Tags: science



Tuesday, September 19th, 2023

The Unreal Writer - by Joanne McNeil - All My Stars

Joanne McNeil on the retroactive pigeonholing of downright weird sci-fi writers like Philip K. Dick, JG Ballard and Octavia Butler:

The snobbery against science fiction in the past and today’s cartoon icons of some of its weirdest authors comes from the same root: an establishment that doesn’t know how to read or appreciate it.

And she absolutely nails the straitjacketed feeling I get from a lot of new sci-fi that’s laudable in its politics but lacking in other ways:

I suspect those authors are drawn to the genre for the thing that increasingly frustrates me about it: the way science fiction is mined for road maps and potential solutions in real situations of uncertainty and disaster. The way it’s “smart person” literature about systems with hyper-competent protagonists. I’m here for the losers. The losers are my people.

Tuesday, July 4th, 2023

Imagining a Future with Surgically Inserted Earbuds and Whale Concerts – Rolling Stone

Annalee Newitz:

When we imagine future tech, we usually focus on the ways it could turn humans into robotic workers, easily manipulated by surveillance capitalism. And that’s not untrue. But in this story, I wanted to suggest that there is a more subversive possibility. Modifying our bodies with technology could bring us closer to the natural world.

Sunday, June 18th, 2023

The man who tried to redeem the world with logic - Big Think

The fascinating—and tragic—story of Walter Pitts and Walter McCulloch whose lives and work intersected with Norbert Wiener and John von Neumann:

Thanks to their work, there was a moment in history when neuroscience, psychiatry, computer science, mathematical logic, and artificial intelligence were all one thing, following an idea first glimpsed by Leibniz—that man, machine, number, and mind all use information as a universal currency. What appeared on the surface to be very different ingredients of the world—hunks of metal, lumps of gray matter, scratches of ink on a page—were profoundly interchangeable.

Monday, May 8th, 2023


There are two kinds of time-travel stories.

There are time-travel stories that explore the many-worlds hypothesis. Going back in time and making a change forks the universe. But the universe is constantly forking anyway. So effectively the time travel is a kind of universe-hopping (there’s a big crossover here with the alternative history subgenre).

The problem with multiverse stories is that there’s always a reset available. No matter how bad things get, there’s a parallel universe where everything is hunky dory.

The other kind of time travel story explores the idea of a block universe. There is one single timeline.

This is what you’ll find in Tenet, for example, or for a beautiful reduced test case, the Ted Chiang short story What’s Expected Of Us. That gets straight to the heart of the biggest implication of a block universe—the lack of free will.

There’s no changing what has happened or what will happen. In fact, the very act of trying to change the past often turns out to be the cause of what you’re trying to prevent in the present (like in Twelve Monkeys).

I’ve often referred to these single-timeline stories as being like Greek tragedies. But only recently—as I’ve been reading quite a bit of Greek mythology—have I realised that the reverse is also true:

Greek tragedies are time-travel stories.

Hear me out…

Time-travel stories aren’t actually about physically travelling in time. That’s just a convenience for the important part—information travelling in time. That’s at the heart of most time-travel stories; informaton from the future travelling back to the past.

William Gibson’s The Peripheral—very much a many-worlds story with its alternate universe “stubs”—takes this to its extreme. Nothing phyiscal ever travels in time. But in an age of telecommuting, nothing has to. Our time travellers are remote workers.

That book also highlights the power dynamics inherent in information wealth. Knowledge of the future gives you an advantage that you can exploit in the past. This is what Mark Twain’s Connecticut yankee does in King Arthur’s court.

This power dynamic is brilliantly inverted in Octavia Butler’s brilliant Kindred. No amount of information can help you if your place in society is determined by the colour of your skin.

Anyway, the point is that information flow is what matters in time-travel stories. Therefore any story where information travels backwards in time is a time-travel story.

That includes any story with a prophecy. A prophecy is information about the future, like:

Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother.

You can try to change your fate, but you’ll just end up triggering it instead.

Greek tragedies are time-travel stories.

Thursday, May 4th, 2023

The other side of egoism | A Working Library

Mandy takes a deep dive into the treatment of altruism in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.

Tuesday, April 25th, 2023

Space Elevator

Scroll up to the Kármán line.

Wednesday, April 19th, 2023

What The Last of Us, Snowpiercer and ‘climate fiction’ get wrong - BBC Culture

I not only worry that “cli-fi” might not be an effective form of environmental expression – I have come to believe that the genre might be actively dangerous, stunting our cultural ability to imagine a future worth living in or fighting for.

