Visiting Chrome

“What do you want to do tonight?” I asked Eve.

“Dunno. What do you want to do?”

“I’m up for anything,” I said, in a rare moment of underestimating the true meaning of ‘anything.’

“Well,” she said, pointing to her laptop screen, “this looks interesting.”

And so it was we left this plane of reality and stepped into William Gibson’s version of 2014, as seen from the mid-1980s.

It wasn’t actually our intention to travel to a dystopian alternate reality, you understand. We were looking for an evening’s casual entertainment, and didn’t feel like watching Guardians of the Galaxy. So she did a Google search, and found a thing called Richmond Night Market.

If Canada had truth-in-advertising laws, the name “Richmond Night Market” might raise eyebrows at whatever regulatory bodies (tribal meetings of Kurgan warriors? Men in polar bear skins pounding on each other with long decorative spears?) may exist in the bitter frozen wastelands of the North.

“Richmond Night Market.” It’s what you might call a flea market with unorthodox hours, or perhaps a weekly gathering of fishmongers selling wares straight off the boat to the finest sushi restaurants in downtown Vancouver. “Richmond Night Market.” The name conjures wholesome images of open-air commerce, the sort of place where one might go to buy a new china bowl for serving fruit punch in.

One would not expect, from the name, a gigantic rubber duck. Nor a dystopian world of stimrunners and outlawed bioactives, shivs and black docs.

We got there after sunset. The line already wrapped around the fenced perimeter, snaking beneath massive concrete pilings supporting the whining elevated trains. Loudspeakers encouraged us to buy books of passes, which would get us in at a discounted rate. Eve climbed a bit of broken concrete and leaned over the perimeter fence for a picture.

We eventually made our way in, via a quick bit of social engineering to persuade the people in line around us to pool our resources for a passbook (“skip the line!” the cute Asian woman hawking them said. “Save fifty cents!”). Passbook in hand, our ratag group went to the special entrance, and stepped through the perimeter into…into…

If Ridley Scott decided to do an adaptation of Neuromancer, this is where you’d go to find a Netrunner. If Neal Stephenson were to reimagine Snow Crash as a Canadian made-for-TV series, you might find Raven here, scowling and skulking among the stalls. If I ever run a postcyberpunk RPG, this place will be there, somewhere, a glittering Easter egg of neon and LEDs waiting for the players to find.

On the surface, the Richmond Night Market is an open-air collection of vendors selling wares. But such a simple explanation fails to do justice to it, in the way that describing the Great Pyramid of Cheops as a “big pile of rocks” or the combined works of William Shakespeare as “a bunch of words about people being awful to each other” fails to convey the pure Platonic essence of these things.

Richmond Night Market is an open-air collection of vendors selling wares. But such a place it is, and such wares.

Upon entering the Richmond Night Market through the special, skip-the-line-with-your-magic-passbook gate, one is confronted with a riot of bright lights and busy signs, most in Chinese and English, some in Chinese only. Crowds of people flow like oil through the interstitial spaces between the stalls, while vendors work busily to separate them from their money.

We passed hastily-erected tents offering e-cigarettes (“Vape! Vape! Better than smoking!”), small radio-controlled drones with cameras on them, and long black swords (“buy one, get one free!”). Next to the stall selling smartphone accessories was another selling DNA typing (“put your name on the registry! Find an organ donor!”). A dazzling display of laser lights led to a bored-looking woman with a collection of drop knives and canisters of pepper spray. Across from her, another booth offered stem cell tissue typing (“must be between 18 and 35,” the stern-looking woman said). Around the corner, we found small paper buckets of battered squid tentacles, deep-fried Mars bars, and computer services (“Unlock your phone! Run any software! Any software you like!”) Eve accepted a sample of exotic tea in a tiny paper cup that leaked. “They don’t seem terribly interested in selling tea,” I said. “Probably contraband biologicals in the back.”

At one booth, a dour-looking man about the size of Philadelphia stood with his arms folded. A small sign was propped against the table, showing two exuberantly muscled men standing back to back, one holding a sword. “What do–?” I started to ask. He growled. “I’ll just keep moving, then,” I said.

