Thursday, December 31, 2015

In the...

...history of somewhat iffy science fiction ideas, there's "Making a humanoid robot that looks exactly like you."

Doctor Sarton built R. Daneel Olivaw in The Caves of Steel and was then (spoilers for ancient book) murdered by an anti-robot fanatic who couldn't tell the difference.

Doctor Noonian Soong, creator of Data and Lore, was eventually killed by Lore.

So I'm not entirely sure what Swiss professor Nadia Thalmann was thinking when she created a humanoid robot receptionist named Nadine that, yup, looks exactly like her creator.

Supposedly she acts as if she has emotions and is a prototype for humanoid robots that might act as companions to the elderly, etc. She uses software similar to Apple's Siri. The pictures I can find all show her sitting down, so she's not a fully humanoid robot yet, but she doesn't look bad at all.

(I wonder if she's fully functional?)


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Irish Migrations

Here's one for those writing "deep" historical fiction.

Genetic sequencing of skeletons found in Ireland have discovered something quite interesting. 5,000 years ago the inhabitants of Ireland were dark haired, dark eyed and mostly Middle Eastern (possibly even Semitic) and didn't use metal.

4,000 years ago they were blue eyed, fair haired people from the steppes of Eastern Europe who did.

This sort of fits some Irish fairy stories, doesn't it. (And also explains the minority of dark haired Irish sometimes called "black Irish" by people who aren't Irish and don't think it's completely silly much better than "survivors from the Spanish armada).

Now, who wants to write a novel about the conflict between the two groups when they met? I already have TMIS...

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Star Wars Returns (SPOILERS)

I promised, and here it is.

Personally, I had a fair amount of hope when Disney bought Lucasfilm. Whatever else you say about the Mouse, they've developed a good record of buying cinematic properties and then giving people creative freedom to, well...not fix what isn't broken and sometimes fix what is.

The Force Awakens isn't quite A New Hope - but it's enough to make one forget (or repress) the disaster that was the prequels. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The visuals were right on (I skipped the 3D version for various reasons), and Abrams' decision to film analog and use actual props for everything worked. Star Wars needs that edge of reality, not the hyper cleanness of CGI (One of my complaints about The Expanse).

The plot was a little bit predictable - it was very much "We're just going to make a new Star Wars movie and have fun with it" but might have echoed the original a little too much for those of us who remember it. However, you know what? That's what I wanted. The people who complained it was too like the original have a point, but...for many of us, that's really where they needed to go.

There was only one "Abramsism" in the movie - apparently the First Order's "superluminal weapon" can be seen from anywhere in the Galaxy and you can tell where it's being pointed. Not too bad, and far more considerable in Wars than Trek. (The other things that made me go "Uh" were the Millennium Falcon being fueled up and spaceworthy after sitting in a junk yard for years and just how did they move a planet to a new solar system every time they needed a sun to fuel the superweapon without damaging its ecology anyway?). Oh, and they got lazy with "what does a Stormtrooper wear under his armor?" - Finn's garb looked like they bought it at the local Wal-Mart.

But I could look past that for the stunning visuals, the Millennium Falcon flying through a crashed Star Destroyer, and yes, that adorable droid. Yeah, I'm one of those people who thinks BB-8 is too cute for words.

Daisy Ridley was perfectly competent as Rey. John Boyega was absolutely amazing - he managed to get an insane amount of emotion across while acting in full Stormtrooper armor. I didn't really feel I saw enough of Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron to judge. Harrison Ford hasn't changed except for going grey, but Mark Hamill was almost unrecognizable under the requisite Jedi Master beard.

My one casting issue was that Adam Driver did not match well with Ford and Fisher as Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (A much better name than Jacen). He actually looked more like a Stark than a Solo or a Skywalker. Sorry.

The movie did fulfill one of my biggest Star Wars dreams: A major character playing a significant role who is a ground pounder. Star Wars has always put the romance of the pilot first, and that's fine. Leia is a diplomat despite holding the title General in this movie, but everyone else has always been pilots. Rey, our newest Jedi-in-training, also a pilot. But Finn doesn't know one end of a ship from another, and I love it. Him trying to work out how to fire the Falcon's guns is hilarious.

Now, the speculation. This movie left a lot of unanswered questions, and I'm addressing a few of them. With guesses, of course - for the fun of it.

