The Windy Moon

I caught a bit of Who Wants to be a Millionaire last night and really wish I hadn’t. The question I heard was, ‘Which of these do you find on Earth but not on the Moon?’ and the choice of answers was: sunlight, gravity, craters and wind. I stood there with my mouth hanging open listening to two ‘celebs’ debating whether or not the Moon has gravity, then one of them stating quite firmly that there was wind up there. In the end they made the sensible decision not to commit to an answer and take the money and run.
Now, I really don’t expect people to know the names of the main moons of Jupiter or to even be able to recite the order of the planets in the Solar system, but a little basic scientific knowledge would be good. But then, I was showing a lack of basic scientific knowledge too because they couldn’t hear me while I was shouting at the television.   

Complete Genomics

Interesting article and video clip over at Singularity Hub

Reid expects single cell sequencing to be commercially available within two years, and he’s very optimistic about the potential of whole genome sequencing in the fight against cancer. “I don’t think my kids are going to worry about cancer. I think we’re going to nail it in my lifetime. We’re never going to be able to stamp it out [completely] because they are mutations, and mutations are going to happen. But we’re going to be able to treat it. We’re going to turn cancer into a chronic disease, not a death sentence.”

Gene Therapy

One of our habits/traditions in England has been weekend papers, read in bed (with tea and coffee and cigarettes for a healthy start to the day). Previously we’ve had these delivered but now that delivery costs more than the papers themselves we’ve started going to fetch them. I enjoy a chuckle at Clarkson, read some of the politics, skip over the celebrity stuff then Caroline removes the puzzle pages which we take off to Crete. This morning, out of all the articles about the economy, Europe, whatever, the one that really caught my attention was a small column quite a number of pages in. It was the most important article there and it was about this:
Regulators yesterday approved the first therapy in the western world that can correct errors in a person’s genetic code.
Europe has approved Glybera to be used against a rare inherited disorder which disrupts fat production in the body.
The treatment uses a virus to counteract LPLD, lipoprotein lipase deficiency, which can led to acute inflammation of the pancreas.

I can remember when this was confined to science fiction and the most speculative science articles about what it might be possible to do (Remember that chat between Roy and Tyrell in Bladerunner?). I can remember when this was a future possibility but maybe in ten or fifteen years if massive hurdles could be leapt. This is about changing something as ineluctable as fate: genetic predestination; the hand of cards you were dealt with in the womb and could never change. 

Writing Update: Penny Royal II

Penny Royal II is now past 122,000 words and I’m slowing down a little as I enter the home straight. This is because I have had to go back to alter and add or delete plot elements, even in the previous book, to ensure things lock together. For example, I found it necessary to go back to the start of this book and have a particular entity, with a soft and changing body, undergoing radical surgery to install a ceramal skeleton. Other alterations required are about emphasis. I need to ensure that some King’s Guard warships are seen as very powerful, while an ancient factory station is outdated and vulnerable. I also need to concentrate on the internal life of a particular war drone so the reader understands its motivations.
All this is pretty much a tidying up exercise. When you write fast to produce a massive uproarious story some things fall by the wayside – you drop the ball and have to go back and pick it up. You forget things, like I forgot that a particular prador controlled a number of skeletal Golem, and I also forgot that a Penny Royal Golem is along for the ride. I need to elaborate on how a renegade prador reproduces (incidentally there’s more in this about prador biology and society: prador females, mating, fourth-children). And thinking about the next book, I might have to add something about a black hole and something called ‘the black hole paradox’.

Righto, back to work.

SF Wars

I found some goodies in the post when we got back. Here we have SF Wars edited by Ian Watson and Ian Whates. My story in here, The Rhine’s World Incident, was first published in Subterfuge.
War is becoming increasingly ‘SF-ized’ with remotely controlled attack drones and robot warriors already in development and being tested. Over the past 100 years the technology of war has advanced enormously in destructive power, yet also in sophistication so that we no longer seem to live under the constant threat of all-out global thermonuclear cataclysm. So what will future wars be like? And what will start them: religion, politics, resources, refugees, or advanced weaponry itself? Watson and Whates present a gripping anthology of SF stories which explores the gamut of possible future conflicts, including such themes as nuclear war, psychological and cyberwars, enhanced soldiery, mercenaries, terrorism, intelligent robotic war machines, and war with aliens.All the stories in this collection of remarkable quality and diversity reveals humankind pressed to the limits in every conceivable way.It includes 24 stories with highlights such as:The Pyre of the New Day’ – Catherine Asaro.The Rhine’s World Incident’ – Neal Asher. Caught in the Crossfire’ – David Drake. Politics’ – Elizabeth Moon.The Traitor’ – David Weber.And others from:Dan Abnett, Tony Ballantyne, Fredric Brown, Algis Budrys, Simon R. Green, Joe Haldeman, John Kessel, John Lambshead, Paul McAuley, Andy Remic, Laura Resnick, Mike Resnick & Brad R. Torgersen, Fred Saberhagen, Cordwainer Smith, Allen Steele, William Tenn, Walter Jon Williams, Michael Z. Williamson, Gene Wolfe.

