Sciency Words: Cyborg

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:

CYBORG

In 1960, two American researchers named Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline were worried.  How could human beings ever hope to survive in the extreme conditions of outer space?  As they saw it, there were two solutions: we could either create artificial environments for ourselves, or we could alter our bodies to better suit the harsh realities of space.

That first option—creating artificial environments for ourselves in space—seemed utterly impractical to these two men. They equated it to fish inventing mobile fishbowls so they could leave the sea and go explore the land.

No, it would be far safer, easier, and cheaper (they reasoned) to reengineer the human body and mind through the use of technology, pharmaceuticals, and hypnosis.  So, first at a symposium on human space flight and then in this article for the journal Astronautics, Clynes and Kline described a “self-regulating machine-man system,” and they decided to call this hypothetical invention a cyborg.

The word is a portmanteau, combining the first three letters of the word “cybernetic” with the first three letters of the word “organism.” It’s actually Manfred Clynes who’s generally credited with coining the word.  Kline apparently liked the word well enough, but according to this article from The Atlantic, he expressed some concern that it sounded too much like the name of a town in Denmark.

Clynes and Kline seem to have had some rosily optimisitic notions about what our cyborgized future might have been like. Becoming cyborgs would not, in any way, diminish our humanity.  Rather, we would be elevated, both physically and spiritually, by all the new opportunities that would suddenly be available to us to go out and explore the universe.

With the benefit of historical hindsight, I think it’s easy to see at least one flaw in this idea.  The original question was how would human beings be able to survive in space?  Our options were the mobile fishbowl method or the total cybernetic reengineering of our bodies.

Well, since 1960, human beings have been to space quite a few times.  Our mobile fishbowls have their flaws, but they work well enough most of the time.  Replacing the human respiratory and digestive systems with technological alternatives (as Clynes and Kline suggested we’d need to do, among other things) does not sound like a safer, easier, or cheaper solution.  I mean, as difficult and expensive as it was to build the International Space Staion, that’s still probably easier and cheaper than doing the kind of surgery Clynes and Kline were talking about.

Maybe someday, that kind of cybernetic augmentation will become a reality.  But we’ll have to learn a whole lot more about how our bodies work first.  At least that’s how I see it.

P.S.: Clynes and Kline would have argued that cyborgs are still human, but better.  A superior form of human being, perhaps.  That is a position that the titular cyborg in my “Dialogue with a Cyborg” story would not agree with.

Dialogue with a Cyborg, Part 2

After much delay, and an embarrassing amount of procrastination, and one night of anxious editing and reediting, part two of “Dialogue with a Cyborg” is finally here!

For those of you who read my recent IWSG post, you know that I recently had a really exciting shiny new idea, and that this shiny new idea messed up my timetable for a preexisting project.  “Dialogue with a Cyborg” was that project that got messed up.

I still can’t say what this shiny new idea is, but I can tell you that part two of “Dialogue” is the first story to make use of it.  For me, this ended up being an experiment, a first test run to see if the new idea would play well with older material. Hopefully no one will even notice what changed between the first and second installments of this story.

So without further ado, please click here for the continuation of “Dialogue with a Cyborg.”  Or if you haven’t read part one, please click here.

Sciency Words: Qubit

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:

QUBIT

I’m starting to think I can get used to just about any weird quirk of language.  When I first saw the word qubit, referring to the quantum bits inside a quantum computer, I’m pretty sure my eye twitched.  The spelling of that word… it just looks so… so wrong.

And I’m not the only one who to feel that way.  In a paper titled “From Cbits to Qbits,” American physicist N. David Mermin laments that “the prevailing ‘qubit’ honors the English rule that should be followed by but ignores the equally powerful requirement that qu should be followed by a vowel.”  Mermin would prefer the spelling qbit.  I would prefer the hyphenated form q-bit.  Unfortunately, neither of those options seem to have caught on.


So who is responsible for this crime against English spelling rules?  It was another American physicist by the name of Benjamin Schumacher, who originally introduced the term in this 1995 paper on quantum information theory.  In the brief acknowledgements section at the end of the paper, Schumacher explains: “The term ‘qubit’ was coined in jest during one of the author’s many intriguing and valuable conversations with W.K. Wootters, and became the initial impetus for this work.”

As a writer, I kind of identify with Schumacher here. I’ve had the experience many times of either learning a new word or inventing one, and having that spur fresh and exciting new thoughts.  But still, why is the word spelled that way?