1. Yes, Han Solo is dead. Let's get that out of the way. Even if it didn't look pretty final, the echo of Kenobi's death at the hands of his student wasn't anything these writers could have passed up.

2. Leia never trained as a Jedi because she chose not to - and because she felt she could serve the Light better with the talents she has. She is still "strong in the Force" and using it to a point, but anyone who thinks it's silly that she didn't train...I think it's a point of the character. (And in some ways, she's truer to the ideals than some who've held a lightsaber in lower canon).

3. Finn is probably also Force sensitive. Although we're shown that at least some Stormtroopers get training in bladed weapons, the fact that he picked up a lightsaber and didn't chop any part of himself off with it indicates, or should, that he has some sensitivity. This might also explain why the conditioning he was put through ultimately failed at its very first test.

4. Rey is not Ben's twin. Or other sibling. Sorry...if they go that way I'll accept it, but as of right now I'm not buying it. There is absolutely no way that another child would not have been mentioned in the conversation between Han and Leia, and no way Leia would let her daughter out of her sight. The only way Rey could have been stolen from them would be if their memories were wiped. I could almost buy that somebody could mind trick Han, but Leia? Nah. Nope.

She's obviously Luke's daughter, and probably one he didn't even know he had. I think we'll get filled in on that in the next movie. She definitely has a look of Leia about her...and I can't see that Luke's lightsaber would call to somebody who was not a blood relative. Cousins makes the ultimate confrontation between Rey and Kylo Ren just as bittersweet as siblings and simply makes more sense.


Monday, December 28, 2015

I'm Back!

Back, safely, and tomorrow I will (unless I brain fart) post a review of a certain movie. You know, the one everyone's seeing...

Monday, December 21, 2015

Blessed Yule!

Or whatever holiday you choose to celebrate - this blog is now going dark until after the holidays.

Enjoy time with family and friends, the traditional Chinese dinner, midnight Mass, or whatever it is you do.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Tales from Indies Anthology - Saturday Night At The Wonderland Club

So, I mentioned the Tales from Indies Anthology before (Get your own copy free here with coupon code BU68H).

I wanted to talk a bit about the story I chose to include - Saturday Night At The Wonderland Club.

As anyone who follows this blog knows, Transpecial was first published by Musa Publishing. Musa also published a themed speculative fiction periodical called Penumbra. One of their issues was a tribute issue to Lewis Carroll.

Okay, so, where could I go with Lewis Carroll? I'm not big on sending characters to Wonderland, but Alice was always social commentary - so I decided social commentary was the way to go. To make the hook more obvious, I named the speakeasy in the story the "Wonderland Club" - but what the story is really about is the growing inequality and division in our society and the attitudes people have to how the poor should be treated and helped. (Alice in Wonderland is often seen as social satire). Any more would be spoilered - except to say that the story, which was published in Penumbra originally, is really about how too many people in our society view poverty and the poor.

Anything else is open to what readers might put in there.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Expanse: Initial Reaction (Spoilers for Episode 1)

I watched the first half of the pilot on Tuesday and here are my initial reactions:

It is good to have a space opera fix - and The Expanse feels like space opera even though the science fiction is very hard. The space battle at the end was staged with some awareness of physics and ballistics, shooting at ranges of kilometers and torpedoes taking time to reach their target. (I'm unable to find out anything about the backgrounds of either of the collaborators who write together as James S.A. Corey, but I wonder if somebody was in the navy?).

The plot is intriguing and the visuals do remind me of Babylon 5 - my big hope for this show was that it would bear some resemblance to B5. I liked the asteroid CGI and the ships, although they didn't give me the YES, that's IT reaction I had to the Hermes in The Martian, looked pretty good.

However, I had some problems:

1. Everything was too clean. We're told in the introduction that water and air are at a premium in the belt. So, why does everyone look like they showered an hour ago? Some of the characters had extravagant hairstyles. Part of this is the usual issue with television budget CGI (B5 had some of the same problem), but you could grime up your actors a little when they're supposed to be ice miners.

2. There was a zero-G sex scene which I swear looked like the "bottom" partner was lying on a standard gym weight bench. Come on, SyFy, you can do better than that.

3. The dialogue was a little rocky in places.

4. The most interesting characters all die at the end of the first episode.

Still going to give it a good chance, though. There are definitely some very interesting concepts here. (I haven't read the books...yet).

