As the weekend approaches, I sense the need in the universe for some people to find a new TV show to binge watch.
If you fit in this category and haven’t yet watched The Expanse, give it a try. If you are a BSG fan and haven’t seen it yet, start tonight. If you like sci-fi, drama, space opera, global political intrigue, underdogs, detective noir, the risk of mass extinction, and believable human history a few hundred years in the future, this one is for you.
There’s a ton of setup, so you need to hang in there for the first five or so episodes. As the friend who referred me to it stated, it’s “Boring boring PROTOMOLECULE…” You get there quickly enough.
There are three seasons, and Amazon just picked up the fourth, so there is a lot to catch up on along with a future. And, after reflecting on it compared to our current geopolitical situation, it’s easy to assert that “nothing ever changes.”
The science fiction of the last 30 years is rapidly becoming reality as technologies such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence are becoming more real and present with each passing day. While my jetpack still seems ponderously far away and cars are becoming self-driving instead of flying, we are making progress.
In medicine, progress is methodical and incremental. As lives are literally at stake, it’s imperative to move forward in a logical and data-driven manner. The resulting regulatory requirement of clinical trials may sometimes be seen as an innovation-stifling burden, but lengthy clinical trials protect patients by ensuring safety and efficacy of therapies. The result? As real advancements are being made in biotechnology, such as engineered cells to fight cancer or using stem cells to regenerate the spine, news and hype eventually quiets during decade long timeline for these technologies to clear trials. There is a bright horizon of therapies that many of us are unaware of.
While I’m not a biotech investor, I ran into a company in Techstars Class 92 (Seattle 2017) called Silene Biotech that fascinated me. The founder, Alex Jiao, has been focused on regenerative medicine for the past decade, an area of research that still feels strongly like science fiction. The idea is to use our cells outside the body to regenerate or regrow lost tissues and organs. A buzzword in this space is “stem cells” and nowadays most people are familiar with the general concept. Stem cells can self-renew and turn into other cells, so their potential is incredible for regenerative medicine.
Currently, there is a lot of mythology and misinformation surrounding stem cells. Unlike newts which can regenerate their limbs, our bodies have limited repair mechanisms and our stem cells can only do so much. However, there are businesses purporting that a simple injection of unmanipulated stem cells can work miracles. The FDA disagrees, and without any compelling data from a clinical trial, most scientists would disagree as well.
I learned from Alex that not all stem cells are the same. Different stem cells have varying abilities to regenerate and turn into other tissues. Furthermore, we are also realizing that it takes guidance and manipulation to coax a stem cell into the correct cell or tissue for regeneration. And new technologies allow us to reprogram adult cells into more “potent” stem cells. These factors have now led to stem cell-based clinical trials to treat diseases such as macular degeneration and heart disease, with some early promising results.
There are still limitations to stem cell technology. One major limitation is that we are realizing age and environment can have a profound effect on stem cell function and even safety. Essentially, the older we are, the older all of our cells (including stem cells) become, and as a result, our bodies’ natural repair mechanisms deteriorate or stop.
Given these factors, I was excited about Alex’s notion that “backing up” our cells and stem cells could be a valuable tool for improving and extending our health in the near future. We can stop the biological aging of our stem cells by putting them in a deep freeze at an earlier age, when they have fewer mutations and damage. Banking our stem cells will then allow us to eventually generate and bank other tissues for self-use, like a population of heart cells for cardiac repair or a population of liver cells to diagnose drug toxicity. As technology moves towards a future where it’s technologically possible to engineer tissues and organs from our own stem cells, backing stem cells up today can give us the best opportunity to use them when we need them.
I love the idea of backing up my stem cells. Alex and his team are coming to Boulder to do this for me on 11/29. If you are interested in backing up your stem cells, Alex has offered to do it for a few others in Boulder when he is here. If you are interested, just email me and I’ll connect you with Alex.
I’ve decided to read a bunch of old science fiction as a way to form some more diverse views of the future.
I’ve been reading science fiction since I was a kid. I probably started around age ten and was a voracious reader of sci-fi and fantasy in high school. I’ve continued on as an adult, estimating that 25% of what I read is science fiction.
My early diet was Asimov, Heinlein, Harrison, Pournelle, Niven, Clarke, Sterling and Donaldson. When I was on sabbatical a few years ago in Bora Bora I read about 40 books including Asimov’s I Robot, which I hadn’t read since I was a teenager.
I’m almost done with Liu’s The Dark Forest which is blowing my mind. Yesterday morning I came across a great interview from 1999 with Arthur C. Clarke. A bunch of dots connected in my mind and I decided to go backwards to think about the future.
I don’t think we can imagine what things will be like 50 years from now and I’m certain we have no clue what a century from now looks like. So, whatever we believe is just random shit we are making up. And there’s no better way to come across random shit that people are making up than by reading sci-fi, which, even if it’s terribly incorrect, often stimulates really wonderful and wide ranging thoughts for me.
