Sunday, May 30, 2010

"Crazy" Beliefs and what to do about them

It seems to me that in recent years people are much more up in arms about the things they believe.  Maybe it's been like this all along and I've only reached the point in my life where I've noticed it.  Or perhaps, when I was younger, I was surrounded by people from my self-same demographic, and have encountered more people with differing views as I have become more mature.  
Whatever the reason, I have been struck more and more by how people can fervently believe things which do not seem to be supported by the evidence at large.  Pick any current 'hot button' issue, global warming, evolution, gay marriage, immigration, and you will find people who will profess with complete confidence that the other side is not only wrong, but are deliberately trying to fool the general population into sharing their beliefs.  This was underscored recently for me while I was reading an online article about global warming at one of the science journals I frequent.  After reading the article I started reading the comments.  In the very first comment, the poster referred to the author of the article as conducting a 'witch hunt,' and compared the author with the 'pessimistic doomsayers of the seventies' (the article was one which accepted the idea of global warming being caused by human activities).  
My assumption was that people like me who spent their time reading online science journals would at least be open minded to the point where, if they didn't agree with a conclusion being presented, would ask for explanation of the an author's thesis or offer counter evidence of their own.  But even within such a community of those interested in science there appears to be a growing willingness to shout out, "you're wrong, you're wrong, you are wrong!" and rejected even the logic of someone else's argument.  
Any discussion about changing mores of behavior, while applicable, I will leave for another time.  But I am left to wonder, on a deeper level, how is it that people come to believe the things that they do, even if such beliefs fly in the face of what seems to be a reasonable explanation?  
"Maybe they just don't get it," is the first explanation that comes to mind, especially when it pertains to some scientific issue.  Surely for someone to refuse to accept something like evolution, for instance, it must be because they do not fully understand the arguments in its favor, or have been misinformed about said arguments.  I have often been at pains to explain to someone who has said something along the lines of, "evolution is just a theory," that a theory, in scientific parlance, is actually something more robust than a mere fact.  It is a way of collecting and organizing facts in such a way that we understand why the facts are facts, and what new facts are out there waiting to be discovered.  It seems reasonable to assume, when encountering resistance to an accepted theory, that if you explained it in a reasonable way a reasonable person would understand and accept it.  
Unfortunately, research in cognitive psychology doesn't support that assumption.  Tania Lombrozo, a professor at UC Berkeley focusing on cognition, brain and behavior, referenced in a Scientific American podcast a study focusing on people's acceptance of evolution.  What she found was that there was no correlation between an understanding of the concepts and arguments presented in favor of evolution with its acceptance in the study group.  Someone who understood the concepts and arguments of evolution was just as likely to reject it as accept it when viewed on that criteria alone.  And while her survey did show a correlation between one's religious denomination and acceptance of evolution (people self-identified as 'Born Again Christians' were much more likely to reject the premise), there was no correlation between the strength of one religious conviction and an acceptance of evolution.  
Along these same lines, I saw a recent news item on television about a recent meeting of the American Meteorological Society where members where hotly debating global warming.  The argument appeared to be more about the source of the rising temperatures, whether it was from man-made causes or not, but it still seems odd to me that such an argument can even exist amongst professionals trained to study the topic.  
So, if understanding the topic doesn't correlate to an acceptance of specific belief, then what does?
"Purpose on the Brain."  This is the phrase used by Richard Dawkins, the well-known British ethologist and popular science writer, to describe how the brain approaches the events that impact us on a daily basis.  Humans have an evolutionary predisposition to look for 'reasons' or 'purposes' behind things that happen to us.  
For example, let's go back in time and visit two cavemen, Ugh and Ogg.  Ugh and Ogg are far away from the cave network their hunter/gatherer group has staked out for themselves.  They are working on this idea Ugh had for this round, spinning thing that they could use to carry their spears and animal carcasses (Ugh wants to call it the 'roundus-transportus,' but Ogg wants to call it the 'wheel' after 'Wheela' the prettiest girl in the tribe whom he wants to attract).  
While working on their invention, they hear a sound in the bushes.  Ogg, without doing any investigation, thinks, "It's a Saber-toothed tiger wanting to kill and eat me!" and immediately sets off running back to the cave.  Ugh, however, thinks, "I wonder what that sound is?" and then sticks his head through the bush to find out.  
