Author Archives: sands

The Solitude of the Long Distance Blade Runner

It’s rare that a movie diverges from a good book in some significant ways and still finds its way to greatness. That is what happened here though.

Let’s begin with the book. Its backbone is relationships, social acceptance, and need. Our character of focus in both the book at the movie, Deckard, struggles immediately with the real, the not real, and the state of the human condition when presented with these alternatives. We are introduced to the Penfield mood organ, the first piece of technology that complicates the relationship between the human and itself and others, and calls into question what is real, what is simulated/stimulated, and what realities those simulations draw a sharp contrast against. In the book, the state of the world is much more explicit as well. These simulations and the impulse, for instance, to own a live animal (or pretend w/ the purchase of an electric one), or to protect one’s reproductive abilities with a codpiece describe the circumstances that these technological interventions are offered in.

The book also offers a more isolating view of our (semi/anti)-hero. The discussions between Deckard and his wife, the romantic interactions with one of his targets, and especially toward the end of the story where he flies out into the vast wastelands with suicidal undertones, only to return with false hope. All of these paint a much more tragic picture of individual life in decaying world than the rugged character we see in the movie. The book’s picture of Deckard is largely pathetic and despondent, as we watch him fail in arguments with his wife, desperately attempt to upgrade his social status, and be tricked by people more powerful than him.


Howard Pyle illustration of pirate marooned, from Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates.

One of the most fascinating explorations is the nuanced interplay between what is real consciousness / real life, and where the line is drawn between the increasingly blurring line between real and artificial beings and experiences. Deckard’s struggle with his sympathies for the plight of the androids (or at least one, which is enough) and the cognitive dissonance that results from this struggle is at the center of this exploration. The desperate design to own a real live animal instead of a convincing electronic replica is another theme that runs along this duality. The mood organ plays along these lines as well. These technologies all raise questions about the reality of the solution that technology has provided. When it has invaded so completely the aspects of life that govern our emotions, the impact of these technologies becomes much more important.

The film doesn’t touch nearly as much on Deckard’s personal struggle in these ways, and we aren’t given nearly as much explicit information about the state of the planet as in the book, but it offers much more in the scale and mood of life in this “evolved” world. The tone of the scenes, the darkness and brooding that the set design and rain-drenched cityscapes say as much about what the characters’ lives are like as the descriptions in the book, using different media. Much more is said without words, but with long slow pans, and silent stares between the characters. The tension in the dialog also speaks loudly in the film. This rush and anxiety is not quite as palpable in the book.

In the end, both the book and the film have a lot to offer. They both do fascinating things in exploring the gamut of living to non-living, and how we interact with intelligences at points along it.


Ghost Planets – Viewing Beyond Time

When fiction takes you to a place that is unique, when the experience is so unique that it’s almost as high resolution as the first experience of something in the real world, it has an odd effect. It is almost like waking up from a dream where the experience seems so bizarre in the context of reality that the thought stays with you for much longer. The beginning of “Diaspora” by Greg Egan had this effect on me. It is perhaps the abstract yet dense, delirious yet explicit nature of the first chapter “Orphanogenesis” that had such an impact on me. The chapter describes the emerging of a consciousness (not yet self-conscious) from a technology designed to birth the ancestors of “fleshers”; humans from the distant past that had uploaded their DNA into the system to promulgate a new species, untethered in space.

This last bit is the part that inspired me the most. The beings were described moving about across broad regions of outer space, in one instances, running over to see an asteroid being mined by some fleshers, commenting, almost humorously, at least pityingly, about how one wrong move could destroy them all. The book goes on to describe their ability to anticipate events, calculate them forward in space, and in effect. This ability to move, seemingly without respect to physics, lead me to think at length about what life and perception would be like for these creatures, what these abilities allowed them that ours do not, and what steps we could take toward seeing the cosmos in a greater breadth and richness.

Radial Velocity Calculations

Using a formula from the MIT Astrophysics department, I was able to create a visualization that imagined the ability to see over great time spans, pattern in space. Radial Velocity measures the speed with which an object rotates around a point. Observing this change allows astronomers to hunt for planets, as the gravitational pull on a star as planets orbit around it causes it to “wobble” back and forth, but of course over great periods of time. This calculation can be quite complex, as it needs to take into account the motion of the observer, but the ultimate wobble can be ascertained and encoded in a formula. The formula used here was for our own star, the Sun, as would be viewed from alien planet-hunters. The input for each data point the formula generates is a point in time. As such, it can be fed incrementing time values and a picture can emerge about what this wobble looks like over time.

sound waves

The visualization I created does just this. It maps out, over 1000 years, the location along an axis of the wobble of our own star. Ghost Planets shows the sun as it could be seen by a being able to look at time as easily as we look at a wave form of an audio recording. The sun in the visualization traverses from left to right around the central point shifting down slightly for every rotation, so that the viewer sees the pattern of orbit dramatically scaled, revealing patterns of oscillation, and the secret life of a star.


What I imagine is taking this technology of viewing celestial objects further and embedding it in an exploratory visualization tool, allowing the user to quickly see, for a known planetary system, what the profile across time is for each unit, and potentially mining this data for patterns, allowing the explorer to quickly at a glance dive much deeper not only into an object’s current state frozen in time, but as it has been across time.

Syd Mead

In case anyone is still hunting for a final project, perhaps consider this Syd Mead joint?

