Posts tagged “science fiction”

ChittahChattah Quickies

Mice as Stand-Ins in the Fight Against Disease [New York Times] – Looks like this has been happening in some measure for a while, but some new methods are increasing the usage. The most science-fiction thing you’ll read all week.

In what could be the ultimate in personalized medicine, animals bearing your disease, or part of your anatomy, can serve as your personal guinea pig, so to speak. Some researchers call them avatars, like the virtual characters in movies and online games. “The mice allow you the opportunity to test drugs to find out which ones will be efficacious without exposing the patient to toxicity,” said Colin Collins, a professor at the University of British Columbia.

Australia 2012 [Flickr] – My complete set of pictures from Australia earlier this month.

Chinese families’ worldly goods in Huang Qingjun’s pictures [BBC] – We’ve seen other projects like this, but the focus on China captures a material culture in transition.

Amid China’s tumultuous dash to become rich, one man’s photographs of families posing with their worldly goods will soon seem like records from a distant era. Huang Qingjun has spent nearly a decade travelling to remote parts of China to persuade people who have sometimes never been photographed to carry outside all their household possessions and pose for him. The results offer glimpses of the utilitarian lives of millions of ordinary Chinese who, at first glance, appear not to have been swept up by the same modernisation that has seen hundreds of millions of others leave for the cities. But seen more closely, they also show the enormous social change that has come in a generation. So the photo of an elderly couple of farmers outside their mud house reveals a satellite dish, DVD player and phone.

Four Big Things, a phrase dating from 1950s for most sought-after goods for newly married couples: sewing machine, bicycle, watch, radio. It’s since come to refer to whatever is most fashionable at the time. By 1980s the four big things were: TV, washing machine, rice cooker, fridge. Now, consumer goods flood China’s cities, it tends to be used to describe people’s aspirations for the latest thing.

Must-See Video: How a Woman With No Arms Dresses Herself. What Assistance Can Design Provide? [Core 77] – I love the reaction; that excitement of discovering how current solutions could be improved. Designers are so great at bringing that creativity and know-how to bear to make change for the good. But let’s remember, we don’t need videos to be posted by users to uncover what things aren’t working for them. Are designers waiting for broken products to appear in front of them so they can spontaneously improve them, or are they out there looking at current behaviors and solutions in order to proactively find opportunities. Designers: you don’t need the disabled (or anyone) to post their own videos, go and shoot your own!

I hope that more folks with disabilities make videos like this, not just to share with others what their particular trials are, but to enable us designers to improve upon the objects they use.

FILMography – a Tumblr with an incredible series of images where a printout of a still from a film is held up in the actual location where that scene was shot. It’s a “trick” I’ve seen before but mostly as a one-off; the breadth here is fascinating.

FILM + photography = FILMography.

Omni Quickies

Cockroaches equipped as wireless networks [SF Chron] – While this is not “the” technology that Minority Report made famous (that would be the gestural interface), this reminds me strongly of those scurrying mechanical spiders that made their way through the building to chase down Tom Cruise.

On its belly, each roach carries a dime-size circuit board along with a radio, a microphone and a battery. The gear, which adds up to 2 grams, about half the weight of a roach, is still in the prototype phase. As the bugs crawl into crevices and disperse, their microphones pick up sounds, while the radios transmit data via a local-area wireless technology called ZigBee. In the future, the bugs might carry sensors to detect radioactivity or chemicals. Epstein and his team are working to make the electronic circuitry even tinier, so it can be carried by smaller insects such as crickets and water bugs. They’re also testing a metal composite that flexes like a muscle when electricity is applied. Placing the material on a cricket would alter the flutter of its wings and distort the pitch of its chirp. It’s a way to relay information as aural zeroes and ones, like the bits in a computer, which could be decoded by software. Epstein came up with the idea of using insects to form wireless networks while listening to swarms of cicadas in Shanghai, where his wife is from. Submitting a funding proposal “was like writing a science fiction novel,” Epstein said, but resulted in $850,000 from the U.S. Army.

“Thought Experiments” by Roger Ebert [Asimov’s] – Ebert posits an interesting, if recursive, framework – that the science-fiction enthusiasts who networked maniacally using dead-tree technology were precusors (so to speak) of the type of online behaviors that would show up later. Science-fiction consumption helped pave the way for the science-fiction-like use of technology that we are so familiar with today.

