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Time tourism: some reaction shots

A collection of fallout from the previous piece on gender and time travel ...

SL Huang asserts that the reason escapist time travel doesn't star women is that we haven't written it yet. (I find this a pretty convincing argument, if only people would start writing more of it ...)

Elsewhere (in a private forum, so I'm not going to name names) someone I know pointed out that one particular time-travel trope that crops up is "time traveler from future has sexual relationship (and makes babies) with someone from the past, resulting in time paradox (e.g. time traveler becomes their own grandparent)"—and that this almost always follows the gender line: male time traveler impregnates a female local. Can this cliche be inverted? If so, what does it look like? (Cultural attitudes to time travelers who abandon their partner with a child are rather different depending whether they're male or female.)

It's also noteworthy that the "men time-travel; women stay at home" paradigm doesn't apply in childrens' literature, if the time traveler is a child. Children are mostly equally vulnerable in an adult-dominated world: they're all unprivileged, but also not expected to be locked down into social hierarchies to the same extent as adults.

(Finally, I worked out the answer to a problem that's been bugging me for about five years—why my own time travel story, "Palimpsest", was a Bechdel test failure, even though I knew better at the time and was already consciously trying to avoid that. Which is important to me, because I want to write the rest of that novel some time, probably in 2015.)

226 Comments

1:

I remember a short story that I read æons ago -- was it by R. Heinlein? -- with a transgender time traveller (born male, I believe), who managed to be at the same time (for some value of time) his own father and his own mother. (And son, and daughter.) I'd love to find it again.

2:

You are looking for "All you Zombies".

Spoiler warning: as stories go, it hasn't aged well stylistically.

3:

"All you Zombies", considered something of a classic. Haven't read it till now, though...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_You_Zombies

4:

One other potential difficulty with a female protagonist is that our knowledge of the lives of women is much more patchy in most of history than with men. Our knowledge of peoples lives in general is slim apart from the upper class and literate class but it is even worse when separating out women.

I suppose this could be used to a writer's advantage though. If we don't know much about the lives of free farmers' wives and daughters why not assume they have more freedom than upper class women?

5:

Glad you figured out what went, um, warped, with Palimpsest.

Personally, I think it might also be fun to incorporate the human resource management issues of time-traveling assassins, as well as Bob Altemeyer's work on how authoritarian mindsets tend to degrade into (ahem) liberal mushiness when people are systematically exposed to those of radically different worldviews. Say in the context of decades spent training with those from different timelines.

As an aside, this might explain why various covert government agencies so routinely screw up on foreign assignments.

6:

Female, Time Traveller, gets pregnant ? OK, not from a guy from another time, but the Doctor's companion minus one, Amy Pond ??

The more interesting Female Time Traveler is, of course, her and Rory's daughter, Melody Pond. Who we know as Dr. River Song. . . .

7:

"Spoilers, sweetie, spoilers"

OK, that's a few series back by now, but it does have one of the more interesting treatments of how two independently-time-travelling characters can have a relationship, travelling into each other's pasts.

8:

A female time-traveller who leaves a child in the past could be straight out of one of the Child ballads, as told from the viewpoint of the people in the past. The time-traveller as the Queen of fair Elf-land, seducing the mortal man, vanishing at dawn, and dumping the baby on him at sunset the next day. Time travel does fit with the some of the ideas surrounding Elf-hills.

The hard part is in making a good story out of it. But how did Thomas the Rhymer make his prophecies? If we do a gender inversion of Doctor Who, have we found what lies behind Tam Lin?

9:

There's also David Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself, which turns that knob up to 11.

No, I've not read that since it came out, and I hesitate to consider how well it has aged.

10:

Your comment about a woman time traveler getting impregnated by someone from the past made me think of Brin's "Existence". While it was not done by time travel, a woman deliberately gave birth to a neanderthal child. Not the same thing, sure, but you reminded me of it.

11:

Oh, lord. That has potential - to terrify and amuse. Especially when you have bosses that can loop themselves and have zero hesitation about interfering with their subordinates' past and future selves.

12:

Part of the point of Internal Affairs in "Palimpsest" is that the best sort of authoritarian overseer for an experienced agent is their own younger, more naive, ideologically pure, self. (Who can then be scrubbed and replaced by a new version if they're contaminated by witnessing the corruption of their own older version.)

13:

male time traveler impregnates a female local. Can this cliche be inverted? If so, what does it look like?

A female time traveler goes to the past to 'collect seed' to replenish the diveristy of future DNA? Haven't read Varley's "Millennium", but saw the movie years ago, kinda similar idea, except [SPOILER, iirc] grabbing people about to die in plane crashes. I'm sure better ideas could be thought of.


I've never quite seen the appeal of time travel. Not that I don't like a good story about it.
Sure seeing dinosaurs would be cool and all, but is it worth the risk? Hint--I think climbing Everest is a big ol' waste of time now; it's been done, definitely not worth the risk and pollution, also something for the privileged.
Going to the future would be neat too, but it hasn't happened yet. If you go into the past, and try to go home, your future hasn't happened yet. You can fudge by saying there are new time branches, but then you're not just moving through time but have to jump branches.
Dammit, I think I had another thought, but it's slipped away. Typical.
And I'm not quite awake enough.

14:

Ick.
I remember what I was like in my teens and early twenties. Those versions of myself would be appalled at current me.

On the upside though, they are not likely to be able to easily model my much more cynical and liberal self.

On the downside, the IA guys would be gifted interviewers (or at least fiendishly patient ones) and able to use their own abilities and cynicism in the service of the time patrol.

Hmm. How do you beat that sort of set up? Therein lies the story.

15:

Mention of "The Man Who Folded Himself" reminds me of Chris Roberson's "Here, There, And Everywhere" which tells a similar story about a female protagonist, though she's much more willing to insert herself into the events of the times she visits.

16:

I did read a short story - I want to say it was in Fantasy & Science Fiction - where a woman tested a time machine that took people back into their own past as a mental presence in their past selves. So not physical time travel, but the issues and emotions involved were very strongly feminine.

As to the sexual relationship inversion, I can imagine time traveling Eloi sending their females back in time for the purpose of reintroducing genetic diversity into their own evolutionary dead-end society. It might end up explaining the old myths of faeries who'd steal children and leave behind changelings in their place.

17:

Actually, when I was goofing around with a time travel story, I realized that the whole idea of time travel violence is probably a mistake.

Here's the issue: if you can import an arbitrarily large number of time travelers into a fight, said fight can escalate arbitrarily, as everyone tries to be the person who gets the deciding shot in. Winning such a hairball is problematic, and since it's likely to occur at some critical juncture in history, the results will be difficult to control.

I therefore played with the idea of de-escalation technologies, things (akin to the neuralyzer in Men in Black) that allow agents to get out of a fight without hurting anyone, simply by freezing them for a few moments.

As for having a younger, more ideologically pure version of a person acting as oversight, yeah, good luck with that. The older person will simply remember how badly he was fooled by his older self, and loop it back on his young minder at the appropriate time. Youth and energy can often be defeated by old age and treachery. Worse, a culture where you can only come of age by betraying yourself repeatedly will not be a secure one in any sense, because you're training people to betray everything they should trust on a routine basis, and using that as your basis for security.

18:

Here's the issue: if you can import an arbitrarily large number of time travelers into a fight, said fight can escalate arbitrarily

You haven't read "Palimpsest", have you?

19:

What about "Here, There & Everywhere" from Chris Roberson? Female Teenager finds out about time travel abilities and grows old as influence in the timeline?

20:
Here's the issue: if you can import an arbitrarily large number of time travelers into a fight, said fight can escalate arbitrarily, as everyone tries to be the person who gets the deciding shot in.

This is actually discussed, loosely, in the Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series. By the end of season two (when the show was unfortunately cancelled), time-travelling resistance fighters who meet up are asking each other "when was judgement day, for you" to try and work out which side is winning the fight. (The logic being that no matter what they do, they don't seem able to prevent Skynet - but if judgement day is always fifty years from the ever-moving present, that's equivalent in practice to it never happening.)

21:

Female time traveler gives birth to herself in the past.

Someone write this, please. Shub-Niggurath will be so proud.

22:

The currently running tv series continuum ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1954347/?ref_=sr_1 ) features a time travelling female as protagonist.

23:

Actually, let's take it to the limit. _Hermaphrodite_ time traveler impregnate herself\himself and then gives birth to herself\himself in the past. Ultimate time-loop.

24:

"All You Zombies" by RAH. Do keep up, this was mentioned in the first three comments on this post.

25:

Mentioned multiple times on the previous post. You may want to go read that, as the conversation on this post should be considered a continuation of that.

26:

Sorry. I'll just let myself out... 0_0

27:

Among the many temporal hi-jinks in the Urth of the New Sun, it has been conjectured that many copies of Severus help save him during a riot.

28:

One idea that springs to mind is a female time-traveller donating eggs while in her past that are then used by a surrogate to give birth to the time-traveller's ancestor. Or to twist an idea from the Merchant Princes, some nefarious time-travelling organisation inserting genetic material from the future into contemporary IVF labs to enable people with certain characteristics to be born by their present.

29:
Children are mostly equally vulnerable in an adult-dominated world: they're all unprivileged, but also not expected to be locked down into social hierarchies to the same extent as adults.

I was going to mention that in the context of the time travel choose your own adventure books I read as a kid. They were gender neutral but the reader was assumed to be nebulously young so a lot of issues could be sidestepped.

Here's another time travel comic I just remembered, this Minus strip was extremely popular and discussed in webcomics circles when it came out

http://www.kiwisbybeat.com/minus25.html

Minus is basically the omnipotent child from that Outer Limits (Or Twilight Zone? Never saw it) episode. She is alternatingly adorable and terrifying.

30:

Many times. In fact, I developed the de-escalator in response to a couple of key scenes in your story. The idea of "what if the hero learns he's going into an ambush and freezes his attackers long enough for him to get away?" appeals much more strongly than "what if the hero knows he's about to get ambushed, leaves, prepares to the best of his meager ability without requesting backup, then goes back into a firefight that ends up with him getting homogenized on the pavement and having to be rebuilt from a backup copy." The later is suicide bomber logic. Most fighters would have just run and screamed for backup from safety.

This was similar to how Door Into Ocean was written in response to Dune. Admittedly, Palimpsest is a superior story in every way, and I'm not going to goof around with time travel any time in the near future. Writing looping, non-causal stories gets very difficult, very quickly.

31:
Here's the issue: if you can import an arbitrarily large number of time travelers into a fight, said fight can escalate arbitrarily, as everyone tries to be the person who gets the deciding shot in.

You mean that a lot of the action (and paradoxes) involving time travel look an awful lot like the behaviour of a parametric amplifier? I've never understood the objection to a time-outside-of-time or paratime or what have you.

One other thought: After looking through my own collection, AFAICT space travelers can be anyone of any intellectual or moral caliber and having any arbitrary level of competence. Time travelers, however (again, this is just from my admittedly dated collection), seem more often than not to be of an elite breed. They tend to be more competent, have more agency, etc. than their space-traveling counterparts.

Once again, I'll note that a big idea everyone seems to have missed out on in the early days is the notion of hypercomputation; per the recent brouhaha about network security, beating RSA encryption becomes trivially easy if your decryption hardware incorporates time loops. Though the power to run the thing still has to come from somewhere . . .

32:

At the end of the comments of the previous entry on this subject I mentioned Virginia Woolf's Orlando. In this slim novel the protagonist begins as a young male in the reign of the elderly Queen Elizabeth and then time travels ahead to various subsequent eras and changes gender as well.

We conclude in the present (1920's)with the protagonist female and a mom.

Jane Campion made a lovely film from this novel too.

Love, C.

33:

I missed the previous discussion but a quick ctrl+f doesn't find the qntm story I was thinking of:
http://qntm.org/bomb

34:

The female time traveler getting pregnant thing just brought Ambassador of Progress - Walter Jon Williams to mind (which I have not read this decade).

It's a first contact story, not a time travel but it covers a lot of the same territory (I seem to remember it does use a high tech defense/offence and one of it's two social groups didn't have a male female power imbalance).

The ending revolves around the main character's relationship with a local man and him trying to come to terms with who she is and what she represents. My memory is not what it was, I'm going to have to try and find it and re-read.

35:

I started off reading SLH's words (I also noticed no ref. to a gender defining pronoun, which is in itself respectable: so SLH it is!) thinking, "hmm, not sure about this"; but by the end I would say I agree with some, if not most of the points - from the standpoint that much of how we all look at everything (everyday) is with a certain set of spectacles firmly planted on our dials.

It seems a matter more of getting used to it all, acclimatising to looking at, well, everything differently. And why should there be any problem with that, really? But the problem is seemingly so ingrained in societies planet-wide that even when they (lol) do get to "be" more than just the 2nd sex, it is often still within a certain perspective or contextual framework (which in effect is just subjugation again), or just as blokes with different instruments (as if this is the only way anyone could relate to the change) - a lot like the XX chromosome's of this nation! (Desmond Morris would no doubt enjoy witnessing their facial expressions).

