Flash Fiction

The New Scientist has a Flash Fiction contest. The topic is "futures that never were." Maybe the geniuses at We Alone have 350 words.

This week, New Scientist goes in search of lost classics of science fiction – brilliant books that could stand alongside The War of the Worlds andNineteen Eighty-Four as masterpieces of speculative literature, but have somehow or other lapsed into obscurity. Each is a forgotten vision of the future.

Now we'd like to read yours. Send us your very short stories about futures that never were. Tell us where we'd be today if the ether had turned out to exist after all, or if light really was made up of corpuscles emitted by the eyes. You don't have to be scientifically accurate, but the more convincing your story, the more likely it is to win!


Whether one views a lifetime to be finite or infinite depends upon whether time is considered countably or uncountably infinite. There are as many points in a finite length of the real line as along the entire axis.


Is it happening already?

I'm pretty ignorant of the details of economics and society, but "the robots are taking our jobs, its happening now," gets my attention. But, isn't this approximately analogous to the industrial revolution ? Mechanical fabrication moved jobs out of cottages in the countryside into city factories, and workers into tenements ? Perhaps this is a prevailing trend : progress eats aways at the middle class, but somehow we've managed to tolerate this in the past. It seems like, perhaps, existing but rare middle class jobs have historically expanded to fill the gap. The article mentions manufacturing, call centers, nurses, and technicians, as jobs scheduled to be replaced by robots in the near future, or have already been encroached upon. This seems odd : manufacturing jobs are middle, rather than lower, class, due mainly to unionization, right ? Perhaps ... simply working out a way to raise minimum wage will help us all out ? Socialism is pretty nice. Call centers came about as a result of a new technology, I feel like we can adjust our education system to create equivalent positions : robot-techs and classifier trainers, etc. I mean, the reason so many people are able to be employed as nurses is that we've added in social supports for the ill and disabled, funneling tax dollars to pay for this care, and providing rewarding, gainful employment for many individuals. If theres any trend here, its that increasing technological sophistication requires increasing government intervention to maintain a basic standard of living for everyone. But, we already knew that.

Actually, this post is just a form of procrastination from other papers I ought to be working on, there was no actual direction. Goodbye.

Ramblings prompted by Bruce

You should all read this interview with Bruce Sterling. Full of tasty nuggets on global warming, fiction writing, futurism, Google, other cultures, Texas, science funding, morality.

Rhys: The great Italian writer Primo Levi, who was an accomplished chemist, came to believe that research for the sake of research was fundamentally immoral and that individual scientists should remove themselves from fields of inquiry that might prove potentially hazardous to the human race. Is such a moral approach even possible?

Bruce: Not really, no. That's not practical. Individual scientists have no ability to remove themselves from their sources of funding, and to remain scientists. Governments, academies and major corporations fund their fields of scientific inquiry. Individual scientists do not have any veto power there.
When American politicians told scientists that stem cell research was immoral, the scientists grew indignant. Stem cell research is indeed potentially hazardous to the human race. It's a fact, but scientists don't like to be told that. They launched a counter-campaign to establish that the ban itself was immoral. These scientists were not being cynical. There are good moral arguments for conducting stem-cell research.
Scientists have never been morality experts. Scientists are naive about morality, no better than other technicians such as programmers or engineers. Philosophers and theologians are our cultural experts about morality. These moral experts can argue for or against almost any moral stance, convincingly. Two moral philosophers in a room will always quarrel. Two moral theologians in a room will kill each other.

They would kill Primo Levi, if they could capture him.

Bruce has it right. We can barely anticipate the first order consequences of science, let along the deep moral implications. Otherwise reasonable people can disagree about morality, even to the point of death. And the best moral arguments are rarely proposed by those with the most technical knowledge, while the most convincing moral argument are founded on weak or non-existent philosophical bases (insert Hypno-Beck here).