Here are a few other favorites from my first scan:

Another favorite artist of mine is Yuri Shwedoff:

Design Considerations for Teleportation Gates

Assuming the existence and feasibility of sending information via entangled particles, which has been already thought through quite a bit, there are a fair amount of design choices still to be made. Actually all of them. Almost all of them. Most of the imagining done about the physical mechanisms that will be required for this process have not been thought through because much of the technology, power consumption needs, potential radiation hazards to imagine a few, have yet to be invented. But that’s no reason to move forward with engineering potential solutions.

Some assumptions are simple if we assume human and luggage transport: People will need to get comfortably in and out of the transporter. Let’s assume that your luggage will travel on an independent send, much like checking your baggage at the airport. If current quantum teleportation technology holds, you will need to be completely destroyed and reconstructed on the other end with new atoms. That given, one requirement will be to hold completely still. This likely means you will need to hold pretty damn still during the annihilation phase. (Hm, it appears that the language used for this process could use some design thought as well.)

One option is a form to lay in that will make it easy to stay still. If your legs have to sit in a trough, they can’t angle out of position nearly as easily. Unfortunately, this has the drawback of being sized to one person. An adaptive form feels like it would require an overly complicated mechanism, with today’s engineering. Adapting to the size of a child would be difficult.

Let’s say then that a better solution would be to be held rigid by other means. Electrical stimulation of the muscles is known to cause rigidity with the right voltage. Presuming that this doesn’t interfere with the analysis and decomposition of your atoms, one could be chemically knocked out, and electrocuted in such a way that the body stiffens and stays perfectly still. Once this process begins, the analysis and translation of the position and state of your atoms can begin safely and you’ll be awakening in Paris in one piece in no time.

It is possible that the energy demands for a send could be very high and efficiencies in transport design could end up being quite important, so likely we can image the design of these facilities as having many parallel “beds” so that many people can be transported at once. This begs a number of parallelization concerns for the data stream that would need to be accounted for on the opposite side, and likely identical facilities on either end of the transport. Let’s hope they don’t run Windows.


“The Lonely Sea In The Sky” by Amal El-Mohtar

This is a story written from the perspective of a woman, Dr. Leila Ghufran, “allegedly exhibiting signs of succumbing to the middle stages of Meisner Syndrome”, an affliction characterized by “obsessive behavior related to the study of diamonds”, especially of extraterrestrial origin.

As part of her therapy (which includes being isolated in a deep crater far away from most light; supposedly good for treatment of the syndrome) she is asked to write about how she feels about her state and diagnosis. She has the attitude that it is all absurd. The stated symptoms are so vague that it’s easy to imagine anyone being accused of being afflicted, she suggests.

The story introduces the diamond-like mineral “Lucyite” (named after the Beatles song), which it was found, when super-heated, instantly teleports itself back to Neptune, the origin of the material. The hope is that this can be harnessed to enable teleportation as a mode of transportation.

Time progresses and Paragon Industries is the next character we meet: A corporation which designs a world-wide series of gates (called “Melee”) with this mineral to act as a transportation system for goods and humans. The first words of the first traveler through this system, the president of Paragon, are “One small step for man…”. The entire system runs off of one massive chunk of Lucyite retrieved, brought back to Earth, and split into entangled masses.

As the story progresses, our narrator starts to show little signs that hint toward what might be her actual affliction with Meisner Syndrome. In addition to obsession and alternating between extreme focus and zen-like calm, cold flashes and the need to quench them with a hot bath are listed in the literature. This is the first moment when we get a clear suggestion that the syndrome she is supposedly suffering from might be real. Her writing also increasingly loops back to discussions of diamonds, their history and properties, their place in culture, and her memories of them when young. An anxiety begins to build through her letters.

Out of the story’s chronology, we read reports of the initial incident involving Dr. Ghufran where she is found with Lucyite crystals embedded in her hands and lips, cutting her to the point of bleeding, rendering her unresponsive, and then angry. Her incident echoes some of the ways that Lucyite is talked about in the story (wanting to return to its place of origin) and how Meisner Syndrome is talked about in a group of Lucyite defenders’ (“Friends of Lucy”) manifesto, claiming that Meisner Syndrome is a lie, that Lucyite is actually alive, and that its use is similar to that of eating animals. There are themes of the control of nature being pushed forward despite a deep understanding of the aspects of nature being manipulated.

We are left at the end of the story with an admission from Dr. Ghufran in her writings: That when she was found with Lucyite in her hands, and they had been so carefully picked out by doctors so she wouldn’t bring any of them with her, she had actually swallowed as much as she could. Her writings indicate that she believes in, or has perhaps merged with to some degree, the consciousness that is represented by the greater collection of Lucyite (that which had been taken to Earth, and that which existed as a sea of liquid diamond on Neptune). Her embodiment of this consciousness (though still her voice and person) explains that what it wants is for the return of all of Lucyite to its home on Neptune, as if members of its family, or fractions of itself had been taken forcefully and it yearned for their return. Dr. Ghufran ends by detailing her plan to find a way back to earth and release all of the Lucyite by collapsing the Melee system back on earth so it may all be freed to teleport back to its home.


This story weaves beautiful ideas of alternate, unimagined, misperceived consciousness and forms of life into cultural references of how mesmerized we are by certain things, especially magical things that by virtue of their magical properties, we lack an understanding of. It references the ability to turn away from things that we do not understand if that turning away allows us to gain some comfort or ability of lifestyle that we’d rather not do without. This is why it is important for a diversity of authors to be active in the sci-fi genre. The range of perspectives of lives lived from a different point in power dynamics, in culture, in gender, is critical to project into our idea of the future and what should be considered as the next generations define what they mean when they say “progress”.

The author can be found on Twitter at @tithenai.