    [A look back: I neglected something obvious, namely that you'd also need to have a significant source of CO2 to "feed" the plants. Haven't done the math, but I'm not sure that a colony of humans would generate enough CO2 from breathing to support an area of crops large enough to feed them. So you'd likely need supplemental CO2 from somewhere.]


    Water availability is a particularly serious issue. Water evaporates rapidly in a low-pressure atmosphere, even on Earth; on Mars, with less than 1% of Earth's atmospheric pressure, evaporation would be even faster. It's hard to imagine creating a dome large enough to grow plants on the Martian surface that would be completely airtight; even creating something underground would be difficult. Thus, you'd need a robust system for recapturing or replacing lost oxygen and water for the plants to survive in the long term. Oxygen is relatively easy, since there are large quantities of oxidized materials on the Martian surface, and all you'd need to liberate the oxygen is a large supply of (solar cell?) electricity and appropriate engineering.

    The apparent presence of liquid but very salty water on the surface of Mars gives hope that water could be supplied locally, but any liquid sufficiently salty to retain its water in the near-vacuum of the Martian atmosphere, rather than having the water lost to evaporation and sublimation (as occurs in Earth's deserts), will be extremely difficult to desalinate. Water frozen into ice at the Martian poles seems abundant, but transporting it to the likely location of a colony would not be a trivial task.

    Crop maturity

    It's not clear why the researchers didn't grow all the plants to maturity (they stopped after 50 days) to confirm that they could successfully produce the desired final crop (seeds, fruits, etc.). Most of the agricultural researchers I work with do this even for studies based on terrestrial soils, since a great many factors can prevent successful seed production even if flowers develop and seeds appear to be produced; for example, unsuitable temperatures before, during, or after pollination can result in the production of nonviable seed. In addition, the researchers did not analyze the nutrient quality of any of the seeds that were produced, which is a significant challenge for future research. (To be fair, such analyses are clearly beyond the scope of the authors' study; I mention this point solely in the context of a need for future research.)

    It's all very well to produce seeds, but if they won't germinate or prove to be severely nutrient-deficient, particularly in terms of micronutrients, this won't end well for Martian colonists who must consume them.

    In conclusion...

    All this being said, the Wieger Wamelink et al. study is important because its results don't rule out the possibility of growing crops in Martian soil. That's a very good thing should we want to establish a colony. But as this essay shows, there's still much research to be done before we can believe that Martian crop production will be possible on a scale large enough to support a colony.
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    Scientists and technologists have good intentions in spades, but sometimes you wonder if they ever leave the house and mingle with real people. Take, for example, two well-intentioned but doomed ab initio efforts to put some ethics back into a particular branch of technological endeavor, namely the development of artificially intelligent robots. A brief definitional note before we get going: “Intelligence” is a slippery term to define, and in practice, the definition usually comes down to “whatever standard I can evoke that will make me seem more intelligent than you or allow me to treat you as a lesser being”. For artificial intelligence, the standard definition relies on the Turing test, which (in greatly simplified terms) states that something is “intelligent” if one cannot distinguish it from a real human. With the footnote that intelligence is multidimensional, not something that can be gauged with a single evaluation or a single evaluation metric, this test remains a broadly useful criterion, and one that I will adopt. In short, we can summarize this test as “a difference that makes no difference is no difference”.

    The first problematic initiative aims to eliminate the use of artificially intelligent robots in military contexts. Even if you don’t believe that the Terminator franchise represents the inevitable endpoint of research on this technology, you have to admit that the Future of Life Institute makes a compelling case for why we should not go down this particular dark road. To me, the most compelling reason is that replacing human warriors with technological surrogates seems to eliminate the human cost of warfare and thereby makes war seem insufficiently horrible to make prevention a priority.

    In practice, this is only true for the aggressor, and then only if they can remain a safe distance from the chaos. We’ve already seeing how shortsighted this perspective is in the high ”collateral damage” associated with the use of advanced military technologies, most recently in the form of remotely operated drones. This damage should not have been at all surprising given the spectacular failures of previous “this will solve everything” technologies such as precision bombing to eliminate or reduce civilian casualties, but we humans are nothing if not expert at ignoring inconvenient realities (cf. the abovementioned “in practice” definition of intelligence).

    In reality, civilian casualties are inevitable in modern warfare, and have increased greatly over the last few millennia (in absolute numbers, if not proportionally). The problem is that conflicts rarely occur in neatly delineated killing fields, like sports stadiums located far from civilians. It’s simply not credible to propose that modern warfare will only be fought in carefully sequestered arenas where the combat can be kept far away from civilians. Pretending that artificially intelligent robots would solve the problem is nothing more than a layer of abstraction, intended solely to make the unpalatable palatable by hiding its ugly reality. The terminology itself illustrates the problem: instead of the accurate phrase “death of non-combatants”, or the simpler “murder of innocent civilians”, “collateral damage” only serves the goal of abstracting human tragedy so that we can ignore its ethical consequences.