From an evolutionary standpoint, Ogg's lineage has the advantage.  If there is nothing behind the bush, if it was just the wind rattling the leaves, then everything is even.  Both Ogg and Ugh are fine and their chances of having offspring remain equal, or at least dependent on other factors.  But if it really were a hungry saber-toothed tiger behind the bush, then Ogg's immediate assumption that the event was something dangerous directed toward him gives him a survival advantage that can result in a greater opportunity in mating by virtue of being alive.  And since I don't go the auto shop to have my 'roundus-transportuses' realigned, we can guess who was it that won out.  
Supporting this 'purposefully brain' concept is another study referenced by Dr. Lombrozo in her interview.  A group of children were chosen as a study group were given a series of questions and presented two answers.  One was a logical answer and the other was ontological, one which provided a purpose or reason.  For the question, "Why does it rain?" the children were asked to choose either, "Because water in the air gets heavy and falls," or "Because it helps the flowers grow," the children would overwhelmingly choose the second answer, "Because it helps the flowers grow," the one which had a purpose contained within it.  
Supporting this perception of purpose in the world is the fact that human beings tend to forget the times their assumptions of purpose were proven wrong.  Sure, Ogg may have ran away ten times he heard that noise in the bushes, and Ugh teased him every time, but it was the last incident when it really was a saber-tooth tiger that he talked about over the campfire to his children and grandchildren while lamenting his departed friend, Ugh.  
A more disciplined example can be found in a study by Pete Palmer, author of the Hidden Book of Baseball.  In 1990 he conducted a study of players considered to be 'clutch' hitters, ones who performed better in high pressure situations (team behind by three runs in the ninth with the bases loaded).  In comparing the hitters 'clutch' stats (the ability to get a hit under pressure) with a random distribution, he found no difference between the two.  Another study, in 1985, which analyzed basketball shooters having a 'hot hand' late in the game was able to show that the percentage of shots made during the last two minutes of a game was the same as any other two minute period selected throughout the game.  The only difference was that, late in the game, the team's best player, their 'clutch' player, was fed the ball more often, thus allowing him to score more points.  We remember Kobe's last minute three pointer to win the championship, the evening news won't let us forget it, but we forget the shot he missed in the same situation two nights before that allowed the series to be tied up.  
So...  What does all this mean?
As a person with opinions of my own, and a citizen, it means two things.  Number one, I can't assume (or shouldn't assume) that someone who disagrees with me is 'not thinking right.'  Sure, that might actually be the case, and it may certainly feel that way from the start of the argument, but the science that's out there doesn't support the idea that he or she "just doesn't get it."  Better to assume that I'm in debate with someone who is fully capable of understanding what I'm getting at and let him prove me wrong if such is the case.  
The second conclusion, and the one that is more sobering, is that the effort to prove one's case is an ongoing one. I would guess that the vast majority of people out there don't take the time to wonder about how they came to believe something.  They simply believe it.  It 'feels right' to them.  And if that belief is related to some topic of importance to everyone, such as dealing with the effects of global warming or teaching evolution in our schools, I have to realize that there may be no definite conclusion to the argument.  A certain number of my fellow citizens will simply not accept my conclusions, and efforts to convince others to my side to take whatever action I think is appropriate will be one I will have to continue.  
As a writer, it tells me that when I write my stories that touch on such issues I should look more carefully at the characters on the other side of the argument.  It may be easy to present them as boobs, or people who "simply don't understand," but it won't be realistic.  Furthermore, giving such a character intelligence and logic, even if he reaches conclusions I don't agree with, will give the main character a more complicated  obstacle to overcome with greater pitfalls.  And doing so will give me the opportunity to write deeper, richer and more complex stories. 
At least, that's what I believe...
News  & Updates
I'm still working on "Long Ride."  I was lamenting to some friends from my online writing group that it feels at times like this story will never get finished.  I do think that I'm missing something and that by jotting down various scenes and what I know about the story I will stumble across it.  
I did start work on another story, under the working title "Brother Like Me."  I got the idea from one of my writing friends I had lunch with yesterday.  I told them a story of an unusual meeting I had with someone on my trip to Japan in 2007 and one of them declared, 'there's a story in that!'  
It looks like they were right.  I just started punching it out to see where it would go and got about 13 pages done in one session (around 2,800 words).  I have the ending in mind and should have it finished by the end of the week (thanks, Donna!).