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Panda Breeding, Arranged Marriages...

Everyone knows it's hard to breed giant pandas in captivity - to the point where it's easy to wonder how they survive in the wild. Showing them pornography has been tried.

Now it turns out? Pandas, unlike many animals, won't just get it on when you stick them in with a "genetically approved" mate. In fact, there is absolutely no chance of a cub unless the pair like each other.

...which, of course, throws all of the breeding programs into a tizzy. And how many other animals does this apply to? It certainly applies to some species of bird. Arranged marriages in zebra finches drop the survival rate of chicks by over a third and increase rates of infidelity.

How much does it apply to humans? Humans have sex with people they aren't particularly attracted to all of the time, but does it affect how many children are produced? A lot of studies have been done about marriage length, relationship stability and "love" in arranged marriages versus love matches, but I'm not able to find anything that addresses reproductive success, probably because cultures that still arrange marriages also tend to have less availability of pre-natal care and contraception (short intervals between pregnancies can also affect infant mortality).


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Race To AI

Will we ever have sentient AI? Jokes about Skynet and AI road rage aside (Incidentally, one AI company is calling itself Skymind, which seems needlessly risky to me)...maybe.

Elon Musk's OpenAI is the AI version of Linux. By open sourcing everything the project will accelerate development. In answer, Google and Facebook have now open sourced some of their AI development.

Wait? Google and Facebook?

We probably don't realize just how much we use AI in our daily lives these days. Deep learning AI - AI that can learn from its own and other people's actions - is now powering much of what we do online.

If I open a tab and type something into the URL bar, it's an AI that auto completes it, based off of what it knows about what I've searched for in the past and what other people are searching for. Every ad you see on the internet? It's picked by an AI, based off of what you have been searching for and other factors such as the time of year, time of day, your zip code and what instructions it got from the company placing the ad.

Of course, the AIs don't always get it right. If type in dancing, the AI thinks I mean "Dancing With The Stars." Oops. I have no interest in that show. Facebook is currently serving me ads for insurance - with the company I already have insurance with. Oops.

That's because the AIs are only as good as the data they're fed with - plus advertisers can overrule the AI and say, for example, they want their ad served to everyone in zip code X. But the underpinnings of how we find stuff on the web is AI.

And, of course, every time you play a computer game against an NPC opponent? That's an AI engine too. Computers have been able to play chess well enough to challenge Grand Masters for years - but chess is relatively simple. The real world is much more complex, hence how long it's taking to develop self-driving cars.

Flown anywhere lately? Early airline autopilots could do nothing but hold the plane at a steady speed and altitude. Nowadays, the autopilot and the pilot work together as basically one system and while it's not actually true that planes fly themselves. A plane can, however, land without a pilot. They generally don't - autoland is used only in extreme circumstances. But one can envision a future in which the pilot becomes only a backup system and then vanishes altogether. It's not as close as some people think, but it's not impossible.

So, what about sentient AI? So far, all of the AIs we've created are still computer systems. They take an input and give us an output. How different, though, is that from us? We have robot pets that can fool us momentarily into thinking they're alive. Robot home aides are being developed in Japan.

If task complexity is really what makes the difference, then sooner or later we will have an AI that turns around and asks us "Who am I?"

What's very important is how we answer that question. Elon Musk is afraid of AIs taking over the world (and thinks the answer is to make sure any developing AI has as many people in communication with it as possible).

I think, and have for a while, that the answer to that question should be "Our child." An AI designed by humans for humans will have an inherent humanity to it - if it is evil, it will reflect our evil. The fear that an AI will be a monster assumes that it will have no soul. I would argue that if one sentient being has a soul then all must.

So, while I think sentient AI is a ways away, I'm not afraid of it, and I'm happy to see some of the code being open sourced.

I don't think our AI children will take over the world if we treat them properly. But then, even if they do, they will still have inside them something of us.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Why the International Outer Space Treaty needs to go

But, isn't it about protecting space? And...

Okay, let's start by explaining the treaty, which was signed in 1967 to prevent the first person who landed on the moon from claiming it. In 1969, Apollo 11 landed men on the moon, and without the treaty they could have then said, per maritime tradition, that the moon belonged to the United States. With me so far?

