Sunday, April 29, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Zero Gravity and Zombies!

Well, I'm going with an easy one for "Z." Really, "Z" just proved to be the hardest letter to find something for. I even had "Q" and "X" from the very beginning, but "Y" and "Z"? Hours of digging... hours! And I never found any one satisfactory item for this last letter... but I'm going to give you zombies, so lay off.

No, not zombies in space; although, that could be interesting. They wouldn't need to worry about decompression, you know, being already dead and sort of decompressed already, so that could make things interesting. Okay, someone go write that book, because I'm not going to do it.


We're heading back to Jules Verne land. As a complete aside, I'm astounded at how often the same few names come up over and over again in this series: Verne, Wells, Asimov, even Gibson. I didn't plan it that way, but you end up back at the same visionary minds time and again. Heck, da Vinci even pops up several times, and he didn't write! Not that he didn't write... oh, never mind!

So! Jules Verne... He really kick started this whole zero gravity  thing by making space weightless. I bet you didn't know that, did you? Before Verne, space was not weightless. All planets and moons had the same gravity as Earth and everything. But Verne made space weightless and all of that changed. You do know I'm kidding, right? Some of you people are just SO literal!

There was Verne and, then, there was Wells, and they both had these trips to the moon and space having no gravity, and we found out that it was true! And, then, all space sci-fi had weightlessness, of course, and that presented issues... like, how do you drink from a cup when there's no gravity to hold the liquid in? And, over time, sci-fi authors identified many of these things that would be issues and addressed them in various novels and short stories, and some of these things have worked their way into reality. And, no, I'm not going to do any kind of exhaustive list or anything. Sorry. It's the last day, and I'm just not doing it.

However, I am going to point out one of the things I find interesting. Moving from place to place in a space ship or space station presents some problems. At the moment, they're not huge problems, because our vehicles and things are still fairly small, but, still, NASA wanted a way for astronauts to be able to walk around, and one of the first things they experimented with was magnetism. Why magnetism? I'm gonna just say that it's a safe bet that that came to mind as early as it did because that's the method so many sci-fi authors used to enable people to walk around in space ships: magnetic boots. But NASA found they didn't really work. Sure, they kept you from floating around, but, if they made the magnets strong enough to hold you in place, that's exactly what they did; they held you in place. Forget about walking.

Looking through references to older science fiction literature, I found a lot about magnets. Magnetic tables, magnetic cups, magnetic everything... Of course, all of this was written before electronics, especially computers, were really a thing. At this point, magnetic anything is entirely out of the question. Oops! Set that magnetic cup down too close to the computer and erased the landing instructions! Darn! Hate when that happens! Still... it's all a very interesting progression, especially when you look to see how sci-fi changed to accommodate reality afterwards and how those changes affected future developments in the space program. And, hey, they're still working on that artificial gravity stuff, so, if that ever actually works, that's entirely from sci-fi. No matter how it happens, I think. And all of that may also lead to anti-gravity...

At any rate, if we ever do decide to get off of our butts and really explore the solar system, it will be interesting to see what other ways sci-fi informs reality. It's about time we had miners out there in the asteroid belt! Speaking of miners... I just saw an article about how James Cameron and a bunch of other billionaires have founded a company to explore the possibilities of mining the asteroid belt. Yeah, they are doing that now. Not the mining part, but they expect to be within the next 20 years. So... yeah...

And now... zombies...

And, man, I just really don't want to do this. I have a philosophical difference with zombies, but I've talked about that before, and I've talked about talking about that before, so I'm really not going to get into it. Let's just say that "I don't believe in zombies" and leave it at that. But I did the whole cyborg menace, so, I guess, I'm being fair. Even though cyborgs are actually real and zombies are not, more people believe in zombies, which gives them the same kind of realism as learning to speak Klingon, and we all know about that, now, don't we?

The very first (recorded) zombie walk was all the way back in 2001. In California. It was successful enough that they had one again the next year, and it is now an annual event in Sacramento. So, yeah, not just in CA, but in the capitol of CA. The idea caught on fairly rapidly, kind of like a zombie disease, and these things happen all over the world now. Guinness has a place in its records, now, for Zombie Walks. The largest one record was in Mexico in November of 2011 with nearly 10,000 zombies in attendance. Amazing!

Movies and TV and books... zombies are everywhere. I do appreciate Shaun of the Dead, though, and think Simon Pegg is brilliant. Like I said, I don't believe in zombies despite the fact that they do seem to be all over the place and people have actual survival plans in the event of the coming zombie apocalypse, but, maybe, it will be a shame if that apocalypse never happens. Well... at least, they'll be ready for the cyborgs!

Han Shot First, But...

As I've been mentioning from time to time, Briane Pagel over at The Best of Everything has been hosting this massive 100 day Star Wars trivia contest. Being Briane, though, he can't be satisfied with just having a massive 100 day trivia contest, he has to make it even more complex than that. Part of that has been writing challenges. Today is the due date for the 3rd writing challenge of the series, and I am dutifully posting mine. I'm not going to give any details about what was required for the contest so as not to give anything away in case you don't know about it. If you want to get in on it, though, you probably can. As long as you can get it posted today. Posting a story is worth 100 points in the trivia contest, and the writer of the best story (as deemed by Briane) will win a $10.00 Amazon gist card, so it's hardly a no-win situation. Especially with only, like, three entries at the moment (to my knowledge). Anyway... Here's mine:

The Other Bounty Hunter of Ord Mantell

“How we doin'?” Han yelled from where he was pinned down behind a bunch of crates. Blaster fire splattered off the other side of the stack, and he ducked down even farther.
“Same as always!” Luke responded from behind his own stack of crates. “At least Leia got the droids to the Falcon!”
“Well, I wish she'd give us some cover fire!”
“Rawr!” Chewbacca roared his agreement as he fired his bowcaster over the tops of the crates.
Han looked up at Chewie, “How many do you think there are?”
The wookie shrugged and let out an uncertain sounding grumble.
“That many, huh?”
Luke was busy leaning around the corner of his pile of crates blasting away. He suddenly dived forward and rolled up behind another stack of crates a little farther down the docking platform, “What?!”
At that moment, there was a low rumble from the Falcon, the sound of the engines spinning up, and... the sound of them shutting down.
“Han! I thought you said you fixed that!”
“It's not my fault!”
Chewie roared agreement with Luke.
“What?” Han shrugged, standing up to high while doing so and causing another round of blaster fire in his direction. Chewie yanked him down and fired his 'caster around the side of the crates. There was a scream off in the distance.
“Good shot...”
“Chewie!” Luke yelled. “Give me cover fire!”
Chewbacca raised his blaster up over the tops of the crates and started blasting away. Tiny explosions went off in the distance as the bowcaster's powerful bolts pelted down. Luke dashed and dived around two more stacks of crates before answering fire was directed his way.
“Kid's gonna get himself killed...”
“What do you know? That wasn't my fault, either.”
A couple of blaster shots rang off in the distance, then they heard the sound of Luke's lightsaber igniting and a scream.
Chewie let out a low chuckle.
“Shut up. It's just luck.”
Han and Chewie both let loose a few rounds of blaster before Chewie ducked back down to reload his bowcaster.
“Get to the ship. Help Leia get her started up.”
Chewie took off at a loping run while Han opened up with cover fire. There was another scream from the direction that Luke had taken, and Han mumbled, “Hope that was one of the bad guys...” He slumped back down behind the crates.
After waiting several moments, Han peeked around the edge of the boxes. Just as he was taking aim at one of the thugs the bounty hunter had hired, a voice said from behind him, “You're that kid with the Deathmark, ain't ya?”
Han dropped and spun, firing blindly, but a blaster over his shoulder convinced him to raise his hands. He quirked up one side of his mouth into a roguish grin, “You got me...” But the site that met his eyes stole the rest of his words.
Leveling a blaster at him, stood a man in a blazing white, sequined jump suit complete with cape, his hair puffed up on one side. His teeth gleamed as bright as the jump suit, and he answered Han with his own roguish grin. Han had to shield his eyes from the glare off of the suit, though, so he didn't catch the answering grin.
“Hey, there, Son... You shot at me.”
Han gave a little shrug, “You shot first.”
The man jabbed his blaster at Han, “Actually, you shot first. I shot second.”
Han paused, nodded, “Okay... but you snuck up on me.”
“Sorry about that... this, uh, this time hopper doohickey... well, it has a mind of its own.”
“Look here, Son,” the man in white said, waving his gun around abstractedly, “I'm just here to help.”
“Then why'd you shoot at me?”
“I told you. Because you shot first.”
A new voice joined in at that point, a rough voice from a very scarred face, “What do we have here?” The scarred face looked over the man in white, “And... what are you?”
Low chuckles erupted from all around, and Han and the other man found that while they'd been talking they'd been surrounded by the bounty hunter of Ord Mantell and his thugs.
The man in white shifted the aim of his blaster to the bounty hunter, Han just kept his hands raised, his own blaster hanging loosely from his fingers, and said, “I'm a bounty hunter same as you. Seems I've caught this fella fair and square.”
The scarred faced bounty hunter laughed, his pointy ears twitching slightly as he did so, “Dressed like that!” The gathered thugs laughed, too. “Are you sure you're not the entertainment? How do expect to sneak up on anyone like that?”
“Hey, ma-an, don't step on my blue suede shoes. I got the drop on this one, didn't I? That was more than you could do.”
The yellow eyes of the bounty hunter shifted quickly to the feet of the man in white, “Your boots are white.”
“I know what color my boots are. Why are we talking about my boots?”
A grimace formed on the slightly snouty countenance of the bounty hunter, “You said they were blue.”
“Ma-an... you ain't nothin' but a hound dog. I didn't say anything about my boots.”
Han opened his mouth to speak, but the man in white said, “You keep your mouth shut there, Son.” Han snapped his jaw shut.
“Look... whatever you are, I'm taking this bounty. I've got you surrounded, but I'm not getting paid for you, just for Solo, so, “and he gestured with his blaster, “if you just put that thing away, we'll let you walk out of here.”
The man in white shifted, causing a thousand little flashes of light off of his suit, “I told you I caught him fair and square.”
“And I'm taking him from you fair and square,” grated out the rather squat bounty hunter.
“See... you're stepping all over my blue suede shoes, and I don't like it when people, or... things..., step on my blue suede shoes.” He shifted again as he gestured at the squat, pointy-eared bounty hunter with the scarred face.
The bounty hunter glanced down at the man-in-white's shoes again.
And that's when a blaster bolt left a hole in his chest.
Before the thugs could respond, more blaster bolts rained down from above and Luke landed in their midst, lightsaber singing. The thugs ran.
Han glanced down at the smoking muzzle of the blaster in the man-in-white's hand, “You shot him.”
The man in white gave that roguish grin, “Yeah, I guess I shot first that time.”
Luke deactivated his lightsaber as Han leveled his blaster at the man in white.
Luke waved Han off, “He's okay, Han.”
Blaster still pointed at the man in white, he said, “I'm just being safe. He said he was here to collect the Deathmark on my head.”
“Hell, Son, I just said that to get you out of this mess you were in. I said I was here to help, didn't I?” To prove his point, he holstered his blaster.
Chewbacca dropped down next to Han and grumbled at him. Han answered, “You're sure?”
Looking uncertain, Han put away his own blaster.
Off in the distance, the sound of the Falcon's engines started cycling again. Then the sound of them failing. Followed by them catching and the engine coming to life.
“Hey, there, Son... You better get that looked at.”
Han grimaced, “Thanks...”
“Just trying to help.”
“C'mon, Han, let's go,” Luke said as he held out his hand to the stranger. “Thanks.”
“Anytime... anytime...”
The three companions turned to go, leaving the man in white standing alone. As the rounded the corner of the crates, Han turned back, “Hey... I didn't catch your name.”
“Elvis... but you can call me The King.”
Han gave his sideways grin, “Okay... well, thanks, King.”
“Hey, it was nothing.”
“You're pretty good in a fight... why don't you come with us?”
“Thank you very much... but you ain't seen nothin'. I didn't even get out my karate.”
Han blinked, “What?”
Elvis kicked on foot into the air and made a slashing motion with his right hand, “I have a black belt.”
“Oh... well... thanks again...”
Han walked on around the crates but, then, felt as if he should make the offer one more time and turned back.
Elvis was gone.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: the Yeast-Beast Machine

First of all, yes, that just sounds gross. It does. Sorry for that. And, I would bet, you are all wondering what that is (well, maybe not Rusty, since he seems to have read all the sci-fi authors whose names start with the letter "B"). But before I get to that, I'm going to jump back to a very famous guy in this series, Isaac Asimov.

In Asimov's book, The Caves of Steel (1953 (as a serial)), as I've said before, the whole planet is just one big city. Being one big city, there's not a lot of land left outside the city and certainly not enough to grow enough food to feed the entire world. Instead of growing crops and raising livestock, the food is grown hydroponically. I'm wishing I had a better memory of what it was exactly (or had the book where I could get to it (but it's in a box somewhere in the garage)), but it was some kind of protein that could be flavored in a variety of ways and formed the basis for the standard diet of the people of Earth. It was food grown in a vat.

I don't really know if this idea precedes Asimov or not, but it was certainly picked up by other sci-fi authors.

In 1963, H. Beam Piper used the idea in his novel Space Viking. The space ships contain hydroponic carniculture vats in which they grow some sort of meat or meat substitute. Protein nonetheless.

In 1970, Frank Herbert's novel Whipping Star introduced us to pseudoflesh.

Even Neuromancer (William Gibson) mentions some sort of meat vats (although, I'm not remembering the details).

The term Yeast-Beast was introduced in David Brin's 1994 short story, "NatuLife." The Yeast-Beast is the device that produces the vat grown meat.

And, yes, I know all of this sounds really gross. Growing meat in a bathtub. Blech.


In vitro meat has been being developed for a couple of decades now. And it was NASA that began the research as a possibility as a source of protein for long-term space voyages. It's also called hydroponic (there's that word again) meat, vat-grown meat, and victimless meat.

The first edible meat was actually produced over a decade ago, and, as of 2008, scientists claim the technology has developed to the point that it's ready to be made available commercially. The only real issue? People are turned off by the idea of eating meat grown in a vat. Well, that, and it's still expensive. Right now, bathtub meat would cost you more than animal meat, but, with the right backing, that might not stay true for very long. And being able to grow meat for consumption in developing nations could save a lot of lives. Currently, there are more than 30 laboratories around the world working on the development of in vitro meat.