Sunday, May 23, 2010

12 Events and how they might turn out Differently.

The cover article for the June 2010 issue of Scientific American is entitled, “12 Events that will Change Everything,” with the subtitle, “And Not in the ways you think.”
The article is a summary of twelve developments, discoveries or disasters that could happen between now and the year 2050.  Each event is given a little mini-article going over what is known about the event in question, our progress toward it or the efforts to stop it from occurring, and rating each one’s chance of happening between now and the year 2050.  
The list of 12 Events, and their chance of happening per the editors of the magazine are: 
The cloning of a human being - Likely.
The discover of extra spatial dimensions - 50-50.
Contacting extraterrestrial intelligence - Unlikely.
A 'limited' nuclear war - Unlikely.
The creation of artificial life - Almost Certain.
Room-temperature superconductors - 50-50. 
Machine self-awareness - Likely.
The melting of the polar ice caps - Likely.
A Pacific earthquake (a.k.a. "The Big One) occurring - Almost Certain. 
The development of fusion energy - Very Unlikely.
An asteroid collision with the Earth - Unlikely.
A deadly pandemic - 50-50. 
The part of the article that catches my attention is the subtitle, “And NOT in the ways you think.”  I began thinking of Big Events of science and technology from the past and how they didn’t work out the way they had been intended.  
Take the laser as an example, which will have the sixtieth anniversary of its invention in August of this year.  The initial research for the laser was to develop a weapon for the army, the ‘ray gun’ of the science fiction movies and stories of the fifties.  It didn’t happen at first, the technological barriers proved to be too great at the time.  It’s only this year, in December, that the army will finally begin testing of a 100 kilowatt laser weapon built by Northrop Grumman (Click Here to read more).
Now, the laser has radically changed our lives.  Fiber optic cables may be transporting this blog (at least part of the way, depending on where you live) to you.  CDs and DVDs would not exist without the laser.  And while the military is only now getting its ray gun, they’ve used lasers to help pinpoint targets for their troops, and scientists use the same technology to measure the distance from here to the moon.  It definitely had an impact, just not the one intended.  
A more personal example: Watching the first men walk on the moon when I was a kid.  Being a budding science fiction fan (I loved the Star Trek television show that had just been cancelled a month prior) I was sure that what I was seeing was something BIG.  Just hearing the silence of the neighborhood at the time, feeling my mom’s arm squeezing my shoulder as I sat next to her, seeing the expression on my father’s face, all made me certain that there would be colonies on the moon and in space, and that we would be flying spacecraft to Mars and other solar systems 'soon.'  
It didn’t happen (at least, not yet).  The Apollo program brought a wealth of new technologies into our lives, and it changed our perception of what was possible (“We can send men to the moon, but we can’t…” fill in the blank with the appropriate thing we should be doing), but the promise of common space flight has yet to be achieved.
Moving further down the personal path, I created my own list of 12 Big Events.  These were things that happened in my life that altered my perceptions of what was important or what I should be doing.  They were: 