The Outer Space Treaty is the basic framework of space law. 104 countries have ratified the treaty and 26 have signed but not ratified.

Here's a basic rundown:

1. No state or country can claim sovereignty over any "celestial body."
2. Any space vehicle launched by a state or a country is the sovereign territory of that state or country.
3. Non-governmental entities operating in space have to get permission from their state, and the state is entirely responsible for everything they do.
4. If a state thinks an experiment or mission could cause "potentially harmful interference" with exploration missions they can request consultation.
5. A state is absolutely liable for any damage done on Earth by their activities in space.

So, that all sounds absolutely great. What's wrong with it? Why would anyone want it to go away?

Because we're moving into a new era. It's fairly generally acknowledged that the treaty does not forbid space mining per se, but...

1. It's arguable that the destruction or complete change of an asteroid through mining would violate the treaty.
2. If somebody were to convert a natural asteroid or other body to a base, as is done with Phobos in Transpecial, then they would not be able to own it. Which would mean nobody except maybe a scientific organization would ever do it.
3. Any colonies made in space that are not "space vehicles" would...what? Be international territory?
4. If somebody tried to divert an asteroid and failed, they would be legally liable for any damage done... (I haven't actually seen anyone bring this up, but based off of the treaty and follow ups, if you diverted an asteroid and, say, a piece fell off and hit Sydney, Australia, the country that authorized the mission would be completely liable! And we all know what convolutions people will go through to avoid being sued. I'm not saying anyone would just let a planet killer hit us...but...)

So, I strongly feel the treaty needs to be thrown out and replaced with something that reflects the technological development of the last fifty or so years and recognizes that we don't know what might come in the next fifty.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Award Season...Questions

Okay, this one really has me mystified.

The Golden Globe nominations just got announced. I looked through Best Picture - Drama and went "Where is the Martian? Are they..."


Uh...okay. I'll say I haven't laughed so much at a movie in a while, but an out and out comedy? Maybe it has something weird to do with the way the Golden Globe draws the line, but can somebody explain this one to me?

A movie can be funny without actually being a comedy, or at least I thought so...

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Titan Is Not So Red

I've always kind of seen Titan as red and orange.

Not so - check this out.

The picture with the article was taken by Cassini from a distance of a few thousand miles, and what does it look like?

Earth with a slightly different arrangement of continents.

I know it's not, but to my primate brain that looks like a living planet, looks like a place we could just land and walk on. (A bad idea - Titan's atmosphere is pretty toxic to our kind of life).

But...I can't help what my back brain is saying here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Check out...

...the image attached to this article.

That is what you look a dolphin. Pretty amazing for "seeing" with sound, right? (And it may actually be more accurate - this is a new venture).

And they might be able to share the images directly with their companions.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Dear "Supergirl" Writers (SPOILERS for Monday's episode)

You're doing a good job. Keep it up.

But I refuse to believe, as articles indicate, that you have no idea that Hank Henshaw is an actual, existing DC character. So what you did with him? You tricked us. Twists are one thing, but tricking people who know the canon so as to make sure they can't guess...that's not playing fair by your viewers. (I like it, just...the name...)

For those who don't know, Hank Henshaw is Cyborg Superman from The Death of Superman arc. In New 52 Cyborg Superman is Zor-El, so they may be going that way with this.

But he's still an existing character, not just a new identity for a certain Martian. As much as I love a certain Martian.


Which means they win the Plush Cthulhu (I want to throw it at the screen) not Moffatt, who completely destroyed my Doctor Who theory in the season finale. He apparently wasn't saying Clara shouldn't try to be the Doctor, but has turned it into "When the Companion can stand equal to the Doctor their relationship will always come to an end." (Fits everyone except Amy, who chose otherwise).

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Flights of Cosmic Girl

So, Virgin Galactic is pretty much the only company working on a carrier-launcher system that involves flying your rocket up to a plane's ceiling and then launching it from there. (This system was toyed with by the military back in the 1950s and Pima Air Museum has a B-52 that was converted for the program).

SpaceShip Two is launched from the White Knight carrier, but the maximum payload of White Knight is fairly low, and it's not really designed to put things into orbit, but rather to send paying passengers on the most expensive thrill ride in history. The program has been grounded since last fall's test flight went fatally wrong, but the next version of SpaceShip Two will launch in February.