    Eliminating the use of artificially intelligent robots in warfare therefore has much to recommend it. Yet there are two problems. First and most serious, those who make the decision to declare war on others rarely, if ever, experience the consequences personally. As a result, they have no incentive to avoid declaring war because someone else will pay the price for them. Eliminating robots from the equation does nothing to solve the problem. Second, the history of technology is the history of finding ways to convert even the most seemingly innocuous technology into a means of killing or wounding other people, and the history of warfare is the history of conflicts escaping nice, tidy boundaries.

    Warfare is only a specific form of the violence we humans seem to do instinctively, and it has deep roots in all cultures and all historical periods. It’s not something we’re going to abandon or confine to killing fields that will spare civilians, no matter who or what does the fighting. Hence the sarcastic and deeply pessimistic title of this essay, “good luck with that”.

    The second initiative aims to eliminate the use of artificially intelligent robots in sexual contexts, and specifically to eliminate “sexbots” -- robots designed primarily or solely for use as sexual surrogates. This one’s a little harder to understand, at first glance: such devices could eliminate the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, provide companionship and possibly emotional instruction to people who may not be able to sustain a healthy relationship on their own, and greatly reduce (though probably not eliminate*) sexual slavery or the abuse of adults and children. Yet as in the case of warfare, adding a layer of abstraction to something as fundamentally human as our sexuality lets us avoid dealing with the real problem. In addition, there’s considerable evidence that humans (at least a small proportion thereof) will copulate with just about anything that moves, and many things that don’t; this second initiative will face a hard time combating that urge. This leads to the “good luck with that” conclusion for this initiative too.

    * Sexual abuse is not always about sex; often it’s about power over the weak, or sadism, or other unpleasant aberrations of human psychology.

    Another concern, raised by SF writer Elizabeth Bear in her chilling short story, Dolly (about the abuse of a sexbot and its consequences), is the intelligence part of artifical intelligence. Whether in matters of warfare or sexuality, it’s hard to imagine that it would really be more ethical to shift abuse from our fellow organic beings to non-organic but otherwise intelligent beings and rationalize this abuse as acceptable. “Intelligence” is relative, not an absolute and binary scale that provides nice distinctions. If you accept that proposition, the possession of intelligence should entitle any intelligent being to the same protections we would grant ourselves, including protection from sexual abuse. Not everyone accepts this as being valid; to some, there is a unique spark (let’s call it a “soul”) that makes humans qualitatively different from anything else, no matter how intelligent. Yet even if we accept their distinction as valid, the long and horrible history of torture suggests that “good luck with that” is again the correct response to any suggestion that we ban such behavior.

    So should we throw up our hands in despair and ignore these issues? The story of King Canute is often misrepresented as an example of human arrogance. In the incorrect version of the tale, a powerful but arrogant king attempts to turn back the tide and fails. This failure has spawned the idiomatic phrase “attempting to stem (halt) the tide”, with the implicit meaning of a doomed fight*. Yet men and women of good conscience should attempt to stem the tide, even if their struggle seems doomed. Unlike Canute, we have some hope of stemming the future tide of misuse of artificially intelligent robots, at least for most nations and for some time.

    * In the original version of this tale, the King’s goal was to demonstrate the importance of humility to his courtiers: some things cannot be stopped by even the most powerful humans, good or bad intentions notwithstanding. That's the wrong message for the sake of this essay.

    As proof of what is possible, I offer the example of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, an early attempt to limit the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons in warfare. Though the protocol has by no means eliminated the use of such weapons, the contrast with the use of chemical weapons (toxic gases) during World War I and earlier uses of smallpox-contaminated blankets in an effort to eradicate tribes of Native Americans is dramatic; rather than toxic gases and microbes becoming a standard part of the military toolkit, the use of such tools remains the exception, and one that attracts horror and often reprisals from the international community. People still die, often horribly, during warfare, but the conventions have greatly reduced the frequency of two horrible ways to die. The non-use of nuclear weapons since the end of World War II is another promising sign, though recent events in Iran and North Korea give me cause for hesitation.

    As a cynic, I don’t think we’ll suddenly evolve sufficiently ethical behavior on a global scale to win this fight. Thus, I see no plausible way to avoid the creation of warrior robots and sexbots. But the successes in limiting other abuses makes the fight no less worth fighting. We may not be able to stop either form of abuse, but we may at least limit its scope. “Good luck with that” is not an acceptable response when so many lives, whether natural or artificial, will be affected.
    blatherskite: (Default)
    Just finished Cherie Priest's Maplecroft: the Borden Dispatches, and like the other examples of her writing that I've read, I can recommend this one highly.

