Sunday, September 22, 2013

Consideration of Works Past: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

(Picture from here.)

I am now and have always been your friend-- oops. Wait. Got my wires crossed.

I am now and have always been a Phillip K. Dick fan.

I've pretty much read most of what he's written-- there may be a couple of novels I haven't managed to connect with and perhaps a few stories in the compleat works I haven't gotten to. He had a pretty sizable body of work.

I think of PKD work the same way I think of zen koans and parables. The parables I've read go something like this. The story: goes fairly normally-- a pilgrim looking for an answer to a question or some such-- until a particular point where the narrative bends such that the reader must flounder. It's analogous to the story systematically building the reader a beach and inviting him on a walk only to discover it's quicksand. The intent of the work is to challenge the reader into a new path.

A good example of this sort of thing is Dick's The Man Who Japed. Japed is the story of a Calvinist-inspired world following an apocalypse. A mediocre writer might do a "One man against the world" sort of thing. But this denies that there is actual value in strict morality. Dick created a character who is a creative artist, a misfit in the society who is nonetheless very successful, and believes strongly in a strict morality. He does bring the society to task-- sort of. And he does it with a sense of humor. Not war but laughter.

See? Zen koan.

Eldritch is a much more serious work than Japed. Like all Dick novels it starts with a businessman. In this case, a man with precognition employed by a company that uses his ability to detect what products will be in fashion and what products will remain unsold. This is at the very heart of a Dick novel-- they always start with something we would call mundane. In Doctor Bloodmoney it's a TV salesman. In Japed it's a man who is running a media production house. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep it's breakfast between a husband and wife. The husband is a cop. Only later do you discover he's a bounty hunter who's job it is to destroy escaped androids.

The book largely concerns itself with Barney Mayerson-- the precog mentioned above-- and his boss, Leo Bulero. Bulero has been force-evolved to have a higher brain function. Their company produces Perky Pat layouts: a miniature model system that is the focal point for users of an illegal drug, Can-D. Users of Can-D are able to unite in the form of characters on the layout. Can-D is illegal on earth but freely available on the colony planets of Mars and Venus. In point of fact, Mars and Venus are so hostile that colonists are psychologically unable to cope with living there without Can-D.

Into this volatile situation comes Palmer Eldritch, a charismatic businessman who had gone to Proxima Centauri years before and has now returned. Returned with Chew-Z, a competitor drug to Can-D.

Now, a mediocre writer might turn this into a drug war. Or make some obvious moral distinction. But taking drugs is not a moral problem in this book. Why you take them, or why they're sold to you and what are the moral and psychological consequences of those decisions is that book's target. Is Can-D a religious experience? Is Chew-Z? If they are, what is the meaning of two different and competing religious experiences? What is the nature of reality but the perception and if these drugs change perception (which they profoundly do) is that not any less real than the sober experience? What is the difference between a religious experience mediated by a drug and one mediated by the church? Is there a difference?

Dick doesn't just tell you one way or the other. His characters wrestle with these questions. Some wrestle weakly. Others do a pile driver on them. There is sin and redemption in this novel and the nature of what constitutes a sin and what constitutes a redemption.

I first ran into this novel (and subsequent Dick) in Alabama in the late sixties. When I first picked it up I suddenly realized that up to that point I had been reading SF with children in the starring role. Think about it. Most SF and fantasy arcs are coming of age stories. One man against the world. Lost prince stories. Chosen ones. Fulfilling of prophecies. Fights against the father. These are all adolescent boy stories-- regardless of the gender of the main character.

That's not to say you can't make a brilliant work out of a Bildungsroman-- Hell, that's half of mythology. But it is at the end a story about a boy becoming a man. Which means for a good portion of the story the protagonist is a child with childish things.

Every character in a Dick novel is an adult. Sometimes even the kids. By this I mean they are already fully formed members of society and are no longer dealing with the process of becoming members of society but are now dealing with the consequences and obligations of being members of that society.

Which is why I mentioned Japed in the beginning.

Eldritch is no different from any other Dick novel in this respect. Nor is it all that different dealing with the subject matter so dear to Dick's heart: the nature of reality, experience and religion. But the deftness and brilliance of the vision!

