Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Science fiction’ Category

No one can read this (fascinating) article and deny evolution—and a swarm as the entity

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Really worth reading in its entirety, and just the right level (at least for me) of technical detail: enough so you can understand how/why it works, but not so much that you get lost in the trees. Carrie Arnold writes in Quanta about how the virus isn’t the living, evolving entity; it’s the swarm, instead. Very science-fictiony, eh?

Sometime in late 2013, a mosquito-borne virus called chikungunya appeared for the first time in the Western Hemisphere. Chikungunya, or “chik,” as it’s called, rarely kills its human hosts. But it can cause fever, rash and debilitating joint pain. In the two years since it first arrived in the Caribbean, chik has spread wildly across the Americas. It is now suspected of having infected over 1 million people in 44 countries and territories, creating a hemisphere-wide horde of mosquito-borne suffering.

The same biological quirks that have contributed to chik’s success are showing researchers how to fight it — and other viruses like it. Chik is an RNA virus, just like influenza, West Nile virus, hepatitis and Ebola, among others. Unlike DNA viruses, which contain two copies of their genetic information, RNA viruses are single-stranded. When they replicate, any errors in the single strand get passed on. As a result, copying is sloppy, and so each new generation of RNA viruses tends to have lots of errors. In only a few generations, a single virus can become a mutant swarm of closely related viruses.

This viral genetic jumble has given Marco Vignuzzi, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, a way to predict the future evolution of RNA viruses like chik. Vignuzzi has re-created a single mutation in chik that occurred early in the virus’s around-the-world adventure, work that illuminated how the virus was able to spread so widely in such a short amount of time. Now Vignuzzi is trying to predict chik’s future. This past June, at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in New Orleans, Vignuzzi showcased the two mutations in chik that are most likely to develop next.

Viruses are tricky and complex beasts; no one can predict exactly what they will do. But if researchers are ever to get a step ahead of the rapidly shifting world of viruses around us, they will need to deconstruct the viral swarm.

A Viral Potluck

For almost 40 years, scientists have worked to understand how RNA viruses can have so many mutations and still be so successful.

In the late 1970s, the virologist Esteban Domingo of the Autonomous University of Madrid was trying to measure the sloppiness of replication using an RNA virus that infects bacteria. He found that one mutation occurred every time the virus copied its genome, on average. As a result, a single virus produces an array of daughter viruses that are almost, but not quite, identical. Every generation spawns another array of viruses, leading to what Domingo called a “mutant cloud” of viruses.

However, most of the mutations in viral clouds create problems for the virus. Researchers assumed that any single mutated version of a healthy virus was likely destined for extinction. But then in 2006, scientists published an account of a thriving dengue virus in Myanmar with what should have been a catastrophic error in the middle of a vital gene. . .

Continue reading. He explains how it works and discovers the true entity, as alien as anything in a science-fiction story—and I think I’ve read a number of stories in which the alien was along these lines: the individual animals/plants/people were not the entity with which you had to deal, it was the total group: the swarm.

Read the whole thing. It’s fascinating.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 August 2015 at 2:28 pm

Life is getting extremely weird: Real Life Katamari Ball Tests the Limits of 3D Printing

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I think we have seriously underestimated how weird daily life is becoming—though “we” clearly does not include William Gibson. Check out this article in Motherboard by Emanuel Maiberg:

Katamari Damacy took the gaming world by storm in 2004 with a simple concept. You roll a ball into objects that stick to it and make the ball bigger, which then allows you to roll into and gather bigger objects, making the ball even bigger, and so on. You start by rolling up loose change on the floor and before you know you’re rolling into trucks and buildings. The challenge was to see how big of a Katamari ball you could make before the timer runs out.

Kata​mari Roll, a new project by Arian Croft, uses the same idea to hopefully test the limits of 3D printing.

Croft, who’s known for his 3D-printed board game Pock​et-Tactics, got the idea for the project when he spotted a 3D model of a Katam​ari Ball on Th​ingiverse, 3D printer manufacturer Makerbot’s repository of models that users can share and print. “I noticed that it both hadn’t been printed yet, and that, though left in a repository full of random objects, it had yet to be used to gather a mound of objects,” he said.

