A peek inside the Corelean

In my sci-fi serial, the Girl in the Tank, the crew of the USS Cambridge find themselves rescued from a nuclear blast by an alien vessel, The Corelean (pronounced core-lee-ahn).

The Corelean is a medical evacuation ship. The Consortium is a space faring race. Simians, races that evolved from the same genetic line as humans, predominate in the Consortium and the Corelean is primarily designed with them in mind, though it can accommodate other races at need.

The Consortium has had the science of space travel down for a long time and most of their ships, stations and outposts have a high safety rating. However, life is never completely safe. Accidents can happen on space stations and natural disasters can befall planetside outposts, particularly in newer colonies. Medical evac ships are designed to provide valuable medical care, supplies and evacuation capabilities in times of emergency. They run with a crew of just over three hundred, a full third of which are trained and certified healers. In a short evacuation they can take on several hundred civilians, and they have facilities to house up to three hundred and some, which the Corelean will need with the Cambridge, which has a crew of just over three hundred.

A medical evac ship looks a bit like an oversized airbus or the US space shuttles, nearly six hundred feet long with stubby wings to navigate atmospheric landings. As part of my research process I’ve used vector art programs like Inkscape to do some floor plans and I might try to do some model mock ups in the future.

The Corelean technically has four levels. Three are accessible to crew, the lower level is engines and equipment, accessible only by technicians and rarely used. A rough floor plan of the two main levels is shown below.

Corelean main level floor plan with marks

The front forward bay has a wide open hatch leading out of the ship and is the primary way on and off the ship when it’s landed. It’s where most of the action occurs in an evacuation situation, civilians can be brought on board, severe injuries treated in special open treatment bays to the right. A low command deck allows the captain and master healer to direct the action and triage newcomers.

Immediately behind the forward bay are rooms designated as medi-bays. They contain medical tanks for the housing of those needing acute treatment for serious injuries. Only a handful of the American crew requires such intensive care and of them, Cheyenne Walker will be in these halls the longest.

Radiation is a fairly constant threat to any space-faring race. Space abounds with radiation. Terraforming planets requires setting up outposts in places not protected by the kind of atmosphere and magnetic belts that shield earth from solar radiation. As a result radiation burns and accidents are one of the more common injuries for spacefarers. The Corelean is equipped with a sizable decontamination room and a number of blue light machines which help to harmlessly absorb radiation from bodies at an accelerated rate.

Crew quarters are on the sides of the ship, midway back. Two long halls on either side of the two main decks house the majority of the crew. The crew quarters are small, just over six feet wide and twenty four feet long from door to window (if you are lucky enough to be on the window side). There are two bunks on either side of the room as you go back. At four crew members to a room, it gets a little crowded at times. The long hall contains twenty rooms to a side, with two lounges forward and aft. The rounded open alcoves at towards the end of the hall is a zero G lift. Climb in and propel yourself up or down. The zero G lifts are more than a fun way to go up or down, in a power emergency they allow technicians to climb between levels. The ship has more conventional elevator-like lifts and in a few places, stairs.

Crewquarters close up, corelean

The upper third level is the flight deck, airlocks and other critical services. Access to the third level is restrict to those with at least Level One space certification and not even all of the Corelean crew can go there.

What is to come for the American crew of the USS Cambridge? If you did the math, the crew quarters can hold about 160 crew on each level or 320 on each side. Their Consortium hosts have all bunked up one side and the Americans are housed on the other side. It’s a tight fit, and they have six weeks of quarantine before their radiation levels will allow them to leave. How will they deal with the stress of radiation sickness, cramped living and a culture vastly different from their own? I guess you will just have to read the serial to find out.

Want to Live in a Pod?

These nifty little eco-capsules have crossed my social media stream a couple of times now. In case you didn’t already know this, I am a bit obsessed with the whole tiny house movement anyway. And I’m obsessed with science fiction. So it’s a natural fit for me.

I’m sure the first generation will be well out of my price range. But who knows, maybe I will get richer or they will get cheaper.

