Friday, December 30, 2016

Multiple timelines & viewpoints. Science fiction is international

For weekend-holiday distraction - and in our year-change mood - let's get back to Science Fiction! First, have a way cool look at the physics and paradoxes of time travel. 

A nonlinear history of time travel: Nautilus offers an excerpt from the mind-expanding experiment Time Travel: A History by James Gleick. As usual, a delightful, intellectual and verbal feast. Of course, this survey barely does credit to the array of possible means by which we sci fi authors try to weasel our way around causality and temporal protection. 

One is the Multiverse Branching Point or MBP. Take one example: when Spock accidentally lures a vengeful Romulan to go back in time and destroy Planet Vulcan (in J.J. Abrams's Star Trek reboot) many fans consoled themselves that this is just a branching-off of a newborn parallel reality... that the older timeline still stands, where Shatner-Kirk and all the rest remain, continuing along the original timeline, like a trellis for the new one to grow alongside.

I prefer that interpretation.  Indeed, it opens a way for New Spock to get advice from the old one or for mutual aid between timelines... so many cool possibilities.  The alternative -- the One Timeline Loop OTL -- betrays every single moment of joy we got from Star Trek TOS and The Next Generation and Voyager... because if that's the case, then J.J. Abrams has simply wiped every one of those adventures away and said "never mind."  Indeed, does anything Chris Pine's Kirk does really matter, if the next time traveler will simply erase all his life and deeds? In fact, what would the New Kirk do with a time machine, except go back, save his dad and restore the Shatnerian timeline?

Paramount would give us all a psychic gift, by making clear that MBP is "true." And I hope you found that timey-wimey rant entertaining!

Well, well, that's an artistic representation of one of many ways that physicists (a few) think the paradoxes might be resolved. Speaking a both a physicist and a science fiction author, I must say that this very loose partnership is one of the most fun that our unique and marvelous civilization offers, during a unique and marvelous... time. 

Explore more of the multi-dimensions of time in James Gleick's Time Travel: A History or Richard Muller's Now: The Physics of Time.

== SF from other viewpoints ==

One of the most exciting things to happen to Science Fiction in this century has been the rise of a vibrant SF sensibility and creativity among Chinese authors and directors who are starting to make waves also in the West. See this explored more fully in the article, A Brief Introduction to Chinese Science Fiction by Regina Kanyu Wang. 

Liu Cixin’s epic “Three Body” trilogy (Volume One received the Hugo for best novel in 2015), recently concluded with his latest book Death's End (read a selection on Tor's website.) 

American authors Ken Liu (The Paper Menagerie, The Grace of Kings) and Ted Chiang ( his novella Story of Your Life formed the basis for the film Arrival) have been also familiarizing their readers with vibrant stories that include Asian flavors. As have many others. Rejoice over this expansion of the Science Fiction worldview.

Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu, presents an anthology of some of the best in recent speculative fiction from China, including powerful stories from Liu Cixin, Xia Jia, Tang Fei, as well as the excellent novella "Folding Beijing" by Hao Jingfang, which won a Hugo at the Kansas City Worldcon in 2016. Essays explore topics such as "What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?"

Chinese director Ren Chao Wang created a marvelous science fiction film “The End of the Lonely Island.” Beautifully shot and tightly logical, it weaves through flashbacks as a woman scientist desperately evades a deadly plague and panicking authorities in order to transport her software AI to a desolate isle, where it might communicate assistance to a lost starship.  I ranked this film very highly in judging for the Raw Science Film Festival, whose awards ceremony took place in Los Angeles, in December.  See Wang Renchao's official site for his film. Lovely special effects and visuals. Have a look at the trailer… though unlike the film itself, the trailer hasn’t been supplied with English sub-titles.

Science fiction is spreading, not only in China. Lately, there have been anthologies of tales by authors from Africa (Try: AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writers) , India (The Scientific Indian Science Fiction Anthology), Iraq (see below), and by Latina/Latino authors... 

Looking beyond magical realism: Sample some recent Latin short fiction in Latin@ Rising: An Anthology of Latin Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Matthew David Goodwin. This collection includes speculative fiction stories by Juno Diaz, Daniel José Older (author of Shadowshaper), Alex Hernandez, Kathleen Alcala and other Latino/Latina writers residing within the United States. For a vivid SF film set on the border, watch Sleep Dealer, directed by Alex Rivera.

Now comes the vivid anthology Iraq+100: Stories from a century after the invasion, a collection showing that unlucky country in a century’s time, as portrayed in both Arabic and English by Iraqi writers. From NPR's review:  “In Khalid Kaki's "The Day By Day Mosque" the narrator drinks vinegar made from hundred-year-old perfume in a world where everything is in the process of being literally reversed; in "The Here and Now Prison," Jalal Hassan imagines the city of Najaf and its residents translated into virtual reality; in "Operation Daniel," people who resist a dictator's edicts are "archived" — incinerated and compressed into the diamonds that stud his shoes.”  Wow.