And so it is ironic that as we have moved from that past, to this present, we have also brought along a whole bunch of anti-bodies to prevent the need for facing up to the scenario all too familiar in seemingly every era. So perhaps, like alluded to above, acclimatising and altering cognition through subtle memetic indoctrination by means of making something so banal (as a protagonist's gender) and common-place that it is actually no longer noteable. Time is seemingly the means here, but only if we move away from the all too common everything is a competition and the dualism/dichotomy mind-set that is too prevalent these days (my point being is that it tends to shove the compass to male default{?} mode)

Co-operation gets groups further (is sometimes accepted when not thinking of life as only Darwinian), so why battle with half the group when it is such a waste of wetware resources? Well, you might look at it like that if you were overly worried about getting off this rock one day and spreading out across the system; not having enough minds working on problems that should matter, rather playing out boring old primate politcking is really just too immanent/cliche/repeat/sequel (by now one would think?). Naturally it is not a pressing issue (leaving Earth), yet it is still boring in the now watching a planet behave predictably (a good argument for mortality?), so I'll just put it down to egotistical hedonism and so the desire to see a more interesting World unfold for me within my time!

36:

The protagonist of Phyllis Eisenstein's 1979 novel "Shadow of Earth" is a woman who is kidnapped by her 'boyfriend' and taken to a parallel history in which North America ended up sort of like feudal Europe after being conquered by the Spanish, et al. A local ruler wants a blond 'wife' to bear him an heir. Our heroine is forcibly married and impregnated, bears a son, and then escapes (leaving the 'child of rape' behind) and eventually manages to return to her own timeline.

37:

Heroines are thin in all of fiction, but this one is as close as any that is near ideal: Lyra Belacqua. Not a time traveler, but the travel she does between universes is isomorphically the same.

Charlie is right, children, little girls, in particular, do seem to get 'privilege' nearly for free, as all kids are defaulted equally as unprivileged. My favorite heroin of all time was a precocious little girl who told her parents straight: Juliet.

38:

The power relationships between genders change all the time, of course. I recall reading somewhere (Was it Mondo 2000? The one with the Tracey Ullman interview?) that the 21st century would end up being the Century of Woman. The reasoning was that in the future networks will be more important than individuals (cf OGH's throaway line about good policing in Rule 34) and that women are naturally better at it, so over time the committees of this and that will be dominated by the girls. You don't want to travel much past the 22 guys ;-)

39:

>>> women are naturally better at it, so over time the committees of this and that will be dominated by the girls. You don't want to travel much past the 22 guys ;-)

I expect biomedical progress to eliminate the cognitive differences between men and women before that point...

40:

I expect biomedical progress to eliminate the cognitive differences between men and women before that point...

We can already do that! Just dose the men with anti-androgens to calm them down and remove their tendency to get over-emotional and excitable; then they'll be able to think rationally.

41:

I read an utterly terrible webcomic in which the female time-traveller protagonist gets pregnant by Kurt Cobain, then dumps the resultant offspring in the future where he becomes a famous neo-musician for no adequately explained reason. So it does happen, I've just not seen it done well.

42:

>>>We can already do that! Just dose the men with anti-androgens to calm them down and remove their tendency to get over-emotional and excitable; then they'll be able to think rationally.

Yeah, let's do it. I'm sure there will be no side effects at all!

43:

I have to agree with SL Huang -- since almost all time-travel fiction makes a laughable hash of historic reality already, making that hash "female friendly" is no big stretch.

Of course that's the reason I generally do not read time-travel fiction.

44:

Do you have a problem with da wimmins being in charge? I certainly don't (any more than I care whether or not it's the Americans in space, or whether or not space exploration is manned). By my admittedly fuzzy recollections, the best bosses I've had have been women.

45:

>>Do you have a problem with da wimmins being in charge?

No, but people might have a problem with the side-effects of androgen deprivation therapy. The most effective ADT is castration, after all. :-)

46:

I was thinking in terms of positive feedback, but it's the general idea. In most cases we don't want scuffles to turn into nuclear war, and the problem with time travel is that positive feedbacks can happen very, very easily, because logistics aren't an issue. As for paratime, if there are multiple timelines, there have to be additional dimensions to accommodate the sprawl, so I don't mind a five or six dimensional universe to play time traveler in. I think Jack Vance's term "the Chronoplex" covers this idea very nicely

The one thing to note is that Charlie did it right in Palimpsest: planets move so fast that a time machine would have to be a very fast spaceship to reach where a planet used to be even a short time before. A jump drive/teleporter makes more sense.

As for using female protagonists, why not? The whole point for future time travelers to dink around here is to keep their timeline safe. To do that, you don't run around throwing nukes and flashing lasers, you do that by having a quiet dinner with someone well before they do something stupid, and convincing them not to be stupid in a friendly way that lets them think it was their idea.

A good example of this *might* be Hillary Clinton. According to Mark Leibovich's This Town: (which I highly recommend for its humor value, as well as a view of what Washington looks like to an insider), there's a running joke in Washington about crossing the Clintons being extremely dangerous: Ted Kennedy died of brain cancer after he endorsed Obama in '08, John Edwards lost his career to scandal after endorsing Obama in '08, Iowa was trashed by massive floods after giving Hillary third place in '08... You get the picture.

Now take this out of Washington and away from the Clintons and imagine this as a time travel story, possibly written by James Schmitz...

47:
Do you have a problem with da wimmins being in charge?

I really love it when the woman is in charge. Especially if she starts it with some dirty tal...

*ducks and runs really fast for cover at the bottom of a coal mine turned nuclear bunker*

48:

Or dose up a woman on testosterone. Come to think about it, there might be quite some experiences with that, though nobody speaks about these, maybe some amnesty with the IOC...

Back to the anti-androgens, leaving aside the nasty bit with the brain in question already shaped by male sex hormones, AFAIR the problem is most anti-androgens are not that selective and also bind to other steroid receptors and enzymes, as does testosterone, but I guess with different affinities.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyproterone_acetate

But then, there are newer, more selective agents:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicalutamide

And only blocking androgen receptors might give you some fun with negative reinforcement loops, tricking the body into thinking there is too little testosterone and thus sending your various endocrine shenanigans into overdrive to change this. Expect nice side effects, especially since usually estrogen is elevated, too. Though you can go for other hormones, e.g. GnRH, to counter this.

Another funny thing is that quite a few men are doing something similar voluntarily, though not for testosterone, but it's more potent metabolite DHT. Might be interesting to look for behavioural changes for finasteride users.

On another note, while I guess there are cognitive differences between average males and females, in my experience quoting those differences as an argument for personally being more competent in some area is if not proof than at least a strong indication that the person in question is not competent in this area. Somehow it's always the somewhat bossy, dominating girls talking about women's superior social skills. Or the men bad at repairs talking about male technical superiority. Might be a subtrope of the "any fair elven maiden is a 200 kilo Greek boy with a serious hirsutism problem till proven otherwise"-rule dear to anybody with RPG experience...

49:

Err, these strange happenings AFTER going against Hillary might also mean somebody really wants to keep her out of the loop. Maybe in the original timeline, all of these things happened to them BEFORE they opposed Hillary, thus leaving her with no opposition on her way to power.

We don't know what happened, but we could guess it was something terrible, else the reaction wouldn't be that determined. And keeping the stumbling blocks just a little bit longer might be less disruptive than terminating her supporters, who might do quite some other things. When they have done their thing, you have to eliminate them though, else the timeline is altered too much.

50:

Castration isn't that effective at turning down the aggression and competition. The slave armies of 14th c Ottoman Murad I did very well with castrated warriors. Eunuchs were generals for Byzantium and the Ottomans, as well as magnificent intriguers in both the Ottoman and Byzantine empires.

51:

Was speaking to a trans friend recently about hormone therapy. Apparently he had counselling and advice about the emotional effects the testosterone would have: flatten out many emotions, but increase anger, with a dramatic tendency to respond to everything with violence. Talked about how one needs to not pay attention to the "punch it in the face" response to every situation.That kind of information might be useful for boys entering puberty.

52:

The martial art of baguazhang was also famously invented by a eunuch.

53:

Has no one here read Outlander?

54:

The movie "Looper" is a good semi exploration of the young-counterpart-as-overseer theme.

55:
I was thinking in terms of positive feedback, but it's the general idea. In most cases we don't want scuffles to turn into nuclear war, and the problem with time travel is that positive feedbacks can happen very, very easily, because logistics aren't an issue.

What you call 'positive feedback' is just our parametric amplifier saturating; grandfather paradoxes are just a parametric amplifier behaving as a parametric oscillator. All this behaviour, btw, needs only one extra 'time' dimension, which we already needed anyway because our chrononauts are (usually) depicted as experiencing time passing even as they travel through it. Here's a few thoughts from a while ago about the properties of this extra-dimensional wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff:

But computer scientists conjecture that PSPACE ⊄ P—that is, polynomial space is more powerful than polynomial time—and have been trying to prove it for about 40 years . . .

If reusability really is the key difference, then if we change the laws of physics so as to make time reusable—keeping everything else the same insofar as we can—polynomial time ought to collapse with polynomial space. In other words, the set of computational problems that are efficiently solvable ought to become PSPACE. By contrast, if reusability is not the key difference, then changing the laws of physics in this way might well give some complexity class other than PSPACE.

The nature of this secondary time is crucial; if paratime is just another kind of space dimension then:

We then perform the sleight-of-hand of letting an exponential amount of the secondary time elapse, even as we restrict the “original” time to be polynomially bounded. The trivial, uninformative result is then that we can solve PSPACE problems in “polynomial time.”

Otoh, it could be that the 'extra time' being exploited are CTC's, in which case:

Or in English, the set of problems solvable by a polynomial-time CTC computer is exactly PSPACE—and this holds whether the CTC computer is classical or quantum. In other words, CTCs make polynomial time equal to polynomial space as a computational resource. Unlike in the case of “secondary time,” this is not obvious from the definitions, but has to be proved. (Note that to prove PSPACE ⊆ PCTC ⊆ BQPCTC ⊆ EXP is relatively straightforward; the harder part is to show BQPCTC ⊆ PSPACE.)

The really cool thing about this is, in the first case, boring old second-time paratime, your parametric amplifier can 'saturate', e.g., too many time travellers collapse the region into a black hole. A better example: while a time loop computer might be able to crack an RSA-encrpyted message with a key length of, say, 2^(2^6) bits in seconds from the operators point of view, the power it takes to run the computation still scales exponentially with key length; you're talking about black-hole cut-offs again.

Otoh, if time behaves more like the CTC's discussed in the second case, then it really does only take polynomial resources (time, space, energy) to crack a code with an arbitrarily long key; in fact, if time behaved like this, we could say with absolute certainty that P=NP!

Iow, statements about complexity classes in computation theory are actually statements about the physics of the universe we inhabit! I wanted to make this point earlier about the size of the lookup tables being irrelevant when conducting the Turing test; Turing wasn't interested in the physical implementation, he was interested in the question of what it means to 'think'. This is possibly one of the few times Turing went off-track; quite obviously the physics of the universe where this discussion takes place matters a great deal.

Apologies for the off-topic reply; I tend to get carried away :-)

56:
Was speaking to a trans friend recently about hormone therapy. Apparently he had counselling and advice about the emotional effects the testosterone would have: flatten out many emotions, but increase anger, with a dramatic tendency to respond to everything with violence.

I won't pretend that Rule by Women would be any better than Rule by Men, btw, for the good and sufficient reason that women are people, just as apt to make mistakes, just as apt at refusing to admit that mistakes were made, and in fact, just as apt to abuse their position of authority and privilege to avoid admitting that mistakes were made. To name but one dimension of similarity when it comes to power. Don't believe me? Then why does Israel treat its Palestinian population so poorly? You'd think that after several hundred years of oppression and discrimination (or thousand, depending on what and where you count as oppression) Israeli citizens of Jewish decent would have a little sympathy for the underdog . . . James Blish had a Matriarchal background in more than one of his stories, for example And All the Stars a Stage and "This Earth of Hours". If there was a takeaway from the scenery, it was that Privilege is Abused. Always. No matter how thoroughly and oppressed a minority is before it gets its turn at the top. Sigh. Maybe the wheel will turn in the 21 century. I'm hoping. And again - if it's the girl's on top when (if) this break from the past happens, I won't particularly care.

57:

That is cool actually. Of course, I'm so lazy, I'd just wait for history to reveal the plain text. Eventually, almost all secrets become relevant only to historians, so you simply import the plain texts from the future and save the trouble. Or you can export the ciphertext to the future and let people hammer on it with whatever method they want until the answer emerges. Either method limits the code cracking to that small amount of information that's both vital and ephemeral.

But yes, I think having geometric constraints on the number of time travelers who can fit into a particular four-space is not a bad idea at all.

58:

Time for me to drag David Brin's "Glory Season" back off my bookshelf :)

The female traveller there operates in an almost-entirely female world. But as OGH has pointed out, travel is often only possible through privilege; perhaps that's why nautical fiction has had its successes - it's a plausible mechanism for the non-privileged to travel.

So; female participation in nautical fiction, discuss the need for it to be SF so that women can participate on more equal terms (David Drake, Elizabeth Moon)...

59:

"Heroines are rare in all of fiction" is rather less true given YA, romance, or Japanese fiction. (Japanese culture may be sexist in ways we're not so much but they know girls and women are markets.) (The market of guys who like watching females kick ass, be sexy, or both, is also significant.)

Speaking of which, two more oddballs: anime in which a girl goes into a short Groundhog Day-ish loop. Rot13 for title keywords, since this fact is a twist reveal in both.

uvthenfuv naq znqbxn

60:

The man's story is "I gradually gain things over my lifetime". The young man's story is "I go somewhere and get something and come back again". The older man's story is of gradually expanding possessions, family, and power.

