Temporary tattoo tech

Charles Q. Choi, writing at Txchnologist and republished by io9, has written an article about an incredible new experimental technology -- temporary tattoos that can translate the product of thought into useful digital signal.

Choi writes:

Commanding machines using the brain is no longer the stuff of science fiction. In recent years, brain implants have enabled people to control robotics using only their minds, raising the prospect that one day patients could overcome disabilities using bionic limbs or mechanical exoskeletons.

But brain implants are invasive technologies, probably of use only to people in medical need of them. Instead, Coleman and his team are developing wireless flexible electronics one can apply on the forehead just like temporary tattoos to read brain activity.

"We want something we can use in the coffee shop to have fun," Coleman says.


In past studies, Coleman's team found that volunteers could use caps studded with electrodes to remotely control airplanes and flew an unmanned aerial vehicle over cornfields in Illinois. Although the electronic tattoos currently cannot be used to pilot planes, "we're actively working on that," Coleman says.

These devices can also be put on other parts of the body, such as the throat. When people think about talking, their throat muscles move even if they do not speak, a phenomenon known as subvocalization. Electronic tattoos placed on the throat could therefore behave as subvocal microphones through which people could communicate silently and wirelessly.

"We've demonstrated our sensors can pick up the electrical signals of muscle movements in the throat so that people can communicate just with thought," Coleman says. Electronic tattoos placed over the throat could also pick up signals that would help smartphones with speech recognition, he added.

This stuff is really cool, and, being right around the corner, renders quite a lot of my standing sci fi assumptions useless.  (One of my Clarion application stories makes roughly no sense given a world with this technology.  Not that there's no way to patch that.)

Also, it seems to me a short step from telepathy-enabling temporary tattoos to telepathy-enabling permanent tattoos.  Which I want.  Very much.

Review: Ender's Game

I finished reading Ender's Game on Friday night.  I've been meaning to read it for several years now, after many people had insisted that it's life-changingly good.  Ultimately, I was disappointed.  This book is fantastic, as far as the quality of writing goes.  It's deeply engaging, believable, and vivid.  I have no complaints to make about the quality of the book as a work of fiction.  Everything that follows is why I was disappointed with it as a work of serious emotional significance.  Review, including spoilers, below the fold.

The first thing that bothered me about Ender's Game was that it's a power fantasy.  If I had read this book when I was little, I would probably have liked it a lot more, because it's all about children who are smarter than everyone else.  But not just children -- There are books with some amazing children in them that make a lot more sense.  The Hunger Games, for example, or Harry Potter.  The difference between Ender's Game and these books is that, at his highest level of achievement, Ender is about twelve years old.  He is frustratingly perfect, and reminded me frequently of the TVTropes entry, Cursed with Awesome.

The morality of the book, too, is all very cheaply convenient.  Ender, of course, constantly struggles emotionally with the fact that he's super awesome and amazing at everything.  I mean, the reason is that there are a bunch of adults trying to emotionally wreck him, but it's all for a good cause.  Except that it's not, because (a.) the Buggers weren't coming back, and (b.) if it weren't for the intervention of Ender's sociopath older brother, the world would have descended into horrific violence as soon as the war was over.  Humans in Ender's Game suck.

The whole thing reminded me very much of Ayn Rand -- the way that people get kind of fanatical about her.  It's got roughly the same thesis:  That super humans who are inherently better than everyone else are going to singlehandedly make the world a better place, acting entirely out of self-interest.  Notably, the weakest of the three super humans, the one with the least agency, is Valentine, who is the most inherently caring towards other people.

Ender's Game takes this thesis to an absurd extreme with a handful of children who are smarter than everyone else, nearly smarter than everyone else combined -- but I think it's more problematic in the sense that it encourages the view that some people really are more valid, more special than others.  It's the opening premise of fascism:  some people, if given all the power, will make the world a better place.

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

I've been meaning to get around to reading something by Ursula K. Le Guin for a while now, and I honestly picked up the Left Hand of Darkness half out of a sense of obligation.  It's one of those books I knew I should read, which doesn't always translate into books I want to read.  [1. I feel the same way about Ender's Game, by the way, which I'm reading now because my little brother insisted.] I'm really glad I read this, though.  And I'm eager to read more of Le Guin's work.[2. Which won't be for a while, because the next twenty or so books I'm reading are all by teachers at this year's Clarion, in case I get in.]

The general idea of the story is:  Genly Ai, a human male envoy (the "first mobile") has come to a planet, Gethen, populated by a species of human that doesn't have two sexes, and doesn't have a gender binary.  A big part of the appeal of this book is the astounding quality of the thought experiment, what would civilization be like without a sex divide?  But that's not all worth reading in it.