I live in a house that is just under 1200 square feet. The Ecocapsule is listed as having 8 square meters, or about 86 square feet. That would be a big drop if I was going to sell my house and move into an eco-capsule, but I am not ready for that big of a commitment.

But I also own a small acreage less than hour drive from town. Something like the eco-capsule would be perfect for a writer’s retreat.

Depending on the price it could also create phenomenal new opportunities for relief efforts. In my Galactic Consortium serial (warning, you won’t get to see this up close for a season or two yet) the Consortium has easily constructed geodesic dome shelters they use for emergency shelters. Like the eco-capsule they have a distinct advantage over tents, trailers or similar shelters in that they are largely self sustaining. A built in sanitation system is a must, poor sanitation leads to the spread of disease after natural disasters.

What do you think? Want to live in a pod? Vacation in one? What about a disaster. If your home was destroyed would you choose a larger, but inefficient FEMA trailer or an eco-capsule?

Cyborgs: How Far Would You Go?

Have you seen this?

The news, which heralds a huge breakthrough for both 3-D printing and medical technology also plays into a frequent debate that we have around my house. Cyborgs. Bionic Men. Call it what you will, the technology to modify the human body grows every day. Right now the cost, the invasiveness and the expertise required to implant these things limits it’s use to medically justifiable cases only.

But what happens when the technology becomes normalized? A titanium rib cage would be a lot tougher than bone and there are people that might find that beneficial.

In this case, they used 3-D printing to match the person’s anatomy perfectly. But who says they couldn’t use the same technology to subtly alter it? Remember the story about the woman who had her lower ribs removed to get a thinner waistline? (Yeah, snopes says not true, by the way.)

How many women wish they had smaller ribcages, or narrower shoulders? How many men wish theirs were broader? Who wants to be taller, shorter, etc? Such cosmetic uses are a long time coming, but they’ll likely get here sooner or later.

What about more practical enhancements? My son can give you an endless list of things you can do with the right technology and a little bit of creativity. Like it or not, science fiction cyborgs are coming.

The debate around my house is two fold, how soon will this happen and what changes would you make to your body?

My son is pretty sure he’s never going to die. (Most teens feels this way, I think.) He thinks this generation will be the first to upload to robotic bodies and live forever. I am significantly less optimistic about the pace of progress. In fact, I’m not sure are going to manage to escape environmental disaster in the next few years.

Our other debate is about how much change the average person should, or would make. We’ve both seen plenty of movies with characters that carry a swiss army assortment of tools and gadgets in their cyborg arms, or on their person. We’ve seen bioengineered humanoid bodies that are capable of tremendous feats.

What we don’t agree on is how far men will go, when the technology is within our grasp. He sees a world filled with mechanoids and bioengineered bodies, with human brains uploaded into them. I see tools, in regular human hands, as a much more practical solution. He sees a world where people can, and will, alter their bodies constantly. I see the average person being more comfortable in the human form they were born to.

Some of the debate comes down to age. As a teen, he loves the idea of having superpowers. As an adult woman I end up asking, what would I do with them? Living inside a giant mechanoid robot or carrying around a titanium robot arm doesn’t help me in my daily life. Fixing injuries, improving health and longevity, I like those ideas. Creating a race of super mechanoids? Not sure what the point is.

My transgender status might counter-intuitively influence my feelings on the subject. I spent many years wishing I had a different body. Acceptance came hard. Even now there are plenty of minor things, truth be told, that I would tweak about my appearance if I could. But to give up human form wholly? I find I have little desire for that.

What do you think? When the technology to alter your body becomes available will be advising caution? Or first in line? What changes will you make?

In the meantime, you can read about some of the enhancements I would like to see in my Consortium Saga. 

Sci-fi Music

I write to music most of the time. I’m always looking for good mood music, stuff that gets in the right space for a piece of writing. Sometimes I will create very specific soundtracks for specific books. Often there is a certain general match between genres of music and writing. For example, when I was working on a historical romance I was listening to a lot of folk music and celtic music.

But what about science fiction? Especially the kind of space oriented stuff I’ve been writing, like the Galactic Consortium. Finding music that fits that story can be a bigger challenge.