The woman's story is transformation. I am a maiden, then I go somewhere utterly new and am a wife, then I am an old lady, wise and with subtle power. Each stage of life, even if it is a step up, is also starting over as something new.

Ok, now you know this you don't have to do it. You still can, this is every story ever written and very works very well, but you have the choice not to. :-)

The woman's time travel story would be to go and not come back. To find a new home and be transformed. As others in this thread have pointed out, and since time travel falls apart if you think about it too hard, they could travel to a parallel dimension or something.

61:

Charlie, I was wondering if you think a post-menopausal woman would be a good time traveller. Often, in patriarchal societies, widows are afforded some respect and independence as not obviously belonging to a father or a husband. By making her menopausal (which need only be implied) we can avoid the tropes of making her time-travel experience all about her reproductive system (and not make her a Deanna Troi, whose role on the Enterprise seemed to be only Having Feelings and Getting Impregnated). I'm thinking of a Pratchian witch, here – someone who tends to fly under the radar, but can be damned dangerous if not taken seriously (assuming she keeps a sidearm or similar).

62:

Nautical fiction also has mechanisms for privilege escalation, though still rare for the lowest levels.

Examples: Captain Blood is a person stripped of privilege who uses nautical travel to recover it. You see a similar situation in Ben Hur.

British Naval history is littered with essentially middle class men, sons of minor gentry or merchants or parsons, who gain privilege escalation through competence. John Jervis was the son of a Barrister, who entered the Naby as an Able Seaman and retired as Admiral of the Fleet and Earl St. Vincent.

It's one of the legacies of Sam Pepys that the Royal Navy rewarded competence, but the realities of the time meant you needed significant privilege to get the basic education needed to learn navigation. And a good deal of naval fiction has the protagonist struggling against the political fallout from their father's career.

I was going to suggest The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, but while Philippa Somerville does get all over Europe, and the author did a huge amount of research, I have to step back and consider it with a rather large "Yes, but..." (And Lymond, as did Ben Hur, spend time as a galley slave.)

63:

The Japanese light-novel series "Suzumiya Haruhi" (which spun off several anime series and movies) has a female time-traveller, Mikuru Asahina with "agency" as in she's been sent back in time on a mission to save the universe but in her younger incarnation as a teenager she's an easily-manipulated ditz. She appears more able and confident in her later appearances as an adult.

The series is notable for using more than one method of time travel and also for deep foreshadowing -- events revealed to the reader and viewer very early on in the linear storyline are shown from other POVs much later in the series and add to the plot and story quite effectively.

64:

There also Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust while we're on Japan: a truly odd film that we saw on our way to that country for the first time.

(Seriously, your time machine is a washing machine, and only people petite and limber enough to climb inside the drum can time travel?)

65:

Thanks! You have once again expanded my list of reading. So many books so little time,

66:

Not mentioned so far: 1) In Fritz Leiber's The Big Time, two competing time-travel groups have changed history so much so often that it's not certain there ever was an original timeline.

2) The idea that tachyons travel backwards in time (by our standards) -- and tachyonic sapients can tell us our future, and vice versa. If I recall correctly, John Brunner used this in The Wrong End of Time.

67:
By making her menopausal (which need only be implied) we can avoid the tropes of making her time-travel experience all about her reproductive system . . . I'm thinking of a Pratchian witch, here – someone who tends to fly under the radar, but can be damned dangerous if not taken seriously

That's not a bad idea, were it not for the fact that I suspect the future rulers of the Earth are going to be a bunch of post-menopausal women. And - per your Weatherwax - capable of being every bit as nasty as the ones who went before. In fact, in a future where 60-something is considered to be a trifle on the young side (think Holy Fire), our usual gang of chrononauts, hard-bodies one and all, will be operating under a distinct social handicap if not outright dismissed as punks with utterly discountable opinions and desires.

Gerontocracies will be just as bad as any other 'ocracy when it comes to elites running roughshod over anyone who's not in their special club, I'm afraid. Will the Old Adam be exorcised any time soon? Short of the sort of miracle neurosurgery Charlie posits in his latest?

68:

Charlie, I agree with the overall points about power, gender, tourism, and why we don't see as many women in time travel literature.

But, I hesitate to uniformly dismiss the whole of human history as a patriarchal Dystopia. Human history and prehistory goes back a long time. Culture is pretty plastic, despite some biological fundamentals and some loose/vague evolutionary psychology tendencies. So I suspect some variability in power relations with respect to gender.

Even in nasty patriarchal societies, context probably mattered/matters a great deal. Father's often have daughters they love, husbands often actually did love their wives, and compassion and empathy to strangers or subordinates probably at least occasionally crept into the souls of our ancestors.

Moreover, to dismiss women as totally powerless risks dismissing ways women navigated/navigate these situations to gain whatever advantage they can gain. There probably are good stories in those cases that fall short of absolute domination and grinding oppression.

Writing about all of this to make a story that isn't completely dismal and soul crushing would be hard, but not impossible.

69:

That's not a bad idea, were it not for the fact that I suspect the future rulers of the Earth are going to be a bunch of post-menopausal women.

And it suddenly occurs to me that going backwards in time, post-menopausal women (with the exception of nuns) are going to be comparatively rare: simply because of the wide base/tiny apex conical pre-demographic transition age distribution graph.

This suggests a possibly-amusing scenario: if you're running the Time Patrol, you probably want to recruit your backwards-in-time agents from among younger males, and your forwards-in-time agents from among older females ...

70:

@66:
Not mentioned so far: 1) In Fritz Leiber's The Big Time, two competing time-travel groups have changed history so much so often that it's not certain there ever was an original timeline.
---
See also: Keith Laumer's "Dinosaur Beach."

71:

Hey Charlie, are you familiar with the grandmother hypothesis? It suggests that menopause is adaptive in humans (and apparently in orcas, which are led by menopausal females, and, at a guess, elephants). The idea is that women who cease reproducing but continue to work can help their offspring care for their offspring, thereby increasing fitness. Since they've also lived through quite a lot, they're also worth keeping around as knowledge stores.

While this idea is controversial, it does suggest that granny types might be useful up and down the line. Probably what you want in a time agent is the same thing you want in any agent: sufficient familiarity with the local culture to blend in.

72:

I just remembered Moorcock's Dancer's at the End of Time. Ms. Amelia Underwood from the 19th century did rather better at the end of time than Jherek Carnelian when he travelled to the 19th century to try to find her. Being used to almost omnipotence leaves one ill equipped for life in Victorian England.

That said her tactics mainly comprised singing hymns at the amiable heathens from the end of time, who were overall of a rather friendly disposition (IIRC the worst treate time traveller in their menagerie was an Irishman granted an eternally self filling Guinness pint glass)

73:

dear...

why is pacific rim not about topless robots huggin topless lizards ?

why was frodo not a female hobbit ?

why was 50 girls 50 not about 50 boiz 50 ?

why was spider jerusalem not bee jerusalem ?

why do you bow down to a queen - she is from the *future* or what ? (I know it's dangerous to flame you on your own forum, but...)


74:

Here's and interesting blog post from Aliette de Bodard: A few disjointed thoughts on other cultures and diversity in SFF

Not about time travel stories, but writing about cultures other than your (the writer's) own. Seems like could apply as well.

75:

The fact that you suspect, that women will dominate the future political landscape, isn't as apparent to me as it is to you. Regardless, I don't see the relevance? I was talking about a woman travelling backwards in time, and for that it hardly matters what the future is like. Would a matriarchal society be all puppies and roses? Of course not, but I've not seen anyone on this thread claim it would be.

76:

I mostly just hope you turn Palimpsest into a novel.

77:
But, I hesitate to uniformly dismiss the whole of human history as a patriarchal Dystopia.

There's also the option of power divided along strictly traditional, non-negotiable lines between the paterfamilias and the materfamilias. On some subjects, it's an unrelenting patriarchy; on some other subjects, matriarchy, likewise unrelenting.

If history (such as it is) mostly records one side but not the other, we might easily mistake such an arrangement for a pure patriarchy...

78:

"You are looking for "All you Zombies".

Spoiler warning: as stories go, it hasn't aged well stylistically. "

I think that his goal was to show how complex a knot he could tie how quickly, in a short story.

79:

I mostly just hope you turn Palimpsest into a novel.

It's going to happen, but I have to write two more Merchant Princes novels and another Laundry novel first.

So, not for at least 12 months. (More likely 18-24.) Then another year until it can be in print/ebook.

"Palimpsest" (the novella) is just the first third of "Palimpsest" (the complete novel). It's going to be a novel in three acts, as was "Accelerando" -- each third dealing with a different scale factor. If "Accelerando" was about AI, simulation, and the singularity, "Palimpsest" is about deep time -- and will attempt to tackle the subject matter of post-Federovian teleology in the mode of Olaf Stapeldon. Wildly ambitious barely begins to describe what I want to do. Because? I'll be doing it after emitting six light'n'fluffy novels in a row (three Laundry Files, three Merchant Princes -- for some value of light'n'fluffy that probably doesn't mean to me what it means to everyone else).

80:

"Sorry. I'll just let myself out... 0_0"

We're not that nasty; you just have to buy a round for the house :)

81:

Latte macchiato here, please. It's somewhat early for alcohol, and I feel quite some effects after one glass of beer these days...

82:

The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldon, contains at least ten books and has sold over 17 million copies... and it's all about a female time traveler. So it has been written.

83:

I'm looking forward to a full novel, the novella is probably my favorite time travel works, and one of the most though provoking.

84:
I'll be doing it after emitting six light'n'fluffy novels in a row (three Laundry Files, three Merchant Princes -- for some value of light'n'fluffy that probably doesn't mean to me what it means to everyone else).

Throwing the gauntlet at Peter Watt's feet, are you? But seriously, there seems to be a commonality across the literature that conventional galactic empires sprawling across a billion stars and maybe a few tens of thousands of years are better places to live than a civilization occupying a single system for a few quadrillion years (I'm thinking something classic like the Forerunners vs. the Eternals here). Why is that? Something along the usual Closing of the (American) Frontier angst that powers this flavor of zeitgeist? Or maybe people just know on a gut level that there's more going on in PSPACE than in P :-)

85:

there seems to be a commonality across the literature that conventional galactic empires sprawling across a billion stars and maybe a few tens of thousands of years are better places to live than a civilization occupying a single system for a few quadrillion years

It's kind of hard to get worked up enough about the neighbors to throw a war with them when they went extinct eight billion years ago (on the same planet you live on).

86:

Another recent anime series involving time travel is "Steins: Gate" which uses a mobile phone and a microwave oven as a time machine (although it is limited to transmitting messages, not people). Another series shown a couple of years ago, "Natsu no Arashi" involved female time travellers, although they were in fact ghosts of schoolgirls killed during the bombing of Yokohama during WWII. Unlikely as it seems as a premise it was actually a romantic comedy, but then again there are a number of Japanese stories about people falling in love with spirits.

87:

I've always thought that there was now scope to do a time travel book minus one of my pet niggles now.

You read the novel as usual, but following some timeline perverting event the narrative continues along a different path, and if you go back to reread the earlier chapters you find that the original ones are no longer there, and a different story exists up till the point of the event. That happens again and again, until the story just stops and the beginning of the book is now a short story about how the hero had a totally normal life in an alternative universe earth where someone else made sure the climatic event didn't happen.

History becomes an iterative attempt for causality to avoid having some numbnuts develop/use time travel.

88:

... I'm going to have to try and find it and re-read.

WJW has regained the rights and recently republished (self-published) Ambassador of Progress. You can get the ebook any number of places. For example here:
http://www.baenebooks.com/p-1966-ambassador-of-progress.aspx

89:

There is also C.K. Criggers Gunsmith series, which is about a time-trippin' lady gunsmith. Not well known, but very entertaining stories.
http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/c/c-k-crigger/

90:

Relevant one page comic from Winston Rowntree

Shango the atomic cowgirl

91:

I note that in both my local bookshop and my local library, Gabaldon's books are filed under general fiction rather than SF/fantasy; presumably they're regarded as being essentially historical novels with the time-travel element simply an excuse to have a principal character with a (fairly) modern point of view. I wouldn't be surprised if there are other "time-travel" books of this type that get missed by readers of this blog.

In agreement with other comments upthread, (comparatively) wealthy widows seem to have substantial autonomy in many otherwise highly male-dominated societies. At the top of the social scale, consider Eleanor of Aquitaine and Bess of Hardwick; lower down, Chaucer's Wife of Bath certainly has agency, and the 14th century peasant Christina, subject of 2008 (but recently repeated) BBC4 documentary with Michael Wood, did also - you don't have to be absolutely wealthy, just wealthy by the standards of your immediate community. "Wealthy widow on pilgrimage" would probably be decent cover for a female time-traveller through a good deal of European history. She would need an entourage - people of status, especially women, wouldn't travel alone - which could be fellow Time Patrollers or locally hired.

92:

I'd suggest the other reason is that it's easier. Writing a book about a million year-old civilization a bit of work, especially if you want make the place feel a million years old. Conversely, writing about colonies and such across the galaxy simply means swiping anything from westerns (for colonial planets) to orientalist fantasies (for decadent older cultures), filing off the serial numbers, substituting blasters and light sabers for six-guns and swords, and space ships for horses and/or windjammers, and taking off. No deep history needed, just a bit of literary bricolage.

