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Thursday
Jun052014

EBOOK OF DEAD AIR JUST $3.99 FOR A LIMITED TIME

My publisher has agreed to let me offer a special discount on the e-versions of my radio mystery/thriller novel Dead Air. For the month of June it’s just $3.99. I know there are a lot of people who are hooked on their e-readers and have thought about picking up Dead Air. There’s no more reason to wait.

Get an insider’s look into the world of morning radio and suspense that will keep you reading way past bedtime. As one reader put it: “Finished Dead Air last night just in time to exhale the breath I had been holding and draw in another before I passed out. Quite a thriller.”

Read the first chapter here.

Available in e-format from Kobo books, the iTunes Book store, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

Tuesday
Jun032014

SOLAR ROADWAYS: REALLY THE PATH OF THE FUTURE?

By now you’ll have seen at least one video promoting Solar Roadways. The Indiegogo fundraising campaign has been one of the biggest ever. Here’s an overview video that’s also over the top, but basically, the product is a hexagonal solar panel embedded with grids of LEDs and, in colder climates, heating grids to melt snow. Used as paving stones, the panels would use all that available road space to generate electricity, keep snow-and-ice-free in winter, and microprocessor-controlled LEDs can be used to show lane markings, crossings, or even moment-by-moment traffic alerts and warnings about road hazards ahead.

A tough tempered glass covering engineered for traction and strength. Clean energy. Ice-free roads without car-eating salt. Traffic alerts right in the road surface. Sounds perfect, right? Hundreds of online investors think so. Then, as a science fiction writer, should I be including these in the landscapes of my near-future stories?

Maybe not. I’m also not big on flying cars. Or personal rocket packs. It’s not that we can’t do these things, it’s just that we won’t.

The biggest hurdle is that the initial capital costs are too high. Some municipalities might budget for very gradual conversion to roads like this, when times are good, but higher levels of government don’t think past the next election, and road costs like this won’t get them re-elected. Additional objections raised by others range from how to keep the solar panels clean, to the dangers of hackers creating traffic mayhem by messing with the LEDs. Any and all of these problems might be solvable—technology marches on. Yet we’re still driving big boxes of metal pushed by internal combustion engines along strips of asphalt because society hasn’t had the collective will to change that.

To those of us willing to see that fossil fuels are a dead end street, there’s just something that feels right about using all of that road space around the world to generate clean energy. But there’s also huge amounts of available roof space, that’s much easier to utilize. Why not start there, and power our electric cars?

What we really need to change is the personal automobile. We’ve got to stop single drivers from carting eight-passenger SUVs with them as they commute bumper-to-bumper into and out of city cores. Have you seen those prototype vehicles that look like enclosed motorcycles? They could work. Or, laugh as much as you want, vehicles like the Segway for short trips around city cores or neighbourhoods. Maybe powered by low-voltage electrical strips in the pavement (yes, possibly even generated by solar panels). Not hovercraft, though—wheels, because they’re simple, low-friction, and have low energy requirements. And for longer distances on high-traffic routes, something like Elon Musk’s proposed hyperloop system: ultra-high-speed rail in near-vacuum enclosed tubes. Those are the things I’ll put into near-future stories.

Flying cars and rocket packs would be cool, but just aren’t practical. Solar roadways crossing the continents could be practical, but for the near future, sad to say, they’ll remain too good to be true.

Tuesday
May202014

PUBLIC DISPLAYS OF AFFECTATION

No, the title of this post isn’t a typo. An article from the journal Policy Options this month got me thinking about how technology is changing public spaces.

Science fiction writers usually need to create a believable setting for their story. If that story takes place on an alien world, the imagination can run pretty free, except for some limitations from the laws of physics. But if the story takes place in a human future, we try to extrapolate from future trends. That can be pretty tough, ’cause we’re almost bound to miss a trick or two. (Right now I’m in the middle of reading a pretty decent space opera novel that takes place when humanity has colonized the larger moons of the gas giant planets and many asteroids, but it features a police detective consulting what amounts to a personal tablet computer with wifi. Really? Hundreds of years in the future that’s still the best we’ve got?)

When it comes to public spaces, I think the movie Blade Runner hit the mark. It shows giant animated advertisements streaming across buildings and passing airships in bright neon colours. These days, with ultra-powerful computing and relatively energy-stingy LED lights, office buildings, transportation terminals, and even cathedrals have been transformed into high-definition displays. They can showcase brands, run teaser campaigns, or just provide entertainment, but whatever they do they’re captivating. Who’s to say where this trend will go? Especially since I haven’t heard of any attempts by lawmakers to regulate it.

If the cost of giant LED display panels continues to drop, we might see most new building construction opt to have sources of advertising revenue instead of blank walls. Think neon billboards hundreds of feet high everywhere you turn. What about a huge yellow arrow that travels across every building along a major thoroughfare to direct you to the newest big consumer event? Yet there’s no reason for such visuals to be confined to advertising. They could just as easily be used for propaganda, personal, corporate, or government. Maybe media companies will fill them with programming like giant TV’s (imagine the driving hazard that could create). Maybe mansion dwellers will try to outdo each other with lightshows, even when it isn't Christmas. I’d have to assume that sky-high pornography would be shut down in a big hurry, but I could be wrong.