As of February of this year, the first hamburger was made from vat grown meat. One of the biggest differences that vat grown meat could have for us is in time: It takes about two years to grow a cow big enough to slaughter to make that hamburger; you can make that same meat in just six weeks in a vat.

They do, however, say there's a slight issue with texture, but they're working on it.

Bonus "Y": Youth Eternal

Yeah, yeah, I know, we've been looking and looking for this for centuries. More than centuries. It's another of those staples of fiction and science fiction, and I'm not even going to go into all of that. I just want to say one thing about it, really:

Many scientists (geneticists) believe that this generation (my generation) will be the last generation on Earth that has to die. They're fairly certain they've identified the gene that causes aging, and they think they can figure out how to turn it off. If they can do that, no one would ever need to die of old age or old age related issues ever again. It's kind of a scary concept. With as many people as we already have on the planet, can you imagine what it would be like if no one ever died?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Xenobiology

This is one of those that I find really cool but still can't help thinking, "What the heck?" about.

I don't remember what book I was reading when I first came across the term xenobiology. It was definitely science fiction, and, although I want to say it was Asimov, it probably wasn't. One thing I am sure about, though, is that it was not The Star Beast by Robert Heinlein, since I haven't read that. That is, however, where the term originates. At the time, it meant "the study of alien life." Even before coming across the term in whatever book it was, there was some other book that several different friends had back in the '70s that was a book of art of what alien life might look like. I was kind of fascinated with the book, especially since it was presented rather as if it was "true." The one image that has stuck in my mind (and I could not find the illustration) was of a large jellyfish-like creature that lived in the atmosphere of Jupiter (evidently inspired because Carl Sagan said something like that might possibly exist).

Several years after Heinlein's 1954 book, NASA started an exobiology program which focused on the search for life on other planets. Now, these were two different things:
1. xenobiology -- the study of "alien" life
2. exobiology -- the search for alien life
All of this came to be under the heading of astrobiology, which is sort of all-encompassing: Astrobiology is the search for extraterrestrial life and the study of its origin, evolution, and distribution (as in whether it's traveled from one planet to another (like on a meteor)).

But let's go back to just xenobiology for a moment. The idea of alien life is fascinating. And the movies of the '70s, like Star Wars and Close Encounters and, even, E.T. (yes, I know that one was 1980), really cemented the idea into the heads of many young minds. So much so that a "real" disciple around xenobiology developed. Mostly, it was involved in speculation about what alien life could be like, but they considered it a science. A completely hypothetical science. Which I just find fascinating. And astounding. I mean, I was completely unable to believe that there were schools that offered classes in this when I was still in high school and looking over my college options.

"Yes, please, can I sign up for that class in completely make-believe science?"

Not that I don't believe in the possibility of alien life; I do. I also find it completely... well, a little like jumping the gun to be trying to say that speculation about what life might be like on another planet is science.

Some good came of all of this, though. In 1977, we discovered some life here on Earth that does not require sunlight to live or, even, thrive. This changed our definition of the requirements for life (and I remember learning in science when I was a kid that sunlight was required). We've got the requirements boiled down to water and energy (pardon the pun), at this point. We don't even think that all life need be carbon-based anymore, which is another of those things I learned when I was a kid.

At any rate, all of this lead to a change in the definition of xenobiology to "biology based on a foreign chemistry." Mostly, now, it deals with weird forms of life we've been discovering on Earth that have previously been thought to be impossible (like the tube worms that don't need sunlight and those weird bacteria discovered a few years ago that can live off of arsenic).

But, still, there are plenty of people out there studying (speculating about) alien life that we haven't even discovered.

And, now, I want to digress for a moment (like that's unusual):

My buddy, Briane Pagel over at The Best of Everything is doing alien languages for the A to Z challenge. Well, saying that he's talking about alien languages might not be exactly correct since a lot of what he does is talk about talking about them, but that's his announced theme, so I'm just sort of going with it. Anyway... Last week he did a post about our potential for communicating with aliens if/when we ever do meet them. In his post, he talks about dolphins and about how we've been working with them for decades, and we still can't communicate with them. This seems like a similar topic to me as what I'm talking about with this xenobiology stuff.

People start talking about talking to aliens, and we haven't even met them. The pre-supposition is that they will be similar enough to us that we will have some basis of relation to them and, thus, facilitate understanding. And this might be true. However, it might also be totally wrong. Which is kind of why it's not the smartest thing to start speculating about  these sorts of things. Talking to aliens or what alien life might be like.

Here's the thing, dolphins are smart. Really smart. Potentially, as smart as humans (or even smarter). After all, their brain/mass ratio is roughly equivalent to that of humans, which plays a part in our standards for intelligence. For instance, an elephant also has a brain that is roughly the same size as a human's or a dolphin's, but their mass is so much larger, they fall lower on the intelligence scale, because their brain has to be more concerned with their bodies than a human's brain to theirs. No, I don't know why it's defined this way, but that's how they do it. Well, okay, I do sort of know why, but it's not really important to this, so I'm not going to go into it.

So we have this animal that lives here on Earth with us, an animal that has a completely alien way of being. Alien to us, you understand. And despite that we've been working with them for decades, we're no closer to understanding how they communicate. And it's clear that they do communicate. But they don't communicate in any way that makes sense to us, but we think we'll be able to talk with aliens should we meet them?

Here's what I'm getting at: It seems to me that it would be more profitable for scientists to be spending their time on understanding the things in front of us that we don't understand rather than speculating about how we can send coded messages into space to talk to aliens. It seems quite clear to me that if we can't figure out how to communicate with dolphins that we have no hope of stumbling blindly across some code that will allow us to speak to aliens. And I give Briane the credit for this thought, because I'd never really thought about it at all until he brought it up.

In the same way, I think scientists would be better served working to understand the life on our own planet rather than speculating about how life might develop on some other planet. Until we can actually go there and see how that life might have developed, speculation doesn't matter at all. Not that we shouldn't look for life, I'm all for that, but the fact that we have (or had) a science devoted to studying alien life seems more than a bit like putting the cart before the horse.

Leave that stuff to the science fiction writers and you scientists get back to work on the real science. Like faster than light travel so that we can find that alien life.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Wonka

When I was a kid, there might have been no kind of candy I ever wanted more than I wanted a Wonka chocolate bar. Of course, there's nothing that could have tasted as good as I imagined a Wonka Bar should taste. It's probably a good thing I never got one. I would have been so incredibly disappointed.

My desire for a Wonka Bar had nothing to do with Roald Dahl's book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and everything to do with the movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

I loved that movie while I was growing up, and I still love it today. Just to be clear, I'm talking about the 1971 movie starring Gene Wilder, not the horrible Burton thing from 2005.

Before I get onto the point of all of this, here is one of the reasons I love that film so much:
Imagination, really, is what is driving this series of posts. The imagination of writers to come up with the ideas that they do, and the imaginations of the people that have made those ideas into reality. The imagination to see it become real.
And, again, being kind of stuck on the whole imagination thing, it's why the underlying theme of The House on the Corner is imagination. Being able to say "what if" and, then, go towards that.