Then about a year ago I have the opportunity to hear this electronic violinist at a local coffee shop.

Huge shout to the Ritual Cafe for keeping local music alive!

ritualTo say Dixon’s violin is unworldly, is an understatement. The man plays by intuition and energy, often creating songs as he goes along rather than playing from a set list.

I bought one of his CDs that night and I have since downloaded others. It’s phenomenal mood music for writing sci-fi, I have discovered. So I would like to share his gift with my blog readers.

The Inter-stellar Whalesong on the Live at the Hilltop CD is my favorite, by the way.

 

If you enjoy this sample, his website can be found at:

http://www.dixonsviolin.com/

 

 

When Chaos is not Random

A short introduction to Strange Attractors

Or why the weather forecast is still wrong as often as it’s right.

 

Physicists at the turn of the century were struggling with what was then known as the three object problem.

One of the fundamental assumptions of science is that the world works in knowable, predictable ways. That if we understand the laws of nature and we know the necessary variables, we can predict anything.

The assumption works really well in the laboratory and on the theoretical level. The real world still defies science as often as not. This was the three body problem. Newtonian physics could predict how two bodies (Say a planet orbiting a sun) would interact but when they introduced three bodies (like a moon orbiting a planet orbiting a sun) things got really complicated really quick.

The three body problem was originally applied to astrophysics but it’s implications are much wider and ongoing. In fact, every field of science has it’s own version of the same dilemma. With each new development we get just a tiny bit better at predicting the results with a few controllable factors. But predicting the real world involves grappling with hundreds of factors and something known as the butterfly effect.

The butterfly effect was coined by mathematician Edward Lorenz, one of the founders of Chaos Theory. The butterfly effect has been grossly misunderstood by most as the notion that a butterfly flapping it’s wings in Brazil could create hurricanes in Texas. In actuality the butterfly effect is a fancy name for “sensitivity to initial conditions.”

Lorenz developed the theory while working on weather prediction models on early computers. He noticed that his prediction programs would be accurate for a short time, but small errors grew over time and they soon became a complete mess. He tried to enter the same data back into new models and got widely different results. Even tiny differences in the initial conditions (so tiny they could be compared to a butterfly flapping it’s wings) created significant differences down the line.

Because of this sensitivity, initially predictable results soon become chaotic, or random.

But they didn’t stay random. As computer technology and mathematical analysis grew, they discovered that if they continued to graph these theoretical systems, patterns emerged. The patterns often repeated themselves in fractals. They termed them strange attractors.

This is a simple Lorenz Attractor, named after Edward Lorenz. Chaos theory, like Quantum Theory, is filled with paradoxes. Individual events are predictable by science. But as those same factors continue to interact over time, they became impossible to predict. Given enough time, a pattern emerges that is, again, predictable.

Science Fiction master Isaac Asimov played with this notion in the Foundation trilogy. The creator of the Foundation, Hari Sheldon developed a science of psychohistory. His theory was that while the actions of a single individual was impossible to predict, the patterns of groups were, given sufficient information and time.

In my Galactic Consortium serial I am taking the same idea in a very different direction. Chaos theory, and especially fractal equations, have become popular with lay people because they make pretty pictures. There is a disconnect between what the graphs look like and what they really mean to scientist.

But what if there is a significance to their appearance as well? In the Galactic Consortium, the most advanced race, the Vatari believe so. The patterns of various equations (which appear everywhere in the natural world) are considered keys to a “divine language.” Understanding the symbols is key to understanding a level of physics that humans on earth have yet to develop, that of potentiality.

Mandelbrot

The Mandelbrot equation graphed.

Barnsley

Like the Mandelbrot, Barnsley is a mathematical equation turned into a graph.

How much truth is there to that idea? The Consortium is soft science fiction and I don’t intend to offer any proofs or arguments. But it does make an interesting idea for speculation. And some pretty cool artwork. Here are a handful of images I’ve created with GIMP and it’s built in Fractal Explorer. Nautilus Rose Fractal beauty of naturesun fractal green place

 

 

 

Will Artificial Intelligence Take Over the World?

