Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

Brad DeLong

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

I lifted this entire article from Brad DeLong’s blog. Insightful.

After the Next Nuclear Fire…

In the early 1980s the U.S. NSA–or perhaps it was the Defense Department–loved to play games with Russian air defense. They would send probe planes in from the Pacific to fly over Siberia. And they would watch and listen: Where were the gaps in Russian sensor coverage? How far could U.S. planes penetrate before being spotted? What were Russian command-and-control procedures to intercept intruders? And so on, and so forth.

Then, one night, September 1, 1983, the pilot of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 to Seoul mispunched his destination coordinates into his autopilot, and sent his plane west of its proper course, over Siberia, where Russian fighters–confident that they had finally caught one of the American spyplane intruders napping–blew it and its hundreds of civilian passengers out of the sky. With some glee the Reagan administration claimed that the Russians had deliberately shot down a civilian airliner because they were barbarians and terrorists and wanted the world to know that they were barbarians and terrorists by handing the Reagan administration a propaganda victory. The Russians counterclaimed that the CIA had deliberately misprogrammed the autopilot of KAL 007 and monkeyed with its transponder in order to trick the Russians into shooting down a civilian airliner. What had actually happened was a mistake: radar operators, majors, colonels, and generals seeing what they expected to see–a U.S. spyplane intruding into Russian air space and, for once, not being alert enough to scoot out to sea before the defending fighters arrived.

In the late 1980s, the U.S. sent its warships into the Persian Gulf to protect Saudi and Kuwaiti tankers against Iranian attack. Saudi and Kuwaiti oil earned dollars that paid for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to fight its bloody war against Khomeini’s Iran in what the carter and Reagan administrations approved of and encouraged as appropriate payback for the outrage against international law and diplomatic practice committed by Khomeini and company’s seizure of hostages from the diplomats at the American embassy in Tehran. This time it was the turn of the Americans–the sailors on the “robo-cruiser” Vincennes–to shoot down a fully-loaded civilian airliner, Iran Air Flight 655 on its regularly-scheduled run in its regularly-scheduled flight path at its regularly-scheduled time across the Persian Gulf from Bandar Abbas to Dubai. Once again what happened was a mistake: sailors seeing an airliner flying straight and level as a hostile bomber dropping in altitude and preparing to fire its missiles. The records of the Vincennes’ instruments show no signals that would suggest a bomber was detected, while they do record detecting a civilian IFF signal.

Boys who don’t think too fast and aren’t too smart at processing information playing with deadly toys. Testosterone-poisoned devil-apes using not rocks and fists to demonstrate some bizarre concept of reproductive fitness but using buttons and missiles instead. And, increasingly, testosterone-crazed devil apes playing with nuclear weapons.

We are highly likely to lose a city to nuclear fire over the next half-century. Some not-too-smart major will see what he expects to see, or some god-maddened colonel will think he has received a holy command, or some ignorant general will believe that the logic of deterrence is failing but that the situation can be rescued if he strikes first. Tehran or Delhi or Islamabad or Pyongyang or Tel Aviv or Paris or London or Moscow or Beijing or Washington or some other city will become a sea of radioactive glass. With luck we will only lose one city, because the people ruled by the guilty government and military will immediately rise up and tear their politicians, bureaucrats, and commanders limb-from-limb before sending all possible aid to the wounded and the dying. But don’t count on it. We are likely to lose more than one city. As Bill Clinton is supposed to have said: if North Korea were to use a nuclear weapon against the United States, an hour later there won’t be a North Korea.

Perhaps there won’t be a use of nuclear weapons in the next half century. Every human household has the potential to use deadly force against its immediate neighbors, yet very few disputes over dog waste or storm runoff escalate to murder. Can’t countries, like people, all just get along (for the most part, that is)? There is a problem, however: leaders of countries are not average people: imagine a neighborhood of Ariel Sharons living next to the Saddam Husseins living next to the as-Sabah family living next to the Assad compound, with the Mubarrak and Hashemite families across the street wishing that they lived in a very different neighborhood.

Let’s look on the bright side: the aftermath of the first post-Nagasaki use of nuclear weapons to kill humans will be a moment of maximum political plasticity: a moment when swift global action in the heat of the moment can create institutions to govern the world. What then should be done? If we argue and debate in the aftermath of nuclear fire, we will lose a unique opportunity to shape events so that there will be no second post-Nagasaki use of nuclear weapons. We should have our arguments and debates now, so that we will know what to do when the moment strikes.

