Saturday, February 21, 2015

Emergent behavior

Another line of research...

Emergent behavior is at the heart of Tiamat's Nest on two distinct levels. Charles studies collective human behavior, where large groups act in ways that bear no resemblance to how individuals behave. And the complexity of the global network hides a nasty surprise.

So what is emergence?

It's what often happens when lots of things interact, usually following very simple rules. Things start happening on the collective level that were not designed into the individual units or the rules by which they act. Entirely unexpected behaviors and properties emerge, as if by magic.

This is best illustrated with a few examples

Temperature and pressure of a gas are properties of the gas as a whole, not of any one molecule. They are macro properties that emerge from lots of freely-moving molecules bouncing around. The most remarkable thing about the ideal gas law is that the same equation relates temperature and pressure to the amount of gas in a given volume regardless of what the gas is made up of.

The whole inexhaustible science of chemistry emerges from comparatively simple quantum-mechanical laws governing how electrons, protons, and neutrons interact. So do such diverse real-world effects as the conductivity of metals, the blue of the midday sky, the violence of nitroglycerin, and the beauty of snowflakes. None of these could easily be predicted just from looking at how subatomic particles behave.

These are all physical examples, but have you ever been part of a large group of people where you've felt swept along by events that don't seem to be wanted by any individual you speak to, but which take place relentlessly nonetheless? Mob behavior is notoriously and dangerously unpredictable. "The tragedy of the commons" is a self-destructive property of pretty much any group with a scarce resource. Stock market booms and busts are more complex behaviors of the market that are in nobody's interest, but which emerge from lots of simpler financial interactions.

Pretty much anywhere you have sufficiently large collections of units interacting in some way, you can expect some unexpected properties and behaviors to emerge.

Charles studies the emergent behaviors of large groups of people, but where does Tiamat come into the equation?

Have you ever been driving down the highway when you met a line of slow moving traffic? After a mile or two of crawling along, things speed up again with no obvious explanation for the hold-up. You've just been part of a pressure wave, very similar to a sound wave in air.

Waves, whether in molecules in air, atoms in a crystal, or cars in traffic, arise from the molecules, atoms, or cars following a very simple rule: don't get too close to your neighbor.

This illustrates another typical feature of emergence - properties emerge from the interactions, the rules, regardless of what the individual units consist of. One name for this is substrate independence.

This principle is important because some theories of the mind reckon that consciousness and intelligence are emergent properties of certain types of information processing networks. If that's true, then there should be nothing special about neurons themselves. They are simply the substrate enacting the rules. Another substrate, say a complex enough computer network that happens to embody the right kinds of rules, should therefore exhibit the same properties - whether we designed it or not.

Now that's scary!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Quick on the draw

I've been playing with a new toy this week.

In the course of writing, I tend to draw a lot of diagrams. I blogged about this years ago, so no need to repeat the details other than to say that I need to see the space my characters inhabit - in the form of copious maps and plans.

Now that I'm slowly developing my website, I want to share some of this background material online. The trouble is, these are all hand-sketched and largely incomplete. Good enough for writing purposes, where I only need enough to visualize the scene, but not good quality for publication.

I figured the best way to deal with this is to complete selected drawings electronically, using a suitable drawing tool.

The plans for the cruiser Merciless are my first foray into this experiment.
 Here's the original sketch for comparison.
To execute these plans I borrowed a laptop and used Visio. It was easy and satisfying to do and I'm pleased with the results, so I want to do more along the same lines which means investing in drawing software of my own. Because I use a Mac, after some research into Visio alternatives I settled on iDraw.

I use Visio a lot at work and I'm extremely comfortable with it, so switching to iDraw is a bit of a culture shock.

Many of the general concepts are similar to Visio, so it's not completely alien, but there are some basic differences in behavior that keep tripping me up. There's a lot to learn and it's all laid out differently which makes it difficult for someone used to the MS Office look and feel.

Overall, I like Visio, but I suspect iDraw will end up being more suited to my needs. Visio is a great business diagramming tool. iDraw is more of a drawing tool, and offers much greater flexibility to achieve results beyond boxes and lines.

It just takes time...

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Call for beta readers

Would anyone out there care to read Tiamat's Nest to help me steer it through the final editing stages?


In a world where weather forecasting has become a life-or-death profession, hard sciences and technology are the only things keeping people alive and fed. Anthropologists, soft and useless, rank slightly below politicians and telemarketers on the social scale. This sucks for Charles Hawthorne, Professor of Anthropology.

Worse yet, his research into human behavior has got dangerously close to revealing how human history ended up on its current miserable course, and the perpetrator is hell-bent on keeping it hidden.

Worst of all, with everything mechanical under computer control the most innocuous device is a potential murder weapon to a well-connected villain. After a series of deadly near-misses Charles flees to the wilds of Greenland where the global network has yet to reach. But to deal with the threat, to save himself and his family, Charles has to confront technology full on and enter the even more hostile world online.

Saving humanity from a lifetime of slavery comes as an added bonus.


I'm nearing the end of my current round of revisions, and I'm looking for a small handful of beta readers to provide feedback into the next stage. The latest version will be ready for circulation later this month, and I'm looking for people who can commit to a (maximum) two-month turnaround.

I'm aiming for publication this summer, so timing is important. Only respond if you're confident you can read and provide comments before the end of April. At the same time, please let me know what you would like in return, e.g. a read of your own novel.

You can respond in the comments on this blog with instructions on how to contact you. If you are not comfortable showing your email address here (and I can understand that, I choose not to publicize my email address) then drop me a note via my website's contact form.

Thanks in advance...

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Sci-fi artwork

Whew! After a lot of digital camerawork, uploading, and formatting, I've finally created a gallery of paintings on my website.

I'm missing a handful of older paintings that are sitting at my parents' house back in Guernsey, but there are 25 images on view spanning almost exactly two thirds of my life.

Time for a celebratory beer.
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