How then can we as a planetary civilization balance individual morality with the necessity of making group decisions. One path that we have been aiming towards is global homogeneity, through the hegemony of capitalism (or if you want to get into your retro-time machine, world socialism). This approach will always have dissidents and people who are abandoned by the system, extremists who threaten the consensus from all sides. Singulatarians, Al Queda, Black Bloc Anarchists, and Bolivarianism are all opposition to this capitalist consensus.

Perhaps we need a minimalist moral philosophy. Thinkers far deeper than I have tried to strip ethics down to the minimal core principles (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.) This would work, except that A) many groups want to forcibly extend their ethics and culture to everybody else and B) there are some decisions that have to be made on a planetary scale, like those about pollution, war, treaties and trade, and the future of the human race.

I would like to refer to this post on visions of the future (Wall Street vs Maker Movements) about what kind of governments we need. Global capitalism has brought the world immense wealth, but also dangerous concentrations of power, a complete lack of accountability, and immense inefficiencies and endemic fear of risk and change. Maybe we need a government big enough to dissemble itself.


The Immortals

Yesterday, I visited the Immortals. I abandoned my car at the periphery wall, no vehicles are allowed inside the Old City, lest immortality be cut short by accident. The narrow streets were packed with shuffling, cautious forms, cast into darkness by the overhanging extensions and expansions of the longevity hospitals, their needs for space long impossible to meet on the ground.

I met Enos at a sidewalk cafe-clinic, where he was undergoing a routine bloodscrub. Enos was my great-great-great-grandfather, and my sponsor among the Immortals. I leaned down and gave him a peck on the cheek. "How are you, Enos?"

"Well enough. My nanocyte count is down. Perhaps soon they will require replacement. These mechanical parts wear out so quickly." He peered at me suspiciously. Perhaps he did not remember who I was, or why I had come. I had arranged this appointment with his calendar, a time where he was free to talk, but not to leave.

"I've been thinking about what you've said, about what I'll want to do when I come here. I was thinking... art. Nothing big mind you, just some nice virtual landscapes. Exploring the aesthetics of simulated universes." When we had last met, Enos had given me this assignment. What do you want to do when you live forever?

"No, no good." Enos said, languidly waving a hand. "Even we Immortals find our art boring. Simulation spaces are toys, what happens when you grow bored and want to grow up? We have no such thing here."

"But I thought this was what you wanted, nothing big, nothing expensive, nothing that would shake the boat. My simulations are harmless." I said, perplexed.

"Harmless, but sign of else-where, else-whens. There is no else. When the Immortals made this city, they made a covenant with the lifers. Immortality would not be allowed to expanded, it would be to dangerous, would destroy the Earth. Immortality is too small for grand projects. All the time in the universe turns human ambition into dust. No, what you want to do is live. Do you understand what it means to live?"

Philosophy. I was on shaky ground, but I had to advance. "To live is to experience, to grow, the opposite of death. I want to survive forever, Enos, that why I came here."

He laughed, a thin sound from a man who conserved his body's strengths. "No, you still don't get it. What we do is exist. Life and death are two sides of the same coin, you cannot have one without the other. I walk, I eat, I see, I exchange pleasantries, but I do not experience in the same way you do, always changing and reacting. Each day is the same as before. Eventually, the sun will expand. I hope to be able to see it, but no more. As long as you want to live, you can never join us. Goodbye, and trouble us no more."

I left, back to the world, back to my hopes, and dreams, and ambitions, such as they were. All I wanted was to live forever, but that is impossible. Nothing that lives can be forever. I turned on my simulations, already they bored me. What a foolish idea, eternity with things such as these, I deleted them forever. We have one life, one brief, finite period in which to laugh and love and dance and live, and when we're gone, so is everything else. I will die, but until I do, every moment, every experience, will be unique. Not like Enos and his eternal sameness till the sun grows and the universe dies.

Yesterday I visited the Immortals.




Consciousness is meaning without context.


This is Why We Roll

Two of the players in my ASUDND game have posted some great thoughts on their experience with RPGs so far (MK and John), and I feel it's only fair to post mine. Why do we play games? Because they're fun. And why are they fun? When RPGs work, they combine the best parts of the narrative experience of a good novel, the tactic cut-and-thrust of a skirmish wargame, and the social pleasure of hanging out with people you like.