The Great Stagnation

Starting from here on The Next Big Future I read a few articles and looked at some videos. The book The Great Stagnation which seems to be at the root of all this makes the claim that technological advance is slowing because we’ve already grabbed the ‘low-hanging fruit’. Take for example the car. It is a huge step to go from not having a car to having one. The car was the big invention and everything since has just been innovation – no flying cars have arrived. In a speech he gives the author of the book cites many examples, like the average kitchen and how little it has changed since the 50s, but he then reluctantly admits that there have been some big advances in communication (Internet, mobile phones etc.).
Apparently, the low hanging fruit having been grabbed means that the average American is half as wealthy as he would have been had the advances been continuing at their previous rate.
Firstly, I don’t buy the distinction between invention and innovation since the car is just an innovation of the horse and cart and can be traced back to Shanks’ pony and the simple need to get from A to B. I sort of buy the ‘low hanging fruit’ argument but in the end that is really a value judgement. Is the invention of the car more important than the invention of the mobile phone? Is it more important than the accumulation of medical inventions/innovations that have extended our lives by decades? Is it more important than sequencing genomes at an increasing rate, biotech that makes it possible to make yeast that produces diesel or our growing nanotechnology? You see what I mean: a value judgement.
And, like many who have been discussing this book, I don’t agree that a slowing of technological advance is why people aren’t as wealthy as they could be. Firstly I don’t agree that technological advances are slowing. I would say that their effects are taking longer to reach us because of an increasingly hysterical anti-science meme that has spread in the West, with its resultant increase in restrictive legislation. Secondly I would say that the decrease in wealth relative to those advances is all due to increasingly parasitic governments and financial institutions sucking up that wealth – wealth that would have been used to develop those technological advances. Invent something astounding and you need big bucks to get it to market from under the leaden hand of government legislation. You don’t have big bucks of your own to spare because government and the financial institutions have stolen them. It’s an increasingly vicious circle.

This is why you see no technological singularity in The Departure – the parasitic state has killed innovation and invention. My only hope, in the real world, is that the financial collapse we are entering now will kill off some portion of the parasite infestation before the host dies. But even if that does happen, the host will still need time to recover its health, and the problem is that parasites grow faster than their hosts. 

Sooty Moths

Funny, I was waffling on about natural selection and evolution to Caroline the other night (after watching a program about how plants altered Earth) and the example I chose was the peppered moth. Today I found myself reading an article on just that. It never occurred to me that the process went into reverse after the clean air act.
I have to add that this is one of the best current proofs of the theory of evolution/natural selection going.

Daily Parasite

Just a recap here for those who maybe don’t know: While I was climbing up the SF-writing ladder, in fact, if I recollect correctly, when I was working on The Parasite for Tanjen Books, I ended up chatting to the mother of a friend. Now, both the mother and father of said friend were smart cookies – both were vets. She gave me some advice on punctuation that has stayed with me ever since, but she also loaned me a veterinary book on helminthology, which is the study of parasitic worms.
I was at once fascinated. Firstly the book reminded me of books my mother had studied during teacher training and which I pored over as a child, what with their anatomical pictures or internal organs, musculature, skeletons etc.
(Oh, on a side note that was very much a formative period of my life: as her main subject in teacher training she studied mycology (fungi) which, for a kid, was great. Not only did we go to woodlands hunting for these weird and wonderful things but we could also eat them, which appealed to the hunter-gatherer in me. Now I can identify quite a lot of British fungi and of course this interest led to mycelia … which led to Jain tech)
Secondly, I found the intricate life cycles of these creatures fascinating, just as I was boggled by the way they could manipulate or physically change their hosts. Some of this went into The Parasite, an awful lot of it went into short stories: The Thrake, Cave Fish, Choudapt, Putrefactors, Spatterjay, Snairls and Shell Game to name but a few. Then, of course, when it came time for me to write a book after Gridlinked I picked up two of those short stories – Snairls and Spatterjay – and used them as the launch pad for The Skinner and the two ensuing books.