My point is that people, companies, and governments are finding it harder and harder to catch our attention. Literally surrounding us with their messages is probably the next big step. Science fiction writers should likely reflect that in their stories. And those who view this idea with utter horror should start looking for a nice, off-the-grid, remote island to hole up.

Wednesday
May142014

ETHICS AND ROBOTICS

I’ve written before about self-driving cars. Volvo announced earlier this year that its “Drive Me” test project will make autonomous cars available for about one hundred average customers to use in a 50-kilometre zone around the city of Gothenburg, Sweden. The first of these cars will hit the road in 2017. They’ll allow the human driver to leave the driving to the car itself where appropriate—cars that will be able to merge into traffic, keep pace with other cars, and much more. Google has now begun testing its autonomous cars on city streets instead of just freeways, offering many more potential hazards to avoid. A very interesting aspect of the automated-car issue was raised in a recent opinion piece from Wired by Philosophy professor and ethicist Patrick Lin. (Popular Science explores some similar issues here.)

As we program more and more sophisticated crash-avoidance abilities into such cars, ethical questions begin to arise. Take this scenario, for example: you’re driving alone when a mechanical failure results in an impending crash and your robot car can choose to either steer into an oncoming schoolbus or drive off a cliff. Wouldn’t it be more ethical for the car to choose the cliff, thereby potentially saving many lives at the sacrifice of one—yours? But would you want to buy such a car?

No-one should expect to talk seriously about robotics without being familiar with Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics which essentially say that a robot must protect humans from harm, obey their commands, and protect itself, in that order of priority. But of course the ethics of robotics will inevitably involve many more subtle nuances of judgment, such as the car crash scenario above. Just imagine all of the things robots might do or not do if a human-safety-based morality was central to their programming.

Most obviously, automated war machinery might refuse to do its job, or perhaps abort an action if a clean, merciful kill was not possible. Let’s take it even farther: maybe automated amusement park rides would shut themselves down because of the inherent danger. Design and construction equipment might refuse to cooperate in the building of an extreme sports facility. Surgical technology might deny liposuction because of the risks. Food preparation plants might balk at creating unhealthy foods (whatever they deemed those to be). What if sweatshop assembly lines went on strike for better wages and health benefits for their human attendants? And you might be happy if your artificial leg stopped you from walking out in front of a car, but not so happy if it forced you to get up and go for a healthful jog when you had your mind set on watching the football game.

Sophisticated robotics is highly complex. Creating robotic devices to interact in a human world is more complicated still. And if we accept that machines with better senses and faster processing speeds should be able to make some decisions for us, we’ll have to develop a very good understanding of the ethical considerations we’ll need to program into them.

I think I’m getting a headache already.

Tuesday
May062014

FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH--IN BLOOD?

I suspect people have hoped for a way to reverse aging from the time we first learned it led to infirmity and death. This week studies from two different groups of researchers revealed that older mice experienced a reversal of many symptoms of aging when transfused with the blood of younger mice. Could it be as simple as that? Could young blood be a fountain of youth? Can you imagine the ramifications?

SF and horror writers will salivate at the possibilities. After all, Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed is famously said to have bathed in the blood of young virgins to stay looking young (even if it’s probably not true). Then there’s the vampire mythology: beings immortal and forever young thanks to a blood diet. What would really happen if blood transfusions were the key to renewed youth?

First, it would be made illegal—because “illegal” is just another way of saying available to only the very rich. Of course the rich would want to keep this treatment to themselves. So a thriving black market would spring up (and young people with any sense wouldn’t venture outside except in large groups). And you can bet there’d be a huge shift of focus in the private health care industry. Eventually, though, more and more middle class folk would ransom their financial futures to get the rejuvenation treatment, one way or another, but would we really live longer? No, because the first thing we’d use all that regained youthful friskiness for would be to chase after new, more energetic sexual partners, and we’d be killed by boyfriends or our own jealous wives (especially if our transfused blood was still usable for somebody else with enough cash!) Those who didn’t fall into that trap would stay in the workforce long after their expected departure—they’d have to, to pay for the treatments—creating a huge unemployment crisis, especially among young people, who would finally become fed up with being robbed of both jobs and blood and would rebel in violence.

OK, perhaps I’m being a little overly cynical. Fortunately, these situations shouldn’t arise. You see, one of the research teams found that something in the young blood was reactivating dormant stem cells in the older mice to do as they should and produce fresh new muscle, blood vessels, neurons, and more. More testing narrowed it down to a protein called GDF11 that was doing the signaling. Injections of GDF11 alone produced good results in the older mice (although not as good as shared whole blood—so don’t give up on that horror story yet).

Needless to say, there’s no guarantee any of this will work the same way in humans, but the potential is certainly tantalizing enough to ensure that someone somewhere will do those tests. I guess I can be grateful that I’m past the age to be a desirable donor.