Narratives are the heart of the RPG. What kind of story do you want to tell, what themes, what stakes, what characters? For a GM, the tension is between a tightly plotted story, and the sandbox, where the character explore a broader world. ASUDND is a sandbox, I've created a very sketched out island populated by prospectors, goblin tribes, mysterious ruins, and mercenaries, and let the characters seek their own paths.

The standard D&D story is half-way between Campbell's monomyth, and a heist movie, where a team of skilled professionals is a given a quest, completes it through the strategic use of violence, and is rewarded with power and another quest. Eventually, you go from nobody to plane-shaking god-slaying superpower. This model works well enough, but gets a little tiresome. Great gaming enables players to establish a character, then places that character in a situation of actual conflict, where their preconceived notions of morality and loyalty break down. As I put in the teaser for my play-by-post game, Under No Banners, “What do you believe, and how far will you go for those beliefs?” I want to create a world that lets ambitious people seek excellence, and puts those ambitions in conflict with each other, and with something larger.

To describe where ASUDND stands, the Emerald Regiment has put their plans of capitalist-imperalist domination on hold to deal with a personal feud with an NPC group doing many of the same things they've done. To accomplish this, they've allied with the goblin tribes against their previous employers. But every action has consequences: goblins can't pay for mercenaries, and the Regiment has made a stand against everything that Port Arthur stands for. Where will they go from here? I would say that the past few sessions have been practice, this is where the adventure really starts.

The second part of the game is the system. Both of my players mention some dismay at their pregenerated characters. I personally find D&D4e a lot of fun as a tactical wargame, regardless of the roleplaying, which means that part of my job as DM is to teach new players how this game works. Character creation should be a collaborative process between a player and the rest of the group, usually mediated by the GM. In this case, because I have so much more power due to my knowledge of the rules, and D&D character building software, I've appropriated a lot of that process, translating a rough description of the character that the player into the language of the D&D4e ruleset. This is not how the game should work, and I hopefully won't have to do it again. Conversely, I need to shape up my encounters, making them more balanced, interesting, and treasure-filled.

RPGs speak to my authorial bent. I rarely am a player, so for me the pleasure is less that of taking a role, and more orchestrating the fun of others. I present the challenges, I shape the solutions, I reward the clever and punish the foolish. I want people to confront their weaknesses, and surpass them through the medium of the game. But of course, I can't do that alone, I need to know what my players find important, and what they fund fun, so those elements can appear in game, either by having people explicitly telling me what they want, or implicitly seeing what works and what doesn't. The question is always why. Why do we choose to go into the darkness and face death and danger? For ASUDND, I'm only starting to get a handle on it.

I could talk more about ludic circles, or cultural models, or finite and infinite games, but I've found that RPGs are delicate creatures, and the tools of academic discourse usually just mangle them, like deep sea fish being brought to the surface. Forget the theory, Gary Gygax has The Wisdom.

"The ultimate success of this adventure in your campaign, rests upon you, the DM. It is you skill and knowledge not only of the adventure and the AD&D rule system, but of your players as well, that determine how enjoyable your games with this adventure are, There is no "right" way to run any encounter. There is only your way to of running encounters. You may add or delete from the story as you see fit. What is contained within is only a skeleton, it is your input that makes it a worthwhile adventure".

"You are not entering this world in the usual manner, for you are setting forth to be a Dungeon Master. Certainly there are stout fighters, mighty magic-users, wily thieves, and courageous clerics who will make their mark in the magical lands of D&D adventure. You however, are above even the greatest of these, for as DM you are to become the Shaper of the Cosmos.
It is you who will give form and content to the all the universe. You will breathe life into the stillness, giving meaning and purpose to all the actions which are to follow."

"The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don't need any rules."