I propose the following plan for the aftermath of the horror: That non-great powers be bribed to abandon their nuclear weapons–they are a source of danger rather than an aid to defense. That great powers put their nuclear weapons under the joint control of their own militaries and of the United Nations Strategic Forces–with each of the two having the technical means to disarm and prevent use. That the great powers return us to the system of international relations toward which George H. W. Bush was working in 1989-1993: that the command and blessing of the United Nations Security Council be the only justification for any form of cross-border military adventure, and that the Secretary General raise, maintain, and deploy sufficient deadly armed force to make that principle stick.

But, I believe, it is much less important that we adopt this plan than that we have a plan for what we will do in the aftermath of a human city’s next meeting with the siblings of Fat Man and Little Boy. What should that plan be?

Moon Landing

Friday, July 20th, 2007

It’s the 38th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Dang, but doesn’t it seem like everything kinda stopped at that point? 2001 was six years ago, and we’re no where near Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of that year. On the other hand, we do have better computers than he imagined.

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

Monday, July 9th, 2007

I picked up this book to read during the Mexico trip, based on Marc Andreesen’s long blog on his top science fiction picks. If one of the primary creators of today’s technological world can’t be trusted for science fiction, who can? Besides, he’s a big Robert Heinlein fan.

There is one word for Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon. Brutal.

While there is a lot of war/crime/espionage fiction in the world that would fit that description, 1) there is very little science fiction in that category and 2) none of the other genre’s can create in quite the same way.

Morgan’s mastery is clear. In the middle of the book, Takeshi Kovacs makes an assault on an Oakland clinic 500 years in the future. Taken at face value, the scene could be in any Terminator movie or any of a dozen cops-and-bad-guys adventure. The brutality of the scene is entirely taken up in the 200 pages of prelude and setting that Morgan has created. Truly awesome.

The book loses some points for its lack of dynamic characters, it’s one-trick pony vision of future technology, as well as a prose style I found too deep and unedited toward the end. But I picked up the sequel, Broken Angels, to read immediately after I finished Altered Carbon.

Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan

The Singularity

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

…the “hard” science-fiction writers are the ones who try to write specific stories about all that technology may do for us. More and more, these writers felt an opaque wall across the future. Once, they could put such fantasies millions of years in the future. Now they saw that their most diligent extrapolations resulted in the unknowable . . . soon. – Vernor Vinge, NASA’s Vision 21 Symposium 1993

The world is changing quickly, much faster than it has in the past. The rate of change is accelerating. At some point, the rate of change must either decelerate or change will happen faster than we can keep up with.

I stumbled onto the Singularity five years ago when reading Vernor Vinge’s Marooned in Realtime. The basic idea is easy to grasp. We’ve all seen technological change happen in front of us, in some cases very much faster than anyone expected. And with unforeseen effects: the rise of Globalization and the rise of the Internet are entwined events.

The basis of the vision is Moore’s Law – every 24 months, the number of transistors on a microchip will double. This isn’t a natural law, but an empirical observation made in 1965. It has held up now for over forty years and, since future chip designs are well known years in advance, we can easily see that it will continue for at least another ten years.

If we postulate a doubling of computing power per chip every 24 months, at some point computers reach a level of human intelligence. It may well be that computers reach the hardware threshold long before they the software is ready, but it seems inevitable that both will be reached. The natural advantage to the 1) military/espionage power, 2) computer manufacturer, 3) plane/car/spaceship manufacturer, 4) pharmaceutical company or 5) underarm deodorant manufacturer seems obvious. Given the competitive nature of all of these, someone somewhere will create a human-equivalent machine-based intelligence at some point.

When? Predications run the gambit from 2015 (Vernor Vinge) to 2059 (Ray Kurzweil). How much “hardware” is in the human brain? What about the software? How long will it take to develop? This is not an exact science, by any means. Indeed, an intelligent computer might not look or think like a human brain at all. (“The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim.” – Edsgerd Dijkstra.)

A natural chain of events can be imagined. A weakly intelligent computer system might be created, one which is demonstrably intelligent but either slow or not particularly bright. The creators could simply throw more resources at it, building up its speed or connection capacity to improve its intelligence, or harnessing it to create a superior artificial intelligence. And, at the very least, will likely make numerous copies of either or both the weakly or superior intelligence.

From that point on, where do we humans fit in the scheme of things? If machines suddenly become the fountain of intelligence, to the exclusion of humans, where will we be?

I’m going to leave any further discussion to others who do it for a living. And I will give links. Here they are:

Best articles on the Web:

Vernor Vinge’s 1993 essay

Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us, by Bill Joy (a negative view)

David Brin’s Essay: Singularities and Nightmares

Economic Growth Given Machine Intelligence (pdf document) Robin Hanson (Economist at George Mason Univ.)

Marooned in Realtime, by Vernor Vinge. Since there is effectively no math behind the visions of the Singularity, this early work of science fiction on the topic is one of the best possible descriptions.

Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near – This is not a trustworthy author. He is clearly in love with the idea that a Singularity event will push biological research, allowing him (and anyone else who is a Baby Boomer or younger) to live forever. That doesn’t mean he’s not smart or that he doesn’t have good arguments, but he clearly has an agenda.

All that was written above is preamble. My personal position is that a Technological Singularity will likely happen. I think it is inevitable, given the nature of economic and political competition. Early on, it will give a few individuals/companies/countries a strong strategic advantage, but that will quickly (within a few years to a decade at most) devolve to where individual families will have access to the same level of power.

As an entrepreneur in 2007, what should I be doing with these beliefs? Investing my time and money into technology? Buying real estate (one thing which will not change or substantially lose value with a Singularity)? Buying real estate on Second Life? Creating a vast party of level 70 Warcraft characters? Applying to work on near-future mega projects like Lift Port (space elevator concept with big financial problems currently)?

Marc Andreessen

Saturday, June 16th, 2007

Marc Andreessen, father of Moziac and Netscape, (his Wikipedia bio is here) has started a blog. And what a blog.

He is now deep into the new Apple architecture, and has a great paradigm for creating Windows virtual machines (plural!) underneath.

Virtualization is the biggest thing to hit the operating system world since protected memory.


Virtualization — in the form of software like Parallels and VMWare Fusion — lets you deal with an individual operating system as if it were an application.

You can install it, copy it, back it up, revert it, and (critically) delete it just like you can do those things to applications.

This is incredibly useful when dealing with normal operating systems like Linux.

This is invaluable when dealing with an operating system like Windows XP that can become easily corrupted or degraded over time.

It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it how much better life gets when you can create one virgin installation of Windows XP and then clone it into multiple instances — for example, one for work, one for play, and one for experimentation — and then toss them around like they were apps and revert or delete them any time they start acting funny, instead of having to reinstall the core OS on the computer itself.

Finally, the answer to Windows rot.


To say nothing of his extended review of science fiction since the year 2000. Below is his comment on Vernor Vinge.

Vinge, a retired San Diego State University professor of mathematics and computer science, is one of the most important science fiction authors ever — with Arthur C. Clarke one of the best forecasters in the world.

First, if you haven’t had the pleasure, be sure to read True Names, Vinge’s 1981 novella that forecast the modern Internet with shocking clarity. (Ignore the essays, just read the story.) Fans of Gibson and Stephenson will be amazed to see how much more accurately Vinge called it, and before Neuromancer’s first page cleared Gibson’s manual typewriter. Quoting a reviewer on Amazon:

When I was starting out as a PhD student in Artificial Intelligence at Carnegie Mellon, it was made known to us first-year students that an unofficial but necessary part of our education was to locate and read a copy of an obscure science-fiction novella called True Names. Since you couldn’t find it in bookstores, older grad students and professors would directly mail order sets of ten and set up informal lending libraries — you would go, for example, to Hans Moravec’s office, and sign one out from a little cardboard box over in the corner of his office. This was 1983 — the Internet was a toy reserved for American academics, “virtual reality” was not a popular topic, and the term “cyberpunk” had not been coined. One by one, we all tracked down copies, and all had the tops of our heads blown off by Vinge’s incredible book.

True Names remains to this day one of the four or five most seminal science-fiction novels ever written, just in terms of the ideas it presents, and the world it paints. It laid out the ideas that have been subsequently worked over so successfully by William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. And it’s well written. And it’s fun.

So what? Well, he’s done it again. Vinge’s new novel, Rainbows End (yes, the apostrophe is deliberately absent), is the clearest and most plausible extrapolation of modern technology trends forward to the year 2025 that you can imagine.

Stop reading this blog right now. Go get it. Read it, and then come back.

I’ll wait.

It’s that good.

I’m busy now setting up base virtual machines for Windows XP and Vista. I can’t contain my glee.

The Last Colony

Saturday, June 2nd, 2007

The Last Colony is the final book of the Old Man’s War trilogy. The first two books are Old Mans’ War and The Ghost Brigades. Old Mans’ War was up for the Hugo Award and did win Scalzi the John Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author last year.

John Scalzi is hands-down the best science fiction writer in the last twenty years, bar none. His style is very reminiscent of Robert Heinlein, with an important addition. Scalzi’s characters live and breathe. Instead of the cardboard-figure characters of most SF, here are some fully exposed, human personalities.

Another area which Scalzi handles well is the internal functioning of a bureaucracy. One, very brief example:

“They’ve formed an Exploratory Committee to look into this?”

“Yeah, but I know about these things. They typically aren’t interested in finding out anything. Someone up high just needs to cover their ass.”

All three books are a joy to read.

Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
The Ghost Brigade, by John Scalzi
The Last Colony, by John Scalzi