Tuesday, April 18th, 2023

The Technium: Dreams are the Default for Intelligence

I feel like there’s a connection here between what Kevin Kelly is describing and what I wrote about guessing (though I think he might be conflating consciousness with intelligence).

This, by the way, is also true of immersive “virtual reality” environments. Instead of trying to accurately recreate real-world places like meeting rooms, we should be leaning into the hallucinatory power of a technology that can generate dream-like situations where the pleasure comes from relinquishing control.

Friday, April 14th, 2023

Begging for Treats - blog.lmorchard.com

As flies/cats to wanton boys are we to the gods/Kardashev Type II civilisations—they play with us for their sport.

Sunday, April 9th, 2023

Tuesday, March 14th, 2023


The last talk at the last dConstruct was by local clever clogs Anil Seth. It was called Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality. It’s well worth a listen.

Anil covers a lot of the same ground in his excellent book, Being You. He describes a model of consciousness that inverts our intuitive understanding.

We tend to think of our day-to-day reality in a fairly mechanical cybernetic manner; we receive inputs through our senses and then make decisions about reality informed by those inputs.

As another former dConstruct speaker, Adam Buxton, puts it in his interview with Anil, it feels like that old Beano cartoon, the Numskulls, with little decision-making homonculi inside our head.

But Anil posits that it works the other way around. We make a best guess of what the current state of reality is, and then we receive inputs from our senses, and then we adjust our model accordingly. There’s still a feedback loop, but cause and effect are flipped. First we predict or guess what’s happening, then we receive information. Rinse and repeat.

The book goes further and applies this to our very sense of self. We make a best guess of our sense of self and then adjust that model constantly based on our experiences.

There’s a natural tendency for us to balk at this proposition because it doesn’t seem rational. The rational model would be to make informed calculations based on available data …like computers do.

Maybe that’s what sets us apart from computers. Computers can make decisions based on data. But we can make guesses.

Enter machine learning and large language models. Now, for the first time, it appears that computers can make guesses.

The guess-making is not at all like what our brains do—large language models require enormous amounts of inputs before they can make a single guess—but still, this should be the breakthrough to be shouted from the rooftops: we’ve taught machines how to guess!

And yet. Almost every breathless press release touting some revitalised service that uses AI talks instead about accuracy. It would be far more honest to tout the really exceptional new feature: imagination.

Using AI, we will guess who should get a mortgage.

Using AI, we will guess who should get hired.

Using AI, we will guess who should get a strict prison sentence.

Reframed like that, it’s easy to see why technologists want to bury the lede.

Alas, this means that large language models are being put to use for exactly the wrong kind of scenarios.

(This, by the way, is also true of immersive “virtual reality” environments. Instead of trying to accurately recreate real-world places like meeting rooms, we should be leaning into the hallucinatory power of a technology that can generate dream-like situations where the pleasure comes from relinquishing control.)

Take search engines. They’re based entirely on trust and accuracy. Introducing a chatbot that confidentally conflates truth and fiction doesn’t bode well for the long-term reputation of that service.

But what if this is an interface problem?

Currently facts and guesses are presented with equal confidence, hence the accurate descriptions of the outputs as bullshit or mansplaining as a service.

What if the more fanciful guesses were marked as such?

As it is, there’s a “temperature” control that can be adjusted when generating these outputs; the more the dial is cranked, the further the outputs will stray from the safest predictions. What if that could be reflected in the output?

I don’t know what that would look like. It could be typographic—some markers to indicate which bits should be taken with pinches of salt. Or it could be through content design—phrases like “Perhaps…”, “Maybe…” or “It’s possible but unlikely that…”

I’m sure you’ve seen the outputs when people request that ChatGPT write their biography. Perfectly accurate statements are generated side-by-side with complete fabrications. This reinforces our scepticism of these tools. But imagine how differently the fabrications would read if they were preceded by some simple caveats.

A little bit of programmed humility could go a long way.

Right now, these chatbots are attempting to appear seamless. If 80% or 90% of their output is accurate, then blustering through the other 10% or 20% should be fine, right? But I think the experience for the end user would be immensely more empowering if these chatbots were designed seamfully. Expose the wires. Show the workings-out.

Mind you, that only works if there is some way to distinguish between fact and fabrication. If there’s no way to tell how much guessing is happening, then that’s a major problem. If you can’t tell me whether something is 50% true or 75% true or 25% true, then the only rational response is to treat the entire output as suspect.

