Putting the life back in science fiction


Hot Earth Dreams and Space Opera

I was going to post this on Charlie Stross’ Antipope, where there’s another interesting discussion developing on space opera.  So as not to chunk 1,450-plus words onto that message board, I thought I’d post my thoughts over here, for those who are interested.

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News and updates
August 15, 2016, 9:27 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Just a brief update and a few links.

As others have pointed out, we’re getting a bit of climate changed weather.  Not here in Southern California, where the Red Flag fire alert they just issued is normal for this time of year,  but climate change is nipping at Louisiana, where it’s flooding, the Persian Gulf, and elsewhere.  A couple of years ago I hoped that the climatologists would turn out to be wrong about weather systems getting both slower-moving and more energetic (more energy means more water goes into the air, and that water tends to come out rapidly too), but it looks like they were right, we’re coming into an era of kaiju-class weather systems.  Sucks that climatology is up there with evolution in terms of rigor.

OnThePublicRecord has two good posts out about the various hypocrisies that plague water use in California (here and here).  The Cadillac Desert rule that water runs uphill to money remains fully in force, although I agree with the OTPR desire for more populist use of water in California, at least while we still have it.   The second post is particularly interesting for any futurists out there who are confident that we can feed more people with less farmland.  This is the political side of that particular argument, and we can (and probably should) argue the moral utility of feeding the many to enrich the few and trash the poor who could also have used that water.  It’s a standard tactic, really: it’s easy to fight a morally black-and-white issue, so one standard defense by the bad guys is to make their systems as morally complex  as possible, so that even the good guys get entangled in the sleaze, ideally profiting a bit from it too.

Aside from getting sucked into dealing with a bunch of tedious land use issues, it being high season for new developments in this part of the world, I’ve also been learning how to sell used books on Amazon.  While I suppose it’s more efficient on the Bezos/systemic level to dump too-popular books at GoodWill (e.g., the ones that sell on Amazon for less than a dollar), and to hold onto the others in the (probably vain) hope that they’ll find buyers, I really miss being able to walk into a used bookstore with a box of used books, get some store credit, and walk out with a couple of newer books to enjoy.  Even though Amazon makes it easy to sell stuff, the chores of inventory, packaging, and taking boxes to the post office are tedious.  It’s basically a slow and random decluttering exercise, but unless I just want to donate a bunch of books and stuff, it needs to be done.

Still, it gives me time to think.  Two of the issues I’ve been contemplating are the psychological aspects of dealing with climate change (as in, how do you deal with a country that prefers denial to possible Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and what does that do to the people who actually care?), and whether it’s possible to close the gap between the permaculturalists, who see anything bigger than a village as unsustainable, and feeding a sustainable-ish civilization of billions?  That gap would have to be closed with some pretty sophisticated market design, at the very least.  I haven’t figured out enough to put it in an essay yet, but I’d welcome random thoughts and questions.

Happy Dog Days, all.



Facepalm with a hit of nitrous
July 28, 2016, 7:01 pm
Filed under: climate change, futurism, Real Science Content, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

I’ve been advocating for a partial switch to an ammonia-based economy, on the theory that, while NOx is an air pollutant, it’s better than CO2.

Facepalm time: N2O, good ol’ nitrous oxide, which is another thing that comes out of of using ammonia for fertilizer or burning it, is a greenhouse gas 100 times more potent per pound than CO2.  Right now, it’s 5.9% of US greenhouse gas emissions.  It supposedly lasts about 114 years in the atmosphere, until it gets broken down by some process or other (I’m being lazy about all the bits and bobs in the nitrogen cycle, because it’s hot here, and with a flex alert on, I’m not running the AC). Unlike CO2, it doesn’t look like it sequentially saturates large sinks and stays around for hundreds of thousands of years in the atmosphere.  Rather, it just breaks down slowly.  About 40% of the N2O emitted in the world is from human activities, and it can be cut, in some circumstances, through catalytic conversion technology.

Here’s some really basic information on it (link to EPA)

The basic sources for atmospheric N2O are:

  • conversion of nitrogen fertilizers to N2O by bacteria.  This is the big one, and more efficient fertilizer use and better land management can cut this to some degree.
  • it’s a combustion byproduct, so it comes out the tailpipes of gas-burning cars.  Catalytic convertors can help with this.
  • various industrial processes produce N2O as a byproduct.