The Night of the Babysitter.
Watching the Moon Landing.
Getting Caught with nude-y pictures.
Cousin Steve's Christmas Gift.
The Haunting.
My best friend's breakdown.
The acting class at Chaffey College.
My ex-girlfriend dying.
Getting dumped by that actress.  
The Cross-Country trip.
The Last Audition.
The Honest Answer at the Business Meeting.
As with the Scientific American article, I am noticing how these personal events changed me in ways that were unexpected or unintended.  The event I’ve entitled, “Getting Dumped by that girlfriend,” is important to me because it directly lead to my first short story being published in a professional market.  At the time I had no idea that would be the result, but I can say with certainty that her telling me it was over was the direct catalyst to that first sale.  And the “Cross Country Trip,” which I had envisioned as a life changing event as I embarked on it, went in the completely opposite direction than what had been anticipated (I lost everything that I owned at the time and took a year to get back home.  Friends that knew me from before all told me I was ‘different’ when I got back).  
Each of the events listed in the Scientific American article have already been the basis for numerous science fiction stories.  But the ones that stand out, that stick in one’s mind, are those where the author has found a way to put an unexpected something into the mix.  As I write this blog, I am remembering the opening from a story I read decades ago (I believe it was in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction).  A football game is in progress.  An alien spacecraft appears over head.  It lands at midfield.  The hatch opens.  One of the football players on the field decides to ‘step up.’  He approaches the hatch and says, “Welcome to Earth,” in the most official voice he can muster.  The alien stepping out of the hatch looks at him and replies.  
“We want cocaine.”  
The story went on to be about the search for new experiences and the extent we will go to get them.   I can’t remember the name of the story (as you might guess from the alien’s reply, it was written in the 80’s), but that opening stuck itself in my head and can't be shaken free.  
I think it’s important to contemplate the changes we might face in the future, both good and bad, and think of ways to avoid or mitigate the results of the bad events, and exploit the advantages gained from the good ones.   But as a science fiction writer, I also want to do what I can to foresee the unexpected changes such big events can spawn.  The better I am at doing that then the better my stories will be and the more able I will be at dealing with the changes that will be coming. 
News and Current Projects
After reading the '12 Events' article, I decided to write my own story on each of the events.  As a way of finding that 'unexpected' outcome I've decided to borrow one of the story creation ideas I wrote about previously (see my blog entry for June 19, 2009 - "Story Generator") and combine one of my own personal life changing events with one from the Scientific American list.  "Discovering New Dimensions" and finding the direct causal link with "Cousin Steve's Christmas Gift" seems particularly doable.  And NOT for the reasons you might be thinking!  
I'm still working on the Long Ride.  I keep coming up with interesting scenes that I write out, but the story is eluding me (at this is at 10,000 plus words already written out).  Right now my plan is to drive to the end of my outline and see if I can figure out what I've been writing about then.  Wish me luck.  