See also The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Karen Joy Fowler and John Joseph Adams, with stories by Salman Rushdie, Charlie Jane Anders, Ted Chiang, Catherynne Valente and others.

== SF'nal TV and movies ==

I’ve not yet seen the Westworld TV series on HBO (except glimpsing a bit, in a hotel room.) But this article shows how the writers seriously intended to play with one of the coolest sci fi-ish concepts in psychology, using ideas from The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, a blockbuster 1976 book by psychologist Julian Jaynes... that I read way back when. Unintentionally, perhaps, Jaynes wrote what I deem to be one of the finest sci fi gedankenexperiments since Karl Marx. Things that aren't likely to be or come true... but make us re-evaluate other things we were definitely wrong about.

Cool coming sci fi flick that appears to intend to offer real science fiction. See the preview for Passengers starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt.  

== Clever styles of propaganda ==

Who needs privacy? Sharing is Caring. Secrets are Lies. See the preview for The Circle, starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, based on the book by Dave Eggers. The novel was an exquisite exercise in the art of propaganda, in which the author gives nearly all of the speeches and lecturing advocacy to those he deems evil - those promoting transparency and openness.  By hammering the reader with patronizing rants and making his protagonist deliciously stupid, he invites readers to get their hackles up against the idea that she believes... and that the author hates. I've never seen it done so well. We'll find out if the flick also uses this effective Orwellian technique.

(O.S. Card does the same thing, portraying Ender as so guilt-ridden over things that weren't his fault that the reader is soon practically begging Ender to both forgive himself and take over ruling humanity's destiny. Some trick!)

In a highly intelligent and perceptive rumination about the coming “Rogue One” Star Wars flick, Thomas Ricard riffs off some of my earlier points about the troublesome ethical/moral and logical problems of the Jedi Order.  My own hopes are up – a little – with the news that there won’t be any damned “Force” mutant-demigods in the coming film. Resistance to evil is about people – regular or above-average people – rising up to confront it (as I portray in the Postman.) Chosen-One mutants – even in adventure stories – don’t help us figure out that central problem. They just distract from it.

Get Star Wars on Trial as the perfect gift for your jedi-fanatic!

== Better legends ==

The Fifth Element was writer-director Luc Besson’s “delightfully garish, unapologetically maximalist space-jam—and the film that proved that, in space, everyone can hear Chris Tucker scream.” His more serious contemplation of human augmentation was also great — “Lucy.”  So you can bet that — especially after watching this trailer (!) — I’ll be lining up next year, for Besson’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.”

From Entertainment Geekly: A cool fun personal analysis of what makes Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan one of the finest science fiction films of all time.

What fun. An appraisal of all the different timelines in Back To The Future. Hilarious, and there are a dozen you never realized. Well, I think the fellow adds maybe six unnecessary ones. Still, such fun. 

== And prophetic works... ==

As we being our long process of saying goodbye to Miami… then all of Florida and much of the Olde South… I am reminded of the scary novel War With the Newts,  a 1936 satirical science fiction novel by Czech author Karel Čapek. Humanity loses all its lowlands which are converted into swamps for the intelligent salamanders we had abused.  A different mechanism (one reminiscent of Uplift!) But the net result - humanity fleeing from the shorelines - is eerily and painfully redolent.

Čapek, who is best known for R.U.R. (coining the term “robot”), also wrote The Absolute, a satiric (1922) prediction of vast, worldwide war in 1943, though triggered by a new form of energy generation that fills the world with a pollutant — religious irrationality. Geez, what if it’s true? If you look at where and how fossil fuels get mined and burned and who controls them.  Just sayin’. 

(Forget robots and drowned coastlines. Čapek might have been especially prescient to connect energy sources with a rise in human irrationality. See how I was personally involved - way back in 1970 - in an endeavor that helped get the lead out of gasoline, resulting , science now confirms, in a plummet in violence 20 years later, after each nation made the shift. And yes, at one level it is Čapek's silliest, yet most profoundly true prediction. The guy is amazingly under-rated.)

In Defense of The Postman: Here’s a thoughtful rumination on Kevin Costner’s film version of the novel.  Why is The Postman set in Oregon? How did the film fail and succeed? Did it have much in common with the book? Anthony Rimel's article in the Corvallis Gazette-Times discusses this and much more -- like whether citizenship can prevail. See Eight of the great survivalists from science fiction: The Postman stands with Sarah Connor and Mad Max. 

And finally... Beyond Mad Max: Ten extreme post-apocalyptic scenarios in film and novels.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Transparency: Watching and Watchers

Veering back to more important issues...