Now, the simplistic solution is hydrogen, except that (IIRC) burning hydrogen using air also may release some N2O, because there’s a lot of nitrogen in the air.  Converting to fuel cell-type devices that do electrochemistry rather than combustion and using catalytic convertors on combustion-powered systems probably is the way to go.

It does get more complicated than that.  While catalysis is the simple-minded solution, it’s also prey to the usual simple-minded problems with polluters who don’t keep that part of their car (or other system) working, and thieves after the platinum in the convertors.  It’s the usual, intractable problem: environmental problems, greed, and stupidity don’t mix.

So, what do you think?  Pitch any desire for an ammonia economy out the window and pray for hydrogen and better batteries?  Double-down on catalysis, which catches NOx better than CO2, and start prospecting for platinum at the side of the local highways?  Stick with fossil fuels and assume we’re all doomed?  Some combination of all three?

Oh well, tonight I get to watch  the latest episode of the newest superhero series: Suit Woman vs. Generalissimo Cantaloupe.   I’m not sure binge watching is the right word for it (more the opposite), but it does seem to be the thing everyone’s talking about this season.



Two bits of news
March 10, 2016, 1:19 am
Filed under: book, Hot Earth Dreams, news, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

Just another quick entry with two bits of news, one about Hot Earth Dreams, one about carbon production peaking (???) in 2015.

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California in the High Altithermal, Part 5: A Wedge of Swans

This is part of an ongoing series.  Here are the links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

[Note: additional material was added on Feb 15]

In this entry I’m going to be a real brat and not talk about the logical next section: California’s posturban cultures.  The only excuse I’ll plead is that I’m reading up a bit on Sonoran desert agriculture (Tohono O’odham papers, Gary Nabhan, and so forth), to at least raise my ignorance to a higher level. Since I just found a really cool book I want to delve into, that post is going up probably in a week or so.

What I’m presenting here is what I originally intended to finish the series with, a consideration of the white, gray, and black swans that will affect California’s history going forward.   If you’ve read Hot Earth Dreams, you already know that I’m talking about Taleb’s black swan theory, with white, gray, and black referring to major, disruptive events that range from predictable in timing and scope (white) to totally unpredictable (black), with gray in between.  What disasters await Californians?

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Hot Earth Dreams is still ahead of the curve, but…

Just a brief note.  I saw this newspaper article and wanted to share it:

http://www.thespec.com/news-story/6269782-what-the-earth-will-be-like-in-10-000-years-according-to-scientists/

Here’s a link to the Nature Climate Change article mentioned.  I haven’t received a copy yet, as I just emailed the lead author to see if I could get one.

Just in general terms, it’s great to see more climate scientists looking into the deep future.  Hot Earth Dreams is based on decade-old work by David Archer (who is a coauthor on this paper), and I’m looking forward to seeing the details from the new model.



California in the High Altithermal, Part 2: Biopolitics

Note, you can read part 1 in the series here.

Biopolitics.  Such an ugly, synthetic word, but here I want to talk about the chaotic intersection between biology and politics that’s occurring now, because, unfortunately for prognosticators, it’s a big part of what is going to determine what’s still growing in this state in 2100 CE.  The fundamental problem is that, if you’re trying to figure out what’s going to survive a mass extinction and climate change, on the one hand there’s the biology of individual species and their interactions in ecosystems, and on the other hand there’s politics, meaning every thing from peoples’ choice of house plants to international laws.

What I’m going to show here is the mess.  It’s not a nice thing to do, but hopefully I can at least show both why environmental politics matters, and why calls to do more studies aren’t distractions, either.  In the next post I’ll make some predictions about what comes out of this mess, but as in Hot Earth Dreams, I’m walking through the process here, one essay at a time, figuring out the processes before I talk about the patterns that might result.