According to eminent theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, the biggest danger facing mankind is artificial intelligence. In the near future, possibly even within our lifetime, machines will surpass our intelligence. They will evolve at an exponential rate. What will become of the human race when we have been surpassed?

It sounds like science fiction, I know. In fact it is a common science fiction theme, explored in movies ranging from Wargames to Terminator to the Matrix. Could an artificially intelligent machine arise and wipe out humanity?

It would be easy to dismiss these concerns but they’ve echoed by some pretty prestigious people, Ellon Musk, Steve Wozniak and even Bill Gates are concerned about super intelligent machines being developed in the near future.

How soon? Take a look at this video from Boston Dynamics. It might be sooner than you think.

And despite this, I’m not that concerned. Why not? Because Linus Torvald isn’t. I have a huge amount of respect for Stephen Hawking and the others. But when it comes to what’s going on inside the guts of the supercomputer you simply can’t beat Linus Torvald, the creator of the Linux kernel.

Yeah, Bill Gates is a marketing/managing genius that put Microsoft of the top of the computer heap. Steve Wozniak helped to create Apple and make it what it is today. But Linus? 476 of the 500 fastest computers in the world run Linux. That speaks volumes. He builds the software that the vast majority of the supercomputers and robots use.

What does Linus think of the artificial intelligence apocalypse? “It’s science fiction, and not very good Sci-Fi at that, in my opinion” He goes on to explain that the kind of artificial intelligence that we will see will likely be targeted AI with little in common with human intelligence. Human-like AI machines are simply “not easy to productise” and not very reliable. They will likely be created and exist in small numbers in labs, but won’t have much use in the real world.

I tend to agree with Linus on this one. But even if artificial intelligence does appear and it does outstrip us, here’s my other question: Why would it be logical for such a system to wipe us out? An AI system does not need to compete with humanity for resources, nor will likely have human emotions or drives. A computer AI can exist in a virtual space as easily and comfortably as in our world (more so even). So why would it care or bother to take over this world?

A rogue AI is more likely to take over a few terabytes of space on some hard drive and create its own virtual world, one that has little in common with ours, and do its own thing then to try to wipe us out. How knows, maybe one already has.

In the meantime, in case you are suddenly nervous about the present generation of robots and computers, take a look at this video:

 

Dental Work Update

Those who read this blog regularly will know I had oral surgery yesterday. As such, I will keep this short.

Here is an excerpt from my ongoing Sci-fi serial about the Galactic Consortium.

 

Bakala slid the plate over to Madsen and returned to the kitchen. The baby on Nicole’s lap fussed and cried. “She’s been teething,” Nicole groused.

Jensen started laughing. “You know I lost four teeth in the blast, hit my head on a stair railing? So when we came on board the healers poked around in there and then stuck these patches or something in there. Said ‘you’ll be fine.’ And off I went. Every couple days they make me open up and they inspect them, or pull them off and replace them. I didn’t think nothing of it, just do what they say, right? So this morning I wake up sweaty, with my jaw aching and drool all over my pillow.”

He paused in telling his story to accept a plate from Bakala. “So I go to the healer and ask what’s up. He’s like, ‘oh, your new teeth are coming in. Once they break the surface you’ll feel better.’ So tell our daughter I know what she’s going through.”

 

Damn, I wish we had that technology. It would save me a lot of pain and time healing.

 

Here is my funny story from the dentist:

As they were putting me under, with gas and IV sedation, I kept thinking that I should remember this feeling. It would help me write the character of Cheyenne Walker better, to understand what it’s like to be lost, not sure what’s fully going on.

The problem is that when I came out, all I can remember is thinking about how I should remember what it felt like for writing, but I can’t recall what it felt like. Sigh.

 
Update: Actually it went really well. I have to give a shout out to Iowa Oral Maxillofacial Surgery for really good work. If you need teeth violently ripped out of your body and you’re in Central Iowa, give them a call. 

Why are Aliens so Fascinating?

Much of the science fiction genre is taken up with stories about alien species. Why are aliens so fascinating to readers and writers alike?