I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding behind the design of these chatbots that goes all the way back to the Turing test. There’s this idea that the way to make a chatbot believable and trustworthy is to make it appear human, attempting to hide the gears of the machine. But the real way to gain trust is through honesty.

I want a machine to tell me when it’s guessing. That won’t make me trust it less. Quite the opposite.

After all, to guess is human.

Sunday, March 5th, 2023

Light Years Ahead | The 1969 Apollo Guidance Computer - YouTube

This video was in my “Watch Later” queue for ages but I finally got ‘round to watching it this weekend. It’s ace! Great content, great narrative, great delivery—would’ve made a good dConstruct talk.

Light Years Ahead | The 1969 Apollo Guidance Computer

Monday, January 23rd, 2023

One morning in the future

I had a video call this morning with someone who was in India. The call went great, except for a few moments when the video stalled.

“Sorry about that”, said the person I was talking to. “It’s the monkeys. They like messing with the cable.”

There’s something charming about an intercontinental internet-enabled meeting being slightly disrupted by some fellow primates being unruly.

It also made me stop and think about how amazing it was that we were having the call in the first place. I remembered Arthur C. Clarke’s predictions from 1964:

I’m thinking of the incredible breakthrough which has been possible by developments in communications, particularly the transistor and, above all, the communications satellite.

These things will make possible a world in which we can be in instant contact with each other wherever we may be, where we can contact our friends anywhere on Earth even if we don’t know their actual physical location.

It will be possible in that age—perhaps only 50 years from now—for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London.

The casual sexism of assuming that it would be a “man” conducting business hasn’t aged well. And it’s not the communications satellite that enabled my video call, but old-fashioned undersea cables, many in the same locations as their telegraphic antecedents. But still; not bad, Arthur.

After my call, I caught up on some email. There was a new newsletter from Ariel who’s currently in Antarctica.

Just thinking about the fact that I know someone who’s in Antarctica—who sent me a postcard from Antarctica—gave me another rush of feeling like I was living in the future. As I started to read the contents of the latest newsletter, that feeling became even more specific. Doesn’t this sound exactly like something straight out of a late ’80s/early ’90s cyberpunk novel?

Four of my teammates head off hiking towards the mountains to dig holes in the soil in hopes of finding microscopic animals contained within them. I hang back near the survival bags with the remaining teammate and begin unfolding my drone to get a closer look at the glaciers. After filming the textures of the land and ice from multiple angles for 90 minutes, my batteries are spent, my hands are cold and my stomach is growling. I land the drone, fold it up into my bright yellow Pelican case, and pull out an expired granola bar to keep my hunger pangs at bay.

Sunday, January 22nd, 2023

Culture and style

Ever get the urge to style a good document?

No? Just me, then.

Well, the urge came over me recently so I started styling this single-page site:

A Few Notes On The Culture by Iain M Banks

I’ve followed this document across multiple locations over the years. It started life as a newsgroup post on rec.arts.sf.written in 1994. Ken McLeod published it there on Iain M Banks’s behalf.

The post complements the epic series of space opera books that Iain M Banks set in the anarcho-utopian society of The Culture. It’s a fascinating piece of world building, as well as an insight into the author’s mind.

I first became aware of it many few years later, after a copy had been posted to the web. That URL died, but Adrian Hon kept a copy on his site. Lots of copies keep stuff safe, so after contemplating linkrot, I made a copy on this site too.

But I recently thought that maybe it deserved a bit of art direction, so I rolled up my sleeves and started messing around, designing in the browser and following happy little accidents.

The finished result is still fairly sparse. It’s still entirely text, except for a background image that shows up if your screen is wide enough. That image of a planet originally started as an infra-red snapshot of Jupiter by the James Webb Space Telescope that I worked over until it was unrecognisable.

The text itself is the main focus of the design though. I knew I wanted to play around with a variable font. Mona Sans from Github was one of the first ones I tried and I found it instantly suitable. I had a lot of fun playing with different weights and widths.

After a bit of messing around, I realised that the heading styles were reminding me of some later reissues of The Culture novels, so I leant into that, deliberately styling the byline to resemble the treatment of the author’s name on those book covers.

There isn’t all that much CSS. I’ve embedded it in the head of the HTML rather than linking to a separate style sheet, so feel free to view source and poke around in there. You’ll see that I’m making liberal use of custom properties, the clamp function, and logical properties.

Originally I had a light mode and dark mode but I found that the dark mode was much more effective so I ditched the lighter option.