Note that deep histories have been done for a long time--Barsoom and Middle Earth are examples--but they are more work. You don't just have to build the predecessor civilization(s), you have to figure out what traces they left behind, and how they matter.

93:

I'd say the classic example of a deep history is "The Book of the Long Sun" by Gene Wolfe -- but Severian is a very unreliable narrator. One of the key aspects is the missing progressive/enlightenment world view: history is seen as entirely cyclic, leading many readers to mistake the tetralogy for a work of genre fantasy.

(I must re-read it one of these days ...)

94:

Ah yes, I'd forgotten about Gene Wolfe. Thanks.

That's the other real problem, isn't it? Science fiction is often the literature of progressivism. Blasters do replace six-guns, even if the plots remain the same.

Add enough history to the mix, though, and progress dies, because we get to armageddon--either a techno-rapture or apocalypse. At that point, we either have the steady state at which we've progressed as far as we can get, or we've screwed up so badly that reality punches our reset buttons and we start from the bottom again.

Of course, the pagans have been pointing the way out of this mess for decades: a spiral, which has both cycles and forward progress. Of course, no one pays much attention to them these days.

My personal bet (which I've been playing with on my blog) is that humans will be around for a very long time into the future, and that, due to things like Milankovitch cycles, we'll go through periods (generally a few thousand years long) of relative climatic stability when global civilizations can flourish, interspersed by periods (about ten thousand years long) of continual climatic change where global civilization falls apart, leaving semi-isolated nations interspersed with mostly-deserted landscapes that can only support nomads or hunter-gatherers. The basic idea is that big civilizations are all about large-scale infrastructure, and it's hard to keep infrastructure intact when conditions are continually changing, farmlands have to be abandoned, river flows change, lakes dry up (or form) and so forth. I don't see this as strictly cyclical, because key inventions won't be lost with each downturn, any more than Europeans stopped forging iron when Rome fell.

Of course, we're heading into this future by cramming an entire cycle's worth of climate change into perhaps a thousand years. If we can survive the mess we're heading into now, I figure we can survive about anything the universe hurls at us until the sun expands. Does that make me an optimist or a pessimist?

95:

I don't remember much about behavioural studies in biology[1], but it seems one of the problems is early research looked for the most interesting displays - cue to two male gorillas doing the chest poking thing.

A newer research paradigm is allocating equal observation time to all group members; which showed that there is quite some things going on with the females.

Which, if applied to certain hominid behaviours, might mean two thing:

1.) Males might only think they run the show, it's quite often the females who do.

2.) From some of the examples, I don't expect matriarchy is that much better than patriarchy.

[1] Somewhat of a bummer, the prof and institute were AFAIK one of the few areas our university excelled somewhat.

96:

The clincher -- the difference between primate and human social studies - is that humans have birth control. And birth control, specifically oral contraceptives, allow women to self-regulate not only the timing of their conceptions, but even more importantly, their predisposition for sexual arousal.

Let's face it -- a female in the prime of her reproductive years (i.e., good looking and healthy) who has become pretty well immune to a male's sexual advances is going to alter the social structure and dynamics of her group/clan.

AFAIK, there's no equivalent biochemical "therapy" available for males.

97:

Science fiction is often the literature of progressivism.

Ya think?

I think it's very often the literature of conservativism -- that is, Burkean (post-French Revolution) conservativism, and paleoconservativism, and libertarianism (libertarians: the anarchists who want cops to point their guns at their slaves). True conservativism is vanishingly rare in the post-1918 era, since the end of the Monarchical system. And the French revolution was influenced by the American revolution which in turn had its tap roots deep in the thinking of the Enlightenment philosophers. In that sense, SF is "progressive" -- but only because it (for the most part) blindly follows an ideology that was revolutionary about 250-300 years ago and which is now the sea we swim in.

98:

Well, let's start with a standard definition of progressivism (courtesy Wikipedia): Progressivism is a general political philosophy based on the idea of progress that asserts that advances in science, technology, economic development, and social organization, can improve the human condition.

I'd say that yes, much of SF assumes this. You're right, certainly not all SF is about how advances in science and technology improve human lives.

The critical point (to me at least) is that science fiction is so engrained around the notion of progress in science and technology that we're stuck: we either talk about progress (and starships) or loss of progress (and apocalypse), or if we think we're really sophisticated, cycles that alternate between starships and neobarbarians. Perhaps there's a better word than progressivism, but I don't see how you can take sci-tech progress out of this science fiction (whether it's positive or negative) without most SF writers and readers throwing a rod in their mental apparatus. Most of them don't seem to be able to get out of that progress/loss-of-progress duality. Problem is, there's no particular reason to think that history actually follows this duality.

Reality suggests that the future's a bit more of a spiral, although a random walk may be as good a description. A civilization (say, Rome) clamber up the hill of progress, but when it falls, it doesn't go back down the same hill. The collapse was definitely not a mirror image of the rise. The Medieval Dark Ages weren't a copy of the Bronze Dark Ages 2000 years or so prior. People didn't stop iron-smithing and go back to bronze when Rome fell. However, they did lose the ability to make things like concrete, glass, aqueducts and plumbing. Technological losses are to some degree predictable, and even though we can't see over that mountain of our immediate future, we can make some educated guesses about what life on the other side will be like.

99:

You mean New sun, right? Long Sun is the one Sun that contains zero Severian.

100:

How about the Heliconia series by Brian Aldiss? That takes place over a long period of time, both on Heliconia and on Earth.

101:

By 'advances', I assume you mean how widespread such innovations were among the populace at large along with the continued support of educational infrastructure among said populace?


102:

In time travel, it's important to keep in mind that there is no "past", just "pasts". Which is to say, people and cultures differed just as much in the past as they do today; usually rather more so, since the leveling/homogenizing influence of the West is so ubiquitous now.

People who are really deeply emotionally committed to the Whig Narrative of Progress tend to miss this -- they have a habit of seeing the past as a uniform swamp of awfulness from which we have thankfully emerged.

Gender roles and reproductive patterns varied enormously.

Frex, English common law had a doctrine of "couverture" which made married (but not single or widowed) women incapable of independently entering into contracts. Dutch law didn't; married women had far more of a legal personhood. They also had far more rights over a deceased spouse's property.

The "perpetual pregnancy" thing is also a bit of a myth.

For example, in late Stuart England, 25% of women never married, the average age of marriage was around 27, married woman had between 4 and 5 children, and the population as a whole was declining and aging. Some women had very large families -- but 1 or 2 was also common. A large share of children came from large families, but a large proportion of families were quite small.

As for women cross-dressing, it was actually quite common -- not an everyday occurrence, but not outlandishly rare either.

For one thing, it was easier to pull off because precisely because the clothes worn by the sexes differed so profoundly -- people didn't pick up on the more subtle clues.

For another, it was a way for women to escape conventions when, frex, they had to travel without an escort. Sometimes it genuinely deceived; in others people pretended to be fooled because it was mutually convenient. Attitudes about it changed over time, too: in the 17th century it was quite common for aristocratic women to cross-dress occasionally (Charles II's wife did sometimes).

And of course cultures differed profoundly. I've read a report written by a Moroccan delegation which visited Spain in the early 18th century. Among other things, they reported that Spain was a matriarchy in which women ran everything, chastity was unknown, and men lacked all "manly jealousy". And this was 18th century -Spain- they were talking about.

103:

If you want an example of what a woman in the 1600's could get away with if affluent and determined and prepared to run a lot of risks, take a look at the life of Hortense de Mancini.

104:

@93:
Of course, the pagans have been pointing the way out of this mess for decades: a spiral, which has both cycles and forward progress.
---
Try "The Coils of Time" by A. Bertram Chandler for that very thing...

105:

I think it is hard to pin it to a single ideology. It really depends on both the author and the time period. Asimov and Heinlein are probably two of the best known SF authors of the 20th century, but they are rather different politically. And more recently, an author like Ken MacLeod is rather different politically than just about every author published by Baen.

106:

"And more recently, an author like Ken MacLeod is rather different politically than just about every author published by Baen."

-- as opposed to, say, the Trotskyite labor activist Eric Flint? He really is an unrepentant old-fashioned Trotskyite, you know. And he spent years and years doing labor union work.

The "1634" series is -saturated- with Marxism -- it's a Trot wet-dream, in some respects.

Doesn't stop me enjoying it. 'twould be a dull world if everyone saw through my eyes.

Incidentally, Jim Bane essentially canned -me- for being too lefty on cultural issues (the gay black protagonist of a certain novel really got his goat) and then brought Eric on board. Who he knew to be an outright Red.

It's wise to avoid stereotyping people.

107:

More generally, is it actually true that time-travel stories are more likely to have male protagonists than other SF stories of the same vintage?

I really don't think so.

I've been writing time travel since the 1990's, lo these 20 years or so, and my protagonists were always about equally split.

109:

That's a good point -- SF (and fiction in general) is a product of the times. To get published in the first place it needs to be.

Though publishers themselves act as gatekeepers. If there are fewer women in time travel stories from the past century, then it is because either authors didn't think publishers wanted that kind of story, or publishers didn't think people would buy them, and so rejected any manuscripts that didn't fit the mold.

As an example of changing culture and how it affects published works, look at the current state of YA fiction. The majority of protagonists are female, by far. If that carries over, in another decade we'll be wondering why so few time travelers in fiction are male.

110:

Actually that could be an interesting premise. The sleeping war machines of a billion year dead civilization awaken periodically to destroy the upstarts on "their" planet. The ultimate act of spite of a dying civilization of assholes.

111:

It's probably easier for a lefty to get published by Baen than for a conservative to pass muster at some more "metropolitan" publishing houses, which is about what one would expect.

It's my experience here in the US that many conservatives and libertarians in SF have a more accurate view of people to their left, and are more tolerant of them, than is typically true vice versa.

There's nobody so arrogantly tribal-parochial as your Yupper West Side/Bay Area type, who tend to be not only ignorant but misinformed about people outside their social reference group. (With some exceptions, of course.)

I don't have a dog in that fight -- I don't fit on the American political spectrum at all. Eg., I'm a monarchist, am pro gay marriage, and am what might be described as a howling-mad veins-in-my-teeth imperialist hyena on foreign affairs.

112:

Time travel into the future is structurally different from time travel into the past, from a writing standpoint. The future is more conventionally SFnal. Time travel into the past is like writing historical fiction with a different p.o.v. character. Time travel into the future is like writing SF with a different p.o.v. character.

Up until the Early Modern period, there was huge cultural/political/social variation across time and space, but it operated within certain fixed constraints.

Eg., most people had to be poor, and had to spend their lives producing food and handicrafts. Politics was essentially about the control of land and the people who worked it. This was as true in Tokugawa Japan as in Plantagenet England.

The Scientific and Industrial Revolutions are swords across the history of humankind. They drastically change the outer parameters of what's possible. Eventually, they may even change human nature, the most fundamental of fundamentals -- which previously "didn't have a history", but in the future, may.

I think both were also very low-probability accidents, the products of extremely specific political/economic/geographic/cultural/religious/philosophical circumstances, which if you rewound and started over again would be extremely unlikely to occur again.

(This is my beef with "Years of Rice and Salt").

113:

Mixed, but on the whole, rather less than in upper-class circles. Often rather more choice of mates, but more closely bound to the iron demands of making a living.

One literate New England farmwife of the 1820's whose diary I read made a habit of calculating how many -thousand- miles she'd walked with a yoke over her shoulders and 90 lbs of milk or water in the buckets on the ends of it.

114:

The whole concept of critiquing "privilege", of course, contains some assumptions that require unpacking.

For starters, it assumes that there is a possible state of affairs -without- privilege.

That is, without privilege (some people being advantaged over other people in one way or another) as a general concept, rather than some particular form of privilege enjoyed by some specific people in a unique time and place.

My own take is that this hardy hubristic perennial is roughly equivalent to a belief that everyone could obey the Golden Rule if they only tried really hard (or we made them do it). Or that you can fly to the Moon by putting your head between your knees and spitting really hard, and if it doesn't work you're just not spitting hard enough.

You can modify or eliminate -specific- privileges which reside in -specific- people, but you can no more get rid of the general phenomenon among human beings (or the closely associated phenomenon of hierarchy) than you can outrun your own sweat. Chase it out the door and it'll climb back through the window; meet the new boss... This has been exhaustively demonstrated by experiment.

You'd think, after the events of the last couple of centuries -- cut off Louis' head, get the Terror and Napoleon, kill the Czar, get the commissar, expel the Kaiser, get Adolph, dethrone the Son of Heaven, get the Great Leap, abolish hereditary status and get a competitive meritocracy, which of course inevitably means rule by hyper-ambitious psychopaths -- that a degree of modesty would be in order, some caution, less assumption that one possesses a hegemonic meta-narrative.

But you always get people who assure you that -this time- it'll be different, because this time they have the handy dandy magic decoder ring which -explains everything- and it'll all go as planned.

Rejoice, for the Law of Unintended Consequences has been repealed...

115:

Sorry, but that quirk of Google's interaction with the login system is making it hard for me to guess who you are.

116:

Sorry, but that quirk of Google's interaction with the login system is making it hard for me to guess who you are.

I reckon you have been talking with S.M. Stirling.

117:

If we can survive the mess we're heading into now, I figure we can survive about anything the universe hurls at us until the sun expands. Does that make me an optimist or a pessimist?