Several other sources (including Wiktionary) say the word qubit is formed by analogy with cubit, the ancient unit of measure equal to the length of an adult male’s forearm (from elbow to fingertips).  There is a certain inherent uncertainty involved in cubit-based measurements, given the amount of variation there can be among adult male forearms.  So I guess connecting that to all the inherent uncertainties of quantum science and quantum computing makes a sort of sense.

I don’t know.  Maybe I’ve gotten so used to seeing the word spelled the way it’s spelled that it doesn’t bug me as much as it used to.  And knowing a little about the word’s history, and its apparent association with the cubit, probably helps to make the weird spelling a little more palatable for me.  But what about you?  Are you okay with qubit, or does that weird spelling make your eye twitch when you see it?

IWSG: Shiny New Idea Syndrome

Today’s post is part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a blog hop where insecure writers like myself can share our worries and offer advice and encouragement.  Click here to find out more about IWSG and see a list of participating blogs.

As I said in a recent post, I have a lot on my mind right now.  Good stuff.  Writing-related stuff. But still, it’s hard to focus on actual writing when I’m so distracted by writing-related ideas.

So for today’s episode of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, I going to turn the floor over to my muse.  She has something she’d like to say, and maybe it’s something your muse would like to hear.

* * *

Hello, I’m James’s imaginary friend, also known as his muse. It’s totally normal for adults to have imaginary friends, especially when those adults are writers.

It seems that I have created a problem for myself and my writer.  I recently brought him a new idea.  What is this idea?  That’s not important right now.  It’s a new idea, and it’s a really good idea (if I do say so myself), and that’s all that matters right now.

That was not the reaction I was hoping for. It’s one thing for a writer to be excited about a new idea, but quite another for a writer to get overexcited. Overexcited writers are a danger to themselves, their muses, and every single character in their story worlds.

As a muse, obviously you have to bring your writer great ideas, the best ideas you can find lurking in the depths of the subconscious. I do want my writer to use this new idea.  I wouldn’t have brought it to him otherwise.  But it’s a tricky thing, getting my writer to keep things in perspective, making sure he does not neglect all his other writerly duties.

So, my fellow muses, what do you do to keep your writers in line when a shiny new idea gets them a little too excited?

Wisdom of Sci-Fi: For the Benefit of Humanity

I’ve wanted to do a Wisdom of Sci-Fi post about Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice trilogy for some time now.  I absolutely love these books, and I’ve been telling every complete stranger I meet to go read them.  These books are full of so much wisdom.

But they’re not easy to quote.  For these Sci-Fi Wisdom posts, I really like to have a nice, pithy quote.  Something that really brings an important idea into focus.  That’s kind of hard to do with the Ancillary series.  I feel like you have to be immersed in the politics and culture and language of that universe before the truly poignant moments start to make sense.

However, I did find a quote in Ancillary Mercy (book three of the series) that does a decent job summing up what this series is all about:

How can there be any benefit at all?  She tells herself that, you know, that all of it is ultimately for the benefit of humanity, that everyone has their place, their part of the plan, and sometimes some individuals just have to suffer for that greater benefit. But it’s easy to tell yourself that, isn’t it, when you’re never the one on the receiving end.

The “she” referred to here is Anaander Mianaai, the ruler of the great and powerful space empire in which these stories are set.  Through the course of the series, we’ve either heard about or witnessed the many things Mianaai and her empire have done for the alleged benefit of humanity.

I guess you could say Mianaai has a “the ends justify the means” philosophy.  It’s easy to fall into that mode of thinking, even when you’re not the ruler of a vast space empire.  Who doesn’t want to fight for the benefit of their family, friends, co-workers, etc….  These are worthy causes.  The benefit of humanity is a worthy cause.  But when you accept that the ends justify the means, when you really start to believe that, then maybe all you’re doing is making excuses.  Maybe you’re just telling yourself you’re doing what’s right, even though you know you’re doing what’s wrong, and you’re desperately trying to ignore the full consequences of your actions.

Something to think about, at least, and to be on guard against in yourself and others.

P.S.: And seriously, if you haven’t read Ancillary Justice, I highly recommend it.  It’s the best book I’ve come across in many, many years.

The Softer Side of Sci-Fi

So I sort of screwed up my blogging agenda for this past week.  I just had too much other stuff on my mind, and I guess I needed time to sort things out in my head.  Such is life!

At least it’s good stuff, for a change. Writing stuff. World-building stuff.  I’m not sure how much I want to reveal at this point; but since this is a Friday, and since we usually talk about the definitions of science or science-related terms on Fridays, I’ll tell you about one thing.  It has to do with the definition of science fiction.