Like the game that inspired it, Katamari Roll has a simple concept. Take the Katamari Ball, add a random 3D model to it, print it out, and pass it along. With 12 iterations so far, it’s off to a good start.

“It took off on the first day, and the clump has gotten bigger and bigger since,” Croft said. “It’s slowed down a bit, though as I document and more people catch on, it’ll grow, until, I guess, it can’t be printed anymore?”

Croft said that there are definitely limitations to how big the ball can get—Makerbot’s . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 March 2015 at 7:53 pm

Businesses taking powers that properly belong only to government: Uber, for example

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Read this article by T.C. Sottek at The Verge: “Uber has an army of at least 161 lobbyists and they’re crushing regulators.” And from the outset Uber has ignored the restrictions of the law, often in letter as well as in spirit, as though the rules did not apply to them—because Uber was making its own rules. That’s the mindset of the company. “We’re going to disrupt things and break shit.” Well, shit is well and truly being broken. If people do not wake up a little, we’re in for some tough sledding. John Twelve Hawks doesn’t touch it, though he certainly points the direction in his trilogy that beings with The Traveler. Highly readable.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2014 at 1:55 pm

Meme competition at its most direct

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John Twelve Hawks, in The Dark River: Book Two of the Fourth Realm Trilogy deescribes on page 106 (location 1483-1506) an all-out meme warfare, hand-to-hand combat. The speaker is one of the Brethern—basically, a confederacy of the powerful and wealthy with the deliberate aim of controlling human society (for the benefit of all, of course).

“Our new computer center in Berlin uses conventional technology, but it’s still quite powerful. We’ve also created bot nets of cooperating computers around the world that obey our commands without the owner’s knowledge….”

Lines of computer code appeared on the middle monitor behind the podium. As Reichhardt spoke, the computer code became smaller and smaller until it was condensed into a black square.

“We’re also expanding our use of computational immunology. We have created self-sustaining, self-replicating computer programs that move through the Internet like white blood cells in the human body. Instead of looking for viruses and infections, these programs search for infectious ideas that will delay the establishment of the Panopticon.”

On the screen, the tiny square of code entered a computer. It reproduced itself and then was transmitted to a second computer. Rapidly, it began to take over an entire system.

“Initially, we used computational immunology as a tool for discovering our enemies. Because of the problems with the quantum computer, we turned our cyber leukocytes into active viruses that damage computers filled with information that is determined to be antisocial. The program requires no maintenance once it is released into the system.”

There it is: memes deliberately hindering the reproduction of other memes: killing off competing memes.

The novel resumes with the description that doubtless matches some current NSA project:

“But now I will turn to the Hauptgericht—the ‘main course’ of our banquet. We call it the Shadow Program….”

The monitor went dark and then showed the computer-generated image of a living room. Looking like one of the mannequins used to test car safety, a figure sat on a straight-backed chair. His face and body were comprised of geometric shapes, but he was recognizably human—a man.

“The use of electronic surveillance and monitoring has reached a crucial fusion point. Using both government and corporate sources, we have all the data necessary to track an individual during his entire day. We’ve simply combined it into one system—the Shadow Program. Shadow creates a parallel cyber-reality that constantly changes to reflect the actions of each individual. For those members of the Brethren who would like more information after this talk, I’m warning you—the Shadow Program is…” Reichhardt paused, searching for a word. “I would call it verführerisch.”

“Which means beguiling,” Mrs. Brewster explained. “Seductive.”

“Seductive. An excellent word.

“In order to show what the Shadow Program can do, I’ve chosen one member of the Brethren as our subject. Without his knowledge, I have established his duplicated self within our system. Photographs from passport and driver’s license databases are converted into a three-dimensional image. Using medical records and other personal data, we can establish weight and height.”

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2014 at 12:52 pm

Comment on The Traveler, by John Twelve Hawks

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Interesting paragraph—among a great many interesting paragraphs: The Traveler is a terrific novel—I just read on page 155:

Gabriel bought several newspapers and read every article. There was no mention of  the shooting at the clothing factory. He knew that newspapers and television announcers reported on a certain level of reality. What was happening to him was on another level, like a parallel universe. All around him, different societies were growing larger or being destroyed, forming new traditions or breaking the rules while citizens pretended that the faces shown on television were the only important stories.