Signs tied to an enormous rubber ducky with bits of nylon rope promised a Magical Candyland. We wandered around, blinking, until we found it: a low concrete wall with flaking paint, behind which a couple of elderly women sold lollipops from a yellowing plastic bin. I didn’t ask what the magic was; I’m still not entirely sure I want to know.

A momentary turbulence in the flow of people disgorged a friend of Eve’s. “I found pens!” she said, before the crowd swallowed her again. “Hello Kitty!” Behind her, a man dressed as a panda sold airline tickets to mainland China. “Samsung TV!” said a guy to my right. “True 4K! Only $3,000!”

“Who the hell,” I asked Eve, “comes here and drops three thousand bucks on an impulse buy?”

We wandered through the noise and mayhem, feeling a bit like the main character of Zero Theorem at the party. Everyone around us seemed to move with purpose, crowds of people here each with an agenda, and almost none of those agendas involving Hello Kitty pens. Eddies swirled in the crowd, looking random–one in front of the DNA testing tent, another at the place selling drones. “Vape! Vape! Run any software! Tissue typing!” A crowd gathered in front of the booth advertising “The secret knowledge of the Bible, what Jesus REALLY said!” and disappeared just as quickly.

Eventually, the flow of the crowd deposited us near where we’d come in. “So, um,” she said, “are you ready to leave? Because this place–”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I am.”

We headed out empty-handed. I was too old for tissue typing, didn’t have a spare three thousand dollars for a new TV, and wasn’t sure I wanted to start trafficking in restricted biochemical agents just that evening.

Still, I will admit to some nostalgia for the days when we thought dystopia would mean netrunners and celebrities with Zeiss Ikon eyes, rather than the dreary same-old same-old of run-of-the-mill corporate malfeasance and Middle Eastern war we ended up with. We had, for a brief, shining moment, a taste of the more interesting ways society might have run off the rails, and that world seemed so much more fascinating than the dystopia we settled for.

Nome, Alaska: Simultaneous Sunrise and Sunset

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, as every fule know.

What we don’t often think about is this is really true only at the equator, and even there it’s only entirely true during the solstices. For people anywhere else, or at any other time, the sun actually rises in the northeast and sets in the northwest (if you’re in the southern hemisphere) or rises in the southeast and sets in the southwest (if you’re in the southern hemisphere). Or at least it would, if the earth weren’t tilted on its axis.

Since the earth is tilted, not only does the sun generally not rise and set at locations 180 degrees apart from each other, the location of sunrise and sunset wobbles as the year goes on.

When you’re north of the Arctic Circle, things get really weird.

At the summer solstice, the sun doesn’t set at all, and during the winter solstice, it never rises. The rest of the time, it makes circles in the sky. The circles wobble as the year goes by…during the summer, most of the circle is above the horizon, and as winter comes, the circle sinks below the horizon. (So, if you plot the path of the sun in the sky–when it is in the sky–over the course of time, it actually does a spiral.)

Last night, Eve and I climbed to the top of Anvil Mountain just outside Nome, Alaska (which is near enough to the Arctic Circle to see some of the weirdness) at 2 o’clock in the morning to watch the “sunset.” I say “sunset” because it’s still pretty much full daylight out. The sun dips just barely below the edge of the horizon, but it doesn’t stay there, and it comes up again shortly thereafter…meaning we saw a simultaneous sunset and sunrise.

The red in the sky on the left of this panorama is the sunset. The red in the sky on the right is sunrise. The sun is traveling in a shallow arc that just barely dips beneath the horizon.

Click on the picture to embiggen!

Nome, Alaska: The Last Train to Nowhere

As the result of a lengthy and somewhat improbable series of events, I’m in Nome, Alaska with my sweetie Eve, working on another book.

A few days back, we took a drive on the one road that goes through Nome. Nome is inaccessible by car; the only road links it to the nearby towns of Council and Teller.