Or to be more precise, it has to do with the definitions of hard and soft science fiction.  Hard science fiction tries to portray science as accurately as possible, while soft science fiction takes more creative liberties (sometimes a whole lot more creative liberties) with scientific facts.  Pretty much every work of science fiction lies somewhere along a spectrum between hard and soft Sci-Fi.  Or at least that’s what I always thought these terms meant.

But then a week ago, I read an article that seemed to be defining soft science fiction in a way that didn’t make much sense to me.  I can’t find that article now (thanks for trying, Google), but when I turned to my trusty copy of Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, I found that yes, indeed, soft science fiction (and by extension hard science fiction as well) can be defined in two very different, almost contradictory ways.

To quote from Brave New Words, soft science fiction may be defined as “science fiction that deals primarily with advancements in, or extrapolations based on, the soft sciences (e.g., anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc.).”  And hard science fiction is, therefore, science fiction dealing with the hard sciences, like astronomy, physics, or chemistry.

So instead of being two ends of a spectrum that encompasses all of science fiction, hard and soft science fiction are merely two subgenres among a host of other subgenres like cyberpunk, space opera, alternative history, etc….  And weirdly, according to these new (or at least new to me) definitions, soft Sci-Fi is just as concerned with scientific accuracy as hard Sci-Fi.  It’s merely a different branch of science that it’s trying to be accurate about.

Maybe this is old news to some of you, but for me this has been a huge revelation.  Redefining hard and soft science fiction has been a major factor in all the re-thinking, re-writing, and re-world-building I’ve been doing this week.  However, this is not the big, central idea that’s been on my mind.  It’s more like a satellite thought orbiting that big idea, and its gravitational perturbations are being felt.

I’m going to leave it at that for now, but I’m sure I’ll have more to say in the coming weeks and months.  My IWSG post this coming Wednesday should be interesting.

Sciency Words: Shirt-Sleeve Environment

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:

SHIRT-SLEEVE ENVIRONMENT

I’ve seen this term, or terms very similar to it, in a lot of different places.  It’s usually obvious what it means from context.  A shirt-sleeve environment is an artificial environment where humans can wear ordinary clothing in safety and comfort. The cabin of a commercial airliner is a good example.  So is the interior of the International Space Station.

In the early days of aviation, pilots were far more exposed to the elements than they are today.  They had to wear specialized clothing, especially for high altitude flights.  It gets really cold up there above the clouds, and the air is very thin. Pressure suits were often essential, and in some cases those early pilots needed to bring supplemental oxygen with them.

There were several experiments in the early 20th Century to create safe, pressurized cockpits.  I guess these were technically shirt-sleeve environments, but they still sound to me like tight and uncomfortable spaces.  Maybe you could have worn your normal, everyday clothing in those cockpits, but I doubt you’d want to.

So the first true shirt-sleeve environment (in my judgment) would have been the Lockheed XC-35, built in 1937 for the U.S. Army Air Corps.  It had a pressurized cockpit, crew area, and passenger cabin, so the crew would have had plenty of room to move around comfortably in their comfortable clothes.

Apparently the Army called this a “supercharged cabin,” not a shirt-sleeve environment.  Based on what Google ngram tells me, it seems the term supercharged cabin was replaced with shirt-sleeve environment by the end of the 1950’s, right around the time the American space program was getting started.

As this 1960 paper from Boeing Airplane Company explains, “The term ‘shirt-sleeve environment’ means that the crew would be comfortable in this environment without any special equipment such as pressure suits.” And according to this 1958 paper on the structural stability of spacecraft, “Shirt-sleeves can become the normal flight clothing in sealed cabins under [sea-level type] conditions.  In terms of human performance, the advantages of a sea-level atmosphere have been clearly demonstrated by the experiences of Ross and Lewis during the recent Strato-Lab High 2 and 3 flights.”

In modern space exploration literature, the International Space Station is typically cited as the most impressive shirt-sleeve environment yet constructed.  The term is also used to describe the kinds of habitats we’d like to build for ourselves on the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere in the Solar System.

So remember: when you’re packing your bags for space, you don’t have to be too picky about which shirts you bring.

Update on “Dialogue with a Cyborg”

I’d hoped I’d have part two of “Dialogue with a Cyborg” ready for today, but things didn’t work out as planned.  Maybe that’s for the best.  I’ll finish it for next week, and that’ll give my beta readers a chance to look over it too.

In the meantime, if you haven’t read part one of the story, click here so you’ll be all caught up when part two comes out.

Wait… What If I’ve Been Brainwashed?