For that matter, we were online before there was online. It is perfectly obvious to me that fanzines were web pages before there was a web, and locs were message threads and bulletin boards before there was cyberspace. Someday an academic will write a study proving that the style, tone, and much of the language of the online world developed in a direct linear fashion from science fiction fandom-not to mention the unorthodox incorporation of ersatz letters and numbers in spelling, later to influence the naming of computer companies and programs. Fanzines acted uncannily like mimeographed versions of Usenet groups, forums, message boards, and web pages-even to such universal design strategies as IYGTFUI (If You’ve Got the Font, Use It). Some of the same people segued directly from fandom to online, especially to places like the Well-not surprisingly, since many computer pioneers were also SF fans. Today, fandom survives on the web, where it is no doubt World Wide, and some very slick fanzines have segued into prozines. Are there still analog (paper) publications called fanzines? I haven’t heard that there are. That world has moved on. Today a twelve-year-old kid in Urbana has other ways to connect with alternative ideas, other worlds to explore. No doubt they are as exciting as fandom was for me. God knows what we would have given in 1958 for the web. To look through these old pages of Xero even today, and find Harlan Ellison right about “Psycho” when the world was wrong, and Blish taking on Amis, is to realize that in the mimeographed pages of a fanzine created in the Lupoff living room there existed a rare and wonderful discourse, and it was a privilege to be part of it.

Inmates at Brazil prison pedal for electricity – and their freedom [TODAY] – While this story frames it as a positive, it’s easily reframed as the tip of a dystopian scenario where the world is so destroyed that inmates are enslaved to produce the most basic of necessities. Black Mirror played out a dark version of this, in its second episode.

By pedaling the prison’s stationary bikes, the inmates charge a battery that’s used to power 10 street lamps along the town’s riverside promenade. For every three eight-hour days they spend on the bikes, Silva and the voluntary program’s other participants get one day shaved off their sentences. The municipal police contributed bicycles that had long been lingering in the lost and found, and neighborhood engineers helped transform them into stationary bikes and hooked them up to car batteries, donated by local businesses. Area entrepreneurs also pitched in the converter used to transform the battery’s charge into the 110 volts needed to power 10 of the cast iron street lamps that dot the riverside promenade. Every night just before sunset, a guard drives the charged battery from the prison, on the outskirts of town, to the downtown promenade. He hooks it up to the converter and a few minutes later the 10 street lamps begin to glow a soft white, like full moons suspended over the rushing waters of the river. Another guard comes in the morning to pick up the battery and ferry it back to the prison.

Julian Bleecker: Creating Wily Subversions

This interview has been edited, condensed, etc.

Julian Bleecker is a designer, technologist and researcher in the Advanced Projects studio at Nokia Design in Los Angeles and the Near Future Laboratory where he investigates emerging social practices around new networked interaction rituals. His focus is on hands-on design and prototyping as a way to raise questions about commonly held assumptions about digital media and digital devices so as to explore possibilities for innovation. He lectures and leads workshops on the intersections of art, design, technology and the near-future possibilities for new social-technical interaction rituals.

the Omni Project: What is is the Near Future Laboratory?

Julian Bleecker: It’s a place where I can look at what “could be” without the usual encumbrance of academia or industry – I can make, explore and postulate about things that might seem as bizarre as wheels on luggage or starting a revolution in the Middle East with 140 character messages. Anything that people would immediately dismiss as unpatentable or unmarketable or silly or impractical is very interesting to me, because the near future is full of many unexpected things.

We make these sorts of peculiar things, speculate about them and the worlds in which they might be just ordinary, quotidian objects or little UX moments.

We are a design collective that comes together in an adhoc fashion around common interests. We’re not a company in the traditional sense.

tOP: Can you expand on “near future” versus “future?”

JB: Near future is in the realm of imminently possible. It’s more relevant these days, insofar as our expectations about what unexpected new behaviors, devices, language, means of connecting and communicating and sharing and materializing ideas seems to be trotting along at a fairly good clip. I don’t want to say that change seemed less fast at an earlier point in history, but the nearness of a different, markedly changed future means we can correct things quicker, which is important. We don’t have long to deal with population crises, systemic ecological failures, bad socio-political-philosophical-religious polarizations, an inability for many human brains to accept difference and different points of view. All that is problematic and we need to change those things in the near future. Not the future. The near future as in 18-60 months.

tOP: What is design fiction? How does it differ from “science fiction”?