Those Climate Scientists Deserved It, Acting All Smart Like That

Roger Pielke Jr always has something interesting to say about climate change, and today's post about the politicization of climate science was no exception. Piekle refers to a recent article in National Journal that “Nineteen of the 20 Republican Senate nominees who have expressed an opinion on the widespread scientific consensus that greenhouse gases are altering the world's climate have declared the science either inconclusive or dead wrong, often in vitriolic terms.” Piekle notes that policy has become increasingly hyper-politicized, there's nothing inherently 'conservative' about not believing in global warming, except as a badge of tribal identity. Reconstructing how climate science came to be viewed in such a politicized light would be an interesting exercise, but as it related to contemporary issues, Pielke calls for a de-politicization of climate science. Referring to an editoral by Michael Mann about the Climate-gate emails he says:

“Do Mann and the climate science community actually think that directly linking battles over climate science to upcoming national elections will depoliticize climate science?!

Not only does the public get the politicians that it deserves, but it seems that climate scientists get the politics that they deserve as well. Until the scientific community shows some willingness to take actions that reduce rather than reinforce the political intensity of the climate debate, they are acting as willing accomplices in its hyper-politicization.”

Really, Dr Pielke? Should climate scientists just lie back and take the “vitriol” in the hopes that global warming will stop being a political football? I believe that Piekle is trying to recover a model of science and the state that no longer applies. As Sheila Jasanoff explains, the contract of post-WW2 American science was that the state would supply funding to scientists, and scientists would supply knowledge to legitimate the decisions of the state (Jasanoff, Technologies of Humility: Citizen Participation in Governing Science, 2003) This contract was rendered void by 1990 because of deviant science (see David Baltimore and AIDS), political demands on scientists to legitimate regulations on objects that were poorly defined, like microparticulates and GM foods, and the growing awareness by scientists of the political and social implications of their work.

We can't turn back time to those halcyon days of the early Cold War, so what now? The choices break down into more involvement, or less. Scientists could decide that certain topics are too politically risky to investigate. I believe this course to be a bad one, as the realm of the non-political is microscopic, perhaps only the most abstruse areas of theory are free of politics. And even if scientists relinquish politics, the demand for expert knowledge is too ingrained in American democracy. Whether they want it or not, scientific knowledge will be used and misused by politicians.

The alternative, engagement, is highly risky. It requires the organization of scientists as political actors, from a national to local levels. It demands the scientists act as a class to bestow and withhold the favor of expert knowledge on their representatives. When you play the game, you might win, but you also might lose. Scientists could find their fortunes tied to one party, and a host of issues completely unrelated to science. They could find themselves on the losing end of an economic downturn, or a culture war, guilty by association.

By their words and actions, Republican candidates across America have rejected the favor of science, so what interests do scientists have in supporting them? Let them rule from the gut, let's see how far they get in a society that no matter how much it denies it, relies on scientific knowledge. But from here, scientists face an even more momentous choice. Tactically, their only allies are the Democrats, but Democrats are only marginally more credible on scientific issues. Thomas Friedman (420 Drink KoolAid EVRYDAY) says that we're primed for the rise of a third party. Does science have sufficient credibility and unity to form the core of that party?



above (left to right)- cover, illustrations by chris mucci, sal farina

Hello, We Alone! Pardon the intrusion, I got in when my friend Michael left the back door open. I'm currently working on a comic book compiled of diverse artworks by friends (including some stills from Michael's Perceptron!). As the back cover of the book is a collaboration between We Alone and me, Michael and Biff thought it deserved a little bit of an explanation here on We Alone. In terms of political discourse, the following write-up could just possibly be of interest, depending on whether or not you stop staring at Glenn Beck. 

fig.A - Big Ups #1 back cover - "Our Hero" (stop staring.)

"Pop culture used to be like LSD – different, eye-opening and reasonably dangerous. It’s now like crack – isolating, wasteful and with no redeeming qualities whatsoever" --Peter Saville

Big Ups is a way of pushing the context of comics. At first its a simple gesture - email your friends, get some really great art together, put it in a hand made book, release a cd with it, and get it out there one way or the other. On the other hand, the simple, do it yourself nature of it all is more political, I think, then saying, outright, "this is a political gesture". The diversity of the art married to the simple fact that "comics are what make you smile" - what does that mean for kids who want to see something different? For us, I think the unexplainable is way more fun then a one-liner telling you where to go. 