If you drive out toward Council, a trip I recommend only during the summer and then only in a large 4WD vehicle, about twenty miles from Nome you’ll come across the long-deserted ghost town of Solomon, a leftover from the gold rush in the early 1900s. Near Solomon, you’ll find what’s left of a failed attempt to bring rail service to Nome.

In 1903, an enterprising group of people formed a company to build a railroad to serve the gold mines near Solomon. They bought a bunch of secondhand elevated railway engines from New York City and hauled them up to Nome by barge.

In 1907, a storm washed out the one rail bridge between Solomon and Nome, leaving the trains stranded on the edge of the water. The company folded and simply walked away, leaving the trains where they were, to quietly rust away into the tundra.

That seems to be a common theme in Alaska. The landscape is dotted with abandoned mining equipment, wrecked construction vehicles, and huge pieces of machinery simply left where they were when they became inoperable.

The locals call this steam engine graveyard “The Last Train to Nowhere.”

Even during the summer, it’s cold and windy here. The train never was reliable under the best of circumstances, so it’s no surprise there was no effort to replace it.

Science is cool!

This…is a real animal. It’s called a Tardigrade, and it’s a (barely) macroscopic animal about half a millimeter long. It has eight legs and can survive exposure to hard vacuum. It belongs to a sister phylum to arthropods, though these guys technically aren’t arthropods.

This particular image comes from The Scientist, where it’s a finalist in their annual science image contest.

The next time you’re watching Star Trek and you see a supposedly ‘alien’ species that’s really just a white 21st-century human with a wrinkly nose, think about the amazing diversity of body plans right here on Earth, and then think about how profoundly unlikely that would be.

“But why aren’t we spending it on CHILDREN? Think of the CHILDREN!”

So for those of you who’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of days: Yesterday, something amazing happened.

No, I don’t mean the US soccer Olympic team beating Canada by one point in a dramatic overtime goal. I mean something really amazing. Something mind-blowing.

We took a one-ton nuclear-powered robot rover and threw it 350,000,000 miles, then landed it on the surface of another planet using cables from a flying rocket-powered robot crane.

And it worked. That’s the cool thing about science: It works whether you “believe” in it or not.

However, as always happens whenever NASA does something amazing, a bunch of people have trotted out all sorts of nonsense about how we shouldn’t be spending money on space exploration when there are so many problems back here on earth. I went to a Curiosity landing party at the local museum of science and industry, and sure enough, someone posted something on the Facebook page for the event something to the extent of “I wonder how many children will die from lack of clean water while we land a probe on Mars” or something.

Now, I have been told that it’s technically illegal to beat these folks. And I’m sure their hearts are in the right place; they’re not trying to be anti-intellectual, they just have little sense of the size and scope of the economy, nor how much money gets spent on space exploration, nor how much money we spend every year on things that we really could do without. And they seem to have an either/or mindset as well, as if to say that every dollar that goes to space exploration is a dollar that is taken away from needy children as opposed to being taken from, say, the Pentagon’s budget for paper clips.

Now, I think that doing things like, oh, finding out if there is life on other planets in our solar system represents a better investment of money than, for instance, buying T-shirts with pictures of NFL logos on them–something we typically spend about four times more per year on than we do on trying to learn about the universe.

So I spent some time doing a bit of research, and I’ve put together a handy-dandy chart that shows the cost of the Mars Curiosity mission, compared to the cost of some other things we might be acquainted with. The chart is a little lopsided, in that it shows how much we spend per year on other things, and the cost of the Curiosity mission so far represents seven years’ investment; to make things more representative, the bar for the Curiosity mission should be 1/7th as long as it is here.

Since we aren’t technically allowed to beat folks who complain about the cost of space exploration, hitting them over the head with this chart will have to do instead. (Figuratively! Figuratively! You can’t literally hit folks with it unless you, I don’t know, print it out and wrap it around something first. Which, as I mentioned, is technically illegal.)

So now when someone says “Why are we wasting money on space exploration instead of fixing problems here at home?” you can say “Why are we wasting even more money on Halloween candy, Christmas trees, or perfume, or football games?” I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “We shouldn’t spend money on perfume when there are so many problems here at home.”