So what am I waffling on about? Well, the above is why I was so glad Vaude passed on the link to Parasite of the Day (thanks Vaude). This is just my kind of stuff. I am almost certainly going to read every article on that site. Also thanks to Dr Tommy Leung who has just changed the black background of that site to make it easier to read!
Oh, and some character in my books has definitely got to be hit by a weaponized version of the above. I can see him/her dying horribly while sprouting mushrooms.

Ranting is Habit-Forming.

It’s been my custom in recent years to read ranty blogs in the morning that I was twittering, responding to and getting irate about. Ranting can become a habit, I’ve discovered (No shit!). It can also affect your health both mental and physical. Ranting becomes a fall-back, cringe moments become more frequent, you find yourself spending time putting together bitchy bile-filled responses to people who aren’t going to take any notice anyhow, and end up just feeding their bile too. It also tends to eat up your time and distract you from the things you should be concentrating on. So now I’m trying to break the habit.

I’ve been getting behind on the science, while the science has been accelerating. I’ve been burning up time on ranty shite that would be better spent writing. So what I’ve done is delete the blogs concerned from my favourites, then estimate how much of this stuff I’ve been reading and supplant it with science and technology articles relevant to what I do. (I’m also seeking blogs and websites on English usage, so if you know of any please let me know)

At first it was difficult. I kept feeling the urge to go back and read something bilious because that’s easy, that’s the guy giving up smoking deciding to have one cigarette, just one. That’s the brain getting hard-wired, the habit. Now I’m finding my interest restoring and increasing. By my estimate, to supplant my previous internet reading required about six medium-sized science articles from the likes of, Science Daily and Science News, but now I’m reading about ten or so.

Of course there have been lapses, but not on the usual subjects. Recent comments I made on J. G Ballard lured a Guardianista into attack mode but I laughed that one off when I tweeted his description of my stuff as ‘pornographically violent space opera’ and it sold me some extra books. And I was tempted back on another blog when, in response to a comment of mine about book piracy, the same guy couldn’t resist comparing me to Jeremy Clarkson and the Daily Mail. That he neglected to drop a ‘Thatcher’ in there was almost astounding. I must resist this kind of temptation.

Really, I’m trying to be a better person…      

Science Fiction Singularity

I had gone off Horizon programs because of how dumbed down they’ve been, how so often they were lacking in content – what content they had often being spread over an hour when, if you cut out all the pointless camera shots, they might have filled twenty minutes – and by the frequent righteous environmental preaching. However, I did record one called ‘Playing God’ (a title that put me off straight away), and enjoyed it immensely.   

This was about synthetic biology – essentially genetic modification – and how far advanced it is now. In the program we see the spider goat – a goat that produces a useful spider silk in its milk – and a pre-production plant for making diesel from GM yeast as simply as alcohol is made from the normal kind. The advances are coming at an ever increasing pace what with people being able to do this stuff in home labs. They can buy ‘bricks’ which are chunks of DNA that express certain characteristics, over the Internet, and mix and match them. For example, a bunch of enthusiasts pasted a jellyfish gene into e-coli to make luminescent bacteria – this in the kind of lab any of us could put together in a garden shed.

This is massive; this is a game changer. As the presenter noted this is like Bill Gates putting together a computer in his garage.

Of course the presenter had to whiffle on about the ethics of it all and whether it should be done. All the objections were based on either the Abrahamic religions or the ones springing from the Church of Environmentalism, and of course the terror of change they like to stir up. However, it is far too late to put this one back in the box.

It has been said (well by me at least) that nothing dates faster than science fiction, and this program brought it home to me. In science fiction there’s a lot of talk about various kinds of singularity. It’s usually related to the creation of AI and is seen as an ‘intellectual event horizon, beyond which the future becomes difficult to understand or predict’. It occurs to me that science fiction itself is facing its own singularity of exactly the same kind. We’ve reached the stage now where between writing a book and it being published, part or all of the content of that book can go out of date. Of course with e-books the gap between writing and publishing can be closed but, in maybe just a little time, we’ll reach the point where even as we speculate or extrapolate we will be going out of date, then the point when we’ll simply be well behind the curve.

There has been (for a very long time) much talk about ‘the death of science fiction’.  Maybe that will occur when the need for sensawunda, which we all look for in SF, is supplied by the news every day, or even in our day-to-day lives. If that happens I’m not sure I’ll be particularly upset about it.