20 June 2007

This is what I think about...

...when Significant Other is out of the country.

So I was reading the inimitable Atomic Rockets (again), and was looking over the life support section when I had a thought. Life support is a really big pain in the ass when you're designing spaceships, either for half-assed sci-fi novels like I do, or for actually really real, like NASA engineers (assuming NASA actually designs spaceships anymore, instead of shitty hundred billion dollar space hovels where the computers don't even work right). Anyway, what follows is the idea:

There's a way to eliminate the problem of life support altogether--algae tanks, sewage boilers, oxygen candles, and all. The only catch is the crew has to leave their bodies in long term parking at the spaceport.

If you assume that the contents of a human brain can be uploaded onto a computer, and that a sufficiently powerful computer can run an emulation of a human brain (much like a PC can emulate, say, a Nintendo Entertainment System for those of us having an attack of 80s nostalgia years after we sold the old box in a yard sale), then the crew can have their minds uploaded into the ship's computer and leave their bodies behind.

Sensory information isn't a problem--anyone who has ever had a dream could tell you that the brain cannot distinguish between actual data from the sense organs and stuff the brain just made up on its own. I would imagine if you can upload a brain, you understand enough about it to feed it fake sensations. The crew can experience being on a spaceship (or riding the Orient Express, or laying around on the beach in Key West, or whatever they like) despite being just a bunch of zeroes and ones on the mainframe. For long, boring trips, they can simulate whatever distractions they like, or just reduce their "frame rate" to near-zero. If there's an emergency or an unexpected situation at their destination, they can speed up their frame rate and run multiple simulations of it, so that they can try out multiple solutions and practice whatever they decide to do--possibly in a fraction of a second of real time.

For a spaceship designer, this combines all the advantages of an unmanned vessel and a manned one. The mass and expense of the crew and their support systems are lost, but you still have humans around to give the computer orders if necessary. You can have as large a crew as you want and not pay any penalties for it. If the mission isn't expected to be too dangerous, they can even bring along their families without this being catastrophically stupid, like it was in "Star Trek: The Next Generation".

There are a few problems, however. First, from a practical perspective, if you can run a human brain on a computer, you can almost certainly run something much much smarter on the same computer. So why are you bothering with people at all? (This was always the elephant in the room during space fighters vs. missiles/unmanned drones debates at SDN, especially when the compsci people showed up talking their argle-bargle and the beleaguered space fighter people would shout, "If computers are so great, why are there people on ANY of the space ships? Huh?! Huh huh?!" Or they would have, if they weren't so dumb they actually thought space fighters were a good idea).

Second, the "upload a brain, get a person inside the computer" idea assumes that the dualists are right and the body is just a machine for moving the mind around. This is by no means certain. How can you have, say, a flight-or-fight reaction if you don't have adrenal glands? How do you feel something in your gut if you don't have one? Of course, the computer can just send digital hormones to a digital brain the same way it sends digital sensory input, but I can see stories where digitized space crews struggle to hold on to their humanity because the bureaucrats and engineers who designed the system left those out.

The third problem is, of course, that the crew won't be able to leave the ship when they arrive at their destination unless they can upload to a different computer, or maybe loaner bodies, either organic or mechanical. Bringing their bodies along with them defeats the point of the exercise; if they're colonists, maybe you can grow them new bodies once you arrive (Walter John Williams has a short story, "Incarnation Day" where this is not only how humans are colonizing nearby stars, but how children are raised until they're adults and can pull their own weight in society).

Fourth, there's a little bitty existential problem here: have you actually transferred a mind, or did you just make a duplicate and now there are two copies of the crew? This crops up a lot in debates about Star Trek's transporters, which, thanks to the efforts of writers who apparently never thought this through, actually kill the original and create a clone. I don't quite know how to get around this one. Maybe you try to pull a Ship of Theseus where the crew member is, at least momentarily, simultaneously in control of his organic body and a digital copy on the computer before the body is shut down, so there's no discontinuity of consciousness, but I have a vague feeling that this is cheating somehow and I'm not smart enough to figure out why. Any other way, it seems to me from the point of view of the original crew member, he puts his head into some Clarketech do-funny, and then they kill him. Putting him into hibernation until the ship gets back and the digital copy is turned off is just killing someone else (and pointless besides). Arguing that there's some kind of property of the human mind which allows it to be converted into digital form but never copied, only transferred, is just lame. Allowing unlimited copies of the same individual to run around everywhere--and believe me, if it's possible, it will happen--is going to throw a huge wrench in conventional ideas of what it means to be human. Not that that's necessarily bad in science fiction, but if you're trying to write a simple story about an intrepid space crew without worrying about keeping their fragile meaty bodies alive, then "Oh yeah, in our society, people duplicate themselves at will" is a really big huge thing to have to ignore.