JB: It’s a name for doing design that speculates in the way that science fiction speculates. It’s another way for design to step outside of the constraints of, say – *product* design, where things must be desirable, profitable and buildable. Design Fiction looks at things sideways, or inverts things. It makes fundamentally challenging assumptions. It’s the Twilight Zone of design practice.

It draws from science fiction because I think science fiction may be the exemplary story telling idiom or form of expression for speculating about what could be. It does that quite seriously, and is often a form of critique or commentary on contemporary conditions – macro and micro conditions; a critique of world-scale circumstances or the misguided interaction idioms built into things like center consoles on cars. It also has this wonderful ability to allow one to suspend disbelief on very weird things, all for the enjoyment of a good story.

What I hope for design fiction is that it could do the same thing and its outcomes or products would be accepted as, at worse – things around which conversations can be had that may lead to new near future worlds that are hopefully more habitable. At best, that same suspension of disbelief makes it possible to have a design fiction speculation accepted as imminently possible. That means that the guy in the room who has the check book and the decision making power can say about some curious idea or a disruptive thing that isn’t just another uninspired, middling “innovative” device – yes..that’s what we should do.

Design Fiction differs from science fiction insofar as it makes the things that go along with those future, fictional worlds. I think of it sometimes as making props for those fictional worlds. That is part of the wide world of science fiction because science fiction makes props for itself and its stories as well. For example, science fiction film has an entire professional practice of making the things that will help tell the story. Design Fiction is a material making practice, just as design is in most regards. It creates the things and experiences and moments that are meant to be evocative – they are meant to evoke elements of larger stories about life in these other worlds. I think Design Fiction is particularly effective when those props are just quotidian, no matter how fantastic they may seem. Think of it this way – all the things sitting on your desk right now that would’ve made someone’s head explode 5 years ago, or 10 years ago? They’re quite ordinary today. There’s something about making the extraordinary ordinary that makes it seem all the more possible. Rather than fetishizing the things that may exist in the future and making them gleaming and central to existence, why not make them humble, or even annoyingly stubborn components of the everyday? That’s something that science fiction does and I think it goes a long way towards that crucial element of suspending disbelief because the ordinary is quite believable and therefore possible. And once something seems possible, it becomes easier to seriously consider it rather than laugh and dismiss it.

[Also see Design Fiction: A Short Essay on Design, Science, Fact and Fiction]

tOP: What’s the connection between exploring the future, especially the future of technology, and storytelling?

JB: The future is that which could be. So, you need a story, some kind of narrative that enrolls people in that vision of what could be and then does so in a way that gets them hopped up enough to start materializing that vision. That’s all the future is. It’s really not complicated – but it’s hard to tell the compelling story. Storytelling is really hard. And there are lots of people trying to create those futures, so you have lots of these stories because everyone is trying to get people to do some hammering to materialize their idea of what they think should become.

Those stories can be ways of exploring possible futures as long as we understand that the future is wrapped in a story that is compelling enough for people to get to gather and materialize it.

tOP: The project we have embarked on is about exploring people’s relationship with technology. How do you define technology?

JB: That’s a good question. Technology is an exemplar of culture in an especially reified material that cleverly cloaks itself. That material is stuff we call a bunch of different names – hardware, software, firmware, ethernet, T-3, MP3, MySQL, Oracle, iPad, mobile phone, MakerBot, Lithium Ion batteries, OLED display. Whatever. All those things are very articulate means of remaking us, which is also remaking cultures. That’s why it’s more interesting to make these forms of culture that are quite deliberate about remaking culture – things that do it conscientiously, without wasting time, energy, materials.

Technology should be about more than good/fast/cheap or desirable/profitable/buildable. Technologies, if they are ways of making culture, shouldn’t just be last year’s object, only in different colors or with better battery life.

tOP: Does your work influence the expectations people have from real technology? Or the ideas product developers and technologists have for making real technology?

JB: I can only hope. At the Laboratory, we deliberately create strange, provocative devices that are designed to be wily subversions of what one might expect from technology. They typically amplify, invert or subdue the usual things that least-common denominator technology might do.