I did make sure to include some judicious styles for print, so if you fancy reading on paper, it should print out nicely.

Oh, and of course it’s a progressive web app that works offline.

I didn’t want to mess with the original document other than making some typographic tweaks to punctuation, but I wanted to break up the single wall of text. I wasn’t about to start using pull quotes on the web so in the end I decided to introduce some headings that weren’t in the original document:

  1. Government
  2. Economics
  3. Technology
  4. Philosophy
  5. Lifestyle
  6. Travel
  7. Habitat
  8. Legal System
  9. Politics
  10. Identity
  11. Nomenclature
  12. Cosmology

If your browser viewport is tall enough, the heading for the current section you’re reading will remain sticky as you scroll. No JavaScript required.

I’m pretty pleased with how this little project turned out. It was certainly fun to experiment with fluid type and a nice variable font.

I can add this to my little collection of single-page websites I’ve whittled over the years:

Monday, January 16th, 2023

Mars distracts

A few years ago, I wrote about how much I enjoyed the book Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Not everyone liked that book. A lot of people were put off by its structure, in which the dream of interstellar colonisation meets the harsh truth of reality and the book follows where that leads. It pours cold water over the very idea of humanity becoming interplanetary.

But our own solar system is doable, right? I mean, Kim Stanley Robinson is the guy who wrote the Mars trilogy and 2312, both of which depict solar system colonisation in just a few centuries.

I wonder if the author might regret the way that some have taken his Mars trilogy as a sort of manual, Torment Nexus style. Kim Stanley Robinson is very much concerned with this planet in this time period, but others use his work to do the opposite.

But the backlash to Mars has begun.

Maciej wrote Why Not Mars:

The goal of this essay is to persuade you that we shouldn’t send human beings to Mars, at least not anytime soon. Landing on Mars with existing technology would be a destructive, wasteful stunt whose only legacy would be to ruin the greatest natural history experiment in the Solar System. It would no more open a new era of spaceflight than a Phoenician sailor crossing the Atlantic in 500 B.C. would have opened up the New World. And it wouldn’t even be that much fun.

Manu Saadia is writing a book about humanity in space, and he has a corresponding newsletter called Against Mars: Space Colonization and its Discontents:

What if space colonization was merely science-fiction, a narrative, or rather a meta-narrative, a myth, an ideology like any other? And therefore, how and why did it catch on? What is so special and so urgent about space colonization that countless scientists, engineers, government officials, billionaire oligarchs and indeed, entire nations, have committed work, ingenuity and treasure to make it a reality.

What if, and hear me out, space colonization was all bullshit?

I mean that quite literally. No hyperbole. Once you peer under the hood, or the nose, of the rocket ship, you encounter a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ghoulish garbage.

Two years ago, Shannon Stirone went into the details of why Mars Is a Hellhole

The central thing about Mars is that it is not Earth, not even close. In fact, the only things our planet and Mars really have in common is that both are rocky planets with some water ice and both have robots (and Mars doesn’t even have that many).

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the case for Mars colonisation is that its most ardent advocate turns out to be an idiotic small-minded eugenicist who can’t even run a social media company, much less a crewed expedition to another planet.

But let’s be clear: we’re talking here about the proposition of sending humans to Mars—ugly bags of mostly water that probably wouldn’t survive. Robots and other uncrewed missions in our solar system …more of that, please!

Monday, December 26th, 2022

The Institutions of Science With Lord Martin Rees

I love just about every answer that Martin Rees gives in this wide-ranging interview.

Saturday, November 19th, 2022

Octavia Butler’s Science Fiction Predicted the World We Live In - The New York Times

A profile of the life and work of the brilliant Octavia E. Butler.

Monday, October 17th, 2022

Envisioning Our Shared Storm with Andrew Dana Hudson - Long Now

This observation feels spot-on to me:

The shift that I noticed, totally anecdotally, is literary writers are starting to write more dystopian climate futures and science fiction writers are starting to write about climate solutions.

Tuesday, September 27th, 2022

The Future History of the Nuclear Renaissance With Isabelle Boemeke

I really like the format of this bit of journo-fiction. An interview from the future looking back at the turning point of today.

It probably helps that I’m into nuclearpunk just as much as solarpunk, so I approve this message.

Atomkraft? Ja, bitte!

Monday, September 26th, 2022

Fermented Code: Modelling the Microbial Through Miso - Serpentine Galleries

Y’know, I started reading this great piece by Claire L. Evans thinking about its connections to systems thinking, but I ended up thinking more about prototyping. And microbes.