When I was a kid, I didn't know there was a book that the movie came from. In fact, I was an adult before I knew there was a book. And it was only within the last few years that I read the book (and, unfortunately, I didn't like the book (which I talked about here). But that's all beside the point.

The point is somewhere in here:

I discovered that Gobstoppers were a real candy sometime when I was in high school. Those and Nerds, which are also a Wonka candy (although they aren't in the movie or the book). Gobstoppers became just about my favorite candy, and I still (in theory) love them (in theory, because I've been pretty much off of sugar for about 4 years, so I don't eat them (I do, still, love the idea of them, though)). I thought (and wondered why) they were just coming out with Wonka candy in '80s. But it wasn't that it was just coming out, it just took it that long to get to Louisiana, evidently.

See, The Willy Wonka Candy Company started out in 1971 to coincide with the release of the movie (although, they are now owned by Nestle). What an amazing thing that a whole candy company sprang from the pages of a book! Even though I didn't care for Dahl's book, I love that his imagination brought a candy company to life (even if I am against sugar (sorry, as a culture, we just eat too much of it)). I'm going to imagine that Nestle has a room in their Wonka division like the one from the movie where everything is eatable.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Virtual Reality

Back in the mid-80's, on a trip to (the one, true) Six Flags, I had my first encounter with virtual reality. They had a station set up where you could experience it yourself for the low, low price of $10 (or something like that). You put on a set of VR goggles, walked on a treadmill, and shot at things. What made it interesting is that they had a monitor set up so that other people could see what you were seeing. There were obstacles that you had to dodge; some of them would fly out at you suddenly, so it was amusing to watch as the people doing the simulation would duck and, um, sometimes, actually fall down because they were caught off guard by something. I didn't actually do the thing, because I didn't want to spend $10 on something that lasted two minutes, but I had a couple of friends who did; one of them even did it twice. They were very impressed and said it felt like they were right there with things flying at their heads. It was, of course, the '80s when the idea of virtual reality really leaped into popular awareness. Right along with the personal computer. Of course, back in the '80s, we all thought we'd be in a virtual world by this point.

But how far back does virtual reality go?

Well, that's an interesting question, and I'm going to answer it from two perspectives:

First, in the 1950s, Morton Heilig decided that going to the theater should  be a fully immersive experience. He began working on his Sensorama which finally came out in 1962. The only piece ever produced was of the viewer riding the streets of Brooklyn on a motorcycle. It was much more than 3D, also providing the vibrations of the motorcycle, the wind on the face, and the smells of the street as the viewer "rode" along. However, the cost of producing the 3D films was just too high, and the Sensorama failed to catch on.
But what we think of as virtual reality really was a product of the '80s and stemmed almost solely from the work of Jaron Lanier. He founded VPL Research in 1985, which is the company that produced the famous goggles and gloves that we all think of when we think of VR.
The biggest issue with VR at the moment is that it's actually much more advanced than we realize. Quite advanced, in fact, within the medical field and the military. I suppose the high cost of VR systems is still keeping it out of the consumer market.

Except in one thing... the building of virtual worlds. The video game industry has become adept at creating worlds, and there have been some amazing strides in that area in recent years. The one I think is the most important is the development of the virtual world in The Force Unleashed. It's the first game world to apply "real" physics to the environment rather than just having the same programmed response every time. Here's a short video that talks about it a bit (although this one is not as good at explaining the significance of what they're doing as the couple I saw back when the game was first coming out, but I couldn't find those):

Some of this technology is related to the stuff ILM developed for Peter Jackson for The Lord of the Rings so that the armies would behave... well, autonomously instead of having groups of soldiers all doing the same thing.

So that's kind of where we are, right now, but from where did all of this come from from a fiction standpoint?

For that, we're going to go back to 1935 and the short story "Pygmalion's Spectacles" by Stanley Weinbaum. In the story, a professor has invented a pair of goggles that allows you to experience a movie as if you were in the movie including interacting with the characters. How familiar does that sound?

Remember Stanislaw Lem (from this post)? Well, in 1960, he had a short story, "IJON TICHY'S MEMORIES," in which a scientist creates an entire virtual world (and, evidently, traps people within it). Trapped in this virtual world is another scientist who creates a virtual world. Yes, within the first one.

And, of course, there's William Gibson with Neuromancer, which I find to be less of virtual reality, as such, and more just a visual representation of cyberspace, even if it is a virtual world.

We also have to jump right back to this post about Snow Crash.

In movies, we have Tron and The Matrix as two of the best examples of virtual reality in fiction.

For me, there was Tad Williams' Otherland series. Virtual reality is to the point where people have jacks implanted in the base of their skulls so that they can plug directly into the virtual network and experience everything by having their brains directly stimulated. It's interesting, though, in that during the course of the books, he shows us how the technology evolved in the world he created. What's interesting is that some of our newest advances in virtual reality have an eerie resemblance to antiquated VR tech in his books.
Here's what it comes down to for me:
When VR becomes a thing that people can enter into and experience as if it was real life, people will not want to leave it. There are already issues with people and the virtual worlds they already have access to, and these worlds are not... well, we don't experience them as if they are happening to us. But there have been cases of child neglect and abuse from parents becoming too immersed in these worlds. There have been cases of people going without food or water to the point of death. And these are just worlds that you experience through a keyboard. Imagine what it will be like when you can have full sensory input. Feel things. Smell things. Even taste things. And it can be better than your life in the "real" world.

Of all things I've talked about in this series, this is the one that I find the scariest. I think we're closer to realizing this one than many of the others. And, more than any of the others, this is the one into which we will go voluntarily.

[Oh, and I did some more digging, and I found the other videos I was talking about.]

Monday, April 23, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Ultraphone Ear-Disc

Here is something I didn't know: Buck Rogers first appeared as the character Anthony Rogers in the 1928 novella Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan. Anthony Rogers is a veteran soldier of The Great War (World War I) who ends up in a state of suspended animation for nearly 500 years. And suspended animation is probably a topic I could have covered; it has been around in fiction for a while (there's Rip Van Winkle, and I mentioned HG Wells Sleeper, and, oh, well, so many more), but we don't really have that worked out in a way where we can do it on purpose, yet, so I left it out. I say on purpose, because there have been a few times where people have ended up in accidental cases of suspended animation (like falling into a freezing lake) where we've been able to bring them back, but it's not something anyone can depend on.


The topic for the day is the ultraphone ear-disc. You may know it better as
Yeah, your bluetooth started out as military technology so that soldiers could have their hands free for weapons instead of needing to use a handheld radio. And that started out in Nowlan's story about a war 500 years in the future. So we have a guy writing just after World War I who already was seeing the need for soldiers to have "hands free" phones. heh Just to make this clear, wireless devices, specifically, the radio, had only just been invented. And radios were HUGE (I mean physically huge. There was an old radio down at the farm when I was a kid, and it was bigger than me). When Nowlan was writing his story, there was no idea, yet, of using radio for personal communication.

Some of the other things that Armageddon 2419 introduced (there are more):
1. remotely piloted drones (more radio)
2. telecommuting
3. e-purchasing
4. paratroopers

Armageddon was adapted into the Buck Rogers comic strip just a year later, and it mostly delves into space exploration after that, but that initial novella was quite visionary.