They become action-oriented thought-provokers. They can get away with doing something strange that then leads to moments where people get new ideas triggered in their heads and say – huh..there might be a kernel of something in that the Ear Freshener device. We’re not going to make Ear Fresheners, but I learned something by making it that can then doing something new and wonderful in this other, more pragmatic mass-manufactured thing that never would have come about had we not started by making devices that freshen the earball. Not many design projects would start with the brief saying – make things that are like Binaca Blast for people’s ears..something that can get rid of the filmy residue of a day of bad listening. That doesn’t even make sense, unless you frame it by doing a bit of science fiction and say – oh..this is for an evolved human or some weird earball-y transspecies for whom hearing is orders of magnitude more significant than seeing. But – not many design laboratories are going to make that kind of assumption because there is no such “market” or “audience.”

tOP: To what end? What’s the outcome you hope for?

JB: I was trained as an electrical engineer. So, I’m a real technologist – I got a degree and everything. I’m not just a pantomimic artist wielding a soldering iron. I’m just trying to tell slightly different stories than the ones many electrical engineers or computer science people would tell. They’re different from the old-fashioned technologist’s story of “We’ll make it faster next year” or, “We’re going to make peoples’ heads explode” with a “disruption” that’s really just a mass-produced incantation of a middling idea, like voice control for your car stereo system.

So, without the normative measure of “real” versus, what..? “fake” technologists – I think there are loads of possible futures. The futures that “real” product-oriented technologists prefer just aren’t that interesting to me. They track too closely to a predetermined notion of what comes next – their future is up-and-to-the-right. The real future is boring.

tOP: The real future is boring? Do you mean the real future as a creative construct for problem solving and solution envisioning is boring when it’s same-old-same-old, or do you see the future that you are stepping into second by microsecond as boring?

JB: There was a great all-day thing in London I went to a month or so ago called Thrilling Wonder Stories. I couldn’t be there the whole day, but I caught most of the last few hours. I noticed something – people were showing videos of stuff and apologizing that it wasn’t “real.” Like – it was a “concept video” to demonstrate an idea. I got a little annoyed by the apologies because there’s this implication that a good idea needs to be apologized for if it isn’t powered by a real battery or if the admittedly hard work of materializing that idea – making it “run” in “real” code – has not yet been done. Starting a conversation that sustains and gets people hopped up enough to think about it and try it and work through what they imagine in a variety of forms – there’s nothing to apologize for about that sort of work. It’s as real – or maybe a different kind of real – than having a thing with a bunch of wires and batteries that articulates the idea in other forms like code, or servos twitching or something that breaks when it falls.

tOP: How do you think technology is changing people’s everyday lives? How is it changing your life?

JB: That’s an impossible question. It makes the assumption that it is technology that is doing the changing, or that there is even change occurring. If I were flat-footed about it, I’d say technology is changing consumers lives by helping them continue to be consumers.

For myself, I take a very instrumental view of the things I have around me. They help me do the things I may have done anyway, or have done earlier without the same level of fidelity or refinement. Creative activities, mostly – making things like photography, film, new little weird electronic devices. Those are things that I can do and experiment with – and I have in the past. The material is more readily malleable and available it seems. Or it may be that the conversations are more readily available – you can find the people that can help you do what you imagine.

ChittahChattah Quickies

Children With Autism, Connecting via Transit [New York Times] – Fascinating to learn first that the structure of trains appeals to kids with autism and even more fascinating to see that museums are adapting their programming to address this population specifically, a new mission that presumably reaches far beyond their original charters.

Like many children with autism spectrum disorders, Ravi is fascinated by trains and buses, entranced by their motion and predictability. And for years, these children crowded the exhibitions of the modest New York Transit Museum, chattering about schedules and engine components and old subway maps. Now, the museum, and others like it, are moving beyond accommodating the enthusiasm for trains and buses among children with autism and trying to use it to teach them how to connect with other people – and the world. The museum created a “Subway Sleuths” after-school program for 9- and 10-year-olds with autism that focuses on the history of New York City trains but seeks to make the children more at ease socially.

Intel uses sci-fi to understand possible tech uses [San Francisco Chronicle] – Compelling notion (see an interactions article I wrote about a similar topic) but the article is so slight that I have to wonder how exactly they are using these tools to drive a different approach to design or to impact specific products.