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Nifty Gadgets 1

I like gadgets.  I have for as long as I can remember.  I can't recall if it was my love for gadgets that prompted me to become a science fiction fan or if learning about science fiction underscored my enjoyment of learning about technology.  
I love technology.  When I was a kid, before I became a science fiction fan, my favorite books to read were history books, specifically those that focused on how the devices we made changed our history.  Orville and Wilbur's biplane, the trireme, the trebuchet, even the water distribution system of the Roman Empire (it automatically rationed water during times of drought by its very design), all of these technological advances fascinated me.  Part of our very nature as human beings is our tool making.  It is an expression of our who we are as a species as much as our digestive system, our manner of locomotion.  It is an expression of our intelligence that allowed our species to survive and ultimately to thrive.  
Other animals have been shown to make and use tools.  The beaver has his dam, which he uses to change the environment to increase his chances of survival.  Chimpanzees have been shown to use things like twigs, cleaned of their leaves, which they use to fish termites out of their nests for a tasty treat.  So I can't say that tool using is exclusively a human talent.  There is one thing about our tools that I can say when I compare them to those of other species: 
Ours are cooler.  
From the standpoint of writing a science fiction story, a description of the tools people are using and how they are using them is the fastest way of putting a reader into the world your trying to create.  The best example I can think of was one line from a Robert Heinlein story: "The door dilated."  This one sentence creates a very different atmosphere than, "the door opened."  
Here are three examples of technology to change how we live in a big way.  As with most new forms of technology, the degree to which they can change our lives is limited by they ways we can imagine using them.  
Nanotube Radio
It's the ultimate in portability.  Less than a micron long and ten nanometers wide (10,000 times thinner than a human hair), the Zettl Research Group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California at Berkeley has created a radio from a single carbon nanotube.  You can click on the link to see electron microscope images of the radio and listen to sound files of songs played using it.  
Carbon nanotubes, or 'buckytubes,' are a form of carbon with a cylindrical nanostructure.  They in a class of structures called 'fullerenes,' which include 'buckyballs' or carbon nano-spheres, which are found naturally in the soot that is produced from burning candles.  
The strength and flexibility of these carbon based structures have made them candidates for all sorts of potential uses.  I will bring more examples to you in future blogs.  In the nanotube radio, the carbon nanotube implements all the components of a normal radio: antenna, tuner, amplifier and demodulator.  The nanotube radio replaces the electrical vibrations used in standard radios with mechanical vibrations of the nanotube's carbon matrix.  
The nanotube radio can be used in any device where radio signals are used today.  Imagine a radio controlled submarine, but one which is small enough to swim through your bloodstream and be directed toward individual cells in your body.  Even smaller cellphones.  Improved hearing aids and implants that could allow people to hear better and more clearly.  For a sample of music played through this tiny radio, or see electronic microscope photos of the device you can go to Zettl Group's Supplemental Material's page.  
Flying Cars
I may be dating myself, but I used to love the Jetsons when I was a kid.  The opening sequence, where George Jetson is flying through his city of glass towers in his flying car (which folded up into a suitcase when he got to work) was a classic.  I don't think anything says 'the future has arrived' more to my generation than the idea of owning your own flying car.  
We may not have reached George Jetson's flying saucer model, but a company called Terrafugia has created the first commercial vehicle that can both fly through the air and drive on the road.  
The Transition, as the vehicle is called, is more of a street legal airplane than a true flying car in the Jetson vein.  The company's website refers to it as a 'roadable aircraft.'  While it might not fold into a briefcase at the end of one's trip, it takes only 15 seconds for the wings to fold up or down, allowing someone to drive to the airport, take-off, land someplace else, and then drive away without any additional parts or retooling.  The Transition is being tested right now, with plans for the first customer delivery (at about $200,000 each) to take place in 2011.  
"Found Energy"
Finding new energy sources is a major concern these days.  Most of the push toward alternative forms of energy (meaning non-carbon based) are familiar to us.  Wind power, solar, geothermal, nuclear, tidal are all being considered and developed, each with its own advantages as well as their own problems and limitations.  There is another source of energy that I became aware of fairly recently, and that is energy generated by our very daily activity of getting up and moving around.  
I first heard the term "Found Energy" in a Japanese documentary about projects being built in Japan to make use of energy found in the vibrations of movement,  by people and vehicles, that is abundant in any large city.  A more recent term for collecting this ambient energy and making use of it is 'Piezoelectric Energy Harvesting.'  
The piezoelectric effect is old technology.  The discovery that certain types of crystals produce an electrical charge when mechanical stress is applied has been used for years in stereo speakers and cigarette lighters.  What is relatively new is applying this process toward the creation of usable energy.  By putting piezoelectric plates down on a sidewalk, for example, one could create energy through the footsteps of the pedestrians walking down the street.  A dance club in the Netherlands, Club WATT in Rotterdam, for example, has 10 percent of its power provided by the dancers partying on their dance floors.  And the Goshiki Zakura Big Bridge on Tokyo's Expressway has a portion of the power running its lights supplied by the cars driving over it.  The military is studying the use of Zinc Oxide (ZnO) nanogenerators, such as the one being developed by Doctors Z.L. Wang and X.D. Wang of the Georgia Institute of Technology, pictured above.  Zinc Oxide, another piezoelectric material, would be used to power the growing number of electronic devices our soldiers carry on to the battlefield.  If sewn into clothing any sort of movement would generate energy that could be used to recharge targeting lasers, laptop computers or cell phones.  
I think the concept of 'found energy' is a neat one.  It is small technology, mostly reworking of previously known techniques, with some upgrades to the materials used, but it is clever and stands firmly in the realm of things I think we should be doing.  From a writer's standpoint, it provides one of those 'little touches' one could add to create the realization in the reader that they have entered a place removed from the one we are used to. 
News & Current Projects
The story I've been working on, under the working title of 'The Long Ride,' is fast becoming a novelette.  Rather than try to force into a short story size, I've decided to write it out as it wants to be written and take it from there.  I may find the short story in that, or I may discover it was meant to be a longer form all along.  We'll see what happens.  
I sent my story, "The Hollow Man," off to another publisher.  There are a couple of other stories, "Prometheus 2.0," and "Forms of Worship," that will be sent off to different publishers this week as well.  

Sunday, May 09, 2010

A new 'Spaace' for a new 'Eaarth'?