Dick takes things apart and lets you see what's inside. Sometimes he uses a scalpel. Sometimes an axe. But these are entrails he's examining. It's not for the squeamish.

I was worried when I read it. Eldritch had a big impact on me. Certainly on my writing. Dick also looks at human institutions with the full understanding they (and we) are absurd, with great affection for them (and us) and a little regret we can't do better. That point of view has stuck with me ever since.

I was happy to find that my worries were groundless. It's a sixties novel and that means some internal editing as it's being read. But it stands up as well as it ever did.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Moving Up, Moving Out

(Picture from here.)

Remember Voyager 1? Tiny probe barely the size of a Geo Metro who gave us pictures of Jupiter and Saturn like we'd never seen them before? Brief acting career in Star Trek I but the less said about that the better.

Well, the little guy has all grown up and moved out.

That's right Voyager I has exited the solar system. (NASA announcement here.) I know he flirted with moving out before, hanging out in the heliopause for months. But this summer he finally cut the cord and went out to see the big wide world.

Voyager was launched by NASA in 1977. Usually, I like to talk about manned exploration of space-- which fits with my general biological point of view. Manned missions are like biology exploring the rest of the universe.

But I have to say NASA's unmanned missions have actually done far more than the manned missions have. I mean it's great we reached the moon and have the ISS. But manned missions, to me, are about space colonization and getting people off the planet. Exploration is a nice but secondary part of the goal. It's a perk.

The unmanned missions are about raw exploration and scientific data. And NASA has done a lot more of them than they ever put people into space. (Here's a NASA list. Here's a much larger list.)

NASA started with Explorer (There were 90 Explorer missions)  in 1958 and now it's just a little more than fifty years later and we have a mission that has actually left the solar system. That's about two and a half human generations.

We like to make fun of the old SF books that had people colonizing the moon in the 20th century. Heinlein had Luna City founded sometime in the nineties. (See chart here.) Nobody had a good grasp on how godawful expensive space would be or how really far the planets were-- much less how far the nearest stars were.

It's interesting that unmanned exploration wasn't much talked about in SF. I mean there are some stories about it. Certainly, James Cambias has written more than one suggesting that robots are the way to handle space. Meat is just too fragile.

Meanwhile, in 1958 (coincidentally, the publication date of Heinlein's Have Space Suit--Will Travel) we started populating nearby space with machines. These days we have better than two thousand satellites in orbit. Most of those either are studying earth, handling earth commercial needs or are military.

But it wasn't long before we started looking outward. I'm guessing the first serious off-earth probes were the Pioneer missions. The first Pioneers launched for the moon. Some got there. Some didn't. In fact, from P-0 to P4 (which included 10 probes, all of which aimed at the moon) most failed pretty spectacularly. Of them, only one (Pioneer 5, launched in 1960) aimed for Venus. Later Pioneer missions, starting in 1965, looked all over the place. Pioneer 10 (launched 1972)  reached Jupiter. Pioneer 11 (launched 1973) reached Jupiter and Saturn. The year after Voyager I was launched, the Pioneer Venus Project had its first launch with the Pioneer Venus Orbiter-- which continued to give us data until 1992.

Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 are on their way to escaping the Solar System, slowly following where their younger brother has gone before.

In parallel with Pioneer were the Ranger missions. Ranger was all about the moon and, like Pioneer, failed a lot in the early years. Ranger 7 made it in 1964 and we had our first close images of another planet. To give a comparison to the manned program, Alan Shepard launched in 1961 and by 1963 the Mercury program had ended with six successful missions and four missions that involved actual orbits. Man returned to space in later in the Gemini program by 1965.

The Mariner program ran in parallel with both Pioneer and Ranger. It began in 1961 and sent probes to Mars, Venus and Mercury. Again: initial problems with Mariner 1 and Mariner 2, both intended for Venus. Mariner didn't show success until Mariner 5, launched for Venus in 1967. Mariner 6 and 7 made Mars. Mariner 9 orbited Mars, sending back data for a year.

Then, there's Surveyor: those wonderful tiny probes that we actually dropped on the moon. Seven were launched. Five succeeded. One (Surveyor 6) actually managed lift off for several seconds and moved around a bit.