Shortly afterwards the novel discusses the Total Information Awareness program that was proposed by the Bush Administration and rejected by Congress, but that (as Edward Snowden has revealed) was developed anyway, using a variety of other names, a system that is operational today and provides much more complete surveillance than is described in the novel.

The quoted is pretty much a description of our own reality, though I do think we are better at identifying and describing the struggle. It seems obvious to me that the struggle is simply memetic evolution in action. “Societies” are groups built of and around shared memes. Memes, as Richard Dawkins pointed out when he defined the term, evolve from the same algorithm that leads to any Darwinian evolution: entities are able to reproduce with similar offspring—similar but not the same—and all entities are competing for limited resources. Thus natural selection ensues and we have evolution. Memes can have “offspring”: the imitative behavior that transmits/receives the meme—with minor changes and an occasional mutation. And memes compete for cognitive space (“mindshare”), which is limited, and the result is precisely Darwinian evolution. Memes naturally formed the equivalent of multicellular animals: clusters of mutually supporting memes that, like the eucalyptus tree, also have a protection layer to block invasions of meme that threaten it. A couple of examples: Red states and Blue states. Another: Pro-life and Pro-choice. Each of those is a cluster of memes, and both are successful at repelling the other meme.

We can see one very large meme in action now: destroying the norms-based rules that have guided Congress (that began with Newt Gingrich, and people like Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz continue and extend the campaign) and the Judiciary (which is now overtly politically partisan) and the Executive (Iraq War; torture regime). Deliberately breaking the norms, while not being actually illegal, the new meme (or, more accurately, this new incarnation of an ancient meme) can demolish an entire memetic structure that would restrict its growth. This meme includes a mindset that judges actions by the goal achieved, not by the means used. (Example: The GOP in Congress deliberately choked US economic growth—harming the country—in an effort to ensure that Obama will serve only one term: not caring about means, focused solely on the goal

This current memetic struggle seems to be today’s version of an ancient struggle—it’s as if complex memes early bifurcated into something analogous to the aerobic and anaerobic bacteria or some such, two very different paths. Having taken divergent paths on some fundamental issues regarding how societies should work, the two approaches have been struggling, each against the other, ever since. Cain and Abel. Satan and God. Self-organizing chaos vs. imposed order.

It’s a fundamental difference—and through history we see that the forces of authoritarian order do often win, unfortunately. The more relaxed and less organized “live and let live” idea of a society, of finding compromise through cooperation, finds it difficult to resist authoritarian control. The struggle plays out like a virus invading a living organism, in a way, wiggling through the defenses and uses the systems of the organism to destroy it. The memes that lead to the national-security state seem to be predators. The authoritarian meme-cluster undermines the  “live and let live” approach and demands allegiance.

Thus I predict that the Senate’s effort to release their report on the US torture program will fail. Note that the report simply states what actually happened—actual recent history, information that is important to our nation and that the people have every right to know, this being their government. But of course, that’s the very essence of the struggle now underway: whose government is it, actually?

The resolution of the standoff on the Senate report—Obama stoutly resisting, either at the behest of the national-security state or because he’s of their number—will be a significant indicator of how it’s going and who has the power. The national-security state is a very large meme—large both in being a very large cluster of interlocking submemes that protect it and help propagate it, and also large in being extensive: with many minds giving it large mindshare. This meme judges actions purely by results, the means being of little or no consequence: winners win. Period. Another instance of the same meme: corporate entities (meme-clusters), judging actions solely by profits, again with little concern about the memes (thus pollution, GM ignition switch, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan).

That particular meme, call it what you will, does work to produce a few winners and many losers—that’s how it works, that’s how it’s structured—it’s part of the essence of the meme—and quite often the losers lose in a very bad way indeed, if you reflect on history. Take Chile, for example, and the things that happened in the aftermath of our national-security state quite deliberating overthrowing a democratically elected government in order to install a right-wing dictator. (This was because the national-security state feared communism, just as the national-security state now fears terrorism: the national-security state is drive by its fears.)