Because, you know, spending money on perfume is way more important than finding out whether or not there is life not on this world.

Boston Chapter 8: A Rooftop Made of Awesome

By this point in our trip, as we lingered in St. Louis, I believed I had seen the most awesome thing ever. Perhaps not the most awesome thing that could exist, mind you; but certainly the most awesome thing that did exist.

That was, I must confess, a failure of imagination on my part. I was, even now, still a little bit naive. We had not yet, you see, gone on to the roof of City Museum.

We also had neglected, in our eagerness to explore the awesome candy bar made of awesome (metaphorically speaking), to notice that our traveling companion Erica was not to be seen–a harbinger, as it turned out, of what awaited us in Louisville. But more on that later.

At some point–I think it might have been when we were exploring a tunnel made of mirrors whose entrance was an enormous clockwork bank vault door about twelve feet across–we got a text from our wayward traveling companion.

That tunnel is pretty cool, by the way.

So is the snack bar, which includes among other things a set of chairs made out of old bumper cars, and a lot of secluded little cubbyholes with unexpected furniture in them..

But I digress.

We met with her downstairs, between the gigantic fish sculptures whose mouths opened into tunnels up to the ceiling and the main entrance whose walls were decorated with antique circuit boards, and after some discussion, we decided to check out the wonders on the rooftop.


The roof to City Museum is accessed via an elevator whose shaft is filled with windows, which you get to via an entrance flanked with nude statues of women supporting the world atop their heads. (On these, I have little to say, as I had always been led to believe that that role was filled with elephants riding on the back of a great turtle…but I digress.)

Peering over the edge of the rooftop is an interesting experience. It is not often that one sees an airplane and a bus protruding from the side of a building, with tunnels made of rebar extending both around and through them.

Peering around the roof is even better. There’s a Ferris wheel, bolted to the highest point of the roof; and an enormous slide which towers from the platform with the giant metal praying mantis on it, that swoops down to the fountain that spits water at passers-by. The slide has a tunnel atop it, so those who eschew prosaic things like staircases can, if they wish, climb back up the hard way.

We ended up riding the giant slide by the praying mantis several times. It’s a mind-bogglingly terrifying climb up, at least for anyone with even a residual trace of the ancient fear of heights which lurks in the recesses of our dim collective unconscious. Which means, naturally enough, that it’s a total blast to do.

It’s so high that even sitting at the entrance to the slide can induce a bit of virtigo.

I have video of myself sliding down this slide a speed somewhere between “ridiculous” and “insane,” which I have not yet found the time to upload to YouTube.

We also spent quite a lot of time on the ferris wheel, which in addition to being bolted to the top of a skyscraper had also, apparently, been modified to spin rather faster than is traditional for this particular variety of carnival ride. Again, hella fun.

The view from the top is quite lovely.

The rest of the roof is decorated in a kind of “industrial wasteland meets Disney World” motif, only cooler. We scampered about for a time, like visitors in Kubla Khan’s domain.

Alas, our taste of the bliss which awaits the righteous in the world beyond was all too brief. We still had a lot of ground to cover, and the pet lesbians to reach before nightfall. So we made our reluctant departure. On the way out through the parking lot, I looked up, nothing with some sorrow an array of fascinating structures we hadn’t had the opportunity to explore.

We returned to the car and resumed our journey to Boston, on our way toward our next milestone with the pet lesbians and, before that, the Guatemalans who would abscond with one of our party. That story will be told next time.

Signal Boost: Hellbender Media

A bit more than a year ago, a very good friend of mine, edwardmartiniii, started a project to write a new horror short story every week for a year. The result appeared in a blog he called Tales from the Blinkspace.

He is, and I say this without reservation, one of the best horror writers I’ve ever read. His stories are quirky, unpredictable, occasionally Lovecraftian in feel if not in subject, and very often brilliant. Quite a few of them made me think, one of them gave me nightmares, and I even appear in one as a character (no, I won’t say which one, you’ll have to find it yourself).

And now it’s a book.