I recently listened to a Scientific American interview with Bill McKibben.  He is an environmental activist and a Scholar in Residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.  The interview focused on a new book he has written entitled "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet."  The interview was done in connection to Scientific American publishing an excerpt of the book in their April issue.  
I have not read "Eaarth" itself yet.  In the interview, he relayed some of the key concepts of the book.  These include: 
The planet we live on today is, according to Mr. McKibben, fundamentally different from the one we were born on.  This is reflected in his title "Eaarth" (Earth with an extra 'a' inserted), a new name for a new planet.  He cites the expansion of the meteorological tropics by two degrees as one example of the changes that have taken place.  We now have to deal with these changes and find a way to live on the planet we have created.  
The changes that have taken place are due to the socioeconomic model for 'relentless growth.'  This model no longer works.  Our goal should now be, according to McKibben, to develop a new model that focuses on 'maintainability.'  A 'mature' model that is more robust.  
As centralized structures marked the 'growth' model we used before, localized sources of energy and food production and distribution need to be developed for us to create the more maintainable robust model he thinks we should develop.  
I found myself uncomfortable listening to Mr. McKibben, even though I accept some of his premises and by and large agree with the actions he advocates.  Our reliance on fossil fuels is unsustainable.  We've already removed the 'cheap and easy' stuff from the ground, and the type of exploration and production methods necessary to get to the harder to reach stuff pose too great of a risk to the environment.  The current incident in the Gulf of Mexico is one example.  Local production of food, the developments in area like 'urban farming,' would have a positive impact our CO2 production.  And we need alternate forms of energy that are less polluting and which do not require us to go to places that sensitive environmentally or dangerous politically.  You can boil down what he is saying, I believe, into the statement, "we need to learn to live within our means."  The economic crisis we have been going through is a testament to the efficacy of that sentiment.  
However, I found myself feeling that McKibben was missing something.  I am not trying to dismiss him as a "70's style alarmist," as some of the comments on the Scientific American website would suggest.  There are real problems caused by how we have 'done business' up till now that need to be addressed.  It was listening to the second part of the interview that I remembered what it was that I had always expected to be part of the solutions to the problems we would be facing in our future. 
Growing up, I was taught that outer space was the 'final frontier.'  As a kid I watched Kirk and Spock and the rest of the Enterprise crew demonstrate how things could be better if we took our infrastructure and ourselves and moved them off this planet and into space.  About a month after Star Trek was cancelled, I watched Neil Armstrong take what I thought was the first step to doing so.  Clearly, if we have damaged our planet permanently, then it makes sense to move our most damaging activity, material acquisition and energy production, off the planet.  
It was when I asked myself this question, one which I would have considered to be almost rhetorical, that I began to fully realize how little progress toward this goal we've made over the years, and how little present activity toward it there seems to be.  Oh, sure, we have the space station.  I seem to recall a news item some time ago where there were more people in orbit at one time than any point in history previously.  But how does that help us in the long term?  The Space Shuttle, which was too finicky and costly to be a good long term solution to the problem of getting people into space, will soon be grounded.  The program designed to replace it, which I had thought was too much a retread of old technology, has been eliminated.  Instead of returning to the Moon to build bases they are now talking about a program to go "straight to Mars."  The manner of the presentation of this new plan sounds to me too much like what Apollo turned out to be, a politically charged jaunt to collect a few rocks with no intention of staying there.  
I am planning on reading Mr. McKibben's book and give his ideas and their presentation of them their due.  I agree that we need to do more to develop energy supplies and food sources that don't hurt the environment nor cause problems for people in other parts of the world.  These things make sense.  But I also think we can sustain growth for our species IF we find room for it.  And there is plenty of room just waiting for us above our heads.  
We need to pay attention to the Earth beneath our feet.  But if we lift our eyes to the stars (and planets, moons and asteroids) above, we might be able to use them to guide our way out of the problems here below. 
News & Current Projects
A manga-styled anthropomorphic comic that I worked on a few years ago is being assembled into its own book and reprinted this year.  'SoftMetal,' the first three episodes of which were serialized in the anthology book, Furrlough, by the publisher Radio Comix, will come together in its own book later this year.  It will be published by Angry Viking Press.  The artist, Sanny Folkesson, who drew the cover illustration presented here, has been told that the book will released at an upcoming convention this season, possibly by Anthrocon, in Pittsburg, PA (June 24~27).  Stay tuned for updates as they happen.  
I am still working on the short story, Long Ride.  While working on it this week I came to realize that I wasn't focusing on the main character's dilemma enough.  I've done some background work on some of the characters, including the entity that stands as the antagonist for the piece, and have started a new version of the story today.  

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Day-dream a little dream of me.

