Water, Oxygen, and NaNoWriMo

This morning’s news feeds featured three stories with a future impact on the search for extraterrestrial life in our solar system and the eventual colonization of our solar system.

National Geographic.co.uk features an article with the title: “Mysterious oxygen spike seen on Mars puzzles scientists“. Nature.com has the news article “A whole new world: astronomers draw first global map of Titan“. And, Space,com features “The Weird Plumes of Jupiter’s Moon Europa Are Spewing Water Vapor” on its newsfeed.

If you’ve followed along with various bits of stories that have appeared in this blog, you know that, like many other scifi writers, I believe either out of necessity or curiosity, humanity will one day be a species existing on other space objects. The common thread in these three stories is the presence of oxygen or surface liquids in places that are not Earth. The implications of this are potentially huge.

We may be one step closer to finding life or being the life on these other solar system neighbors.

I’m still slowly making progress towards my NaNoWriMo goal of 50k words. I am currently at 4723 words. On a plus note, I’ve gotten two in-story groups to where they need to go for future story events.

NaNoWriMo Update and Von Braun Wheel Hotel

My NaNoWriMo project is still behind, but as of this moment, I have committed 2171 words. I should probably stop revising and rewriting as I go to up the number count.

If you’ve followed and read posts here for any amount of time, you know that the Von Braun is a reoccurring theme in my writing and artwork. I personally think moving this from concept to reality is the key to exo-Earth-orbit space travel.

So, imagine my joy and surprise to find this article in my news feed this morning. Titled “Yes, the ‘Von Braun’ Space Hotel Idea Is Wild. But Could We Build It by 2025?” over on Space.com, the article discusses a company working on developing a hotel in Earth orbit using the von Braun wheel for its design.

Image stolen from the Space.com article.

Behind the Curve

_____________________
Note:
I will avoid spoilers here and request that any comments remain spoiler free as well.
_____________________

After seeing several scientists I trust recommend the documentary Behind the Curve, I finally sat down to watch it. BtC is a documentary that covers the new flat earth movement and is currently showing on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.

BtC doesn’t just show the flat earthers and their arguments, it also offers astronauts, psychologists, physicists, and other scientists, science communicators, and science educators explaining why the flat earth theories are wrong, but also uses these experts to explain why flat earthers believe what they believe.

Additionally, BtC also shows the inner struggles and distrust that exists within the flat earth movement. In doing so, it demonstrates and highlights the internal problems within conspiracy movements. One irony within the film is when one of the flat earthers, who’s accused of being a government plant within the movement, complains that no one will believe her when she tries to offer proof that she’s telling the truth about herself.

If you really want to see idiots sciencing, Behind the Curve is a documentary for you.

____________________
Note:
I again request that any comments remain spoiler free.
_____________________

Consensus =/= Proof

In a previous post, I mentioned that on bad mental health days I take advantage of Ancient Aliens as background nose due to the lack of critical thinking skills it requires to watch. Yesterday, because of some weather that moved through the local St Louis area, I had one of those days, albeit on a smaller level.

Yesterday’s viewing of Ancient Aliens episodes provided me with a topic idea for today. Every episode begins with a tagline that says, “Millions of people around the world believe we have been visited in the past by extraterrestrial beings. What if it were true?”

The suggestion from the folks behind the show is, of course, the idea that because a lot of people believe it, it must be true. However, as anyone who paid attention in history and science knows, only a few thousand years ago people believed the Earth was the center of the solar system, believed the Earth was flat, and believed humans were incapable of achieving flight.

While, sadly, I do have to acknowledge there are those who still believe all of those things, most accept that scientific evidence has proven the Earth revolves around the Sun, the Earth is a globe, and airplanes and helicopters fly over our heads daily.

Another tagline used in every episode of Ancient Aliens features some variation of a phrase that says, “ancient astronaut theorists believe”. I’ve always considered this to be an acknowledgement that the “theorists” were selective in their acceptance and rejection of “demonstrated” evidence with how well it fits the existing “theory”. This is versus adjusting theories to reflect new evidence that may not work with existing theories, which is how actual scientists do research.

As the great American philosopher, George Carlin, stated, “never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

Clipart stolen from Clipartmax.