This is where we turn to the back cover, featuring a stylish headshot of our hero, Glenn Beck (see fig. A). It's a simple experiment involving an obviously bad political influence (in the sense that he's simply obtuse), transformed into a mandala-like shrine to obfuscation of priority. That's why its going on the back cover, unexplained, utterly beautiful and strange - it represents a 'beyond' of political discourse. The image itself is simply entertaining, but also confusing as hell. The act of fucking with an image of Glenn Beck (or Bill O' Reilly, or Jon Stewart, for that matter) is like burning an effigy that looks nothing like the subject. Plenty of people want to lay into Our Hero for being an idiot, but personally I don't have time to even concern myself with the nonsense that leaves his mouth. In other words, the mere act of transforming a likeness of Glenn Beck into a psychedelic icon/monster is an exercise in political discourse that aims to make political discourse obsolete. It represents the purpose of Big Ups, or anything anyone makes themselves - it demonstrates that we're doing just fine with or without Our Hero.

Peter Saville's apt quip reverse engineers the idea nicely - essentially we are taking crack-like pop culture and turning it into a moderately valuable form of cultural LSD, in that it is different, it is confusing, it is associated with the practice of creating situations for yourself again, rather than having it mindlessly sold to you.
 fig. B - Mr. Peanut/Mr. Penis. 1969 Zap!#4 cover. by Moscoso

 fig. C - Dyke Pirates Rescue Their Captain from the Diabolic Doctors of Dover. Crank Collingwood, ZAP! 1975.

fig. D - MAROOUFAOLLOU! Hank “Elephant Boy” Longcrank. ZAP! 1975.

Underground comics in the sixties and seventies did this all the time - ZAP! for example (see Fig.B), was famous for it, making drug references seem as common as breathing, and featuring horrifyingly(and entertainingly!) detailed graphic scenes of sexual and/or violent natures (Fig.C), or art that was too confusing and gruesome and difficult to be considered acceptable by the mainstream (Fig.D). It was art that sought beauty where others saw filth. It was art for people who got it - anyone who didn't was encouraged to expand their consciousness to do so, or get the fuck out. MAD magazine/National Lampoon were also famous for doing stuff like that, but they also took the more hard-hitting, easy to understand route, making direct parodic shots at political figures, pop culture icons/events, etc. that the mainstream could latch onto more easily. I'm partial to stuff like ZAP! for the very reason that it made no sense whatsoever. It reminds me that life is a little more complicated than following people like Glenn Beck on their journey towards ultimate stupidity.
(note - please see fig. E for the Big Ups back cover's direct inspiration)  
                                                     fig. E - Backcover Comix, Zap 1975


A Portrait of the City as a Squiggly Line

This is very much à propos of none of the grand debates about the future.  It can hardly be, because urban form is necessarily so static, so hard to change, so grounded in heavy expensive physical bricks.  It's something we're pretty much stuck with whatever else happens.

A recent post on transit consultant Jarrett Walker's blog Human Transit discusses why it's misleading to talk about the average density of a city or urban area.  There are other factors, but mainly it's misleading because the average tells us nothing about the shape of the curve, and also because it averages over land area when, in trying to decide policy, we ought to think about what affects the most people.

The US Census Bureau defines urban areas by taking a city center and eating up adjacent blocks until it reaches areas that are not built up (or another urban area.)  The blocks that are included are contiguous blocks with density at least 1000/sq. mi. and adjacent blocks with density at least 500/sq. mi.  Such an area will include both high-rises and suburbia, and the average density (which the Census Bureau provides) tells us nothing about urban form.  For example, it rates Los Angeles as more dense than New York, which is obviously misleading.  Nevertheless, as we shall see, our prejudices are also often misleading, and more detailed and meaningful numbers can help us adjudicate between the two.  So I downloaded some data from the 2000 census and made the following graphs, whose x-scale is pleasingly logarithmic:

The first shows the percentage of people within the urban area who live in a block group of a higher density than the x coordinate; the second shows the total number of people who live in block groups with density x±5%. I included six cities I've either lived in or visited since I started thinking about urban form, as well as two others (Las Vegas and Atlanta) purely for comparison.  I used Census-defined urban areas except for the Bay Area, which combines the Census's San Francisco, San Jose and San Rafael (Marin County) areas.