I highly, highly recommend this book for anyone who’s a fan of quality short stories. You can see more about it on his Web site, Hellbender Media, here or find the book on Amazon here.

Linky-Links: Sex, Polyamory, Tech, and Humor edition

It’s time for another massive collection of links, so I can close some of my browser windows and reclaim a whole bunch of RAM on this computer. Today’s list is heavy on sex, tech, and humor, making it different from any other linky-links post in exactly zero ways, I suppose.

Sex

From New Scientist magazine, we have the article Sex on the brain: Orgasms unlock altered consciousness. It discusses fMRI scans of a volunteer who masturbated to orgasm inside an fMRI scanner while the experimenters recorded her brain activity. If I had the budget, this is the sort of science I’d be doing.

The Sexacademic blog gives us a story titled Explaining Porn Watching With Science!, which talks about the neurochemical pathways active during porn watching, and along the way debunks some lurid, sensationalistic pop culture ideas about “sex addiction”.

On Sexonomics is an article Porn by the Numbers 5: On feminist porn. The myth that porn, or “mainstream” porn (whatever that is), never shows women in a positive light and is never aimed at a female audience is as enduring as the legend of Bigfoot. I was recently at a Science Pub, in fact, in which an otherwise sex-positive sociologist decried the portrayal of women in “mainstream” porn. The argument became neatly circular later when she said that “mainstream” porn is that which portrays women negatively. The fact that someone with a doctorate in sociology can think about something in such an intellectually sloppy way testifies, I think, to how emotional the subject of porn (and especially feminist porn) is.


Society and rape

Speaking of feminist issues, some time ago a prominent female blogger was approached by a stranger in an elevator at a convention. Said stranger asked her to go back to his room with him. She blogged about the incident and why it was inappropriate, and provoked a firestorm that many of you Gentle Readers are probably aware of. Her thesis is pretty simple: Lots of women are sexually assaulted; if you want a positive response from women, don’t approach them in ways that would make sexual assault easy.

A lot of men–including some men that I know personally and otherwise find to be basically reasonable people–flipped out about that, and started wailing nonsense like “Feminists think all men are raaaaaaapists!” Which is total bunk; what’s being said is that SOME men are rapists, but rapists don’t wear special T-shirts or have a secret handshake that identifies them, so if you’re being approached by some strange guy you have no way to know if he’s likely to assault you or not. That means being aware that a strange dude you meet might be willing to assault you. (The defensive, “you’re saying all men are rapists” response from a lot of guys is similar to the sort of response you see in US society when you try to talk about institutional racism; people who think “Well, I’m not a rapist” or “Well, I’m not a racist” become so reactionary when they hear what might sound like an accusation that they refuse to discuss rape or race in any sort of rational way.)

All that is a longwinded introduction to the next two links, The first, Women in Elevators: A Man To Man Talk For The Menz, talks about the reasons that women can be suspicious of being approached by strangers. Not every dog is aggressive, but nearly everyone feels some trepidation when approached by a strange dog, because there’s no easy way to tell dogs that bite from dogs that don’t. I’m sure somebody somewhere will be upset and insulted by a metaphor about dogs (“You’re saying all men are dogs!”), but if that’s the case, that dude probably can’t be educated.

And second, for the dudes who say “Well, women should just say so if they don’t want to be approached!” we have Another post about rape. This one talks about how women (and men, to be fair, though to a lesser extent) are strongly socialized not to say “no,” not to assert boundaries, and not to upset people. It is, I think, a toxic set of social values, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post. The point is, simply asserting a boundary carries a social cost. (This is why I think the idea of affirmative consent, adding “only yes means yes” to the idea of “no means no,” is so important, as I’ve talked about before.)


Polyamory

For quite a while now, people have been bugging me to find a new home for my polyamory pages that until now have livedo n my site at www.xeromag.com. I’ve finally built a new site for them, More Than Two. I’ve blogged the new link before, but f you haven’t taken a look recently, you should. There’s now an RSS feed of new articles, and some new content has been posted.