In 1974, just three years before Voyager was launched, the first Helio probe was launched to study Mother Sun. They sent data back to us for ten years.

Viking 1 touched down on Mars in 1976, one year before the Voyager I launch.

And these were just the NASA missions. There's the Russian Venera and lunar exploration programs. Not to mention the many, many Earth observatory satellites, some neither Russian nor American. Not all exploration need be done by a visit.

Then came Voyager I, the first probe to execute a Grand Tour of the Solar System. Voyager I let us see Jupiter and Saturn, so close and personal we could watch volcanic eruptions on Io and see the atmosphere of Titan. Later, the Grand Tour would be continued by Voyager II.

I don't know about any of the rest of you, but those first pictures of first the Jupiter approach and then-- oh, my!-- those pictures of Saturn are as strong in my mind as Neil Armstrong's first steps. This is the sort of thing we should be doing all the time!

Since then humans have had tremendous success exploring the solar system and elsewhere by probes and observatories. I won't dwell on them here-- this is about Voyager I.

In 1980, Voyager I performed a close flyby of Titan, spun around it with a gravity assist and left the Grand Tour towards interstellar space. In 1990, V-I gave us a Valentine's Day present of the Family Portrait, a mosaic of the Sun, Earth, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

The recent years have been one of getting closer and closer to the boundary of interstellar space-- the edge of the Heliosphere. In 2004 it passed the termination shock-- the boundary where the interstellar medium slows the outgoing solar wind to the point where compression begins to occur. At some point, it passed the termination shock and entered the Heliosheath, the area between the termination shock and actual interstellar space. In 2010, it reached the region of the Heliosheath where the speed of the solar wind dropped to zero. In 2011, Voyager entered a previously unknown area called the stagnation region or "cosmic purgatory," an area of particle turbulence where the wind actually curls inward back towards the sun. The dominant force here is interstellar particles and fields but the magnetic field of the sun is putting up a good fight.

Then, in 2012, it was thought Voyager I had exited the solar system. But in December it was decided it was a new region at the edge.

Then, 9/12/2013, NASA confirmed Voyager I had at last left the solar system.

Voyager I is getting old and cranky. Three different subsystems have had to be turned off in the last few years to conserve power. Two years from now the recording system will be shut down. Sometime in 2016 gyroscopic operations will be halted. Then, in 2020, the science instruments will be terminated one by one until sometime between 2025 and 2030, nothing will be working any more and it will go forward, cold and dark, on its way to Gliese 445.

It should get within a couple of light years in 40,000 years. And it left us with this cool, creepy sound.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Schrodinger's Biology

I had a blog entry to enter in last week involving the 50 year anniversary of the Dr. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech.

But I couldn't get it right. Sigh. I'll get it one of these days. Moving on.

One of the hardest concepts to grasp in evolution is its parallelism and interactivity. A mutation in one organism doesn't necessarily just affect the organism itself. It can affect its neighbors, predators, prey and its descendants.

A good example is feathers.

Last year the a team of Canadian, Japanese and American paleontologists announced the discovery of feathers on a newly discovered Ornithomimus specimen. (See here.) The discovery pushed the appearance of feathers back quite a ways, long before the birds appeared and certainly long before the feathers were used in any sort of flight. O. edmontonicus was flightless and weighed about 350 pounds. It had no flying ancestors to speak of. Consequently, the evolution of feathers had to have pre-dated flight and been used for other purposes. Two proposed uses for feathers are thermoregulation and social displays.

That is for the organism itself. Anybody who works with birds knows a few other uses. Birds use feathers to protect themselves from the elements-- especially aquatic birds. They use them for brooding eggs. In addition, birds have lice that love the protection and insulation of feathers.

Feathers affect predation by changing the physical appearance of an animal-- a feathered animal can appear much larger and more massive than it is. Predators have to adapt to the tactile difference between feathers, skin and (for mammals) fur. If feathers evolved in conjunction with warm-bloodedness, the resulting organism scales differently in terms of size, both in maximum and minimum sizes. In speed as well. All of which need to be adapted to by predators or exploited by prey. Nothing happens in a vacuum. This branch of biology is called evolutionary ecology.