But Virgin also wants to get into the satellite launch business. And that means upping the payload. Which means a bigger plane.

Which means...well...they don't have any B-52s to convert. What they do have is quite a few aging 747s. (Technically, Virgin Atlantic has them, but when the same person owns both companies...) Virgin Galactic has purchased "Cosmic Girl" (Yes, it already had that name, no that's not why they picked it) from their sister company and are now retrofitting her to launch rockets from a mount point normally used to carry a fifth engine (which is generally done as an economic way of moving spare engines around).

This has to be one of the best ideas in the history of space flight. Cosmic Girl can take off from any runway which can handle 747s. She can then fly to the perfect, optimum position for launch, release the rocket at max cruise height and speed (35,000 feet and 500 mph) before returning to base. What makes this extra brilliant, though, is that maintenance on the planes can be done by normal airport personnel, as can refueling. And, of course, they can head hunt any qualified 747 pilot to handle the flights. A launch specialist will occupy the third seat which used to be used by flight engineers back when commercial airliners still carried them. The cost savings from using an existing airframe are pretty small. The cost savings from not having to qualify specialist pilots? Substantial.

(Yes, I do have a personal connection to Virgin Galactic, but I really do think this is brilliant).

Friday, December 4, 2015

One Step Closer... solving the mystery of Fast Radio Bursts - deep space "signals" that have been put down to everything from supernovas to Little Green Men.

The latest signal identified shows that it came from either a dense nebula or the center of another galaxy. A galaxy a good distance from ours.

Which leads me to a thought. Galaxies, as far as we can tell, are secured by a gravitational anchor in the form of a very large black hole.

We now know that black holes emit Hawking radiation. What would that look like after traveling across a vast distance of space. Could the FRBs be the result of another galaxy's central black hole burping after swallowing a star or three?

It's a thought...

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Space X and Rocket Landings

After failing to land a rocket on a barge, Space X is apparently now considering trying first stage landing on a land-based site at Cape Canaveral.

Might be easier in that it doesn't, you know, move. Still, landing rocket stages is proving to be a very tricky engineering problem - well worth the attempt, but far from easy.

The next Falcon launch may be as soon as December 15 - a return to flight after a catastrophic failure apparently caused by a defective strut getting through their contractor's Q/A. Oops.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

I Don't...

...normally care about, or even notice the National Board of Review awards - announced and presented so early they get sent pre-release copies of late releases.

I noticed this year because they did something that made me go O.O - and not in a bad way.

The NBR's pick for best movie of 2015?

Mad Max: Fury Road


It's a brilliant movie. But winning a non-genre award? (It's not my first pick for the Hugos - that would be The Martian - but I do plan on nominating it). I wasn't expecting that.

However, The Martian picked up a ton of awards - Ridley Scott for best director, Matt Damon for best actor and Drew Goddard for best adapted screenplay. (I still think The Hunger Games is the best adaptation ever, but Goddard did very well with tricky material).

Congratulations to all of the winners and everyone involved down to the intern who gets the coffee.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Cloning, Genetic Engineering...

In China, a factory is about to go online. It makes cows.

Cloned cows.

And the scientist behind it says there's no reason not to clone humans...except possible negative reaction. (Especially in China, where human reproduction is extremely controlled).

And right now, right here - in Washington - scientists and policymakers from the US, Britain and, yes, China are meeting at the National Academy of Sciences (I could go wave if I wanted) to discuss the ramifications of CRISPR technology - which has just been used to make a strain of mosquitos immune to malaria - in humans. (And yes, those mosquitos will breed true, which is why they're running the experiment a few more generations before releasing them). CRISPR changes affect the germline - but promise cures for genetic diseases.

And, of course, designer babies. Hence the summit.

The thing is? No matter what restrictions and regulations the summit tries to put on CRISPR - it exists. It's out there. It will be used. And these technologies bring with them fear and hope.

Will a wealthy man who hates relationships hire a cloning company to produce not just an identical heir but one made to be "smarter" than he is?

Are we in danger of seeing the next clone factory turning out janitors? (Unlikely - robots are much more effective - but what about soldiers?)

I believe we have crossed the line - from now on, human evolution will be governed not externally but internally. We can't step back. This genie isn't going back in the bottle.

So, maybe the real answer these scientists need to answer now is: What should humanity become?