Bonus U (breaking news)


One of the shows I loved growing up, and, when I say loved, I mean loved, as in it was not negotiable as to whether or not I was going to get to watch it or not, and my family knew it, was Doctor Who. Other than the TARDIS, the Doctor had two things that were really cool: K-9 and his sonic screwdriver. The sonic screwdriver is kind of what it sounds like. Okay, well, it's not a screwdriver at all, at least, not in appearance, but it does use sound as a sort of a screwdriver, and, other than a lightsaber, it's one of the things I grew up wanting to have.
the latest Doctor with his screwdriver

There has been ongoing research into sound over the years, specifically ultrasound. That is, after all, how we got the ultrasound machine. There are even ultrasound techniques for non-invasive surgery. Yes, they don't have to cut you open, just use a beam of sound to take care of what ails you. The new development, though, is that some physicists at the University of Dundee got together and developed a way to lift and manipulate objects with sound alone. It's a pretty amazing achievement that could lead all sorts of places. One problem: I don't think it's something anyone's going to be carrying around in their pocket anytime soon.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Tom Swift and the TASER

I should have grown up reading Tom Swift. Should have, but I didn't. No, it's not through some kind of weird hindsight thing and a latent desire to have done so that makes me say this. I say it for one reason and one reason alone: my mother grew up reading (and loving) Tom Swift. You'd think that since my mom grew up reading Tom Swift that she would have passed that on to me. But you'd be wrong. I discovered all of my own reading as a kid, which lead to me "doing it wrong" and being labeled "delayed" at one point by a school counselor because I was reading the wrong books. What was I reading? Science.

No, really, I was reading science books (which is also why I say I should have been reading Tom Swift). As I've said before, all of my early reading was non-fiction. Starting at about age 4, I was reading books about dinosaurs. No, not story books. Science books. I was fascinated with them, and I wanted to learn everything I could about them, so what I would ask for was books about dinosaurs. I still have a lot of them, and some of these books would be a struggle for adults. That lead to astronomy and zoology and, actually, history (because I was a patriotic munchkin, and read all I could about the revolutionary time period and the people involved). At any rate, I was in 4th grade before I really discovered fiction.

But Tom Swift... See, Tom Swift was about this boy genius who was all into science and all the adventures he had and all of his inventions! Science and adventure! And my mom never told me about it or got me any of the books. I didn't even know who Tom Swift was until I was in high school, and I was way past being interested in reading about him at that point. [Interestingly enough, though, the first fiction I really got into reading was The Hardy Boys, which was "written" by the same author (but -that's- a subject for another post (and one I've mentioned previously somewhere)).]

As it turns out, the Tom Swift books served as an inspiration to a few people you may have heard of, like Steve Wozniak, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein. It also turns out that several inventions have been tied directly to these books or appeared in them before they were a real thing. Here's a short list:

synthetic diamonds: Tom Swift Among the Diamond Makers (1911) -- the actual technology to do this was not produced until the 1950s

sending photographs by telephone: Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone (1912) -- the technology for this was developed in 1925 (1925! I had no idea.)

portable movie camera: Tom Swift and His Wizard Camera (1912) -- the first portable movie cameras didn't come out until 1923

But my favorite, my absolute favorite is the taser. Everyone always thinks that taser has something to do with laser. And why not? After all, there is also the maser and the (fictional) phaser with names that tie to laser. But not taser. Taser stands for Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle.
Jack Cover, 60 years after the book was published, invented the taser and named it after his inspiration for it. How much better can it get than that? He read about it as a boy and thought, "I want to make that," so he grew up and did it. That's, like, the height of cool.  It's just too bad Edward Stratemeyer, the creator of Tom Swift, wasn't around to see it.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Snow Crash, Second Life, and Submarines


After all the talk about Jules Verne, how could I not mention submarines?
The thing is, though, despite frequently having the idea of the submarine attributed to him, Verne actually didn't dream these up. In fact, the Nautilus, Nemo's submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, is named after one of the first submarines from almost a century before Verne wrote about it.
And that nautilus was named after this one:

And the interior:

Even though Verne wasn't the originator of the submarine (actually, it was another of those things that da Vinci had sketches for), he was the first to write about them in the way that he did, a tool for exploration and a tool for combat. It's fairly safe to say that he helped form the concept of what the submarine would be used for in the 20th century.

Snow Crash

Let me start out by saying that Neal Stephenson did not come up with the idea for virtual reality, nor did he come up with the idea of the multi-verse. Neither did Marvel Comics, but they've probably done more to promote the idea of the multi-verse than anyone else. However, Stephenson, through his novel Snow Crash, did introduce the concept of the Metaverse. And this is a novel I now feel like I need to read. It was like one of Jung's unconscious ideas coalesced in Stephenson's brain and came out as this concept of the Metaverse.

In Snow Crash, the Metaverse is a virtual reality world that has... well, not replaced the Internet, become the Internet. Since I do actually believe we're heading toward virtual reality (and I believe that it's in virtual reality that mankind will face its greatest challenge (not zombies, not cyborgs, not even genetically engineered viruses)), I think this idea of the Metaverse is fascinating (did I say I need to read this book? Oh, I did...).

My point is this, after the book came out in 1992, a text-based game was launched in '93 called The Metaverse. In '95, Active Worlds was launched, and it was based entirely on Snow Crash. There were some others, but the big one was Second Life in 2003. You have heard of Second Life, right? It's hard to be online and not to have heard of it, even if you haven't "played" it. Just for the record, I have not. But there have been laws passed in some countries to control the exchange of money, real money, on this "site."

Second Life was created by Philip Rosedale who, at one point, gave the credit for the idea to Stephenson's novel (I wish I could find that article again, but, basically, he said "I got the idea after reading Snow Crash); now, of course, he only says he was "aware" of the novel but the idea for Second Life was completely his own. I will point out, though, that they did introduce a Snow Crash sub-world into Second Life.

Snow Crash continues to influence the development of the world wide web. It was Snow Crash that popularized the term "avatar." Google Earth was modeled after Snow Crash, and Google Earth is just cool. I used it for research while I was writing The House on  the Corner. From that standpoint, it's also influencing Google's driverless car. And I'm not even going to list all the software that's been developed or is being developed in order to bring about this virtual idea of the Metaverse.

By the way, Time named it in their top 100 English-language novels written since 1923. Not top 100 sci-fi novels, just top 100 novels. Did I mention the need to read this? Will we look back as a society a few decades from now and point at Snow Crash as a turning point? Will we just see it as part of the natural evolution of things? Will it have faded out of importance entirely? It's hard to say, but here, now, 20 years after its release, we are still feeling its impact.