There are a lot of possible reasons. Alien species are a blank canvas, we can do with them what we like. We can create a race with superpowers. We can wonder what if…what if lions were intelligent? Read C. J. Cherryh’s the Pride of Chanur saga. What if people evolved psychic gifts? What if we could fly? The list goes on and on.

But I think underneath this there is a deeper root reason we are fascinated with alien races and society. We don’t ultimately, know who we are a race and won’t until we meet another race.

Are humans a war-like race? It seems so at times. Human history is certainly filled with many violent conflicts. Atrocities have undeniably taken place throughout history.

Or are we a peaceful race? We have an incredible capacity for cooperation. Even in ancient history we created incredible artifacts by working together.

All too often our peaceful cooperative nature and our brutal war-like nature are inexorably intertwined. The monuments of the ancient world were often built by slaves. Are they testaments to what ancient could achieve, or to a legacy of brutality? Likely, both.

War itself is a cooperative venture. The entire history of warfare breaks down to groups of humans putting aside their differences, banding together, and then killing other groups. Just look at either of the world wars. It’s paradoxical that the greatest examples of cooperation have been times when large number of humans have banded together to destroy other large groups of humans.

What about human intelligence? Are we as smart and quick witted as we like to believe? Are we as stupid and short sighted as we often fear?

The only really honest answer we have is, we don’t know. We won’t know until we have some basis for comparison. How war-like is war-like? How smart is smart? Without a roughly comparable species to compare to, there’s no yardstick to measure our behavior.

Many believe that dolphins and whales are both sentient and sapient. If so, they don’t paint a pretty picture of human life. Has there been an ocean wide dolphin war? Are whales doing irreparable harm to the ocean they live in? Then again they haven’t invented technology either, so score one for humans being clever.

If dolphins and whales are sentient beings, they don’t paint a pretty picture of humans.

Star Trek humans know. They know they are more emotional, more prone to war than Vulcans. We are more peaceful than Klingons. They have hundreds of other species to compare themselves to. They have many yardsticks to use. They can see where they fall on the spectrum of all sentient species.

And that’s my point. Until we meet another technologically advanced, intelligent race, we won’t know where we really stand. We won’t know if our war-like tendencies are natural to all species, or if we are better or worse than average. We can only speculate.

And speculate we do. We do it in both science fiction and fantasy. We create alien monsters that have no qualms about wiping out entire planets in one series, peaceful benefactors in another. Fantasy worlds often juxtapose numerous races around humanity. There are lofty, peace loving elves, warlike and brutal orcs, greedy dwarves, etc. Each races reveals something about humanity by comparison. We are a greedy race, but not as greedy as the dwarves. We aspire to greatness, but don’t possess it as naturally as elves.

These yardsticks for humanity are entirely subjective, all in the mind of the writers. But they still reveal a great deal about ourselves and our world view. We choose the yardstick that shows us what we want to see. And that is why we are so fascinated with aliens.

Curious what I think alien cultures will be like? Check out my sci-fi serial, The Galactic Consortium.

Amazon

Elsewhere

 

Technology, OpenDyslexia and Asym

Life is funny sometimes. We create technology to solve a problem, only to create a new problem. Then we create more technology to solve those problems.

Dyslexia is a learning disorder characterized by a difficulty reading. It is not a sign of laziness or low intelligence. In fact many dyslexics are very bright and highly creative. The list of famous people with dyslexia is prestigious.

Dyslexia is a brain disorder. It’s not that they can not see or read the letters in front of them, it’s that they have trouble converting those symbols into words. Dyslexia runs in families. Their brains are slightly different on MRI scans and they use different portions of the brain to compensate for the way their brains are. (Please note, different does not imply better or worse.)

Dyslexia is a man made disease. Writing is a technology and a recent one at that. Our brains simply didn’t evolve to read. We have to learn to do it. There is nothing natural about the process.

How recent is writing?

Sumerian cuneiform is generally recognized as the first written language, originating around 3100 bce, over five thousand years ago. There is a yet undeciphered Harappan language that might predate it by a few hundred years.  Counting and trading tokens predate actually writing and may go back nearly nine thousand years. While nine thousand years is a long time in history, it’s a blip in human evolution.