I like thinking.  I like encountering new ideas.  I like learning new things.  And I like conveying what I know to other people.  I think this is why I was attracted to science fiction from an earlier age.  I have heard it called the 'literature of ideas.'  
As someone who likes the process of thinking, I have a long-standing fascination of how we think.  Everything we are is encased within our skulls and a lot of processes that we take for granted, our memories, how we process the flood of data coming in through our five senses, our very sense of self, are still not fully understood.  Consciousness, our sense of self, is one feature of our brains that we are still trying to understand.  
Earlier this year I discovered that science has pinned down one part of this puzzle.  In an article published in Science News I learned about the brain's default network.  Some of the features of this network within our brains are: 
It has two major hubs, the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) with the precuneus and the medial prefrontal cortex.  The PCC with the precuneus is associated with pulling memories from your brain's archives, sort of the brain's librarian.  The prefrontal cortex is associated with imaging, thinking about yourself and thinking about what others are thinking.  It is interesting to note that these are the same areas of the brain hardest hit by Alzheimer's sufferers.  
The default network is more active, 20 times more active, when you are day-dreaming, imaging yourself doing something, or simply sitting there doing nothing as compared to when you are actively engaged in some process, such as solving a puzzle.  
I have read other articles that indicate the default network is more active in people with schizophrenia, even when they are trying to actively focused on doing something, a time when the default network is normally quiescent.  Blood relatives who are 'one step' removed from schizophrenics (brother-sister, mother-daughter, etc.) are shown to have elevated activity in the default network, though not as high as in people with schizophrenia.  I found this particularly interesting because one of my sisters was diagnosed with schizophrenia years ago.  
The overall consensus from my readings about the default network is that it acts as something of a simulator for the brain.  Our memories and experiences, plus the input of our senses from our environment, feed into it.  When we are not engaged in some activity, which typical has us interacting with our surroundings or other people within those surroundings, it is running possible courses of action based on what we remember, what we sense around us, and what we think other people are thinking of doing.  The experience of schizophrenics of hearing voices speaking to them may be due to the default network's simulations becoming 'objectified' to the point that they seem to be coming from outside source.  
I have become fascinated by this brain structure.  The idea-lover in me finds it remarkable that our brains work hardest when we seem to be doing nothing at all.  The artist in me sees something poetic in the fact that we are more ourselves when we are daydreaming than when we are working.  I have also started wondering if, due to my 'one-step' relationship with my sister, I have a default network which has worked a bit harder in giving me the stories that I can't stop writing.  I have joked with friends about writing being the only way to quiet the voices in my head.  Maybe that joke has been truer than I knew.  
As a science fiction writer, I have wondered how this part of the brain could be used to improve our lives.  For people with Alzheimer's some sort of drug or device to strengthen the network might be a potential cure, while for schizophrenics something to calm its raging activity would give them a more normal life.  Going beyond that, I have imagined something I've called a "Personality Assistant."  I imagine it to be a device which connects to the default networks of our brains and focuses its activity to overcome negative or faulty information we may have collected.  People who are scared of job interviews could use their Personality Assistants, or PAs as I called them in stories, to run simulations in their brains showing them how to be more successful at them.  Someone trying to learn a skill, such as a new language, could have their PA run simulations of them using the language, gaining weeks or months of experience while they sit and stare out a window day-dreaming.  
In one story I wrote recently, entitled "Forms of Worship," which is currently making its rounds to the publishers I submit to, I took the idea of a Personality Assistant one step further.  If the brain's default network could be networked with those parts of the brain overseeing motor control, one could create a device that would give the uninitiated the knowledge and physical skills to perform specific actions.  These "Survival Assistants," or "SAs" as I've dubbed them, would allow someone to do things like field strip a weapon, hunt game, find food in the jungle, or similar such tasks that would normally require an expert or years of training to accomplish.  In "Forms of Worship" I describe what happens when a field scientist's SA becomes damaged, apparently allowing it to take over her personality.  After learning about the default network I didn't find it too great a stretch to think about something unnoticed deep in my brain priming me for action.  
I wonder what my default network is making up for me to think about now.  
Current Project & News
I am still working on the story I'm calling "The Long Ride."  I've become somewhat fascinated by the relationship I'm developing between the main character, the man stuck on the interplanetary transfer vehicle, and a woman lawyer that contacts him through a social network, not know who he is.  Every time I write a scene between the two of them I think up another scene I want to write, just to see how it would turn out.  Most of it won't go into the final story, but my hope it will enrich the final product by making the two of them more real for me.