Anyway, as the title suggests, this is what I think about when Significant Other is out of the country for a week. I need her to come home so I can go back to thinking about sex again.

19 June 2007

Fuck Tuesday

There is a hierarchy of days of the week, as there is in most things in life. For your edification, here it is, from best to worst:

1. Saturday: Well, duh. No work, no school, no church, no bullshit. Saturday is the only day of the week that's fully yours. Monday is a million years away. You can wake up as late as you like and go to bed whenever you want. You can do whatever you want. Wanna drink yourself into a stupor? Want to lay and bed and jerk off for five hours? Saturday is your day.

2. Sunday: Now Sunday, on the other hand, Sunday isn't so great. When you wake up Sunday morning, the first thing you notice is some asshole strung the Sword of Damocles over your head. The asshole is your boss, and the sword is called Monday, and the string is going to break no matter what you do. This plus your hangover from Saturday more or less ruin Sunday. About the only way to make it worse is going to church; I don't have to worry about that, but you might.

Actually, the very best way to make it worse would be to go to work. That's why Sunday still comes in at #2 despite its self-evident flaws.

3. Friday: Woo! Party! The very best moment of the entire week is the moment work ends on Friday afternoon: the weekend is at its very longest right then and there. Unfortunately, to get there, you have to deal with work. Still, Friday night is so nice that it almost bumps Sunday into third place, but ultimately a day where you have to go to work at all is worse than a day you don't have to go to work at all.

4. Wednesday: Hump day. Wednesday beats Thursday because Wednesday doesn't have that broken down, exhausted, "Oh God, I still have another day of this" thing going the way Thursday does. At lunch time you officially tip over onto the downslope of the week. All day Wednesday, you can think about how, at the end of the day, you will be closer to the upcoming weekend than the previous one for the first time. And that's special.

5. Thursday: Speaking of special, here comes Friday's ugly cousin, Thursday. Thursday is the day you're completely sick of work but you still have an entire work day tomorrow. Being close to the end of the week doesn't help; Thursday is like having a beautiful woman reach down your pants, only to walk away as soon as things get interesting. Thursday's chief virtue is that it isn't Monday or Tuesday.

6. Monday: All right, Monday sucks. But you can at least take a little bit of pleasure in telling stories about all the crazy shit you did on Saturday (if you sat around playing Galactic Civilizations all weekend, you can lie about all the crazy shit you did; don't feel guilty, your co-workers are probably lying too). Plus, during football season, there's Monday-morning quarterbacking. If you're smart about avoiding the boss, you can bullshit about football for at least half the morning.

7. Tuesday: Fuck Tuesday. It's still the beginning of the week, but now there are no more stories, and talking about football is just bitching at this point. Any shine the week might have had on it on Monday morning has rubbed off; you realize now why you hate work and wish a Brinks truck would drop a bag of money on your driveway. Fuck Tuesday.

This concludes this public service announcement.

18 June 2007

All aboard....well, the car

Say you're a young fellow looking to take his best girl on a trip to the countryside along the shores of beautiful Lake Champlain. And let's say you've become a little alarmed by all this talk of global warming and peak oil and you'd like to do your small part to consume as little fuel as possible on the trip. And let's say you're a railfan from way back and have always wanted to take a long train ride through some pretty scenery (Philadelphia to Boston in late December on the Metroliner doesn't count). What do you do?

Why, you drive, of course, because it's well over $300 for two people by Amtrak, you can't leave on the day you want because the train only runs in the morning and you have to work, and sometimes the Adirondack gets delayed for ten hours.

Passenger rail transportation in this country is pitiful. And while I'm aware of the economics of the situation, I'm also aware the economics have been skewed by hundreds of billions of dollars in Federal loot for the airline and automobile industries (mostly indirectly in the latter case, in the form of highway subsidies) while Amtrak has to beg for pocket change from Uncle Sam and go to the freight railroads with its hat in its hand for time on their tracks. So it costs too much and the service sucks, driving away customers, which costs them money, which makes it cost too much and the service suck.