This kind of symbol processing is new to our brains. If you do not have dyslexia, that’s pure luck. You happened to have the right neuro-pathways in your brain to complete a completely unnatural mental task. You should really quit telling dyslexics they have a disorder and admit you got lucky.

Even though writing has been around for more five thousand years, widespread literacy is much newer. For most of history, writing was kept for an elite few. Broad public education for the masses was a notion that only became common in the 1700’s. Even then many labor class children dropped out of school early to work. Throughout the 1800’s for example, literacy in Great Britain hovered around fifty percent.

The biggest change in the last century, the change that has led to a rise in dyslexia in the western world is not just a rise in literacy, but a rise in it’s importance. The dwindling labor economy and growing service economy of the late twentieth century and today require literacy.

This is not only true of dyslexia, but also for ADHD, Asperger’s and many learning disorders. A hundred years ago having a learning disorder limited your academic life, but there were many other avenues to having a good life. Gone are the days of apprenticeships, learning skills hands on from a master craftsman. Gone are the days of making a decent living without an education. My point is not that people didn’t suffer from dyslexia before the twentieth century, but that it wasn’t the same barrier to success that it is today.

None of these disorders are diseases in the medical sense. They are differences in brain chemistry or make up, but they make it incredibly hard to succeed in our highly specialized society that demands reading and academic achievement of every citizen.

So what are we going to do about them? That’s always a good question. Technology has recently provided some interesting answers to the question of dyslexia.

open-dyslexia-is-a-font

Dyslexics often have difficulty translating letters into the correct mental meaning in their minds. Certain letters offer a greater challenge than others. Flipping letters, perceiving a b as d or vice versa, is a common symptom. It was probably not surprising that someone would decide that maybe we should look at the letters themselves, instead of the brains of dyslexics. Open Dyslexic is a font created for dyslexic readers. The letters of Opendyslexic are shaded in such a way as to help readers avoid flipping or inverting them. The creators admit that it doesn’t work for every single dyslexic, but it can be a godsend for some. If you or someone you love has dyslexia, you can download the font here.

Once the font is installed on a computer, using it with any word processors should be a snap, so if you can get editable files from school or wherever, you can convert them to this font. For ereaders it might be tougher. The Kobo allows custom fonts. Epub files, like Apple and Kobo can include custom fonts. If you are a little bit of a geek, you can use Calibre to add Opendyslexic to your favorite epub books. As of right now, Kindle doesn’t allow custom fonts but maybe someday they will, or at least include Opendyslexic in their fonts.

This page will show you how to change your fonts on most web browsers. With so much of our reading being done digitally these days, there is hope that we can adjust that reading to suit the reader, rather than forcing the reader to adjust themselves.

But there is more to reading, and reading issues, than the shape of the letters. Another interesting development is Asymetrica. This article talks about how the spaces between letters affect reading comprehension and engagement. A web browser tool can be found here.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-4-35-20-pm

Human beings have a real knack for changing the environment around us. Unfortunately we often create as many problems as we solve in this way. Writing has been one of our greatest inventions of all times, and has revolutionized our world many times over. However for an estimated one in ten people that have dyslexia, it has made life a lot tougher. They struggle to learn what is increasingly an essential skill. They may be told they are stupid or lazy; lies that simply hold them back.

Hopefully the same knack for changing the environment can be turned to good. As we learn more about this disorder and as we come to rely more on digital technology, changing the reading environment to make it easier for dyslexics to read seems like a life changing idea. Hopefully we can get the word out about these projects and others like them.

In my science fiction serial The Galactic Consortium, humans living in the consortium don’t have dyslexia, ADHD, or any of the learning disorders common on earth. At first they wonder why this is, they aren’t so different from us after all. The truth is buried so deep in their history that they’ve forgotten it. Their educational system and digital environment was adjusted millennia ago to accommodate a wider range of human neurology. Their script has been optimized for comprehension and their educational system is flexible and works with many different learning styles. I can only hope our real world systems will learn the same lesson in our near future.

Read more about the Galactic Consortium here.

Read more about the Galactic Consortium here.