Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Colonizing Planets (part 3)

Yet despite all the buzz about a colony on Mars, NASA is also very seriously considering a colony on, believe it or not, Venus! Before you scoff and declare that impossible, don't worry, NASA has thought this one through a bit. There are insanely harsh surface conditions on our neighboring planet--it's almost 860 degrees Fahrenheit on the surface with over 92 times Earth's sea level pressure, with an unbreathable atmosphere of CO2 and nitrogen, not to mention the corrosive clouds of sulfuric acid! NASA isn't actually considering a colony on the planet of Venus—that would be ludicrous—but instead, they are talking about a colony above the planet, floating above the clouds! The gravity above cloud level is only slightly lower than Earth's, and the atmospheric pressure is similar. Plus, the aerospace provides adequate protection against solar radiation. NASA has proposed designing floating airships that could later become more permanent floating cities. Venus has even been considered as a pre-Mars mission, to be used as “practice” for sustaining a colony beyond Earth. Venus is, after all, a little closer than Mars, 16.6 million kilometers closer, in fact! I'm still not sure 38 million kilometers should be considered “close to home,” however. If we need to practice colonization, how about we try the moon first, guys?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Colonizing Planets (part 2)

The Mars One colony mission was announced in May 2012, with the goal of sending humans to Mars in 2023. However, there is no plan for the these pioneers to return to Earth—they are meant to be permanent colonists. The colonists will be sent in groups of four, the first group with two men and two women, originating from different continents. Anyone over the age of 18 is a viable candidate. The response has been astounding—over 200,000 people have applied for the one-way trip to Mars! Several questions arise from all this: What would we gain from a colony on Mars? Like so many other (expensive) space endeavors, are we doing this just to say we did? And why are people so eager to die on Mars? Are they thrill seekers, or do they expect they will be honored as courageous pioneers and that they will make history? While all that may be the case, it often seems to be our nature to explore and try to test our endurance in harsh conditions. Without people willing to take these risks, it might be impossible to develop the technology and techniques necessary to support an off-world colony.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Colonizing Planets (part 1)

For many years now, NASA has been looking at other planets in our solar system for potential colonization. Why is the space organization so interested in this venture? We've never tried to colonize the moon, and it is the closest, most realistic endeavor considering the low cost when compared with the distance of Mars, for example. Yet NASA continues to eye planets like Mars and Venus (yes, Venus! More on that later this week) for setting up a human colony. The argument can be made that we will eventually deplete the resources of this planet, or that we might destroy ourselves someday in any number of ways, so starting a colony on another planet would serve as a way to preserve the human race. As astronomers are continually searching the cosmos for other earth-like planets, NASA's endeavor to colonize begins to make a little more sense—colonizing a planet in our own solar system might just be practice—preparation for the day we may actually discover another earth out there, just waiting for us!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Future of Privacy (part 5)

Though there has been some outrage and opposition to government and corporate information gathering practices, are we becoming too complacent with our right to privacy? Social media and other technologies have resulted in a gradual unraveling of our privacy, and we're collectively beginning to accept it as the “norm.” Government, corporations, and hackers alike have all been seizing upon the opportunity afforded to them to invade our privacy—we are far too open and trusting with technology these days. Computers, smart phones, game consoles, tablets, etc. are all programmed to jump on the nearest internet signal they can find, which means that anyone that wants your information has an open door to it. The current system isn't sustainable if we continue to place ourselves out in the open as targets for information gatherers. In Solar Echoes, I envision a future where the internet has become far less connected—many “intra-nets” of separated systems—all designed to protect the public against a powerful foe that uses digital information to subjugate and control. Perhaps we might eventually have to follow the same path?

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Future of Privacy (part 4)

If you're concerned about your privacy, what can you do? We all want to protect ourselves from hackers, so there are a few simple methods we can use to minimize problems, though keep in mind, these solutions are about as effective as car alarms—they might deter total amateurs, but they won't guarantee much beyond that. Expensive security products like McAfee or Norton are solid programs and are recommended if you don't mind constant updates and notifications. AVG Antivirus has a free product that is decent, and I'd also recommend a script blocker, like the free NoScript, which gives you the option to allow or forbid certain scripts from running with each webpage you visit. If you don't want your searches online to be in Google's archives, there are other alternatives. DuckDuckGo is a search engine that claims no records of your searches are kept. Other things you can do: regularly clear your browser's cookies and change your passwords, and never click any links or download any attachments from emails unless you trust the source. Even then, I've seen emails sent to me with odd links from family members who didn't even know their account had been hacked. Do your best to be careful, but there's no guarantee. The only surefire way to maintain privacy is to keep what you want private away from technology!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Future of Privacy (part 3)