On the Polytical blog is this excellent essay, I’m Better ‘Cos I’m Poly. Anyone who is openly out about being poly has probably at some point or another been labeled as “smug” or “arrogant” about it, most often by someone who identifies as monogamous. This essay is an excellent deconstruction of the “smug poly” stereotype.


Geek Humor

First up, we have these very funny Sci-Fi Ikea Manuals. What would happen if light sabers were real? Or the Tardis was something you could get at Ikea? What would the assembly instructions look like? Apparently, in order to put together an Ikea light saber, you must first have your hand chopped off by Darth Vader.

Our travel down the surrealist path continues with Ride the Gummi Worm, Muad’Dib, a diorama of a scene from Dune done with Gummi Bears and a gigantic Gummi Worm.


Do-It-Yourself Science!

I have blogged in the past about using and Arduino mocrocontroller board to make sex toys. For folks who think that sounds like a good idea but aren’t sure how to use or program an Arduino, there is a comic book introduction to Arduino, which you can download as a PDF. If you don’t have a background in electronics or microcontrollers but you want to build your own Arduino projects, this is a great way to get started.

Speaking of Ikea, which I was a bit earlier, for those of oyu who are photography buffs comes this guide to building a cheap time lapse panning unit using only things you can get at Ikea.

And from the Department of Mad Science So Preposterous it Just Might Work comes the story of a high school student who rigged a camera and GPS transponder to a bunch of garbage bags, filled them with helium, and let them go. This is a really cool science project done on a tiny budget and with really fun results.


Science

Over at New Scientist is this awesome article, Sky survey maps distant universe in 3D. The universe isn’t shaped like you think it is, and now a group of researchers are working on building what is by far the highest-resolution map of the physical universe yet undertaken…in 3D!

The Department of Unclear on the Concept

It’s likely that most folks reading this are aware of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s kind of the flip side of the American Tea Party movement;. The Tea Party is a bunch of mostly middle-class people who love and cherish the superrich and believe that the superrich, being such wonderful people and all, should be exempt from paying the same tax that the working class pays and should otherwise be given all sorts of concessions so that they can make more money. The Occupy Wall Street folks, on the other hand, embrace the heretical notion that taxes on the superrich should be increased so that the very wealthiest people are paying sixty percent of the taxes that the middle class pays, instead of fifty percent of the taxes that the middle class pays…even if it means that some of the world’s richest people might have to postpone purchasing that five-million-dollar yacht for a few weeks because of it.

I’m generally sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street protesters, though there’s at least one of them who simply doesn’t appear to Get It…nor to have a functioning sense of irony. He argues that the mainstream media lies or distorts truth to protect the interests of the wealthy and powerful, which it arguably does…so his response is to, err, do the same thing. And when he gets called on it over on TimParkinson.net, hilarity ensues. Read the comments to get the full effect; there’s even a followup here.

Link o’ the Day: HIV Visualization

From the Russian company called Visual Science comes this absolutely stunning 3D visualization of the human immunodeficiency virus:

From the article on the Web site:

HIV virion is a roughly spherical particle with a diameter between 100 and 180 nm. Virion is surrounded by cell-derived lipid membrane containing surface proteins. Some of these proteins are products of viral genome (surface glycoprotein gp120/gp41) and others are captured from the host cell during viral budding (e.g. ICAM-1, HLA-DR1, CD55 and some others). The gp120/gp41 glycoprotein interacts with receptors on cell surface promoting fusion of virus and cell membranes. Other surface proteins found in HIV perform supporting functions. […]

The HIV genome is approximately 10000 nucleotides long and contains 9 genes, which encode 15 different proteins. The most important viral genes (open reading frames) are Gag, Pol and Env. Gag encodes the p55 protein, which is subsequently cut into structural proteins: MA, CA, NC and p6. Pol reading frame encodes integrase, protease, and reverse transcriptase. Env encodes the two subunits of the surface glycoprotein complex. Other genes (Tat, Rev, Vif, Vpr, Vpu and Nef) produce accessory proteins, which modulate host cell metabolism and facilitate different stages of HIV life cycle.

Click on the picture for a larger version and other visualizations showing different cross-sections of the virus.