    Maplecroft is a carefully researched "what if?" about the historical figure of Lizzie Borden ("Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks..."), crossbred with a Lovecraftian "bad things happen to good, bad, and indifferent people because the universe at best ignores us and at worst, actively hates us". The basic premise is that Lizzie wasn't a crazed murderer, but rather someone who fell into Lovecraft's world and was forced to defend herself and her loved ones as best she could, with wholly inadequate tools. It's far more restrained linguistically than Lovecraft, and (for obvious reasons) not misogynistic, and therefore it's more deeply affecting. The story is told as an epistolary (i.e., via letters and journal entries), which proves to be a very effective way of introducing many POV characters who don't always understand what the other characters are doing or thinking. Priest combines the best of first-person narration with unreliable narrators, and does so masterfully.

    Lizzie, though our main protagonist, is accompanied by several other key viewpoint characters. Like a late-Victorian Buffy the Vampire Slayer with her "Scoobie gang", Lizzie courageously fights the forces of darkness that have chosen to destroy her family, while simultaneously dealing with the "mundane" and in many ways equally horrible ravages of "consumption" (her sister's losing fight with tuberculosis)*. Like Buffy, she and other characters make many well-intended mistakes (some tragic) that have profound consequences. I won't spoil things by telling you how the story turns out, but it's a deeply human tale of a struggle against impossible odds and incomprehensible forces. As in the best Lovecraft, there are costs and consequences for everyone who gets drawn into the darkness. Nobody escapes completely intact, no matter their intellect or virtue.

    * A very interesting parallel if you want to go all lit-crit.

    One non-spoiler false note: Because the 1890s are a key period during which the scientific enlightenment really got rolling good and hard, several protagonists try to explain what's happening to them in scientific terms, even as they learn that this worldview doesn't match their increasingly Lovecraftian world very well*. This is fine so far as it goes; we humans use our mental models of how things work to understand our world, and the scientific worldview was a key mental model at this time. Where this goes astray is when Priest enlists it as a valid mechanism for dealing with the inexplicable and fighting the unfightable. To me, it would have been more effective to leave the inexplicable unexplained and show how the mental model failed; when you cling to a reassuring belief (here, that anything can be understood through the application of logic and science) while the world falls apart around you, the horror is compounded when that belief proves false. This authorial choice doesn't in any way ruin the book, but it diminished some of its punch towards the end.

    * Brian Lumley wrote a bunch of stories in this vein. They're enjoyable works on their own terms, and a nicely executed response to Lovecraft (i.e., humans *can* fight successfully against madness and a hostile universe through rationalism and technology or technologized magic), but as a result, I felt they lost some of their punch. Charles Stross strikes me as doing a better job of mashing up science and Lovecraft, particularly in the deeply chilling A Colder War.
    blatherskite: (Default)
    Just finished reading "Corporate Espionage", by former NSA analyst and current "white hat" hacker Ira Winkler. It's about the many ways both hackers (those who penetrate computers for the fun of it and bragging rights) and crackers (those who penetrate computers for malicious purposes) sneak into companies and extract potentially billions of dollars of proprietary information -- and in the case of banks, sometimes literal millions of dollars.

    But it's about much more than that: it's a detailed treatise on how spies of all sorts sneak into (penetrate) companies by exploiting vulnerabilities. And the most serious vulnerabilities are almost inevitably human, not technological, though some of the technological vulnerabilities have human help in remaining vulnerabilities. Understanding the way people work and respond to both co-workers and other people lets hackers and crackers use "social engineering" techniques to gain access to areas where they don't belong and escape with astonishing amounts of information.

    The book was written in 1997, so it's a bit out of date in some areas (e.g., Winkler discusses modems as a major point of vulnerability), but the basic principles remain valid (now it's cable modems or routers that are key points of vulnerability). It's also a fascinating updating of Bruce Sterling's "The Hacker Crackdown" (1992), but written by someone who lives the life rather than by a journalist. (No diss at all intended for Sterling, who really did his homework.)

    What's really disturbing is how little has changed in the 20-some years since these books were published. Although Winkler doesn't provide hard or verifiable (i.e., referenced) data in most cases, billions of dollars were being lost annually even back in the 1990s, and the losses have probably grown by at least an order of magnitude since. Anyone who doubts this should contemplate the recent rash of penetrations of U.S. government computers, which have full-time and highly motivated security staffs protecting them; Edward Snowden; the recent antics of Chinese government-sponsored crackers; and the whole "Anonymous" movement.

    What's even more disturbing is that we're currently in a "cold war" situation, with most of the hacking and cracking being done by amateurs or by professionals with very limited goals (e.g., stealing specific trade secrets). One can only imagine what would happen if a true cyberwar erupts.

    And imagination is why I'm sharing this review here. Winkler's book is a great resource for writers if your only prior experience with cracking comes from Hollywood, which rarely gets any of the details right. (I've just started watching "Mr. Robot", which looks to be that rara avis -- something where the writers actually understand what they're writing about. Thus far, it looks excellent.) Winkler gets the key details right, and in a very disturbing way. But he's not just a fear-monger. He concludes the book with a long list of advice on how companies and governments could be doing better to protect their -- and our -- data.

    Highly recommended source material if you want to write about cracking and cyberwar. Or if you just want to suggest the need to improve your employer's protection by anonymously leaving a copy of this book on the president's or CEO's desk.


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