For those of you who read my post last week about brainwashing, I have to tell you that post did not turn out the way I originally imagined it would.  I thought it was going to be a silly, tongue-in-cheek kind of post.  I was even working on a silly, tongue-in-cheek illustration to go with it.

But as I did my research and fleshed out my original first draft, the subject matter ended up being more serious than I expected. I realized I had a point I wanted to make, and I decided to go all in with making that point. Unfortunately, by the time I was done, the art no longer fit the tone of the blog post. At least not in my opinion. So I decided not to use it.

Even so, a fun drawing is still a fun drawing, so after thinking it over this weekend I decided to share the illustration anyway. Here it is:

I don’t know, maybe I’m over thinking things.  Maybe I should have gone ahead and used the illustration anyway.

What do you think?  Should I have used this in last week’s Sciency Words post, or would it have detracted too much from the point I was trying to make?  Please let me know in the comments, and I’ll keep your thoughts in mind the next time this happens.

Sciency Words: Brainwashing

Welcome to another episode of Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together.  Today’s term is:

BRAINWASHING

Ladies and gentlemen, some of you may be under the impression that there are people out there in the world who have been brainwashed. Advanced psychological techniques have been used against these poor souls.  They’ve lost the capacity for rational, independent thought. Why else would people join cults or vote for certain politicians or do many of the other crazy things people are doing these days?

But I am here to tell you that brainwashing of that kind does not exist.  Sure, there is such a thing as social conditioning, which teaches us what is or is not culturally acceptable in the communities we live in.  There are also propaganda campaigns, which seek to win an argument by misrepresenting the other side.  There’s also coercion via torture.  But no, I’m talking about brainwashing: the subversion of human free will, the transformation of people into puppet-like automata.  That’s not a real thing.

The term brainwashing was coined by American journalist/C.I.A. propagandist Edward Hunter.  In 1950, Hunter wrote an article for the Miami Daily News titled “Brain-washing Tactics Force Chinese Into Ranks of Communist Party.”  Hunter followed this up with a book titled Brain-washing in Red China, describing the “terrifying methods that have put an entire nation under hypnotic control.”  Hunter apparently translated the term straight from the Mandarin xi-nao, meaning “wash-brain.”

Hunter also sought to explain away the false confessions of American soldiers who’d been captured during the Korean War and were being held in Chinese P.O.W. camps.  According to this article from Smithsonian Magazine, Hunter attributed those confessions to some sort of ancient Chinese art of mind control (I feel like there should be a Chinese gong sound effect here, to really reinforce the stereotypes behind that notion).

The truth was that the American P.O.W.s had been tortured. Nothing more mysterious than that. People will say almost anything when they’re being tortured.  That doesn’t mean they believe what they’re saying.  It just means they want the torture to stop.  But the concept of brainwashing as some mystical Chinese art, or perhaps a secret Soviet technology, caught on in the U.S. After all, why else would large numbers of people choose to support communism over capitalism?

Last week, I told you about a list of fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid.  Brainwashing was on that list, because the term is often so vaguely defined that it can apply to almost any form of persuasion.  To quote from the original article:

Nevertheless, the attitude-change techniques used by so-called “brainwashers” are no different than standard persuasive methods identified by social psychologists, such as encouraging commitment to goals, manufacturing source credibility, forging an illusion of group consensus, and vivid testimonials.

Going back to those Korean War P.O.W.s who were tortured, the fifty terms to avoid article explains that relatively few of them gave the false confessions their captors wanted, and of those few even fewer retained the communist ideologies they’d supposedly held while in captivity.  This suggests that the ancient mystical Chinese art of brainwashing had an astonishingly low success rate.  As for those very few who did remain “brainwashed” upon returning to the U.S., it seems they’d already been part of America’s communist subculture beforehand.

Even articles I looked at that say brainwashing is a real thing (and purportedly teach you how to guard yourself against it) concede that brainwashing techniques only work well on people who are either vulnerable (due to depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc) or who are already predisposed to believe whatever their brainwashers want them to believe.  For example, if you already think the end of the world is near, it’s not so difficult for a cult leader to persuade you to join his or her end of the world cult.

So if you think someone’s been brainwashed, I’m sorry.  You’re wrong. You’re going to have to deal with the fact that other people genuinely believe things that you disagree with. They may or may not have good reasons for doing so.  You can argue with them.  You can try to get them to see things from a different perspective.  In extreme cases where physical or psychological abuse is at work, you can try to get them help.  But you cannot merely dismiss your fellow human beings as brainwashed zombies.