Um, aren't you overlooking those big impact events that Niven and Pournelle are so fond of writing about?

Asteroids are nature's way of asking, "How's that space program coming along?"

118:

Correct - that Google ID is associated with SMS's known AOL email address

119:

As an example of changing culture and how it affects published works, look at the current state of YA fiction. The majority of protagonists are female, by far.

Having seen the stuff that fills up our primary school's library shelves (Beast Quest volumes 1 through 40+, anyone?) I beg to differ - Firstborn is currently working his way through some of my dustier bookshelves, as well as forcing me to vet some YA fiction. Don't worry, Dune and the High Crusade have figured alongside the Belgariad and the Stainless Steel Rat. Cory's "Little Brother" will feature soon...

While there are more female protagonists than in years gone by, it's not IMHO a vast majority (unless you're considering a modal average, in which case the Twilight and Hunger Games series may have skewed things from the mean).


120:

It's my experience here in the US that many conservatives and libertarians in SF have a more accurate view of people to their left, and are more tolerant of them, than is typically true vice versa.

My exposure to Fox News during occasional working trips to the US would suggest the intolerance is at least a fairly even split...

121:

Your understanding of politics is rather narrow; Heinlein and Asimov and Ken Macleod are indistinguishable from the perspective of the pre-reformation world; in fact, Nazism, Representative Democracy, and Leninism are nearly identical as far as the ancien regime is concerned. Indeed, politics as we know it is a product of the Modern -- before that, it was down to the Divine Right of Kings (and by Kings I mean hereditary military dictators).

122:

Unfortunately Google's OpenID logins are broken, so it's impossible to see who you are ...

123:

I think you'll find that Al Reynolds got there first ("Revelation Space" and sequels).

124:

I also think it has been done once or twice via Star Trek and/or Stargate SG1. Fuzzy memories but it sure smells like something I saw on TV years ago.

125:

Generally I'd say any campaign against privilege is against *systemic* privilege - the idea whole classes of people's lives shouldn't be made harder by being born female, or Not Pale Pink, or LGBT/QUILTBAG/pick yer acronym, or of parents unable to pay for a proper education.
In reality, what speaking about privilege is usually about is reminding those of us who are male, or pale pink, or straight that life isn't like this for everyone, and we should maybe think of that occasionally - before we pronounce upon others' lives often being a good time.

126:

Well, it works the other way too. Oust Napoleon and reinstate the Bourbons, get the July Revolution and, later on, the Commune, later on, Dreyfus etc. Oust the commissar, get Khrushchev, oust Khrushchev, get Brezhnev, try perestroika, get the 1991 Soviet coup d'état attempt. Try a slower, reformist stance after the "Great Leap", get the Cultural Revolution. With the Austrian monorchid, err, it's complicated...

Personally I think dialectics is always in danger of becoming some branch of mental masturbation, but if you're careful, it offers some insights. Since usually the victory of one side isn't complete, and the other side lingers on, adapts and, with the next crisis, reacts.

As for conservatism, I'd somewhat think that more of a umbrella term for quite some different ideas, with the brand I'd apply to myself and my family, e.g. some respect for history and some traditions(which, alas, in my case contain a "Chomsky? Wasn't that the communist leader from Bochum?"), in a quite Pratchettian way, careful embrace of innovations and being somewhat sceptical of how some of these innovations might fare with the human animal, quite at odds with some of the other brands. Problem is, this internal dissent is seldom talked through, otherwise I guess there wouldn't be a "conservative" movement anymore. But, then, the same would go for "progressive", "liberal" and "socialist", I guess.

As for an example of a conflict where you could label both sides as "conservatives", in Germany there's be this one:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kulturkampf

127:

The Heinlein story in which a man discovers he is his own father and mother is 'By His Bootstraps':

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/By_His_Bootstraps

Bootstrapping is a 19th century reference to an impossible action: To lift oneself up by one's own bootstraps. It is also the term that has come down to us as to Boot a computer -- where it wakes up and builds itself from scratch every time.

Trivia ad infinitum

128:

I would have thought 'booting up the computer' came from ideas of kicking things/ people to get them up in the morning. Whether or not old computers needed kicking to get working I don't know...

129:

If you're going to correct people, may I suggest that it's more impressive if (a) you provide the correct answer, and (b) their answer wasn't already correct?

By His Bootstraps is an earlier story which plays with the inherent paradoxes possible with time travel, but All You Zombies is where RAH developes the idea through to the protagonist being his/her own parents.

130:

Rex is correct; "boot" a computer comes from "bootstrap loader", where the computer executed an instruction that was hard-coded into the core and could not be changed, to start reading from a media device (originally punched paper tape or cards, later 0.5 inch 9-track magentic tape, then floppy disc, and eventually a built-in Winchester). That instruction told it how to load the kernel of the operating system.

I have actual academic qualifications that included this sort of useless data.

131:

OKay, that's interesting, thanks.

All academic qualifications have useless information that wasn't so useless when the qualification was first thought up. I'm sure there's a story in there somewhere.

132:

FWIW, the first time I saw a computer being bootstrapped, the operator was having to use front panel switches to enter the boot code. Hard-coded in core? Luxury!

133:

Even our Data Generals don't do that any more (and just as well). They do let you read individual registers using front panel switches and an array of of little flashing lights though (yes really); They're similar to the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Data_General_Nova and occupy an entire rack each.

134:

"Incidentally, Jim Bane essentially canned -me- for being too lefty on cultural issues (the gay black protagonist of a certain novel really got his goat) and then brought Eric on board. Who he knew to be an outright Red."

I think Steve Stirling is back.

[[ Yes, 'google.com/id=...MIVJA' has SM Stirling's known email address attached - Mod ]]

135:

Whether or not old computers needed kicking to get working I don't know...

Kicking a company's single most costly asset would likely get you fired. Or worse.

136:

Wonder to what extent this reflects that females are generally more empathetic than males, that is, able to more easily identify with a male protagonist than a male can typically identify with a female protagonist. (This may also partially explain why females are much more likely than males to read fiction.)

BTW, this also applies to TV and film. TV programming research in the 1990s showed that gender differences were already apparent among preschoolers re: which types of cartoons they watched longer (i.e., they liked, got involved in). Findings typically showed that there was a much stronger relationship for boys preferring to watch 'boys' (even if these boys were cartoon mice) than girls preferring to watch 'girls'.
While I don't recall whether the cartoon characters' behavior was gender neutral, I do recall that the positioning of a character, i.e., 'star' did affect their subsequent watchability among boys.


137:

the operator was having to use front panel switches to enter the boot code. Hard-coded in core?

Actually real ferrite core was fairly permanent unless written over. So "nice" programs left the boot loader intact so the next user would not have to toggle it it.

He says remembering back to his IBM 1130 days.

138:

"...and am what might be described as a howling-mad veins-in-my-teeth imperialist hyena on foreign affairs."

I'd agree, but probably not in the way you'd think.

139:

"It's my experience here in the US that many conservatives and libertarians in SF have a more accurate view of people to their left, and are more tolerant of them, than is typically true vice versa. "

Said in a world where a signficant chunk (majority?) of the right think that Obama was not born a US citizen, think that WMD's were found in Iraq, that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11, and who became 'shocked, shocked!' Tea Partiers after their side lost.

Oh, and who think that US white, right-wing protestant fundamentalist/evangelical doctrine is the only 'Christian' doctrine. And whose conception of US history was written by David Barton.

140:

If we can survive the mess we're heading into now, I figure we can survive about anything the universe hurls at us until the sun expands. Does that make me an optimist or a pessimist?

Um, aren't you overlooking those big impact events that Niven and Pournelle are so fond of writing about?

Asteroids are nature's way of asking, "How's that space program coming along?"

Didn't Niven and Pournelle had a lot of people survive in Footfall and Lucifer's Hammer.

Given the choice, I'd stay on Earth every time. The space program would only save humanity from the Earth colliding with a black hole. In every other case, sheltering in place is a better option.

Granted, with a small asteroid and a huge amount of lead time, it might be possible to deploy a gravity tug (translated, a really heavy space ship, which isn't easy to loft in the first place) to change the small asteroid's orbit enough so that it truly misses the Earth. I'd want it to go somewhere else (like the sun) just to make sure it didn't come back in a few centuries and require the same treatment.

That said, it's amazingly stupid to move to the Moon or Mars, even if a chicxulub-size rock heads our way. Only a few hundred people at most would make the trip, and they'd be in a much more dangerous environment on the Moon or Mars than on post-impact Earth.

On Earth, you have to stage mass evacuations, at least to the limit of your ability and knowledge, moving people to the safest areas available. This is much cheaper and safer than throwing them into space. After the asteroid hits, you'll still have breathable air, drinkable water, a gravity that won't mess up your skeleton, an ozone layer that prevents you from frying in the sun's UV, a magnetic field that protects you from radiation, AND a thick atmosphere that protects you from all but the biggest meteors, all free of charge from the Earth.

In space, you'd have to depend on technology for each of these, and you'd have to depend on that technology effectively forever. There would be no resupply from Earth, as the asteroid would most likely destroy whatever launch facilities put you up there in the first place. All this to save a handful of people.

Granted a major asteroid strike would be a god-awful mess and the end of global civilization if it existed at the time, but even then, I'm pretty sure a lot of people would survive and rebuild. In space, humans last until something critical breaks, and then everyone dies.

So no, to answer your question, I didn't forget at all.

141:

You still have proper blinkenlights? Ooooh....

142:

All academic qualifications have useless information that wasn't so useless when the qualification was first thought up. I'm sure there's a story in there somewhere.

Circa 1983-86 I took a degree leading to a professional qualification that mostly required me to monitor patients for adverse drug reactions and pharmacological interactions (taking drugs with antagonistic effects, for example, or known issues -- vitamin K and warfarin, for example).

As part of this degree I had to learn how to make up liniments and to identify a hundred different drugs of botanic origin, i.e. herbs, barks, and (of course) resins such as opium. Because that's what pharmacists used to do, back in the 19th century.

If I'd started a year or two earlier they'd even have taught me how to use a pill roller.

143:

Yeah, the idea isn't new on an interstellar scale. Even Star Trek did a version of it in "The Doomsday Machine".

I'm not sure it has been applied to a single planet though. Either a single species attacking its own descendants, or the first species on a planet preventing subsequent species from becoming advanced. As if there was an unkown pre-Cambrian civilization, and their dead armies are what wiped out the dinosaurs and now they're going to wipe out us.

144:

I should also point out that, depending on how stupid we are at screwing up the atmosphere and ocean in the next century or so, we could end up emulating the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, which was much worse for life on Earth than the K-T asteroid strike. While people have posited that an asteroid caused the P-T extinction, there's no good evidence for that in the rocks (yes, read the links in the Wikipedia article. When the proposed crater is "the second largest and oldest in South America, it didn't cause the P-T mass extinction).

Instead, the leading contender for the catastrophe is one of the Earth's biggest volcanic eruptions, the Siberian Traps, which covered 770,000 square miles with lava. The outgassing from that mess changed ocean and air chemistry for millions of years.

Personally, I hope we don't get that stupid about releasing every last bit of stored carbon back into the air. But we might. That's why I'm one of those leftest liberals who's totally out of touch with reality. Unlike those allegedly pragmatic conservatives, I do environmental work, because I honestly believe in trying something worth having for those who come after me.

145:

Yeah, short of another impact the size of the moon we would probably be better off sheltering in place from natural disasters. It would be cheaper and easier to build multiple long term shelters around the world. The same tech that allowed us to live on Mars, asteroids, or the Moon would allow us to live for decades or centuries on a damaged Earth.

The advantage of other planets would be protection against very rapid disasters, or hypothetical man-made disasters like "grey goo". Fully colonized planets and asteroids could also aid with recovery.

For really long term protection you'd want to be spread across thousands of light years around red and brown dwarf stars. :)

146:

Venice and the Swiss had republics prior to the Reformation.

Will McLean

147:

@126:
to Boot a computer -- where it wakes up and builds itself from scratch every time.
---
I once got a chance to play "flight simulator" at a friend's place of employment; a major airline that maintained a building full of FAA-certified, full-motion flight simulators. All running FORTRAN, on custom-made computer hardware designed to run the binaries created by a 40-year-old compiler, since it was cheaper to have custom superminis made than to re-certify a code base dating back to the Kennedy Administration...

Anyway, we went in late at night, powered up the hydraulics and various subsystems, and then I got to boot the computer. Bear in mind, it was less than a year old around 1990-ish. First I had to unroll the "prayer mat" in front of the cabinet, then enter the boot code by hand, by flipping tiny toggle switches up and down in patterns according to a laminated plastic card, and pushing a button to enter each word, which was of some bizarre length, like 23 or 37 bits.

Mostly, and to this day, I am astonished that a machine that cost more than a million dollars had to be booted with toggle switches, and completely boggled that the bozos who designed it that way put the boot panel at knee height... at least primitive desktop PCs had their switch panels up on the desk where you could get at them.

148:

@136:
Actually real ferrite core was fairly permanent unless written over.
---
IBM used to make (at least some of) it's core memory cards in the Philippines.

With the connection between computers and the textile industry, I was surprised to find that the core memory cards were loomed by hand (at least at that time), with the mostly-female workers threading the tiny cores with needles and fine wire.