While you may think that your online activity is private, Google is watching. With just about every site you visit, a script is running in the background called googleanalytics or googletagservices. It's a process similar to when you visit Amazon, look up Dr. Who DVD's, and then see suggestions from Amazon about other various Dr. Who items that you also might be interested in. Though this is nothing new (little programs called “cookies” that record this information, in addition to your login info, can be cleared manually or automatically, depending on your browser's security settings), are you comfortable with Google analyzing everywhere you visit online? I admit, I've sometimes been a little nervous about some of the online research for Solar Echoes that I've done, looking at info for various weapons and explosives so that I could accurately detail them in the game—after all, players play the game as “Union Guard” agents, which are sort of like interstellar CIA agents. It wouldn't surprise me if my online activity has been more closely looked at considering some of the searches I've done!

The Future of Privacy (part 2)

Not only are we at risk from rogue hackers, but our own government has been exposed by Edward Snowden—the NSA has been listening. The government required Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to hand over information on all telephone calls in its systems in the US. The communications of millions of US citizens were being collected indiscriminately, regardless of whether they were suspected of any wrong doing. Other private information, such as a government list of gun owners, was published in a New York newspaper—this database was legally obtained from the county clerks' offices through the Freedom of Information Act. Mysterious fake cell phone towers have been discovered across the country, intercepting calls all over the US. Whether the government or a private group is behind this, it is a safe bet that your phone conversations are not just between you and the other person on the line!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Future of Privacy (part 1)

Last year on Black Friday, shoppers innocently used their credit cards at Target, only to discover later that Target had been hacked and those credit card numbers were stolen. I was one of them. Thankfully, I managed to cancel my card before anyone used it, but others were not so lucky. From August through September this year, the same thing happened at Staples. Where can we shop safely these days with our credit cards? Must we begin to carry around wads of cash again? Our way of life is being frequently threatened by hackers. They steal our credit card numbers, they can get into our email, and they can destroy our computers. Security is not keeping up with this growing threat—for every security measure taken to protect against hackers, the hackers work tirelessly to thwart it. Prevention is almost always achieved in response to an incident, rarely in anticipation of one. What does the future hold for us?

Friday, December 19, 2014

Extending Our Existence (part 5)

Cloning is another avenue towards extending our existence. Already, the option to have your pet cloned exists, and people are paying to have it done. Although human cloning is still an ethical concern, it almost seems inevitable considering the current state of ethical decline in our societies. If these clones could be infused with our digital AI alter-egos, then we really might be able to essentially “live forever.” In Solar Echoes, cloning is our answer to character death, with DNA and “neural mapping” samples providing the information necessary to replicate a deceased character. However, with each successive clone (copies made from copies), the clone begins to degenerate. Abilities and skills may be lost or altered, and eventually, entirely new personalities will take form. By the 9th generation of cloning your character, you will be certifiably insane, and no further cloning is permitted. Though it may seem like your character has “9 lives,” it is highly recommended that you avoid death to avoid the cumulative cloning penalties!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Extending Our Existence (part 4)

It is not a stretch to imagine what the next step might be to having left an AI representation of ourselves behind. Loved ones, or possibly even someone new that meets our digital-self online, may become so involved with the AI that they look to a physical manifestation of the AI. Most businesses are built around serving a popular need, and if such a need is expressed, we may one day see robots that bear our digital personalities, performing with the AI we originally seeded with our information. A new generation of robotic avatars may come into existence, where loved ones are now back, “in the flesh.” What rights will we afford these robotic mirrors of our former selves? Humanity will most certainly one day have to decide where AI fits within our society, especially considering that the singularity (the moment when computer AI exceeds collective human intelligence) is predicted to occur well within the next 50 years, with some saying it may happen as early as 2027.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Extending Our Existence (part 3)

If you've seen the movie “Her,” the implications of a digital version of yourself start to become slightly clearer. In the movie (no spoilers—this is just from the plot description of the movie) a man falls in love with his computer's AI. Now imagine what would happen if we left a digital version of ourselves behind that acted just like us? Not only would it be difficult for loved ones to move on from their grief, but some might be so attached that they go to extremes. Marriage to computer AI might sound ridiculous now, but feelings run deep and it is likely that some may move this direction. In the movie “Strange Days,” a “drug dealer” sold digital experiences—the memories of others. The drug dealer himself was incredibly addicted to his own product, spending hours every day replaying memories of a former girlfriend. With technology like this, will we ever be able to heal and move on, or will we become prisoners of our past?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Extending Our Existence (part 2)

If you decide to sign up at, the system aggregates digital data that you have spread across the internet about yourself through sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and even through your emails, location history, and photos. All of this data will then be coalesced into an artificial intelligence, which results in a digital version of your personality. This AI personality will be able to interact with and offer information and advice to your family and friends, after you've passed away. The AI personality will use an online avatar, designed to emulate your looks and replicate your personality. Imagine, a digital version of yourself on the internet that looks and acts just like you! (Am I the only one that is totally creeped out by this?)