If you consider a population of animals, each of which is given a unique combination of genes and developmental environment, each plays out a single thread of possibilities also unique to that organism. The possibilities are played out in real time and result in a statistical result: differential reproductive success for a given subset of the original population.

This is essentially a computational problem. If you take a set of different starting conditions and apply a computational algorithm to each of them, some will have a better solution set at the end than others. This is the basis for evolutionary computation, a subfield of computational intelligence.

Evolutionary computation operates by continuously optimizing the result using Darwinian selection methods. An evolutionary algorithm uses computational equivalents to reproduction, mutation, recombination and selection. "Fitness" is determined by how close the outcome maps to solution rules. Each "generation" is tested and those members that best fit to the outcome are selected for the next.

This can work both ways. Certainly there are algorithms that can be derived from evolution we might find useful. But can we view evolution itself as a computational process?

"Evolution" is an emergent property that derives from the lives of individual organisms-- how they cooperate, compete, eat and be eaten. We only see the process of evolution as it plays out over time. Each organism plays out the problem if its own survival. Evolution only emerges as a function of the reproduction of those individuals.

There is such a thing as DNA computing. This is using the chemistry of DNA to solve computational problems. Caltech researchers have managed to use DNA in implementing a circuit that can solve square roots up to fifteen. This article talks about multicellular computation networks. This article talks about proteins as computational units within the cell. And this one talks about computation using biochemical reactions.

Lee Segel has written this on computing a slime mold. He modeled it as a set of small automata that obey (relatively) simple rules. This looks to me as a step in the right direction. If a model of an organism is composed of computational units, can model of the organism be considered a computational unit? And, by extension, can the organism itself be considered computational. That would make evolution an emergent computational property.

So what is computation, anyway? And why would this be important?

Computation is the process of following an algorithm and obtaining a result-- transcription of DNA and copying your homework are both acts of computation in the most general sense. Computation is a physical process. That is, it is the product of physics and happens in the physical world. (A good article on the physical limits of computation is here.) Computational machines we normally use are made of silicon and use electrons. My favorite computational machine is between my ears is made of neurons and functions largely on Twinkies. (Also called a wetware computer or, sometimes, a brain.)

One type of computational entity is an automaton, an abstract machine. These are mathematical objects that can solve computational problems. One kind is a finite state machine, where a given machine is always in one of a finite set of possible internal states. A vending machine is a good example. It might be in a product delivery state, a money accepting state and a product selection state. You put your money in, you select the product, the product is then delivered. This machine cannot be in more than one state and the capabilities of a given state are specific to that state.

There's been a fair amount of research applying automata theory to biology. (See here and here.) How, then, to apply it to evolution?

The problem is that evolution and biology are complex statistical systems: a single solution, or even a single set of solutions, is not the goal. In addition any but the most trivial of biological systems are massively parallel. There's even a branch of biology for this: complex systems biology. There have been a number of interesting outcomes from this area. Wojciech Borkowski has proposed using cellular automata for the purpose of modeling macroevolution-- the macro processes that must be emergent and don't derive simply from genes and individual populations. There has even been some talk about another branch of automata theory, infinite automata theory, being applied to biology. (See here.) While the possible states of a biological system are very, very large, they are probably finite. But they may be large enough that they can be modeled as an infinite autumata.

But I got to thinking. Hm. A computational entity that is incredibly complex, massively parallel and whose outcome is always statistical. That sounds familiar...

Oh, yeah. It's a quantum computer.

And, when I looked, sure enough the late I. C. Baianu was looking into quantum automata (and here) and evolution. (See here.)

Now, I am not saying biological systems are Bose-Einstein condensates or entangled. I am saying there are enough similarities between how the systems behave that the math from one might actually apply to the other. I think Baianu was onto something.

Quantum computers represent a problem as all possible states in such a way that when the measurement event occurs a set of possible answers to the problem (with some probability of correctness) emerges.

Evolution is like that, too. Wherever a niche opens up a population of organisms try to take advantage of it-- consider it the initial problem state-- all trying their own unique approach. Approaches blend, compete and cooperate. At a later time, each path has reached a point of observation.

The difference is that while a quantum computer might function nearly instantaneously, evolution's solution is splayed out over millions of years.

Think of it as "real" time.