So I thought I’d go backwards 50+ years and read sci-fi written in the 1950s and 1960s. I, Robot, written in 1950, was Asimov’s second book so I decided to start with Pebble In the Sky (his first book, also written in 1950). After landing on Amazon, I was inspired to buy the first ten books by Asimov, which follow.
Pebble In The Sky (1950)
I, Robot (1950)
The Stars, Like Dust (1951)
David Starr, Space Ranger (1952)
Foundation and Empire (1952)
The Currents of Space (1952)
Biochemistry and Human Metabolism w/Williams & Wilkins (1952)
Second Foundation (1953)
Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids (1953)
They are all sci-fi except Biochemistry and Human Metabolism written with Williams & Wilkins in 1952. I bought it also, just for the hell of it.
I bought them all in paperback and am going to read them as though I was reading them in the 1950s (on paper, without any interruptions from my digital devices) and see what happens in my brain. I’ll report back when I’m finished (or maybe along the way).
If this list inspires you with any sci-fi books from the 1950s or 1960s, toss them in the comments and I’ll grab them.
I rarely read physical magazines anymore. I only read in the bathroom and most are things I forget to unsubscribe to or that Amy gives me.
Today, I finished the most recent MIT Technology Review where I was reminded about the amazing MIT Science Fiction Society. As a sci-fi nut, I realized I’d screwed up by not having a lifetime membership. So, I’m now trying to figure out where to send my $260 to be a lifer.
As I was reading the other MIT thingy I get regularly (the MIT Science News and Events) I saw a mindblowing stat from the most recent Putnam Competition (the 74th). MIT took four of the top five places, won the team competition, and had 43% of the top 81 scores (depending on the rounding, that’s either 34 of 81 or 35 of 81.) Either way, it’s nuts.
When I was a freshman, I thought I was hot shit at math. I was the star of my high school Mu Alpha Theta team and as a senior had an unexpected first place finish in a Rice University national competition for Algebra. I was pretty damn good in the calculator competitions on my TI-58C. Yes, I was a nerd then, and I’m still a nerd now.
While I got an 800 on the math SAT, I booted all the AP tests except Biology (to place out at MIT you need to get a 5) – I can’t remember what I did the night before the tests but it clearly wasn’t something that I should have been doing if I wanted to pass them.
So, when I got to MIT, I took 18.011, which was the “advanced first calculus course.” It was straightforward. I then took 18.021 (“advanced second calculus course.”) It was less straightforward. If I had placed out on the Math AP test, I would have taken 18.02 and 18.03 instead. So I felt a little less like hot shit.
My friend (and future business partner Dave Jilk) knew I liked math so he encouraged me to take a course called 18.701: Algebra. I figured “Algebra – I’ve got that.” I don’t know if Dave was serious or just fucking with me, but when I got a 12 on my first test I knew I was fucked. I dropped the class shortly thereafter. Dave, of course, got an A in that one. He’s much better at math than I am.
While I ended up being “fair” at math by MIT standards, I developed a weird savant like numeric skill. I can remember crazy amounts of number and data pairs. I can also do a lot of math in my head, although I’m often off by an order of magnitude, which of course either matters a lot or is easy to adjust when you realize it.
Mitchell M. Lee, Zipei Nie, Bobby Shen, and David Yang – y’all are math studs. Well done representing the Beavers in the 2014 Putnam.
The Martian by Andy Weir is the best book I’ve read in a while. I consumed it in the last 24 hours. But first, here’s what I woke up to this morning.
No – I’m not on Mars. But Mark Watney was. And while Mars is a lot more desolate than Homer, Alaska, I disconnected from the human race several times right in the middle of a work week because of the amazingness of this book. At 2am last night, I said out loud to my wife Amy, who was fast asleep, “I’m going to be tired tomorrow afternoon.” And, as I crawled into bed after a stretch of 7am to 2pm video conferences, I said “Wow, I’m tired, but I’m not nearly as fucked as Mark Watney is right now.”
The story is a simple one. A mission on Mars goes badly in the sixth day of 31, the six person crew aborts quickly, but during the abort, one person (Mark) gets separated, is lost, and left for dead. Except he’s not. After he regains consciousness, he realizes he’s been abandoned on Mars. The good news is that all the stuff from their mission, including what will become the very famous HAB, two Rovers, and all their supplies and equipment, is still there. The bad news is that Mark is alone on Mars with no communication back to Earth since all the comm gear was in the spacecraft that was used for the abort.
Day by day, piece by piece, hack by hack, Mark survives. His brain is amazing – he’s a classical botany / electrician / engineer hacker. Well – I guess there’s no such thing, but that’s the fun of it. He’s awesomely descriptive, has a wicked sense of humor, and incredible survival instinct. And his creativity, in the endless near-death experiences he finds himself in, is awe-inspiring.