Origins of Storytelling

As mentioned in a previous blog post, Literary Darwinism was a literary theory that I encountered in my graduate English classes. Because my master’s focus was composition, most of my time was split between literature and composition and rhetoric classes. If you’re looking for an interesting approach to English classes, I highly recommend the route I took since, aside from the handful of required C&R classes, I had a lot of freedom with course selections. I mention my education background because, to the dismay of one of my C&R instructors, I found a lot of connections between many of the texts and discussions in the C&R classes and the literary darwinism interest I was pursing in the literature classes.

One of the areas of literary darwinism that’s been on my radar, even before I knew there was such a thing in literary theory, was the universality of storytelling. While Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, one of my literature classes introduced me to the academic writings of literary darwinist, Jonathan Gottschall, an English professor, who wrote in one of his key texts: “Humans are creatures of story, so story touches nearly every aspect of our lives (2).”

Around the same time, I was reading Gottschall’s words in a literature class, I was reading a text by Thomas Newkirk, a writing instructor, for one of my C&R classes. In that text, I found Newkirks’s words stating that: “We are biologically predisposed to process experience through the lens of antecedents and consequences (5).” By putting writing and story into a biological context, Newkirk, and separately the instructor of the C&R class, were reinforcing the theories I was reading for literary darwinism background.

In building a background understanding of literary darwinism, I encountered a text by Dan McAdams, an evolutionary psychologist, who observed that: “Human beings are storytellers by nature. … The story is a natural package for organizing many different kinds of information (4).” With this text and a number of cross referenced Steven Pinker texts, I began to see a deeper connection of literary darwinism as it relates to evolutionary psychology.

Between the literary darwinism source material, evolutionary psychology material, and evolutionary biology texts cross referenced to Edward O Wilson, I was prepared for another text by another literary darwinist, Brian Boyd, an English professor, who often writes and edits with Gottschall, referenced above, and Joseph Carroll, the professor I studied under at UMSL. Boyd’s text includes the statement that: “Evolution builds many specific learning tracks into the mind. … And we will interpret something as story if we can. Babies and adults alike cannot help seeing a sequence of moving dots in terms of animate causality (1).”

Another text from another C&R class, with the same dismayed C&R professor, written by George Lakoff, a linguist, and Mark Johnson, a philosophy professor, helped my refocus that cause and effect relationship of story. Lakoff and Johnson wrote: “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. … human thought processes are largely metaphorical (3).” For me this is especially true, and exactly what I was doing in my own studies of C&R and literature, and literary darwinism.

Once we better understand the relationship between causality and storytelling, we can see stories and storytelling in the context that Gottschall placed it in when he wrote: “The problem structure reveals an major function of storytelling. It suggests that the human mind was shaped for story, so that it could be shaped by story (2).” [emphasis in original text].

Sources:

  1. Boyd, Brian. On the Origin of Stories. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.
  2. Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal. Boston: Mariner Books, 2013.
  3. Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  4. McAdams, Dan P. The Stories We Live By. New York: The Guilford Press, 1993.
  5. Newkirk, Thomas. Minds Made for Stories. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2014.

Clipart stolen from Clipartmax.

Predictions Saving Lives or Making Nightmares Real?

A recent article appeared on the Forbes website, “Researchers Attempt to Predict and Prevent Suicide Using Deep Learning and Math“, discussing a team of scientists working on an algorithm to predict suicidal patterns and prevent suicides.  One of the scientists states the project goal being:  “if our algorithm can identify and stop just one or two, we will feel really good about that.”

On the one hand, this looks like a good idea that will help to save lives.  On the other hand, it brings to mind the nightmares of Philip K. Dick‘s (PKD) scifi short stories.  PKD is probably my single most favorite scifi author; and his scifi stories and novels contain as many warnings against future nightmares as they do predictions of future technologies.

In the PKD story, “The Minority Report” (PKDR/PKD4), murder and violent crimes are prevented through a combination of precognition abilities and computer algorithms that produce three reports.  If two of the three reports agree there will be a murder, the computer produces a card with the name of the would-be murderer, who is then sought out and apprehended by the pre-crime department.  However, the existence of the minority report indicates the future crime accepted for prevention may not show the whole picture.  In fact, the possibility of innocent persons being imprisoned for crimes that were never  going to be committed is raised by the narration of the story.

While pre-crime exists in a fictional setting, the overlooked minority reports, that might clear someone of a future crime, raises the question of whether this suicide algorithm’s identification of a suicidal patterns might result in similar problems of non-suicidal persons being institutionalized.  The behaviors might just meet a list programmed into a computer and not indicate an actual a future suicide.  Some of us with depression would definitely want assurances that something was in place to prevent this result.