And, now, something completely unrelated:
As I have mentioned many times, Briane Pagel has this big Star Wars blogfest going on. We're just past the halfway mark, now, and I'm no longer in the lead. I got whammied. If you like me, though, you can go over and comment and let him know that I sent you, and we'll both get some points for it. But that's just an aside. Here's the real bit:
There's this indie movie called Yellow Hill that's trying to get funded. It's starring Bai Ling, and she's also producing it. They're asking for donations of just $5 to help them reach their funding goal of $6,000. For a movie $6,000 is pretty near to nothing, but it's still $6,000.
Anyway, Briane is trying to help these people out, and I support him in that. And, well, he's giving 1000 points to anyone who posts about the Yellow Hill thing, and, well, I need the points. But, still, I do support him in his support of this movie project! So click on the link and check it out.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Robots and Androids

Finally, we arrive to it: robots. So many of these fiction to reality posts have touched on robots or things robotic that I considered just skipping robots entirely, but, for some, that might be tantamount to ending a book just short of the climax and never finishing it. At any rate, robots have been, in many ways, what's driving this series of posts, so it wouldn't be exactly fair to leave them out, and I don't want any self-aware robots coming and asking me why I'd disrespect them in such a way. This post is also going to expand on my artificial intelligence post, so you might want to go back and read that one before going on with this one if you haven't already read it.

In many ways, the quest to develop or invent an "artificial man" has been as ongoing as the quest for flight throughout human history. These ideas extend back into myth and legend, and, as with flight, even Leonardo da Vinci had a design for a mechanical man. Maybe he even tried to build it. Instead of wading through all of that stuff, though, I'm going to jump ahead to our more modern view of what a robot is... except that we don't have a definitive view of what a robot is.

To facilitate the conversation, I'm going to define a robot as an electro-mechanical machine that has the semblance of intelligent behavior. These electro-mechanical machines can range from autonomous to remote controlled. This definition leaves out clockwork machines (which many people would like to say are the first examples of robots, but, then, that would, technically, make a clock a robot, and I'm not willing to go there).

Having said that, I will, however, go with Tik-Tok from Ozma of Oz as the first example of a modern robot in literature. Even though he was a clockwork, he was self aware and self motivating, making him a clockwork robot, not just a clockwork that looked like a man. It would be 15 years after the introduction of Tik-Tok before the word robot would be coined.
Speaking of, the term robot was first introduced in 1920 in a play, Rossum's Universal Robots, by Karel Capek. The word, basically, means drudgery, as that is the kind of work the robots in the play did. It doesn't end well for humanity.

As the 20th century progressed, robots became more and more common in fiction:
And, perhaps, the most famous robots ever (okay, not perhaps; we all know they are):

However, of all the fictional appearances of robots, it is probably Isaac Asimov's robot short stories and novels that have been the most significant, not least of all for his Three Laws of Robotics.

Surprisingly enough (at least to me), the first electronic robots were built in 1948 and 1949, Elmer and Elsie. The first truly modern robot was invented in 1954, the Unimate, by George Devol. He sold it to General Motors in 1960, and its installation began the modern robotics industry.

And this is where things get complicated. Complicated because the quest has always been to build an artificial human, not a mechanical arm, which is what the Unimate was. And for the last 50 years, that's what we've been trying to do. We've been trying to build the specific form of a robot that we call an android, which is what Asimov writes about, even if that's not what he calls them. But it is what we call R2-D2 and C-3PO -- droids. And here  is where we are today:
This is TOPIO 3.0, an android designed to play ping pong. He uses an advanced AI (artificial intelligence) that allows him to learn and improve his skill while playing. Basically, he adapts to the person he's playing against, learns how that person plays and adopts a strategy to beat the opponent. You can learn more about TOPIO here; although, I don't see a record of his wins and losses listed.

This is an Actroid, the most sophisticated android currently "alive." The newest model is named Sara
You can watch her explain how she works.

So... we're not quite to self aware, self motivating robots and androids, but we are stepping in that direction. In fact, robots are one of the biggest driving forces in AI research. Science fiction author Vernor Vinge (A Fire Upon the Deep, A Deepness in the Sky) believes we are heading toward a "technological singularity" (a term he coined) in which we will technologically develop a greater-than-human intelligence. Because we cannot comprehend the kinds of changes that will occur after such an intelligence is created, he calls this an "intellectual event horizon." With all the research and development in quantum computing and quantum nodes, I have a hard time thinking he's wrong. [My friend Rusty (who drew this picture of me) has been going on about Vinge for some time, now, and, so far, I haven't read anything by him. Not because I haven't wanted to, but because I'm way behind on my reading and haven't wanted to try to work anything new into the stack until I cut it down some; however, after reading this stuff, I'm going to have to work Vinge in.] It's not that Vinge is the only person to have written about these themes; we see them in science fiction a lot, usually with a very negative spin on it (the Terminator franchise, the Matrix trilogy), but he is the first to state his view so concisely, and this idea permeates much of his work. It will certainly be interesting to see how the future progresses in regards to artificial intelligence and robots!

The Three Laws of Robotics:
1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Quantum Communication

This is where I found out that I'm not nearly as clever as I thought I was. Well, that's not precisely true; this is where I found out that there are other people at least as clever as I am.

Before we get to that, though:

At the moment, society is limited. Specifically, we are limited to Earth. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of the hugest blocks to any kind of off-planet expansion is communication. It's hard to think about in those terms, because, today, we can talk to anyone in the world at speeds that are, basically, instantaneous. The fact that light can travel three times around the Earth in one second may have something to do with that. When we move off-planet, though, the speed of light becomes a limitation. And, right now, light is our fastest mode of communication.

There are two things that much of science fiction takes for granted:
1. the ability to travel at greater than the speed of light (although, there is, usually, some sort of basic explanation (in Star Trek, warp drive; in Star Wars, hyperspace (a theoretical possibility, by the way))
2. the ability to communicate instantaneously across the galaxy (there is usually no explanation given for this (although, Star Trek did, eventually, add in sub-space buoys to enable communication); we just have to accept that it's possible)
Until we solve these two issues, expansion out of the solar system just isn't feasible.

The good news? We may have solved one of these issues. Or, at the very least, be on the way to solving it.

See, communication has long been an issue to expansion. Establishing faster communication has been something that has been being worked on for ages. Think back 400 years ago. Let's say you were on the east coast of the USA (because, really, that's almost for sure where you would have been, and, yes, I know it wasn't the USA 400 years ago), and you wanted to send a letter to someone in... oh, let's just say Moscow. First, you have to write out a letter. By hand. On paper. With a quill of all things and a bottle of ink. This is if you could even write at all, so it may be that you are having to pay someone else to write the letter for you. At any rate, once you have your letter, you have to send it by ship across the ocean. And there were no post offices, so it's not like you just put a stamp on it. Anyway, the letter had to spend weeks travelling across the ocean on a ship, and you had to hope the ship didn't sink. Not that you would find out in any kind of timely manner if it did. Supposing the letter makes it all the way across the ocean to whatever port it's going to, let's say Paris, because that was a pretty busy place, once it gets over to Europe, someone has to take the letter on to Moscow. On a horse. And, unless this was some kind of political thing, there wasn't any kind of official mail carrier, and, since I'm pretty sure I don't have any politicians reading my blog, I'm going to suppose you're just some normal person sending a letter to Moscow, which means that, basically, someone going that direction has to volunteer to take the letter. That means that your letter might sit around in an office for weeks waiting for someone to take it. And then more weeks on horseback to Moscow. And then someone to find the person to whom the letter is going and take it to them. Now, let's suppose further that you're someone that has come to the New World (USA) to establish yourself and, then, you're going to send for your spouse and kids (which would make you in all likelihood a male, but I'll give you the benefit of the doubt), which you've done with this letter. Your spouse then sits down and pens a letter back, "we're coming!" Because letters took so long, the spouse might well beat his/her letter back across the ocean and arrive before you knew s/he was even coming. At any rate, all of this would take months and months. And months. And, sometimes, more months. And you were never assured that your letter made it in the first place. So, yeah, faster communication has always been something that we, as a race, have been interested in.