We are increasingly surrounded by always-on” devices with microphones that listen for our voice commands. Most require a "trigger phrase" or wake word to begin recording or actively computing responses, but that means they must analyze every sound to parse whether it is that word. 

As if that weren't a murky enough boundary, fraught with possible paths for misuse or abuse, now many devices can team up to follow you around and obtain a great deal of info , using technology, called ultrasonic cross-device tracking. Ultrasound "beacons" emit high-frequency tones (inaudible to humans) embedded in advertisements, web pages, as well as in some brick and mortar stores. Currently, most Android and iOS phones require permission to access a user's microphone and receive these inaudible inputs. 

The Federal Trade Commission evaluated ultrasonic tracking technology at the end of 2015, and the non-profit Center for Democracy and Technology wrote: 'the best solution is increased transparency and a robust and meaningful opt-out system. If cross-device tracking companies cannot give users these types of notice and control, they should not engage in cross-device tracking,” reports L.H. Newman in Wired. 

In the biggest post-election transparency news..Britain’s new surveillance law will force internet providers to record every internet customer's top-level web history in real-time for up to a year, which can be accessed by numerous government departments; it will force companies to decrypt data on demand. Intelligence agencies also get the power to hack into computers and devices of citizens. This represents the most extreme surveillance law ever passed in a democracy.

Despite having lived in Britain in the 1980s and seen the proliferation of camera surveillance then, I still remain puzzled by the blithe acceptance of one way snoopery over there. In contrast to which...

Even the Bugs will be Bugged: I was quoted in this article in The Atlantic: Big Brother society results not from being watched but from one-way observation.

== Light fights corruption ==

The Helvetia Cold War deepens. An automated private system, using public records, has applied itself to tracking planes used by authoritarian regimes flying in and out of Switzerland. The system has been set up to potentially provide evidence of money laundering. "Swiss investigative journalist François Pilet and his cousin Julien Pilet set up the GVA Dictator Alert Twitter bot to track planes registered to “authoritarian regimes,” as defined by the 2015 Democracy Index.The aim is to bring transparency and accountability to the leaders." 

The bot currently tracks the movements of more than 80 aircraft from 21 countries, including Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Since its launch in April, the bot has logged more than 60 arrivals and departures from Geneva International Airport by planes that belong to the regimes, and few had anything to do with legit business or diplomacy. Of course dictators and kleptocrats will find a way around this. The overall kleptocracy problem is only getting worse and it will only be solved with major new treaties imposing transparency on the mighty cheaters of the world. For that to happen, the world's powers will have to fear something much worse than light.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Transparency International (TI) are joining forces in a new initiative. The Anti-Corruption Initiative "will connect investigative journalists turning a spotlight on the secretive shadow economy with anti-corruption activists able to translate complex information into compelling campaigns for change. This project will build on the best of cross-border independent investigative journalism. The already substantial impact of such work can be amplified by activists who use information uncovered by quality reporting to create pressure on governments and kleptocrats around the world.”

I can think of nothing more important… or quixotic, given the entrenched power interests lined up against this.  But it is wholly in keeping with what I’ve said humanity needs, if we are to avoid catastrophe. It's needed for the children of the rich – and poor – to actually benefit across this century.  In The Transparent Society, in EARTH and in EXISTENCE and many other places I’ve emphasized that only light disinfects against error, of the sort that made every feudal state a living hell. 

Alas, my SF'nal powers only see this breaking through if several honest, developing world presidents join together to do something utterly unexpected and unprecedented.

Apparently the attack on Liberia’s internet access was not as complete as at-first thought… though the Mirai-based botnet denial of service ploy was pretty harsh and still seen by some as a rehearsal for a bigger assault upon the West.

For years I have been urging this: “The next U.S. administration should take immediate steps to prevent and, when possible, eliminate computer attacks like one that recently crippled some of the key systems that run the internet, a presidential commission recommended on Friday.”

== Society and the future ==

I was interviewed by Brett King for his Breaking Banks podcast about the future of banking and transparency: Fintech and IBM World of Watson.

Speaking of banks. An interesting article from The New York Times on how food banks, with their somewhat socialist mind-set, incorporated "market" forces to help them allocate food donations not only where they were needed but where they are wanted-most. Apparently, so long as equity and generosity are factors in the general outline, market forces and even competition help to get resources to the right place, efficiently.

Are we bound for “Mad Max,” “Star Trek,” “Ecotopia” or an Orwellian super government? The answer may depend upon on how information flows across society. I was quoted in this interesting perspective on future governance on Earth. The model presented by Peter Frase in his newly released book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism -- is unusual (e.g. calling Star Trek an example of post-scarcity, abundance-propelled communism).  Both intriguing and a harbinger.  