The Forbes article also explains that project development involved “student[-]developed algorithms to do statistical analysis … to look for key factors related to suicide risks and apply deep learning methods to these large and complex datasets”.  When deep learning methods are discussed in connection to the algorithms, questions of artificial intelligence (AI) are also immediately raised.

In “The Defenders” (PKD1) and “Second Variety” (PKD3), PKD offers two differing views of what it could look like when an AI determines humans are their own worst threat.

In a more benign take on AI, the story, “The Defenders”, features robots designed to fight a war between the U.S. and Russia.  When humans leave the surface due to the increasing lethality of the weapons of war they’ve created, the robots determine the two groups of humans are bigger threats to the earth and that their war doesn’t even make sense.  Instead, the robots dupe humanity into believing the war is going on through the building and destroying of model replicas of human cities, while also cleaning and preserving the actual untouched cities.  The robots made an analysis of human behavior that determined they should keep the humans underground until their societies have moved on from warfare to a focus on survival in a generation or so.

However, PKD presents the nightmarish concept of robots designed to fight a war who’ve determined human life is a bigger threat than the robots on either side in the story, “Second Variety”.  These robots are designed to reproduce and to use learning processes to create even more deceptive and lethal versions of themselves to outwit the other side.  Further the two sides of the robot war eventually focus on making those deceptions more effective against the robots on the other side.  The war continues to be fought by the robot combatants with humans soldiers largely forgotten, except for being seen as a threat by the robots on both sides.

To clarify, I do not think the algorithm will use deep learning methods to gather humans into camps and exterminate them Terminator-franchise-style. 

However, we must bear in mind that any technology that involves computerized systems learning on their own, making decisions on their own, and enforcing objectives has the potential to become a very serious threat long-term unless safety precautions are put into place to prevent the machines from determining non-machines are all a threat.

Sources

Dick, Philip K. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol I. V vols.
New York: Citadel Twilight, 1990. (PKD1)
—. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol II. V vols.
New York: Citadel Twilight, 1995. (PKD2)
—. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol III. V vols.
New York: Citadel Press, 2002. (PKD3)
—. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol IV. V vols.
New York: Citadel Twilight, 1991. (PKD4)
—. The Collected Stories of Philip K Dick Vol V. V vols.
New York: Citadel Press, 1992. (PKD5)
—. The Philip K Dick Reader. New York: Citadel Press, 1997. (PKDR)

Clipart stolen from Clipartmax.

On The Future by Martin Rees

Last night, I finished reading Martin Rees‘ book On The Future: Prospects for Humanity. Before I get into a rundown of the book, some background is needed here.

This book’s title caught my eye because of a recent interest, for personal storytelling purposes, in learning more about the science behind future humans, or the future of human evolution.

If you’ve been here a little while, you know that the fiction of James S.A. Corey is a huge influence on my view of scifi writing and what it could/should be. One of the areas that I think they excel in is the indirect study of humanity’s future evolution into, more or less, four different strains due to space travel and the settlement of planetary and space station based colonies.

During my graduate studies at the University of Missouri, St Louis (UMSL), I encountered the area of literary criticism known as Literary Darwinism and one of its chief advocates, Joseph Carroll. A quick oversimplified description of the field is it uses evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology, with a focus on gene-culture co-evolution, to study the motivations behind character actions in literature.

Rees’ book carried praise quotes from Edward O. Wilson, an evolutionary biologist, and Steven Pinker, an evolutionary psychologist. In the field of Literary Darwinism, these are probably the single two most referenced authorities after Dr Carroll. And that is how the book ended up in my hands.

Rees offers some interesting insights into what he believes the future might hold for humanity. While not as pessimistic on artificial intelligence and alien contact as his University of Cambridge colleague, Stephen Hawking, Rees remains cautiously optimistic in his approach.

Unfortunately, Rees’ look into future human evolution gets somewhat lost between an almost obsessive view of posthumans in the forms of technology-enhanced human cyborgs and computer-based human uploads and a concern for human-driven climate change that overrides most of the books other discussions.

While Rees’ book didn’t meet my own storytelling goals, I think there’s still a lot to digest for others. Cyberpunk and Post Cyberpunk readers and writers will definitely find a lot of background to populate future stories. Writers with AI characters will also find some scientific source material here. For the Literary Darwinism academics, this definitely belongs on the bookshelf for future reference.