Not totally spoilery content below, but with more information about what the book contains past the first couple chapters.

For clarity, I should explain:  any given Gethenian is usually -- not asexual, but sexually dormant, and during their sexually active period may shift into either a male or female role.  They neither have control over which way they shift on any given period of sexual activity, nor only ever shift into one sex or the other for their entire lives.  If a Gethenian takes on the female role in one particular period of sexual activity, they may become pregnant, and for nine months plus nursing time their body remains more in a state like femaleness.  This isn't a species with secret genders only expressed sometimes, it's a species where everyone has the same relationship to their sexual and procreative organs as everyone else.

It's genuinely striking, when you read this book, to keep noticing that it feels like half of a species is missing.  Everyone is treated equally as full members of society, and you feel that sense that there's a second class missing.  Genly consistently fails to acclimate to the fundamental differences between Gethenian civilizations and ours, and so did I.  In that sense, it's very illustrative of humans' internalized sexism.[3. At first I wrote "Actual humans," but I don't want to suggest that the Gethenians aren't human.  I was going for "non-fictional" but fell short.]

But I don't want to go on forever about the gender identity part of the book.  I hope you read it, and everything I say about it will detract from its impact when you do.

The thing I liked best about the book, I think, was the backstory about how Genly got there.   He represented the Ekumen, an interplanetary organization that primarily focused on organizing trade.  Every planet they represented, though, was populated by humans, and every one discovered the way that Gethen was discovered, populated by humans of some kind or another.

The universe, we discover, was subject to some great trauma, and at some point before that, there were people who went to planets and abandoned groups of humans.  Genly thinks it's likely that the Gethenians were an experiment performed by some unethical group, to remove sexual differentiation from humanity, populate a planet with them, and see what happens.

The narrative of the book comes entirely through two perspectives, Genly's field notes and the journal of Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, as well as a handful of stories from the Genethian oral tradition.  I didn't really expect it to be, but the story that these narratives end up telling is enthralling in its own right.  I was about two thirds of the way through the book before I realized that I cared more about what was going to happen to and between Genly and Estraven than I did about learning more about Gethen.

Altogether this is an incredibly good book, and I recommend it highly, and look forward to when I'm going to have the time to give it a second read.


John Scalzi on What it means to be a self-made man

(via Boing Boing) Sci Fi writer John Scalzi has written an excellent post on his blog called A Self-Made Man Looks At How He Made It.  It's a great read, and a great breakdown of the nearly limitless supply of gaps in the "Self-made man" myth.  He starts right up from the point of his birth, and makes it all the way up to now, when he really is on top of his life, secure, and comfortable.

A lot of the criticisms of the self-made man argument start at that point.  Those criticisms are valid -- he still uses public roads, relies on the fire department, the police force, and the electrical grid -- and Scalzi doesn't deny that.  But he doesn't say he ought to pay taxes now.  He says he's glad to, because he feels it's the good and right thing to do, to keep giving other people the opportunities he had.

My favorite part is this one, near the end:

I know what I have been given and what I have taken. I know to whom I owe. I know that what work I have done and what I have achieved doesn’t exist in a vacuum or outside of a larger context, or without the work and investment of other people, both within the immediate scope of my life and outside of it. I like the idea that I pay it forward, both with the people I can help personally and with those who will never know that some small portion of their own hopefully good fortune is made possible by me.

Read the whole post.  It's worth the reminders.

Vernor Vinge at Google

Today is a good day for good video.  Jane McGonigal released a new TED talk, John Green put up his first video on Fahrenheit 451, which I can't watch yet because I haven't gotten around to reading the first section of the book[EDIT: I caved, and am watching it now.  I guess It'll just inform my reading when I get around to it.], and Vernor Vinge's Author Talk at Google went up. I've been meaning to start catching up on Vernor Vinge's thinking and writing for a while now, because he's one of the popular names in the Singularity conversation -- he's the guy who came up with that name.  Personally, my opinion on the Singularity went back and forth for a while, and has now settled into a comfortable state of "I have no ████ing clue what's going on, but I don't think things are going to be the way they are now, this time next year."

This Google Talk turned out to be a pretty nice way to start to dip my toes in -- I found I could follow all of it, which was a plus, and I liked that it explored more Vinge's portrayals of the Singularity in fiction, rather than his beliefs about it in real life -- which seem, largely, to be:  He thinks it will happen, but accepts the possibility it won't, and doesn't have the remotest clue what it will entail.

Here's the talk, also embedded below:

And if you're not familiar with Google Author Talks, it's a channel all on its own, and generally features a few talks a week, mostly around an hour long.  I watch all but the ones that seem really, really boring.  There are probably at least some that would interest you.