The chipmaker is trying to speed along the [cultural] change by reaching engineers in a language they understand: science fiction. Last year Intel hired four sci-fi writers to study the company’s latest research projects and produce an anthology, “The Tomorrow Project,” envisioning how cutting-edge processors might be used in the near future. The is to help Intel’s engineers design chips tailored to specific consumer uses with wide market potential. Intel’s sci-fi publishing arm is an extension of its 12-year-old social science division. The division assesses technological trends by sending anthropologists and sociologists to hang out in living rooms, senior care centers and hospitals. The logic behind the effort: Understand how technology is used, and you’re more likely to design chips people will buy.

Nat Allbright, Voice of Dodgers Games He Did Not See, Dies at 87 [New York Times] – I’m impressed with the notion of a broadcaster stitching together a continuous narrative based on tiny fragments of information. While mainstream broadcasting has obviously changed radically since then, there are echoes today in Twitter and #hashtags in breaking-news situations.

he took bare-bones telegraph messages transmitted by Morse code (“B1W” for Ball One Wide); embellished them with imagination and sound effects; and then broadcast games that sounded as if he were in the ballpark hearing, smelling and seeing everything, from steaming hot dogs to barking umpires to swirling dust at second base. Over a decade, Mr. Allbright broadcast 1,500 Brooklyn Dodgers games without seeing a single one. When so-called progress killed this splendid occupation, he came up with a new business: taping vanity broadcasts of imaginary sporting events, where the customer became the star. Just insert a name.

Sesame Street pair Bert and Ernie ‘will not marry’ [BBC] – A long-running joke about the mysterious relationship between the two Muppets turned serious recently when it was co-opted by social activist types who wanted to see gay marriage reflected in the show’s narrative. Groups representing blacks and gays have frequently and appropriately called attention to their lack of visibility in mainstream media, but this particular effort attempts to take control over the story direction in order to serve their particular agenda. Let’s not conflate the intent and the method. The producers of the show, after decades of ignoring the “are they are aren’t they” chatter, respond and explicitly acknowledge the reality of Bert and Ernie as characters, only.

Sesame Workshop, which produces “Sesame Street,” put an end to any wedding planning on Thursday with this brief statement posted on its Facebook page: “Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets™ do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”

Story as a societal ingredient


Good social criticism about story from Neal Stephenson’s “Anathem”

So I looked with fascination at those people in their mobes (cars), and tried to fathom what it would be like. Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organizations where people were interchangeable parts. All the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be; it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this; not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who’d made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home at day’s end with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them. People who couldn’t live without story had been driven into the concents (orders separate from mainstream society devoted to the pursuit of math) or into jobs like Yul’s. All others had to look somewhere outside of work for a feeling that they were part of a story, which I guessed was why Sæculars (mainstream society) were so concerned with sports, and with religion. how else could you see yourself as part of an adventure? Something with a beginning, middle, and end in which you played a significant part?

See also: We Are Living in a Sci-Fi World

Get our latest article, We Are Living in a Sci-Fi World

robot
My latest interactions column, We Are Living in a Sci-Fi World has just been published.

Science fiction (also known as SF, which for many purists refers instead to speculative fiction) has taken on both of those pillars. But to the uninitiated, it’s presumed to consist only of the “stuff” -robots, aliens, gizmos, spaceships, and lasers that go pyew! pyew! (the noise that every boy can make from birth). To those of us who navigate interactions with people, a consideration of the future stuff is interesting, but exploring the future selves can be transformative

Get a PDF of the article here. To receive a copy of the article, send an email to steve AT portigal DOT com and (if you haven’t given us this info before) tell us your name, organization, and title. We’ll send you a PDF.

Other articles

Breathe their air

algebraist

In Iain M. Banks’ “The Algebraist”, the protagonist Fassin Taak is a “Slow Seer” who spends years embedded alien cultures (including the complex Dwellers), engaging in conversation and seeking insight, in an activity referred to as “delving.” Because he favors traveling to these other planets in person, he is challenged by the establishment who prefer more efficient methods [boldface emphasis mine].

“Have you tried remote delving recently?”
“Not for a long time,” Fassin admitted.
“it’s changed,” Pagges said, nodding. “It’s much more lifelike, if you know what I mean; more convincing.” Paggs smiled. “There have been a lot of improvements over the past couple of centuries.”

Ganscerel patted his arm again. “Just try it, will you, Fassin? Will you do that for me?”
Fassin didn’t want to say yes immediately. This is all beside the point, he thought. Even if I didn’t know there was a potential thread to Third Fury, the argument that matters is that the Dwellers we need to talk to just won’t take us seriously if we turn up in remotes. It’s about respect, about us taking risks, sharing their world with them, really being there.