A core grid isn't really cloth, and no cloth ever had little rings at each junction, but my very first thought was surprise they weren't using looms. I guess IBM felt it wasn't worth building custom machinery since the market for core was, by modern standards, microscopic.

149:

on custom-made computer hardware designed to run the binaries created by a 40-year-old compiler, since it was cheaper to have custom superminis made than to re-certify a code base dating back to the Kennedy Administration...

NASA deals with this all the time. When Intel stops making a CPU type or ACME stops making left hand metric treaded widgets there's a special group who goes looking for clumps of them unsold so they can buy them up and keep the Whizy Bang L5 tracking radar built in 73 or 93 or whenever running a few more years.

150:

Didn't Niven and Pournelle had a lot of people survive in Footfall and Lucifer's Hammer.

Footfall had narrow targeted impacts so yes a lot of folks survived.

LH had a lot of people survive impact, just like was likely way back when. But the real problem was a week into the event. Food would start to get real scarce.

If such a thing happened it would make sense (in the US) to really really quick provision yourself as if headed from St. Joe Missouri to Wyoming in 1840. Then beat feet before most anyone else figured out what you were doing. I'd not make it as my knowledge of how to survive in those times is very lacking and being on the mid-Atlantic coast there isn't too much empty space to head to.

I suspect Europe might be worse unless you can head for the Urals or similar. Maybe those in Scandinavia might be better off.

I wouldn't count on finding a working nuclear plant as in the novel. :)

151:

Will, so did Athens and Rome.

Nevertheless, these were short-lived outbreaks. Nor were they some sort of early modern utopias. Voting rights for male land-owners with slaves may be an improvement over absolute monarchy or tyranny for some, but it's still a long way from Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite.

152:

That's kind of worrying, although I suppose it also plays into the still extant belief that plant stuff is good for you, as opposed to those nasty chemicals.

153:

Actually, I've met a pharmacy researcher who still does that. He also apprenticed to a tribal shaman (made an unofficial member of the tribe and everything). He's had a lot of fun over the year figuring out how the shaman's cures worked from a pharmacological basis. No new medicines there (because most of the compounds were already known), but some great explanations for why particular treatments worked as they did.

Incidentally, as of 2000, they were still teaching pharmacists the most common botanicals. The reason for it is that patients often take herbs these days as a cheaper alternative to prescription meds, and they have a number of interesting interaction effects that need to be taken into account when the patient sees a doctor.

154:

ITYM a pharmacognosist. Related ultra-focussed specialty: the study of drugs of botanic origin.

155:

That too: he teaches pharmacists, several of whom I know personally. Dude's a many of many talents: there's the part about being trilingual in English, Chinese, and the Indian language of his mentor, to the extent that it's still spoken (he's white, incidentally), and author. Multiply specialized is my diagnosis.

156:

NASA deals with this all the time. When Intel stops making a CPU type or ACME stops making left hand metric treaded widgets there's a special group who goes looking for clumps of them unsold so they can buy them up and keep the Whizy Bang L5 tracking radar built in 73 or 93 or whenever running a few more years.

For military avionics that had a design lifetime measured in decades, we did lifetime parts buys reasonably early in the manufacturing cycle; and required a second source for nearly all of them (which among other things put paid to using the Inmos Transputer, AIUI). While I worked on one COTS demonstrator, just guaranteeing that our small project's worth of kit was all at the same build standard was a bit of a nightmare. At the extreme, I heard a claim that the VHF manpack radio used by the British Army from the early eighties until the early noughties (CLANSMAN) had their internals replaced an average of seven times each across the fleet...

These days, the fashionable alternative is programmable logic - with the advantage that you can shrink what used to be a state-of-the-art processor card (say, a couple of CPUs, a megabyte or so of memory, and a custom FFT engine, sandwiched onto a heat exchanger to stop themselves melting their own solder at the dizzy speed of ~10MHz) onto a small corner of a single FPGA - and still be running it and its associated software at well under 10% of maximum clock rate.

Someone built a replica of the original Cray-1 on one of the small, slow, FPGAs our firm sells cheaply to Higher Education departments; well over a million bucks, running at half-speed or so on a couple of hundred dollars worth of FPGA. His biggest problem was finding worthwhile programs to run on it, AIUI.

We went to Bletchley Park this summer, and visited the National Museum of Computing while there (the Harwell Dekatron and Colossus were both running during the visit, classic stuff). Watching several blokes trying to resurrect a scrap Cray Y-MP had me geeking out to the huge amusement of our kids...

157:

More likely extinction is about to become something that no longer occurs. Third generation sequencing should soon make it very cheap to sequence every species, and Craig Ventner seems to have solved the bootstrapping problem (for simple organisms at least).

158:

Recreating a species from genome alone is not trivial at all. I think with advanced enough technology it will be possible, but it won't be _exactly_ the same species as the one that went extinct.

An off-spring receives a lot of stuff from the mother. If there is no mother anymore, you will be forced to make an educated guess as to which mRNAs to put in the gamete and what the womb environment looked like. You can't get that information from the DNA.

159:

Also, even if you have a genome or three, you still lost the genetic diversity of the population. You'll need a lot of genomes from different individuals to recreate it. Barring that, you'll have to make another educated guess, using some related but still existent species.

160:

And aaaaalso, let's say you've sequenced all the species in the Amazon rainforest, but the rainforest is gone. Now you need to solve a completely different problem, terraforming. :-)

161:

There are some technical challenges to overcome at our or our successors leisure. The resurrection might not be perfect... a few breeding cycles might iron out remaining quirks, like compiling a compiler and then compiling it with the result... or might not. Still a lot less dead than a dodo.

Not sure recreating the Amazon would be a moral act, there's a lot of non-consensual disruption of bodily integrity that happens in a forest. Wouldn't pass ethics approval these days.

All the lovely proteins will be saved, at the very least. To lose those would be the worst crime.

162:

The only way to obtain said technologies is to repeatedly try and fail in those endeavours.

There's probably a story in there somewhere, not lack of biodiversity but an excess, in a future society committed to bringing back *everything* we'd have to find room just to put all our carefully crafted ancestral biomes.

I was thinking space habitats like any good sci fi fan but more realistically we'd probably be able to make room in the pacific with artificial islands.

As an aside, after all the depressing political discussion it's a relief to be talking good clean sci fi again.

163:

Not sure recreating the Amazon would be a moral act, there's a lot of non-consensual disruption of bodily integrity that happens in a forest. Wouldn't pass ethics approval these days.

There is a school of thought that says the biosphere has a strictly negative utility, what with all the devour-each-other-alive that's going on, and the moral thing to do is to destroy it utterly.

I need to stop reading lesswrong or I might catch some crazies myself...

164:

Nice programs may have done. I suspect that back in the mid '70s, the amount of core may sometimes have been so constrained that even the few words required for that boot loader were needed for computation later.

Apropos of which, back when the game Elite was being written and for which I was the software tester, I remember discussions where I pointed out a bug, and Mssrs. Bell & Braben would suck their teeth, work out how many bytes it would cost to fix it, and would then go into deep discussions over where to rescue another two or three bytes from. In the end, it went out with a couple of dozen bugs I knew of, simply because there was not enough space to fix those.

(Yes, they overwrote every single OS routine that they weren't actually using. And they stored data on the screen too, in the handful of raster lines where they'd turn the palette to black on black and were changing screen resolution.)

165:

In North America you'd want to head toward the great plains (in both the US and Canada). Mexico would be in more trouble, but you'd basically want to get as far from Mexico city as possible.

In Europe, the British Isles should be OK provided there was no direct damage. Ireland would be best off. Otherwise Eastern Europe is the place to be.

166:

Yeah, you can see a lot of "trial runs" so to speak. Even in Russia, of all places - Novgorod and Pskov.

It's an interesting question of why earlier attempts at republics failed, but then starting in the late 18th century they became the dominant form of government, so much that even dictatorships take on the trappings of republics.

167:

I'd say the technological development reached a point where republics became more efficient than monarchies.

168:

Got to agree this time: the problem isn't just the genome, it's a) the fact that it has to be annotated properly to work, b) it has to be put into a working cell with all the proper proteins and RNAs present, c)(if it's a multicellular organism) it has to grow up with all the microbiota it needs to develop properly, d) as noted, you need genetic diversity within the species to form a viable breeding population (many plants and animals can't inbreed) and e)many large, complex animals have a culture. For example, you can't bring back an extinct language by cloning the last speaker. Cats teach their offspring how to hunt properly in a particular territory, elephant matriarchs guide the migrations of their families, parrots and ravens have different dialects and feeding strategies across their range, etc. It's all this additional information that's hard to get and hard to transfer. Genomes are only a small part of the answer.

This also ignores the fact that we don't particularly know what a majority of life is, even now.

The best way to think of the problem of ecological restoration is to scale up by a factor of, oh, one million. We're now roughly Godzilla-sized. Most people view the natural world much as Godzilla views New York, as a collection of buildings (plants) that often get broken when you move around, plus swarms of little things (humans and cars), some of which are annoying or dangerous, but don't let that stop you from stepping on them, because they're harmless.

Following the Godzilla metaphor, most people's idea of restoring a natural community (say, New York) is to build some buildings (plant a bunch of plants) and assume that all the little things will naturally recolonize immediately. If you've seen recent articles on China's ghost cities, you'll realize that this is an immensely stupid way to build a community. For one thing, you need all that minute-but-staggerly-complex infrastructure (water, sewage, electricity, heat, subways, etc.) which in nature is provided by fungi and bacteria, many of which are poorly known and hard to study. Then you need all the infrastructural workers (what's charmingly called the mesobiota, some of which isn't studied by any scientific specialist right now) to keep the place working. Then you need to somehow convince all the people (the macrobiota) to move in and somehow make a home in these huge, vacant, badly-placed buildings that have no utilities to speak of.

Right now, we're pretty bad at all this stuff, so many, perhaps most, of our ecological restorations resemble China's ghost cities more than they resemble the natural communities they were supposed to replace. The crappiest ones really can be compared to urban planning by a kindly-but-profit-driven Godzilla, and they work about as well.

169:

Given the state of the surrounding countryside around Chernobyl the best way to regenerate biomes is probably to scatter plutonium and evacuate all the humans.

I'm actually surprised no ecoterrorist has thought of this, even in fiction.

170:

The best way to evacuate humans is to scatter plutonium. Biome regeneration is a side-effect.

Anyway, ecoterrorists are mostly skint nobodies, where would they get plutonium?

171:

PS. THE LIBYANS!!!

172:

Another analogy - I've got this program on this floppy disc.

Yes, it's a 3" Amstrad disc.

What do you mean, nobody's seen one of those for several hundred years? How do I run this Locomotive Basic game?

173:

Nice thought, but while there's a lot of wildlife in Chernobyl, it's not terribly healthy wildlife (relevant wikipedia link).

I agree this is better than nothing, but I disagree strongly with the whole ecoterrorist meme. It's the kind of deeply dubious term the FBI and other reactionary law enforcement bodies trot out when they want to engage influence local politics and don't like uppity locals who are trying to keep the rich from being stupidly destructive. Indeed, some environmentalists argue that the true environmental terrorism is resource expropriation, where outsiders forcibly take the resources local people need to live, and move them elsewhere to make a profit that doesn't flow back to the local people.

Personally, I suspect water shortages are going to do a rather better job of depopulating large swaths of the world than would scattering plutonium. The task conservationists have for the next century or so is keeping wildlands intact enough in parks that the wild organisms are available to recolonize the suburbs as they're abandoned by people.

This kind of thing has happened before. For example, in many parts of "wild" Greece, one trips over the remnants of 19th century farms (just as in the northeast US) where people deserted marginal farms to emigrate to better lives elsewhere. The wildlife moved back in, and now most people can't tell the difference.

174:

This analogy is wrong. It's not that we can't read the program because it's on a wrong format. Sequence is sequence, whether in DNA or on a hard disk.

The problem is parts of the the program are missing.

175:

But parts of the program are missing - the whole OS.

176:

aggray:

I would say that the Roman, Venetian and Florentine republics failed because of flawed constitutions. Even so, Venice lasted over 600 years. Athens, in its final variant on democracy, seems to have managed fairly well up to the time it got conquered by Rome. The Swiss have had some kind of republic ever since the Middle Ages. I would say the turning point was getting republics that avoided the earlier failure modes.

177:

AAAARGH!!!

The whole computer analogy is wrong. There is no software\hardware division in living beings, there is no OS and CPU. It's all hardware. You can't "play" Gecko genome on a Mouse.

178:

I disagree; there are only a few nucleic acids the same as there are only a few electronic components. It's more like having custom chips for everything and you can't put a Gecko chip in a Mouse chassis.

179:

Look, if you can't change the software on your hardware, what's the point of calling it software?

180:

Isn't the whole GM thing about swapping software in living things? Bioluminescent cats, plants with antifreeze proteins from arctic fish?

181:

Now you are nitpicking. It is working on a small scale, with the right promoters, and not always. If you try to put any significant amount of Gecko "software" (lets say a whole chromosome) into a Mouse embryo, there likely* won't be a Mouse or a Gecko.

*likely, because there are no laws in biology without exceptions. :-)

182:

Agreed; I'd expect the result to spontaneously abort, or be a new species.

183:

You can change the software; it's just that when you do you no longer have the original program.

Alfred Russel Wallace wrote a paper about this, plagiarised by some guy called Darwin.