NASA and the people of Earth eventually figure out he’s alive. He figures out how to communicate with them. As he continues to extend his life expectancy, a plan to rescue him comes together. It blows up on the launch pad. Another plan emerges. Communication is lost. A series of parallel epic journeys begin. Tension, already high, mounts. And Mark continues to almost die, but then figure out a way not to.
What a wonderful book. I can only imagine how badly Mark smelled at the end of it.
As we roll into the weekend, and I start another digital sabbath, I’ve got the question “what really matters about being human” rolling through my mind.
I spent the afternoon at the Silicon Flatirons conference SciFi and Entrepreneurship – Is Resistance Futile? I thought it was phenomenal and remarkably thought provoking. I came back to my office to find Dane and Eugene playing TitanFall on my 75″ screen. In a few minutes I’m heading out to dinner with my parents, Amy, and John Underkoffler of Oblong who was in town for the conference. The juxtaposition of another intense week rolling into the weekend and a day off the grid intrigues me.
The first panel was a fireside chat between me and William Hertling. William is one of my favorite sci-fi writers who I think has mastered the art of near term science fiction. If you haven’t read any of his three books, I encourage you to head over to William’s website or Amazon and grab them now.
At the end of our fireside chat, we were asked a question. I heard the question as about mortality so I went on a long space jam about how I’ve been struggling with my own mortality for the past 18 months since having a near fatal bike accident (one inch and it would have been lights out.) Up to that point I felt like I had come to terms with my own mortality. I would often say that I believed that when the lights go out, they go out, and it’s all over. And I’m ok with it.
But last fall I realized I wasn’t. And during my depression at the beginning of 2013 I thought often about mortality, how I thought about it, whether I was bullshitting myself for the previous 25 years about being ok with it, and what really mattered about being alive, and being human.
I then handed things over to William. He proceeded to answer the question that had been asked, which was about morality, not mortality.
When he finished and I’d realized what had just happened, I emitted a gigantic belly laugh. And then for the next couple of hours I kept applying the lens of “what really matters” to the discussion about science fiction, entrepreneurship, and the human race.
From the meditation I’ve been doing, I’m definitely exploring “listening to my thoughts” rather than obsessing over them. I’m recognizing that the narrative I’m creating in my brain is just my narrative and doesn’t necessarily have any real meaning, or importance, at all. 150 years from now, I don’t believe any of it will matter. And then, suddenly, the great John Galt quote “It’s not that I don’t suffer, but that I know the unimportance of suffering” comes to mind.
Sometime during the fireside chat, the statement popped out that “I believe the human species dramatically overvalues its importance to the universe.” I think this is going to be a radical point of conflict with the evolution of machines over the next 50 years. At this stage, it’s a part of what gives our lives meaning. There are so many complicated things that happen on a daily basis that create stress, conflict, controversy, and emotional responses. All of them theoretically generate meaning, but when I “listen to my thoughts” I recognize the unimportance of them.
And then I start searching for what really matters. Both to me, and about being human.
See you Sunday.
William Hertling is currently my favorite “near term” science fiction writer. I just read a pre-release near-final draft of his newest book, The Last Firewall. It was spectacular. Simply awesome.
You can’t read it yet, but I’ll let you know when it’s available. In the mean time, go read the first two books in the trilogy.
They are also excellent and important for context for The Last Firewall. They are inexpensive. And they are about as close to reality while still being science fiction as you can get.
I define “near term science fiction” as stuff that will happen within the next 20 years. I used to read everything by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson. Gibson’s Neuromancer and and Stephenson’s Snow Crash were – until recently – my two favorite books in this category. Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom (TM) replaced these at the top of my list, until Hertling showed up. Now I’d put Daemon and The Last Firewall tied for first.
Amy and I were talking about this in the car today. Gibson, Sterling, and Stephenson are amazing writers, but their books have become too high concept. There’s not enough love and excitement for the characters. And the science fiction is too abstract – still important, but not as accessible.
In contrast, Hertling and Suarez are just completely nailing it, as is Ramez Naam with his recent book Nexus. My tastes are now deeply rooted with these guys, along with Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross.
If I was writing science fiction, this would be what I was going for. And, if you want to understand the future, this is what you should be reading.
I love reading science fiction. I started when I was ten-ish and have never stopped. While on vacation in Mexico recovering from my kidney stone surgery, I read a bunch of books including one science fiction book – Nexus by Ramez Naam (he sent me the pre-release.) It was awesome.
I was talking about science fiction with a friend. We started rattling off our favorite science fiction books. Asimov’s Foundation, Herbert’s Dune, and Niven’s Ringworld topped my list of classics. When we started talking about contemporary ones, I raved about Suarez (Daemon) and Hertling (Avogadro Corp). And I’ll read pretty much anything from Philip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein.
I’m going to go on a scifi reading rampage over the holidays. I need some new ideas to read.
What are your favorites?