The pony express.
The telegraph.
The telephone.
Fiber optics.

First limited by physical travel times, then limited by the speed of sound (and if you've ever spoken to anyone on another continent over the phone, you'll know what that's like), now, limited by the speed of light. Let me say that again, "Limited by the speed of light." That's like buying a new iGadget and looking at the memory and thinking, "I'll never use all of that," and, then, three months later wondering how you ever used up all of your memory.

As I said, science fiction has long said "phooey" with all that communication nonsense, because you can't have a story out in space where you have to wait, not just years, but hundreds of years to communicate.

And, now, we are on the edge of a breakthrough that could take communication out of the equation of what's holding us on Earth.

Just, by the way, I find what I'm about to tell you fascinating. (And this is also where I found out that scientists are clever fellows, too.)

Some time ago, I read an article about a breakthrough in communication. In fact, I've read several. In my mind, I started calling this communication system "quantum communication." The articles I read, though, never gave this stuff a name; it was just my name for it. I knew from the very beginning of this series of posts that I wanted to cover this, but I had no idea how to look it up. After expressing this, my wife, in her wisdom, said to me just look up "quantum communication" and see what you get. heh As it turns out, "quantum communication" is what this is coming to be known as, and I discovered that I'm not the only one that can think of the obvious name for something and decide to call it that.

But what is quantum communication? I'm going to leave most of the science out of this, because, honestly, it gets a bit complex, so in simple terms:
Subatomic particles (the little bits that make up atoms) have quantum states. If you get a pair of particles in matched quantum states (this is called entangling) what you do to one of them instantly affects the other of them. Basically, the unaffected particle will change its state to match the one that it's paired with. As long as you keep these particles isolated. However, distance doesn't seem to affect this at all. So, hypothetically speaking, you should be able to have a particle on Earth and a particle on, say, Ganymede (a moon of Jupiter and, minimally, 45 minutes away by light communication) and affect a change on one of the particles and have an immediate change of state in the second particle. Basically, through effecting a series of changes by, say, typing out a message on a keyboard, you should be able to receive that message more quickly than talking to someone anywhere on Earth via our current methods of communication.

Of course, it's all a bit more complicated than I've made it sound as it involves photons and quantum mapping and polarization and all sorts of other things, but those are the basics. Einstein actually predicted all of this almost 100 years ago, and even he didn't really believe it. He called it "spooky action at a distance."

And in breaking news, it was announced just a few days ago that the very first prototype quantum network has been established at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Germany. Not only are they looking at communication over vast distances, but there is talk of a quantum Internet. There is also work being done on quantum computing that uses some of these same ideas and many believe is the next step toward artificial intelligence.

But, you know, science fiction had it first... even if they didn't know how it was done.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Platforms

Okay, all you writer people out there, no, that's not the kind of platform I'm talking about! Geez, can't you people think of anything else?

No, what I'm talking about are moving platforms.

In my head, this all starts about 20 years ago when I read The Caves of Steel (1954). If you haven't read Caves, you should. That's just all there is to it. It's probably my favorite of Asimov's books; although, I can't say it's the best. It is the one that has stuck with me longest, though, in that I have a clearer memory of this book, even after 20 years, than I have of any of his others, all of which I read after Caves.

Anyway, in Caves, the Earth is just one big city (sound familiar, anyone?), and the general method of transportation is via these moving walkways that run all through the (world) city. They are set parallel to each other, and each one gets faster as you move inward along the system. Of course, the faster ones take you to farther places, and the slower ones are for shorter trips, but the speed variation is to allow the user to hop from walkway to walkway without sudden, vast changes in speed. Sounds pretty fun, doesn't it?

As I've come to find out, Asimov wasn't the first to use this concept. No, Heinlein used it more than a decade before Asimov in his 1940 short story "The Roads Must Roll." Oh, but we go back even farther, because, guess who! No, really guess. H.G. Wells used this same concept all the way back in 1897 in "A Story of the Days to Come" and, again, in 1899 in When the Sleeper Wakes (later rewritten as The Sleeper Awakes).

But back to Asimov, there's this great chase scene in the book where they're running and jumping between these moving walkways, and I've always thought that sounded like so much fun.

Oh, you say, but moving walkways aren't new. Okay, you're right. They're not. The very first conveyor belt of people (okay, so I don't know if it was actually a conveyor belt, but it sounds cool) debuted in 1893 in Chicago, but it wasn't, in concept, a device of mass transit. That didn't happen until 1954 when one was built inside a railroad terminal in New Jersey. It was removed a few years later due to non-use. Moving walkways are common in limited usages, today, the most common being the escalator.

All of that may be about to change.

Not that I think that coveyor belts of people are going to become a common mass transit device. At least, not until cities do actually begin to grow together (kind of like Dallas/Ft. Worth, which is, in all respects, just one city at this point, I don't care what they say (I know, I've been there)).  However, there is a push for more efficient mass transit, especially in Europe, and moving platforms is one of the new ideas that is getting a lot of attention.

The problem, it seems, is that high speed railways are just too inefficient. People have to spend too long waiting for trains, too much energy is required to accelerate the trains, and too much to stop the trains. Basically, it would just be more efficient if there were a continuous trains that never stopped. Really, it saves energy. But if it was a high speed thing, how would people get on and off? Well...
Basically, you'd have the high speed train, and you'd have these little docking trains with small docking stations. People board the docking trains which then speed up and dock with the high speed train via an airlock,

and, then, the docking train would return to its station to pick up more people. The main train would never stop, get people where they need to go faster, and there would be no huge train stations, just these docking ports. Of course, the thrust of this plan is to give people a viable alternative to cars. If mass transit was both cheap and fast, people would be more inclined to use it. In Europe, at any rate, it seems that the main reason people use cars over mass transit is that they can get to where they want to go before they're even on the train to get there due to the long waits at stations, and this plan for moving platforms is a way to get past that.

Personally, I'm all for anything that gets cars off the roads. They're noisy, messy, and waste fuel. I was just reading the other day that we in the USA waste something like 400 billion (BILLION) gallons of gas every year sitting at traffic lights. That's why you should all buy Priuses. Priusi. You should each get one. Or switch to cars that drive themselves. I'm all for those, too. At any rate, I think this is a first step to the kind of mass transit that we see in the stories that I mentioned. If walking on a moving sidewalk got you there faster than driving your car, would you take it?

Monday, April 16, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: the Opton

Yeah, yeah, I know... you've never heard of an opton. I bet most of you own one, though. I don't, but that's not because I don't necessarily want to own one; I just don't feel like paying for one. At least, not right now. I'm sure I'll get to it at some point.

The novel Return from the Stars by Stanislaw Lem came out in 1961 (it wasn't translated into English until 1980). It's about an astronaut that goes away on a mission. A mission that last 10 years... for him. However, 127 years pass on Earth while he's gone (time dilation (don't ask; this post isn't about that)). As you can imagine, many things have changed... including the fact that there are no more books. Not that there are no more books, but they're all electronic. Imagine that! An electronic book that you read with a little device called an opton. The description is rather like a Kindle.
Imagine that...