184:

The chances of it being a new species are extremely low. Unless the foreign chromosome undergoes X-inactivation for some reason. In which case you'll get a mouse burdened with a useless Gecko chromosome. Which may or may not confer some advantage to the mouse in a million generations...

185:

No, tbe analogy between DNA and software is incorrect.

DNA gets annotated (methylated and so on) so that genes can be activated or inactivated. It gets spooled and knotted as part of chromosomes, both of which affect what can and cannot be turned into proteins. Large stretches of DNA apparently serve as virus traps, too, basically sitting there as virus bait, read to be methylated into silence if a virus does land there.

One great example of the complexity is the ribosome, a bunch of RNA (coded from DNA) and proteins (coded from mRNA) that reads DNA to transcribe it into mRNA. Simple, right? In the DNA that makes ribosomes, there are these neat regions called ITS1 and ITS2, ITS for intergenic transcribed spacer region. They're transcribed into RNA, but they don't code for ribosomal structure. However, the ITS regions are absolutely critical, because they fold in highly predictable ways to bring the ribosome subcomponents together so that they can function (think of an old-fashioned wall phone, where the phone cord automatically knotted itself to put the handset back on the hook). Once the fold is complete, the ITS regions are snipped away and recycled.

DNA is not software. A somewhat better analogy would be punch cards, but only if the computer was made in part from folded punch cards, and if there were features within the computer that taped over punch card holes (or took off the tape) in response to directions from other punch cards, environmental inputs, and so forth.

This is why it's difficult to clone animals: you've not only got to move the genes, you've got to reset the whole subcellular system so that the DNA needed for the embryo is readable, and all the proteins, mRNAs and so forth in the rest of the cell are in the proper configuration to read out the DNA and properly develop the embryo. More often than not, this fails.

Genetic engineering as currently practiced is pretty crude: they inject genes into lots and lots and lots of cells, using a variety of mechanisms (anything from viruses to guns) and then screen the results to find that one case where the injection took and the gene is producing. This works okay when you're dealing with bacteria and simple gene inserts, but if you're trying to move chromosomes into a mammalian cell, it's extremely difficult.

186:

"The resurrection might not be perfect... a few breeding cycles might iron out remaining quirks, like compiling a compiler and then compiling it with the result... or might not. Still a lot less dead than a dodo."

Perhaps computers are not the correct analogy.

187:

"The advantage of other planets would be protection against very rapid disasters, or hypothetical man-made disasters like "grey goo". Fully colonized planets and asteroids could also aid with recovery."

Very rapid disasters would almost certainly strike too quickly to allow keeping a space population reservoir. They would require the space population to become self-sufficient (permanently!) very rapidly.

188:

You don't write reliable real-time software; I don't clone animals.

Either we both underestimate the difficulty of the other activity, or we both overestimate it.

189:

NPR in the US has run a few segments about bacteria and how it is passed on from mother to child at birth and if you don't have a big variety you tend to be much less healthy than others. And we have no idea of how they all interact with us except at a stone and stick tool level.

If you've seen recent articles on China's ghost cities, you'll realize that this is an immensely stupid way to build a community.

About the only way to build a city from scratch is to come up with a shared need that gets folks to move there in a hurry. I think of Las Alamos in WWII and there are some others associated with the Manhattan project. Plus places like Bolder City near Hoover Dam. Neither was a very nice place to live at first. It took years for all those pesky little details to be worked out. Things like a Fixit shop to repair your toaster and such. (1930s and 40s).

190:

then go into deep discussions over where to rescue another two or three bytes from.

I did programming like that in the early 80s. 2 weeks to find 4 or 5 bytes of code was tedious at times.

A sudden insight as to how to shave a byte or two from a core routine was time to celebrate with a night at a nice restaurant.

This was also in the hey day of structured programming and how to write readable code. We broke every rule about once an hour.

191:

I'd be less critical of the "build it and they will come" model used by modern China if I had good evidence that it worked more frequently. To my uninformed eyes, it looks like a number of communities got scammed by developers and their own greed.

As for ecological restorations, it is possible to restore certain systems reasonably well. For example, willow thickets come back very nicely, since they're based on plants that are evolved to colonize riverbanks scoured by floods. Conversely, something like a Midwestern prairie is impossible to rebuild at present, even when you have all the plant species and skilled people to plant them. No restored prairie to date has the same diversity as wild remnant prairies, and it's not clear why this is the case.

The general point I'm trying to hammer home is that ultimately, preservation is cheaper than restoration or reconstruction, simply because wild systems are so intricate and take so long to develop properly. As humans, we're simply not built to see and interact with the key players (such as soil fungi), and often processes take place on time scales (decades to centuries) that are not well-studied by humans. None of these technical obstacles is insurmountable, but the sociopolitical problem is: as citizens of so-called modern societies, we are, on average, totally uninterested in funding efforts to actually learn how to make ecosystems work. Even twerking is considered much more interesting by most people.

192:

Well, how long has ecosystem restoration been a thing? 30 years at most? The green movement didn't really get it's start until the 80s, though it probably was building up since before the 60s.

I don't mean to say things are going ideally but sometimes it seems people expect planetary society to spin on a dime when in fact it takes a while to get things turned in the right direction. We started serious industrial pollution in the 19th century and we've been applying the brakes since the 80s. It takes time.

And ecosystem restoration I would not expect to work on a short term timescale. Even if we knew exactly what we're doing. Which of course we don't.

193:

The "build it and they will come" model worked fine in China until the 2008 downturn reduced their exports; then, not so much.

Strangely, all the projects now abandoned were under construction or just finishing up in that time period...

There is an entirely valid question of whether that build out was efficient, compared to the organic western model, but that's a different question (which is almost impossible to evaluate under the circumstances, the west has never seen such a surge of urbanization as the mid 1990s to 2008 timeframe in China saw...).

194:

It's actually been around for most of a century, and started in the 1930s in the US. The Green Prairie at UW-Madison is a great example. It was started in the 1930s, worked on by an expert (Dr. Green) until his death in (I believe) the late 40s or 50s. Since then, it has been worked on by expert Wisconsin ecologists until the present day. It's generally regarded as the best restored prairie available, but it's missing species.

I agree, though, that people generally expect (and contract) for restorations to happen in no more than three years. In most systems, this is a ridiculously short timeline. Twenty years is probably more accurate.

195:

Pacific Biosciences is claiming their sequencing technique can directly read methylation.

Chromatin gets packed up into chromosomes for replication, so I don't think we're losing too much by not recording its exact configuration.

Genetic engineering as usually practiced is a crude affair. However, Craig Venter was able to assemble a chromosome for a simple bacteria with *exactly the sequence he wanted*. A painstaking business at the moment, but we're getting a whole lot less crude very rapidly.

DNA is passive stuff, it's quite like data storage. Proteins are like machines. The computer analogy isn't too bad, or maybe computer with attached machine shop. RNA is weird though, it holds information but it's also active. It's an architecture that hasn't changed for billions of years. All life on Earth operates on the basis of the Central Dogma.

We're not just sequencing DNA. We can ChIP-seq proteins attached to DNA. We can reverse-transcribe and sequence expressed mRNA. We can break up proteins and weigh the bits. Worried about recreating your gut flora? Metagenomics will tell you exactly what's there. Maybe we can't recreate everything we can observe, *yet*, but we can get a very detailed picture of what is going on just with this year's technology.

And my goodness you are all so eukaryocentric. Bacteria are much more interesting.

196:

Personally, I prefer fungi to bacteria, but whichever. Americans are generally extremely mycophobic, so it's not surprising that bacteria are regarded as superior here in the states. It's hard to separate prejudice from superior function.

That said, yes, it's been possible to do metagenomics for about 15 years (I was in a lab that was doing it back in 1999), and the only thing that differs is the speed. TO me, the bacteria X host X environment interactions that get rather more interesting (since guts are anaerobic on one side and aerobic on the other).

Still, if you want fun, try looking at soil metagenomics. That little problem of 99% unknown organisms (bacteria on up) per sample makes things interesting.

Finally, I should point out that metagenomics doesn't tell you precisely what's there. It tells you what genes have been recovered from a bulk sample that's been homogenized. It's useful, but it won't tell you how genes inside cells interact with other organisms and their genes.

197:

Hmm. Not even being able to culture a lot of what is in soil might be a showstopper, I admit.

198:

And here we are, living in a nation-state which is still a monarchy, but which has gained some aspects of the republic, and which has been incredibly successful over the last 300 years.

Maybe that indicates some of the things about a Republic which are really important.

The obvious one is Rule of Law. I think it's a necessary component for a Republic, and necessary for a successful state during and after an industrial revolution. The particular laws also matter, but it's one of the things which never quite got established by the Second Spanish Republic, with tragic results.

And it's one of those things that makes me wonder just how bad Francesco Franco was. He was responsible for a huge number of bad things, but when he died I think that was one of the things he had settled. Spain changed a lot, very quickly, and there was an attempt at a coup, but the chaos of the Second Republic wasn't there.

I'm looking closely at this history at the moment. The Spanish Army that was actually in Spain, scattered across the country in garrisons, mostly backed down and surrendered in the face of a vigorous counter. The central government was in confusion, but the local governors who released arms to the organised workers stopped the rebellion.

Where the conspiracy within the army succeeded, those local civil leaders were likely to be shot. Had the rebellion failed in Spain, the rebels would have controlled Spanish Morocco and its army. I think there would still have been a Civil War, I think the Second Republic was fragile enough that the results would be messy. But a Stalinist state would be one possible outcome.

It's the fear of Bolshevism that stopped those local governors from arming the workers.

Another key element of a republic is that changes of government don't threaten the lives of the old government.

Incidentally, the CNT, the anarcho-syndicalist trade union in Spain, is still there, despite all the Communists and Franco did to destroy it.

199:

@189:
About the only way to build a city from scratch is to come up with a shared need that gets folks to move there in a hurry.
---
...and once that need is met, or no longer relevant, sometimes everyone just leaves. Russia is littered with cities like that, and there are some in America heading that way.

200:

A few things have become clear. In the North American forest habitats, if you clear fell it doesn't recover well. And, while we might not have found the best answer yet, you have to somehow link the "seeds" you leave un-felled.

Of course there are political problems. The companies which take the timber don't want to leave money behind. But at the same time they're not tree-farmers, as you find in many European countries.

I am inclined to think that Corporatism often fails to think in think long-term. The companies don't see what happens fifty years from now as being of any significance. Sometimes it seems that they don't even have the forethought a farmer needs. They can make plans for five years ahead, but it doesn't take them two years to take a product through the factory.

201:

#193 et seq about "build it and they will come".

Maybe I'm the only person who watches Top Gear (UK version) but Spain has the same issues (Source TG, and confirmed by actual Spaniards).

202:

Rule of law is an important factor in stabilizing a state, but even more important -- in the long run -- is a mechanism for the peaceful transfer of power. Monarchs grow old and die and their sons wage civil wars; empires descend into warlordism: republics, if done right, use some mechanism to determine whether the rulers have broad support and, if they don't, peacefully replace them with new rulers. There's an implicit (or explicit) social contract: if everyone eschews political violence, then nobody has to live in fear of it, including the current rulers.

203:
one of those things that makes me wonder just how bad Francesco Franco was. He was responsible for a huge number of bad things, but when he died I think that was one of the things he had settled.

His oft mocked claim was he had left "Everything tied down, and well", which obviously didn't turn out like he expected. As for stability he purposefully stretched out the civil war so he could perform thorough purges via mass executions as he took territory.

And the bloody trains didn't even run on time...

204:

There's an implicit (or explicit) social contract: if everyone eschews political violence, then nobody has to live in fear of it, including the current rulers.

What do we do about people who were legitimately elected, who left office freely when their term expired, yet committed serious crimes while they were in office?

Do we do anything? Can we do anything? Should we do anything? If the first act of the new President of Lower Slobbovia is to hold a war-crimes trial for the last President of Lower Slobbovia, the temptation to cling to power would be irresistible. And yet, to not do so when crimes were committed allows a criminal to go free.

Any thoughts about this? I can't think of anything that can be done to stop current leaders from committing crimes and getting away with it.

205:

Depends on both the nature of the crime and the nature of the democracy. If you have a non-political judiciary, non-political serious crimes can be dealt with through normal channels, cf. Silvio Berlusconi. Many democracies have mechanisms for impeaching heads of state, e.g. the US. War crimes tend to be more difficult - the victors write the rules on those. (My late father was in the RAF - ground staff - during WW2, and firmly believed that "Bomber" Harris should have been indicted for war crimes.)

206:

This gets into the "it depends" category. There are more forests in New England than there have been in a century, but there are also so many deer that in some (many?) places, there are no tree seedlings to replace the current generation of trees. Is the forest recovered? It depends on how you look at it.

That said, forests generally take 100-500 (or more) years to recover to old growth, simply because old growth means a multiple generations of trees in the canopy, making it impossible to age the forest (forests that came up after a disaster have all the trees the same age, and you can use a tree corer to figure out when said disaster occurred). Most people don't seem to realize this, and expect forests to recover in, oh, ten years or so.