Which brings me to another irritation: the stumpfucks in the Pennsylvania State House who are bitching and moaning about funding SEPTA on the Commonwealth's dime after they cripple its ability to raise money any other way. Anyone who has ever had to regularly ride SEPTA knows what a third rate transit system it is--especially if you've ridden the DC Metro or MBTA or the New York subway--but the potential is there for SEPTA to actually be a respectable system, if the money ever shows up. What we'll probably get is more wailing and crying about it from the Pennsylbama contingent in the legislature, who bitch about transit subsidies for the big bad city (it's full of Negroes and the gays, you know), as if the infrastructure for cars and trucks is free.

Only in my wildest fantasies (and novels) is the US crisscrossed by a network of electrically powered bullet trains, but for a country that's supposedly started getting the Green bug, we sure don't seem to be doing very much to actually get cars and trucks off the road. And this is the easy stuff.

Playing bocce in the mountains

Married To The Sea

If I ever make a fortune writing (and with a master's in education, that's the only way I'm going to make a fortune barring a lottery jackpot or getting run over by a rich guy), I'm going to buy a summer house up north, in the Adirondacks region of New York. Significant Other and I are going up there over July 4 week along with some old friends of mine to enjoy a few days of liquor, sleeping in, and bocce in and around an old farmhouse a few hundred yards from Lake Champlain.

Besides the relaxation, the primary benefit of staying up in the mountains is avoiding the damn heat. Jersey is a crowded, smelly furnace in the summer, and the only wise course of action is to get the hell out, preferably until the leaves start turning. I mention this only because it was 92 degrees today, and it has drained the life out of me. Significant Other has been complaining for months that she's always cold and I'm always comfortable. Well, soon the tables will be turned.

In my mind, it's always summer here. Whenever I imagine Jersey, it's always a blazing July day; cloudless, sticky, so hazy the horizon is white. Deserted sidewalks lining jammed roads so wide they wouldn't be shaded even if there were any trees growing there. Weeks without rain, with no relief in sight. Water restrictions. A steady death count from Camden and Philadelphia, where old people bake in tar-roofed rowhouses. I never imagine the winter, even though it can get bitter cold and stay that way for weeks (never enough snow, though). The cold doesn't stick in the mind the way the heat does. Maybe that's why I have no love of the Sun Belt or anyplace else that doesn't get a proper winter. I need the winter to recharge my batteries, to get myself psychically prepared for summer again.

Or I could just go play bocce in the mountains. Whatever works.

17 June 2007

X-Ray Blues

Hi there.

My name is Matt Lineberger, and this is my second attempted foray into the Blogosphere. The first attempt was a Livejournal page to which I diligently posted for three whole days (and ended on a cliffhanger, at that). I was a big fish in a very small pond on the Stardestroyer.net boards until I went on a voluntary three month hiatus. I am known there as RedImperator, as I tend to be most places I go online.

Two half-assed theories led me to creating this blog. The first is that writing a blog post every day will get me into, and keep me in, the habit of writing every day, making it easier to diligently edit my novel-in-being The Humanist Inheritance (heretofore known as "HI"). That's a working title, by the way--I'm pretty sure I'm going to change it. The other half-assed theory is that people might actually want to listen to my ill-conceived ramblings on politics, science fiction, and the like.

(Actually, that was a little bit of false humility. As my wonderful, loving, warm, brilliant, funny, beautiful, well-endowed, and oversexed girlfriend could tell you, I'm a spectacular egotist. I am convinced people want to hear my ill-conceived ramblings, and I am further convinced that they are actually very well conceived and don't ramble very much at all.)

At any rate, I think that will serve as an introduction to this blog; I really just wanted to have something besides the spamcatcher (again, thanks to driftglass for the idea) up on the first night. I suppose a note on the blog's title is in order: there is a chapter of HI entitled "X-Ray Blues", and it happens to be my favorite. The name is from a little known but apparently real phenomenon: if you shoot X-rays directly into your eyeballs, you'll see a blue glow. I read it originally on Wikipedia, and so I assumed it was the Colbert Nation or somesuch having fun with me, but it turns out to have a real source. I'd love to actually do this, and I would, were it not for the fact I'd have to shoot deadly ionizing radiation directly into my eyeball.