Lem's work is the earliest description of electronic reading devices or, more specifically, the electronic paper display. I didn't know this, but electronic paper was actually invented all the way back in the '70s. I want to be clear about what Lem was doing here: on his Earth, books were all stored electronically. Physical books only existed as a template. One would be printed and stored and people could access the book through their optons. This was before computers. Not, of course, before computers existed, but before computers were a thing. Some countries didn't even have computers in 1961. Probably, most countries didn't have computers in 1961. I sort of bet Poland didn't, and that's where Lem was from.

Let's take a step forward:
So Lem has predicted the electronic book, but he also predicted the absence of the physical book, something that the astronaut regretted. Will we look back in 100 years at Lem's work and say "wow, he was right"? I think so. All the signs of the passing of the paper book from society are here, even if we don't want to admit it.

1. Paper books are becoming prohibitively priced. When I was a kid, a paperback was a couple of bucks. When I was a teenager, they were $4-5. Standard price for a paperback is now $10. Hardbacks... well, I don't really even think much about them unless Amazon has them on sale or it's a book I just can't wait on for the softcover. As paper prices continue to rise, and they are rising, the cost of physical books will continue to rise as well. At some point, physical books will become a status item that only the wealthy can afford.

2. Electronic books are cheaper and better for the environment. This will be even more true once Apple and the rest of the big publishers finish getting slapped for price-fixing on e-books to force Amazon to not undercut the profits of the big publishers by pricing the e-books lower.

3. E-books are more convenient to store.

4. Physical book sales are in a decline while e-book sales are in a sharp rise.

Look, I don't even own an e-reader, but I see the day coming when physical books just aren't a "thing" anymore. The publishing industry is one of the most wasteful industries on the planet. They destroy hundreds of thousands of unsold books every year. It's just bad for the planet. As we (slowly) become more aware of the steps we need to take to ensure the viability of the planet, physical books are just going to pass away. I do believe we're in the early stages of that, right now, and I do believe that Lem was right.

I just hope he wasn't right about the rest of the stuff in that book.

Extra fun facts about Stanislaw Lem:
1. At one point, he was the most read sci-fi author in the world. Just not in the US, since he mostly wasn't being published here at the time. Like I said, he was from Poland. However, he is rarely read, now, anywhere else in the world except the US where he is often considered on the same level as H.G. Wells.
2. He held American sci-fi authors in disdain. He felt like they were more interested in money than in the science fiction. This lead to a situation between him and the Science Fiction Writers of America that lasted for something like 30 years.
3. Philip K. Dick was his only exception, and he praised Dick's work. PKD, however, wasn't convinced that Lem was even a real person. Dick felt that Lem was a composite personality formed by a committee operating under orders from the Communist party to sway public opinion. He even wrote a letter to the FBI saying as much.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Nanotechnology

Everything gets smaller, right? Well, except for cars. For some reason, us people in the US can't get over huge cars. From clocks to wristwatches, from mainframe computers to desktops to iPads, from cellphones
to cellphones.

Everything gets smaller except those stupid cars. And I just don't get that. About the cars. I totally get things getting smaller. I mean, not just is the cell phone smaller, but it includes all sorts of gadgets. Everything except a coffee maker, and I bet they're working on  that.

However, the greatest example of how things are growing smaller is nanotechnology. Just to be clear, nanotechnology is the study of the manipulation of matter on the atomic and molecular scale. Nanotech is important because materials act differently on the molecular level than they do at the macro level. Because of its incredible diversity, specialized sub-fields are already emerging.

Just to give some examples of applications in nanotech:

For medicine, testing is going on, right now, for little nanofactories in the body that can do things like fight cancer. They attach to the tumor and deliver medicines directly into the tumor reducing surrounding tissue damage to almost nothing.

Remember those carbon nanotubes from this post? With nanotechnology, they can be used to regrow bones and repair other tissue damage.

Nanotubes can also be used for water filtration, which is pretty incredible. They think they can eventually get it so that all contaminants can be removed.

Nanotechnology is also in development for more efficient energy usage and storage. For more memory storage in electronic devices. For increased power and higher beam quality for lasers through the use of quantum dots.

And then there are quantum computers... and that brings us back to this post, since quantum computers may be the next step in bringing that into reality.

But where does all this come from? Where did nanotech begin?

The fictional roots and scientific roots of nanotech, of tiny "machines," go back to almost the same place. Well, the same time. Arthur C. Clarke, in his 1956 short story, "The Next Tenants," describes tiny machines which are the first fictional example displaying the concepts of what we now associate with nanotechnology. In science, the first mention of these concepts followed a mere three years later during a lecture by physicist Richard Feynman. Had he read Clarke's story? No one knows.

There are a few short stories in the '60s and a novel with these concepts; although, none of them are really that important in and of themselves. It's all just planting ideas.

The term "nano-technology" came about in the '70s, but it was the '80s when nanotechnology really became a thing, both in science and in fiction. It was something that sort of came about by accident. At least, scientifically. There were a couple of discoveries, and, suddenly, science was, like, "oh, we can make nanotech stuff, now!" Fiction heard science say this, and ran away with it. At that point, the two became hopelessly entwined, because, as soon as someone starts writing about some application of nanotech or nanobots or nanowhatever, science says, "I think we can do that!"

Okay, that's not exactly true... nanotech has become the "magic" in science fiction in a lot of ways these days. We don't really know what kinds of things are possible, yet, with nanotechnology, so science fiction likes to do whatever it wants and call it "nanotechnology," because no one can say, "No, it's not!" I have an issue with calling magic "science," so this kind of bothers me. On the other hand, I have no issue with calling science "magic." Part of the issue here, I'm going to trace back to Fantastic Voyage
(and it's later, loose adaptation Inner Space).

Fantastic Voyage gave us, more than anything else, this idea that nanotechnology was about tiny, little machines (and, no, when you're talking about things on the nano-scale, "tiny, little" is not redundant). This isn't what nanotechnology is about, but it's what sci-fi wants it to be about. So we get things like the replicators in Stargate which are nanobots that can build themselves into anything, but the implication is that they are molecular-sized robots or, as in Fantastic Voyage, something that has been shrunk. Nanotechnology is not about shrinking things. Even if nanotechnology may be able to be used to make things smaller.

At any rate, nanotechnology is a big thing in sci-fi, right now, and rightly so. The sci-fi is fueling the science, and the science is fueling the sci-fi. The science that lead to nanotech was kind of accidental. Well, there were a couple of different things that were developed, one of which wasn't by design, and, when they were combined, they realized that they could do these nanotech things. But would they have thought to put those things together if Clarke or those few other writers hadn't written about them, first?

[Note: Isaac Asimov did not write Fantastic Voyage. I don't know if any of you thought this, but I certainly did. I have the book! No, he only adapted it. It actually started out as a movie, and Asimov was hired to write the adaptation which was actually released before the movie came out, which confused matters even more, because even people at the time thought that the movie was the adaptation of the book. I say all of that to say this (because I found it interesting): Asimov improved the story. He felt that there were some logical inconsistencies in the movie, and he fixed all of those things in the book. After reading about them, I have to say that Asimov was correct.]