The deliberate destruction of Chile’s democratic government to install a right-wing dictatorship exemplifies the nature of the struggle and reveals the mind of the national-security state: it’s a state that does things like that to get “results.” One weakness of that meme-cluster is that its approach often ensures that the actual results are all too often a total and unmitigated disaster for the US and for the latest victim of the national-security state.

Take a look at the entire Iraq War for an example: an unprovoked invasion based on a completely fabricated story, and then a great many no-bid cost-plus contracts were given to the Vice President’s former company, and HBR and Halliburton and others took home hundreds of billions of dollars, which of course was of great personal benefit to the Vice President. This was when the government wanted to “outsource” and “privatize” operations—e.g., give HBR and Halliburton blank checks on the US Treasury so the military could focus on its “core mission” and we could “save money,” which turned out to mean “spend money by the literal truckload.” (Remember the skids of $100 bills sent to Iraq? And the billions that somehow got misplaced?—that seems pretty overt robbery.) The war was even combined with tax cuts, so the US plunged—dived—into enormous debt—and while all that was going on, Wall Street found its own way to guzzle billions from the public treasury. And we’ve seen that story.

It’s pretty clear that quite a furious meme war is raging right now, and the direction it’s going will be very important for us. It seems quite possible that it will go in a bad direction.

But if it does go bad, at least our police forces are rapidly being militarized to exercise crowd control and the first test killings seem to be underway, the police shooting various people to death for what seems to be no reason: will people accept it? is it going too far? So far, we seem to accept it as a new reality, and the police for the most part go unpunished.

UPDATE: I was wondering where the national-security state got its strength, when I realized that for a meme, strength comes from mindshare: the more mindshare the meme has—both in the mindshare of individual humans, as well as overall mindshare in the population—the stronger it is, the more protected, and so on.

So for the meme of winner-take-all, judge only by results and ignore the means, and so on, for that meme to be strong, a lot more people than the winners must embrace it. The winners are, in that meme, few, so if the meme is strong, a lot of non-winners share it. Sort of odd: if they simply didn’t share the meme, it would simply collapse: not enough copies ultimately left to reproduce.

When you think about it, ISIS is a variant: judging by results regardless of means, etc. And the ISIS use of photos and videos seems derived directly from the US military:  US troops working at Abu Ghraib (and elsewhere) took many photos of themselves gleefully abusing and torturing prisoners, threatening them with dogs, and so on. We saw some of the photos and Obama promised to release the lot so we could see what our military was up to, but Obama quite often promises things and then fails to deliver. In this case, it seems likely that the national-security state simply did not allow him to release more of the photos.

But what was released was quite disturbing and apparently people in those parts paid attention. Many of those swept up into Abu Ghraib had done nothing wrong, as we know: they were simply captured and imprisoned to be tortured and interrogated (much like a junior-varsity Guantánamo, which also had quite a few prisoners who were innocent of nothing).

I think we should view the ISIS videos in the context of how the US military has treated prisoners.

Similarly, the next step after confrontations like the stand-off in Ferguson MO, between protesters and  militarized police forces, is for the police to fire upon the protesters, a step already taken in Israel, where police fired upon a group of protesters, leaving one Dutch journalist critically wounded.

Of course, in the US we have also had a militarized response to a protest in May of 1970: in the Kent State shootings, the Ohio National Guard fired on protesters, killing four and wounding nine, one of whom suffered paralysis. That should show us that it is quite possible for US authorities to respond to protests by shooting down protesters—in that case, it was college students protesting the illegal military campaign in Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 November 2014 at 2:13 pm

32 scifi novels you should read

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Interesting list and I’ve read all but one (and a secondhand copy of that is on its way to me). Philip K. Dick was indeed a force to be reckoned with, though I certainly would have included The Man in the High Castle. And why isn’t Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep included? Etc.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2014 at 8:40 am

Posted in Books, Science fiction

Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep

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I had forgotten how much I enjoyed this novel. Doing a quick re-read.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 September 2014 at 10:14 am

Posted in Books, Science fiction


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