As for the short-sightedness of corporations, that's a rather new phenomenon, at least in the forest industry. A good example is Pacific Lumber, which was cutting its redwood forests on a 50-70 year rotation back in the 1980s, following good forestry standards of the time and trying to be sustainable. It was bought out by the investor Charles Hurwitz in a leveraged buyout that forced it to start cutting on a non-sustainable 30 year rotation to pay off the debt Hurwitz saddled it with. This also included cutting a little area of old growth called the Headwaters Forest, which you might have heard of. Long story short, the problem is Wall Street as much as (or more) than the foresters. Not that they weren't scalping the hills back in the 1800s, but the point is that it's hard to be a sustainable forester when it makes you a tempting takeover target for some financial shark.

Not that I'm terribly fond of certain foresters at the moment, but that's another issue involving the odious neologism "neo-native." The idea is that, with climate change coming, foresters should be allowed to plant anything they want (translation: whatever's cheap and available in the nursery when the order comes in) and ignore native plant regulations, because all the plants are going to have to change ranges anyway, and nothing will be native anymore. Feel free to poke a hole or five in that particular bit of logic.

207:

Kim Stanley Robinson made exactly this point in his book Antarctica:

"Say a company owned a forest that it had harvested selectively for generations, delivering its shareholders a consistent ten percent return. Meanwhile, the world financial markets were offering bonds with a fifteen percent return. Lumber prices dropped, and the company's returns dropped, so the traders dropped it and it shares plummeted, so the shareholders were angry. The management, on the edge of collapse, decided to clear-cut the forest and invest the profits from that lumber sale immediately into bonds that yielded a higher return than the forest had. In effect, the money that the forest represented was more valuable than the forest itself, because long-term value had collapsed to net present value; and so the forest was liquidated, and more money entered the great money balloon. And so the inexorable logic of Götterdämmerung capitalism demolished the world to increase the net present values of companies in trouble. And all of them were in trouble."

208:

Yep. I believe Mr. Robinson is another Californian? If so, we were likely reading the same papers at the same time.

One might suggest that this particular form of stupidity (reducing everything to money) will ultimately doom capitalism, simply because it's an ideology that over-simplifies the world, and leads to people making critical mistakes that will destroy the system.

Unfortunately, if you want to live, you need to account for a lot more than just money, including all the 17-odd elements you need to live and having them in a form you can use when you need them. That's a much trickier math problem than abstracting it all to set of agreed-upon monetary values and playing with the market.

209:

Need I to remind that on place on Earth practice pure 100% capitalism?

210:

Doesn't mean it works in the long term.

There's also a nice, long, complicated argument (nicely summarized in Graeber's Debt) that no place in the world practices pure capitalism or anything close to it. There are always gifts, sharing, special arrangements, laws fiddling with various aspects of transactions to favor some party over another, and so forth. In fact, I'd argue that, were we to go to pure capitalism and impose a "milk debt" on children, a bill that they have to repay the cost of their birth and raising, western-style capitalism would fall apart in short order.

Note incidentally that the "milk debt" to one's mother is an integral part of certain forms of Buddhism, although it doesn't seem to have become popular in the US. Here, a parent asking a child to pay off the debt of raising him effectively ends any relationship between these two people. I'm trying to remember which famous person had such a bill imposed on him, but he never spoke to his father again after paying off the bill his father presented him.

So no, I've got to disagree on all levels. In fact, I'd suggest providing evidence to support your assertion.

211:

I'm trying to remember which famous person had such a bill imposed on him, but he never spoke to his father again after paying off the bill his father presented him.

I don't remember either, but it was in Graeber's book.

212:

See also: Silvio Berlusconi. Or Richard Nixon. If it's crime-crimes, we've got ways of dealing with them.

The hard call is how to deal with war crimes. Especially those committed by front-rank nations or superpowers. I'd like to see Tony Blair in the Hague to answer for his part in the invasion of Iraq -- and George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney, and the rest of the mob. Also Vladimir Putin for his bloody-handed handling of Chechnya. But all we seem to get are the B-team heads of state and generals from nations that can't protect their former war criminals.

There's no good solution to this, other than a Planetary Overlord -- and then we have the problem of how to keep the PO in line. Gah.

213:

I for one, welcome our Strossian overlords!

The only blowback that comes to my mind regarding war crimes is Henry Kissenger having to leave Europe in a hurry in 2001. He was summoned by a French judge who wanted to ask him questions about some French nationals who were killed in the Chilean coup.

This wasn't an arrest warrant, but it still indicates that even when you want people to forget, they still remember.

214:

I have ambitions for adopting a child. It costs a lot of money to adopt a child, and presumably you derive some enjoyment therefrom or you wouldn't go into the business in the first place.

I could see someboy presenting their parents with a bill for the entertainment value...

215:

Something that seems often forgotten is that most crimes depend on a combination of action and intent. It's one of the things which distinguishes different grades of homicide: murder and manslaughter in the English system.

While it might get somebody off, if they go to trial over something that didn't work out as expected, it opens some whole new cans of worms (catering size).

216:

One might suggest that this particular form of stupidity (reducing everything to money) will ultimately doom capitalism, simply because it's an ideology that over-simplifies the world, and leads to people making critical mistakes that will destroy the system.

I have no problem reducing everything to money. I have a big problem with who gets to set the prices. The biggest issue here is we tend to create systems that price things that let us dump the junk "over the wall" to folks who can't set a price to stop the throwing.

217:
All the lovely proteins will be saved, at the very least. To lose those would be the worst crime.

Err, let me guess, you are a computer guy, not a chemist?

Nucleotide sequences or even protein sequences or even the final processed proteins are quite unremarkable, you can do some guesses on structure or function, but quite often, there is nothing to compare them to.

Another thing is, enzymes are sometimes not that specific, and even if they have only one substrate, the catalyzed reaction is often reversible, so depending on the concentrations, they might work one way or the other.

To use an example, let's go for nitrogen fixation; taken themselves, the enzymes involved are quite unremarkable. And with too much oxygen present, they don't work either. So you need an environment low in oxygen for them to do their magic, with polymer barriers etc. Quite often, they work with certain plants, where the interaction of plant cells and bacteria is quite complex. I guess both partners are already sequenced, but I guess they still haven't wortked out all quirks.

On another note, I'm not that sure extinction is such a problem on the level of bacteria; there are quite some "endemics", e.g. certain endosymbiotes in termites etc., but other bacteria are quite cosmopolitian; also note bacteria spores are notorious for surviving harsh environments. Most microbiologist would love them not to be so hardy, but there are some that even survive autoclavs...

218:

It's not often that you can say "you havent't listened to enough Country music" (excuse me while I resist the urge to channel the Blues Brothers, or confess that I probably heard the Billy Connolly version first)...

..."No Charge", by Melba Morrison

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Charge

219:

@199: Oh, it's been going on longer than that. When Marco Polo crossed the Taklamakan, he found cities there - Loulan, Subashi - which had died five hundred years previously, shortly after the silkworm was introduced to the West.

Not much call for building materials in the Taklamakan, so the cities are still there if you want to spend five days on a camel to get to a collection of almost incomprehensible walls.

220:

Those following this particular thread may find this photo essay interesting: http://www.treehugger.com/slideshows/urban-design/housing-bubble-china-unimaginable-its-scale/

The part that's a little interesting is the author noticed how they were building at least some of these 60 story apartment towers: "a concrete frame, a scaffolding built around it, a clay brick infill, and then covered in ceramic tile." No insulation. This is the way farmers build their single-story houses, incidentally, and it will be fascinating to see how this design scales up to skyscraper apartments designed for multigenerational families. They've also chosen a Houston-style, car friendly, too-far-to-walk urban design. Reportedly, one major impetus for building has been the infrastructure fees the government gets for licensing these things, whether there's a need or not.

This is going to be fascinating. It sure looks like the 2000's US housing bubble on a Chinese scale, and the phrase "too big to fail" has been used. I wonder what will happen next?

221:

Heads-up: you may need a new example of an unsolved microbiological problem - there's a company commercializing the ability to make any plant fix nitrogen.

222:

Um, yeah. I sure wouldn't invest in that company.

Weird statements on that page include:

"Provides every cell in the plant with the ability to fix nitrogen." --no nitrogen fixing plant, or nitrogen-fixing cyanobacterium, has nitrogen fixation in every single cell. The reaction does require a general absence of oxygen, and that requires special mechanisms to keep oxygen out. It's really, really hard to pair that with chloroplasts, which generate oxygen within a cell.

"Is non-GM"--Yeah, so how are they getting nitrogen fixation into plant cells again? Or maybe they are being accurate. Here's my guess: sugar cane has long been known to harbor nitrogen fixing bacteria (journal reference). I suspect this firm is trying to generalize that relationship to other grasses by fiddling around with the bacteria. This is a rather different relationship than what legumes do, but it is similar in that bacteria only fix nitrogen in areas of the plant with little or no oxygen and a lot of nutrients.

Note, however, that claims of "Azotic has achieved a world first in grass growing in total absence of soil N" are, um, interesting at best. They may be technically true, but if their system only replaces "around 60% of plant’s nitrogen needs," they may have gotten a grass to grow, but they didn't say how long it lived. Note that sugar cane is a grass. It would have been more interesting if they'd gotten a sugar beet or a blueberry to grow without nitrogen, simply because these plants don't have nitrogen-fixing relatives or known symbionts.

Another issue, as always, is that nitrogen-fixation is energy intensive, and that's probably a major reason why many plants don't bother. Energy to fix nitrogen is going to take away from energy for seed production, among other things, and it's probably not desirable for a lot of crops.

tl;dr Trottelreiner can still use his example. I'll point out that quite a lot is known about the whole system (including the signalling system, which appears to have been lifted in part from the much older arbuscular mycorrhizal signalling system), but having all the genes probably won't let you build a working nitrogen fixation nodule any time soon. Aside from getting the signals expressed in the proper sequence, you need the whole system for keeping oxygen levels low and feeding it sugar and nitrogen for it to work. For the computer geeks who can't be bothered to believe biologists know anything about information processing, this is akin to having the code for Firefox and CAD models for a PC, and assuming that you have all you need to get to the internet.

223:

Please note that even if this works, they are using a system where we know something about the proteins involved and their biochemistry, not just some sequences. If we didn't know there was something like nitrogen fixation, deducing it from those might be somewhat, err, complicated. But if you know an easy way to get from sequences to protein structure, err, I guess there might be some people interested[1]. And if you try to "cheat" and express nitrogenases in plants, they still won't do much with oxygen present.

To make myself somewhat clear, I didn't say nitrogen fixation was an unsolved problem, just that knowing the DNA sequence not necessarily says much about the function of said protein; and that's even if we assume we really know how the first RNA transcript is processed to the final mRNA at the ribosome, and what happens with the peptide after translation. If we go with nitrogen fixation again, the central enzymes, e.g. nitrogenases, are quite useless themselves, they need a cofactor which contains iron and molybdenum. Where the latter is not something I would usually think about in molecular modeling, and if you think which catalyst cluster to use is easy to find out, I guess you might talk to some inorganic chemists searching for new ones.

Coming back to molecular modeling, there was a time they said the only atom the Schrödinger equations etc. were solved for was the hydrogen one, no idea if that's still true, but AFAIK molecular modelling solutions still contain a hefty amount of heuristics. As for molecular modeling of proteins as a special case, you might cheat somewhat with comparing to proteins whose structure is already solved, but then, finding a way of doing accurate multiple sequence without heuristics that is not NP-complete is an interesting subproblem, but let's not go there...

And then, knowing the 3D structure of a protein of known sequence is only a small part of the problem. To get from the DNA sequence to the protein and the protein into a functional unit, we usually need someting more, e.g. a cell. Where only part of the information how to build a cell is genetic, e.g. coded in DNA or RNA, with another part already present in the actual cytoskeleton etc. structures of the cell.

TLDR, part of the current bummer with biologists is how little genome projects really achieve...

[1] Yeah, I also thought that was easy in my first year as a student. Old shame.

224:

Got to love room temperature, water soluble, sustainable organic nanotechnology. Simple it ain't.

225:

Coming back to molecular modeling, there was a time they said the only atom the Schrödinger equations etc. were solved for was the hydrogen one, no idea if that's still true, but AFAIK molecular modelling solutions still contain a hefty amount of heuristics. As for molecular modeling of proteins as a special case, you might cheat somewhat with comparing to proteins whose structure is already solved, but then, finding a way of doing accurate multiple sequence without heuristics that is not NP-complete is an interesting subproblem, but let's not go there...

The Schrödinger equation only has a practical analytical solution for the case of a single hydrogen atom. There are highly accurate ways to produce a numerical solution for more complicated systems. But the expense increases rapidly as system size and accuracy increase. The scaling might be N^7 for an accurate quantum numerical method, where N is the number of electrons in the system. Simpler quantum chemical methods scale around N^4. Even small proteins are giant by the standards of quantum computational chemistry.

Molecular modeling of nucleic acids and proteins relies heavily on parameterized force fields that use only classical physics, not quantum effects. This scales much better but the model is only as good as the parameterization, and it generally can't handle formation and breaking of covalent bonds. There are also hybrid methods that use classical physics for most of the system but quantum methods for better modeling of some small part, like a ligand binding site, but this involves additional human judgement as well as increased computational expense.

226:

Robert Asprin wrote a series called Time Scout which featured a female protagonist Margo Smith.
http://www.goodreads.com/series/40856-time-scout

These scouts go ahead and explore the time portals before they are opened up for Tourism. Margo wants to become the first ever Female Time Scout.

SPOILER ALERT


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Asprin pulled no punches with the first book, and she ends up getting captured and raped at one point.
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