In Seventeen ways to not suck at research, number 9 was Breathe their air, my response to the increasing desire for remote ethnographic-like methods. I think the insight and empathy that is gained from getting out of our own environment is essential, and as Banks points out, showing up on someone else’s planet is a a very effective way to start building rapport.

(Ironic detail given my choice of metaphor: Dwellers reside in/on gaseous planets, so Fassin actually visits them encased in a pressurized vehicle, and never literally breathes their air).

Also see Great interviewing means feeling the subtext

Once again, science fiction predicts the future

I’ve long been a fan of Bruce Sterling’s 1998 story Maneki Nekoi

Next morning, Tsuyoshi slept late. He was self-employed, so he kept his own hours. Tsuyoshi was a video format upgrader by trade. He transferred old videos from obsolete formats into the new high-grade storage media. Doing this properly took a craftsman’s eye. Word of Tsuyosh’s skills had gotten out on the network, so he had as much work as he could handle.
At ten A.M., the mailman arrived. Tsuyoshi abandoned his breakfast of raw egg and miso soup, and signed for a shipment of flaking, twentieth-century analog television tapes. The mail also brought a fresh overnight shipment of strawberries, and a homemade jar of pickles.
“Pickles!” his wife enthused. “People are so nice to you when you’re pregnant.”
“Any idea who sent us that?”
“Just someone on the network.”
“Great.”

So I was intrigued to learn about FriendlyFavor.

People seeking a babysitter, job referral or help moving a couch, to name just a few examples, can all use FriendlyFavor for free to ask for help online-sending their request only to the contacts they trust-as can people with favours to offer, such as extra tickets or leftover moving supplies. The platform was designed to eliminate the hassle, wasted time and confusion that can accompany traditional favour requests, providing instead a one-stop site for managing everything from the initial request to the thank-you once a favour has been granted.

Sure, it’s not yet mediated by an AI, but it is certain a predecessor to Sterling’s vision.

And see What Science Fiction Writers Have Learned About Predicting The Future of Technology (via Pasta and Vinegar)

The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

We’ve been doing some work lately with an organization who is trying to understand and respond to the evolution in telework – people who are working out of a dedicated home office but have a corporate job and maybe a formal workspace in their corporate office.

As we collected more stories from people, I was reminded of an old science fiction story (and I remembered the title, even) – The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster. I didn’t realize it was from 1909! The story powerfully describes a world of people each living alone and communicating with all the people in their network, anywhere on the planet, from the comfort of their chair.

It’s a pretty cool story in terms of how many themes of modern life, home, and work are captured or predicted from 100 years ago.

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk-that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh-a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

An electric bell rang.

The woman touched a switch and the music was silent.

“I suppose I must see who it is”, she thought, and set her chair in motion. The chair, like the music, was worked by machinery and it rolled her to the other side of the room where the bell still rang importunately.

“Who is it?” she called. Her voice was irritable, for she had been interrupted often since the music began. She knew several thousand people, in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.

But when she listened into the receiver, her white face wrinkled into smiles, and she said:

“Very well. Let us talk, I will isolate myself. I do not expect anything important will happen for the next five minutes-for I can give you fully five minutes, Kuno. Then I must deliver my lecture on “Music during the Australian Period”.”

She touched the isolation knob, so that no one else could speak to her. Then she touched the lighting apparatus, and the little room was plunged into darkness.

“Be quick!” She called, her irritation returning. “Be quick, Kuno; here I am in the dark wasting my time.”

But it was fully fifteen seconds before the round plate that she held in her hands began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her.

Vinge Binge

Months ago Troy Worman posted a tip where he suggested that I write something about the Singularity.

“What If the Singularity Does NOT Happen?” Vernor Vinge, Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, San Francisco, 7pm, Thursday, February 15. The lecture starts promptly at 7:30pm. Admission is free (a $10 donation is always welcome, not required).

Science fiction writer Vernor Vinge invented the concept that dominates thinking about technology these days. He called it “the Singularity”— the idea that technology (computer tech, biotech, nanotech) is now accelerating so exponentially that it will lead to a massive, irreversible, and profoundly unpredictable transformation of humanity by mid-century.