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My first interview
January 27, 2016, 11:04 pm
Filed under: book, climate change, Hot Earth Dreams, Uncategorized | Tags:

Last week, I had a great Skype interview with Greg Moffitt, who runs the podcase Legalise Freedom.  I was curled up my couch with my computer in my lap to kill the echoes in my place and the tinniness from my computer’s microphone.  Greg and I talked for well over an hour, and the edited version of our conversation is  up  here (opens a new window), if you want to here my voice instead of simply reading it in your head.

I had a lot of fun doing it, and my thanks go to Greg for making my first long interview a really fun experience.



American Byzantium, an alt-future

Actually, as a thought experiment, I started playing with what California might look like in the High Altithermal, from about 2100 CE to about 3600 CE.  It’s more complicated than I’d initially thought, of course.  If it’s something you’re interested in, contribute your ideas in the comments, and I’ll work them (or some of them, anyway) into the next blog post or two.

In the meantime, here’s a future that I’m pretty sure won’t happen.  The idea is that US history will parallel Roman history, with the eastern US playing the western Roman empire, Washington DC playing Rome, and the western US playing the Eastern Roman Empire.

I gave an overview of the transformation of the Roman empire in Hot Earth Dreams in Chapter 17, and the idea is that the Roman Empire proved ungovernably large, and Rome proved ungovernably corrupt, so Constantine moved the seat of power to Constantinople around 330 CE, and his sons split the empire into the Eastern and Western empires.  The western empire collapsed in 476 CE, while the Eastern empire transformed over time into the Byzantine empire and survived until 1453 CE.

Following this analogy over-faithfully, the US capitol moves west as the (south)eastern US is devastated by increasing heat, black flag weather, rising seas, and the collapse of civilization in the face of such disasters.  In this case, they move the capitol ultimately to perhaps Portland, although someone might argue that Fairbanks or somewhere near Anchorage might be a better site.  Washington DC gradually falls into ruin before being swallowed by the Atlantic, and what’s left of American culture shifts west, while statelets in the east fight over who gets to rebuild America.

Culturally, Byzantium wasn’t Rome.  They were Christian, spoke Greek, and practiced Medieval-style warfare.  In this alt-future, we can mimic the same shift by, um, let’s see, having western Americans speaking Spanish or Spanglish (except when reading law and science, which would be in English), and mimicking the feudal social structure with something like an unholy mashup of drug cartel culture and west coast capitalism, with CEOs instead of counts and Cartel leaders instead of dukes.  Since a lot of feudalism came from Rome adapting the culture of the migrating tribes of Celts and Germans, this isn’t entirely as stupid as it sounds.  “Celts” as a group were probably as polyglot as today’s Latinos are, and had to experience similar levels of prejudice within the Roman Empire (for example, having red hair in Rome was probably akin to being black in America).  Note that I’m not implying that today’s Latinos are in any way barbarians, nor that the drug cartels are the best that Latino culture has to offer.  I’m more thinking of what is a Latino analogy to the old Celtic and Germanic warbands.  If you think that Latino culture has something better and more resilient to give to the future, let me know in the comments.

In any case, if the USA broke down somewhere in the 22nd century, then the Western American Empire (“Alta Mexica?”) might last for another thousand years.

Now I don’t think the US will replay Rome, so this scenario is presented as a bit of a spoof of the idea that US history will mirror the history of the Roman Empire.  It looks like it could, just maybe, work, so if anyone wants to use it in a story, please be my guest.   If you’ve got anything you want to contribute (comments or ideas), please share those too.

Now that I’ve got that scenario out of my brain, in the next blog entry (or three) I’ll look at California in the High Altithermal, Hot Earth Dreams style, with temperatures spiking over the next ~300 years, sea levels rising over the next ~1600 years, civilization and populations crashing, and everything migrating.  How long might the US hold together, will it fragment, what happens with Mexico, and all that are questions that need to be answered, along with lifeways, transportation, where the settlements are, and so forth.  If you’ve got ideas, put them in the comments, and let’s see what we can come up with.

 



Hot Earth Dreams Comment Thread
November 17, 2015, 6:51 am
Filed under: Hot Earth Dreams, Uncategorized | Tags:

Here’s the official comment thread for Hot Earth Dreams.  Comments, questions,  errata, typos, other feedback.  Yes, positive feedback is very much welcome.   Note that this is for the whole book, not just for the first five chapters in the sample.