There are a number of things that stand out in this graph, both obvious and surprising.  Without much prejudice as to which is which, here are some of them.
  • The densities of older cities (New York City, Chicago, and Boston) are essentially bimodal, with a dense, older urban core surrounded by low-density suburbs built up after World War II, although Boston's curve is oddly flat.  The densities of newer cities are essentially unimodal.  Everyone in LA lives at broadly the same density -- it's no accident even Italo Calvino called it a city without form.
  • About 7 of the 18 million people in greater New York City -- the vast majority of whom form much of the population of the city proper -- live at densities that are home to only about 5% of LA, the Bay Area, Boston and Chicago.
  • On the other hand, LA's curve is pretty much uniformly higher than Chicago's; for any given density, there are more Angelenos living above it than Chicagoans.  This is worth dwelling on because most people think of Chicago, and not LA, as a Real City with tall buildings.  I suspect I know the reason for this.  The densest parts of Chicago are the Loop and the lakeshore on the North Side; these are also the most affluent, most-visited, most touristy parts.  On the other hand, the touristy, impressive, upscale parts of LA are spread all over the place, and are mostly not in the densest parts, which are the areas just east and west of Downtown as well as South Central, that place whose condition is so shameful they gave up and renamed it to South LA.  (Hollywood is also very dense, but, outside the famous bits, also rather poor.)  Even if you live in a city, you are mostly a tourist outside your own neighborhood, and so the parts you see are unrepresentative.  "[Y]our stereotype of Los Angeles may be a ranch-style house with a big pool on a cul-de-sac," writes Jarrett; indeed, we think of LA as low density because when we think of a city we first think of its sparkly rich parts.  (I kind of exclude myself from this 'we' since I like to grub around in ethnic neighborhoods, but it still applies to some degree.)

    This also makes me suspect that the best public transit model for LA would be the one that Chicago uses: rail lines that go to most places, but not necessarily from everywhere to everywhere, and faster, better buses.  This seems to be what is already happening, but it will require free transfers and higher frequencies off-peak to make it really convenient.
  • While the most common density for the other Western cities is between the two peaks of the Eastern ones, Seattle, despite its hipster image, seems to pretty much be a sea of sprawl; it has a single peak which is around that of New York and Chicago's suburbs.
  • Atlanta deserves its reputation as a sprawl capital.  Not only does it entirely consist of low-density suburbs, but those suburbs are actually considerably lower-density than those of other cities.
  • Las Vegas is middling dense, if you average over the metro area, but amazingly uniform.  Half its population lives in densities within a factor of two of each other.
Of course, you can't glean everything about an urban area's character from this graph.  There's a lot to urban growth patterns that you can't quantify even locally with a single number; Jarrett speaks eloquently about this, so I won't try.  But having numerical data that does say something helps us think through our misconceptions and make arguments that aren't just based on hunches and case studies.

I'd be curious to try this on cities outside the United States, and on more diverse urban forms, but not so curious as to look for the data myself.


"I want to state the following moral principle: If a new technology makes it possible to avoid a conflict between legitimate interests, it is our duty to use the new technology."
--Stellan Welin Reproductive Ectogenesis

Sometimes technological effects change is incremental, other times it is transformative. Making an entire section of moral and ethical conflict obsolete is one of the most transformative uses of technology. Beyond the technical limitations surrounding our lives, we are shaped by the moral character of the debates those technologies engender. Welin is speaking of ectogenesis, incubating embryos outside a female womb, and the abortion debate, but similar issues apply with other technologies. Digital media and intellectual property law is a contemporary case, uploading and physical murder may be one in the future.

Do we have an obligation to bypass conflict with technology?