This Thursday evening Vinge will challenge his own idea for the first time: “I have some plausible, non-singularity scenarios that get us into a human-scale world with long time horizons. I’ll describe the near-term peculiarities I see for such scenarios and then discuss what such a world might be like across ten or twenty thousand years. Finally, I’d like to talk about dangers and defenses related to these scenarios.”

Put on by The Long Now Foundation, with info on seminars (and downloads of previous ones) here. We saw one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen – Will Wright and Brian Eno – at a previous Long Now Seminar.

A few months ago I read The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge. Now, I grew up reading Golden Age science fiction (Asimov, and others who I can no longer name on a whim), and then moved into Heinlein, Silverberg and the like. I read those books when I was young and the books were old. Even if Heinlein was challenging sexual mores (i.e., Time Enough For Love), it was more about the novel than the ideas for me. The ideas seemed secondary. Maybe I just liked stories about robots, spaceships, and planets.

This changed for me about 10 years ago when I read Snow Crash, a book that took the ideas of right now (or right then) and played with them, taking some things to an extreme, but always with a clear line back to today. Given a lifetime of reading science fiction, this was a sea change. Indeed, much of the sci-fi I’ve read or watched since then has been along those lines (just like I posted yesterday).

But where’s that balance between being a visionary and being a storyteller? I tried to read Accelerando a few months back, but the story merely served as a carrier for the torrent of ideas/social commentary Charlie Stross wanted us to think about. It was fun for the first 50 pages, trying to keep up with it all, enjoying the stimulation, but after that it started to get annoying, then ultimately untenable. I hurled the book across the room, giving up in frustration.

Vinge’s collection of stories didn’t provoke such a strong reaction, and I was easily able to finish it. But it left me cold. The older stories seem more about current ideas, now dated, and less about the characters and the plot. I didn’t care about most of it and I couldn’t connect with most of it. Only the most recent story had any cultural or technological currency (in both senses of the word) and was therefore entertaining to read.

Obviously much of this has to do with where I’m at in engaging with the world when I come across these stories. Comments or ideas about culture are obviously more resonant than when I was 10. But I wonder if this is always how science fiction was read and written, or if the landscape has changed?

Fiction is as strange as truth

After both Nicolas Nova and Rudy Rucker recommended Accelerando to me, I bought it and just started today. This passage caught my eye.

Manfred [the protagonist] is at the peak of his profession, which is essentially coming up with whacky but workable ideas and giving them to people who will make fortunes with them…There are drawbacks, however. Being a pronoiac meme-broker is a constant burn of future shock – he has to assimilate more than a megabyte of text and several gigs of AV content every day just to stay current.

Not too far off from the truth for many of us!

Bruce Sterling said something similar in his talk on Design Futurism

Futurist activity of “scanning” – newspapers Internet, television, conferences, other futurists, landmark events, reports, weak signals. Always asking “What are the things out there that might affect clientele (which could be anything!)?”

Note: Nicolas Nova blogged the same quote several days before I did. Copycat or coincidence?

Silent Running pics found

In 2002, I posted here

I learned about Silent Running years ago when I found an old Esquire magazine that had a series of portraits of the actors who portrayed the “drones” – double amputees who fit inside these plastic costumes to make for convincing little robots. It was a dramatic series of photos – people with no legs glaring with a lot of world experience and attitude, some as young as 16. I was very young when I saw it and really made an impression. I would love to find those pictures again. There are tons of web sites with stuff about the drones – CAD renderings, people who have made their own versions, on and on. But none of the portraits. Do let me know if you ever see what I’m describing.

I found the pictures in a file folder while digging through old stuff. I’ve scanned and posted them here.

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Silent Running

I rented two films on Saturday: CQ, and Silent Running. The first is a recent movie about the filming/editing of a cheesy science fiction film in 1969 Paris, and the second is a not-so-cheesy science fiction film from 1971.
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I learned about Silent Running years ago when I found an old Esquire magazine that had a series of portraits of the actors who portrayed the “drones” – double amputees who fit inside these plastic costumes to make for convincing little robots. It was a dramatic series of photos – people with no legs glaring with a lot of world experience and attitude, some as young as 16. I was very young when I saw it and really made an impression. I would love to find those pictures again. There are tons of web sites with stuff about the drones – CAD renderings, people who have made their own versions, on and on. But none of the portraits. Do let me know if you ever see what I’m describing.

Update: Found, and posted here.

Series

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