A Harbinger? Because we will soon start to hear again names that had passed out of familiarity, in the West. Like Karl Marx. Far from being cast into irrelevance, Marx will be discussed more and more – rising back into pertinence – as the Rooseveltean middle class melts away and 6000 years of class war resume.  

The issue Frase raises is whether new technologies will, as in Star Trek, spare us all violent class struggle, by restoring a vast and healthy middle class that encompasses everyone?  Or will a rising feudal oligarchy unintentionally resurrect Marx as an icon for their victims?

== Shallow but sincere ==

New America Weekly devotes whole issues to special topics. This one is about transparency in government -- which has engaged me a bit for only 25+ years or so. Articles include how to make the modern invention of think tanks more effective by being more open:

"In the Digital Age, governance, technology, education, science, platforms, and more are being pushed to become more “open.” Open movements are working to remove barriers that prevent the public from fully accessing these institutions, systems, and fields. Open education, for example, aims to broaden access and increase opportunities for learning. In the United States, open government strives to improve transparency, increase collaboration, and facilitate public participation in our democracy. Open science accelerates the pace of inquiry and discovery in academic research. Underlying each of these movements is one critical need: open use of information."

==Transparency-related miscllany ==

First Apropos to our earlier posting on Whether Government (especially government paid research) is useless, which was reprinted as a feature on the Evonomics site, See this cogent example... A timely article from the BBC lists the advances that led to the iPhone and how government research enabled all of them.

Who is on your side? According to Lindsey Tepe, a senior policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America:"In 2009, the administration made a modest request that each federal agency identify three high value data sets to make openly available to the public; now is the home for government data, housing nearly 200,000 datasets on education, health, energy, governance, and more. Today, every agency that funds more than $100 million in research and development grants has put in place a plan to make that information more accessible."

Other articles from New America Weekly deal with tradeoffs of intellectual property rights and use of personal information, posing vexing questions that are too seldom asked by myopic pundits, as in “what will happen with my data 10 years from now?”...

... and how openness can have unexpected side effects in grassroots democracy. Comments author Heather Hurlburt, "It should be noted that open government did make an appearance in international policy when the Obama Administration launched the Open Government Partnership (OGP). The U.S. joined an initial 7 countries—now up to 69—in holding civil society consultations, drawing up national action plans, and making commitments to increase transparency in areas from legislation to policing to using town criers to share budget data with the public. In addition to those changes on the government side, OGP has offered civil society groups a spark and a mandate for their work. Still, the appearance of open government as a foreign policy tool abroad has not changed the reality at home. The open government agenda sits uncomfortably with traditional ideas about secrecy and expertise in foreign affairs." 

Heather Hurlburt goes on to describe how: "“Multi-stakeholderism” —the trend toward non-governmental entities, both civil society and private sector, joining national and international authorities at the negotiating table."  And yet, "an irony that the Administration which has made open government a byword at home and internationally has been more aggressive than any predecessor in protecting information in the national security space—and has suffered more embarrassing failures to protect information."

== Final Thoughts ==

Well-meaning dopes. I mean those activists who (1) are right to fret that Big Brother might use surveillance against us… but who then (2) rave that the solution is to hide! To shout at elites not to look at us! Or to somehow conceal ourselves and our information.  

For two decades I've asked these dear people (and they truly are fighting the good fight… in the wrong direction) when has that prescription ever worked? Even once. Ever? In the history of our species?

Each of us fizzes with biometric identifiers! Go ahead and fabricate fake fingerprints. Your unique walking gait might be altered (for a short time) by a pebble in your shoe. But can you change the specific ratio of lengths of bones in your hand? Or the speckles on your iris, or the pattern of blood vessels in your retina?  How about the oto-acoustic tones that many humans emit from their own eardrums, and that can be uniquely identified by sensors? 

Oh but it goes on and on. Spend any time in a well-monitored room and the micro-biota of your farts may give you away. And now researchers have “fingerprinted” the white matter of the human brain using a new diffusion MRI method, mapping the brain’s connections (the connectome) at a more detailed level than ever before. They confirmed that structural connections in the brain are unique to each individual person and the connections were able to identify a person with nearly 100% accuracy.  

This could be good news, in giving us an ultimate fall-back against ID thieves — or very bad news for any revolutionary movement against Orwellian tyranny. So? Never let it get to that point! There is one way to do that.

Shall we trust encryption, as governments acquire quantum computers? Anyway, how will that stymie the mosquito drone that flew into your keyboard last week, recording every letter that you type?

Then there are cameras, getting smaller, faster, cheaper, better and more mobile at rates far faster than Moore’s Law. If you find a clever way to evade them now, will it work next year, when there are four times as many of them and harder to spot? 

Hiding won’t work. It cannot. Nor will shouting “don’t look at me!”

Only one thing has ever worked.  Only one thing possibly can work.