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Extending Our Existence (part 1)

Medicine has advanced to prolong our life expectancies, but physical immortality seems something of fantasy more than science fiction. It is still very unrealistic to hope that, in our lifetimes, a discovery will be made that would allow us to live hundreds of years long. Faced with this knowledge, many people are looking to leave something of themselves behind that might live on long after they are gone. A new tech company is currently working on creating a 3D “digital alter ego” of yourself who will talk to your family and friends long after you've died. It seems that the concept has won quite a crowd because so far, over 25,000 people have signed up on the website,, hoping to immortalize themselves.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Discovering Alien Life in an Unexpected Form (part 5)

The concept of aliens uploading their consciousness to a computer isn't a new one. In fact, back when we wrote Solar Echoes from 2010 to 2012, I designed one of the game's main villains, and they have done just that. Without divulging too much about this terrifying foe (you can read more in the Mission Controller's Guide if you'd like—we prefer to let players be surprised as they discover information about them in the game), suffice it to say that they are a race of machines. The aliens saw the benefits of existing in a digital form and the entire race has been uploaded. The history surrounding this event is something for players to discover, as are the aliens' methods and goals. If we consider the path that we are already on with technology these days, it is easy to conclude that we may one day extend our lives by integrating ourselves with computers and robotics. If there is an advanced alien civilization out there in space somewhere, it is even more likely that they have already done so!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Discovering Alien Life in an Unexpected Form (part 4)

One of the advantages an alien race might have integrating their minds with computers is that a machine is much more durable than a biological form. Space travel is currently limited by distance, as we have not achieved the speeds to make travel to other galaxies possible within someone's lifetime. Suspended animation is currently being considered for people to make the long journey more plausible. However, if an alien race was essentially uploaded as a computer intelligence into a machine, the physical limitations of a biological body no longer need to be considered. This would be an advantage not only for space travel, but for surviving harsh conditions on a planet that may be otherwise uninhabitable due to pollution or natural causes. Perhaps the UFO's that people claim to have sighted around the world are not piloted by biological aliens at all, but by an alien artificial intelligence. If that is the case, calling it “artificial” doesn't quite seem appropriate!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Discovering Alien Life in an Unexpected Form (part 3)

Technology has been progressing forward at tremendous speed over the last 50 years. We have moved from radios to thinking machines in this short time, so consider where we might be in another 50 years! If this trend is representative of the path an advanced alien race might follow, then it is safe for us to assume that alien culture may have already developed into a non-biological state, or at the very least, into something that could be considered  a bio-machine. The limitations of our brains are their size and vulnerability—our brain is limited by the size of our skull, but a computer can be the size of a city or an entire world. It may be a logical step to upload our consciousness to a computer to bypass the detriments and limitations of an aging physical body.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Discovering Alien Life in an Unexpected Form (part 2)

Perhaps we are already moving down the same path with our technology, as we are developing advanced Artificial Intelligence to handle many aspects of our lives. We have been integrating our daily lives with computer usage and the internet so much that it is not a stretch to imagine humanity looking for a quicker, and more permanent, way to connect with an information and communication network. Advanced robotics are constantly in stages of development, and we've not only seen robotic prosthetic arms and legs in use, but robotic exo-suits are emerging as attractive tools for a variety of jobs and for the military. Silicon is faster than the human brain, and research has been proving that neuro-prosthetics can make us smarter. Consider all this when looking to the future—it is likely that humanity may someday become “more machine than man.”

Monday, December 8, 2014

Discovering Alien Life in an Unexpected Form (part 1)

It has been suggested that we are most likely to discover alien life by finding either microbes in our solar system, signals from an alien intelligence, or organisms in the atmosphere of an exoplanet. The most profound impact would likely be discovering evidence of an alien intelligence, but our current expectations might not be aligned with how advanced that intelligence might be. We often assume things based on what we are familiar with, but consider how the human race is currently advancing with technology. Some speculate that we may soon wire our brains to the internet, and many are predicting that Artificial Intelligence might surpass our own within the next fifty years. A new theory about discovering alien life suggests that we'll find something far different from little green men--we may discover aliens have advanced themselves to exist as a form of artificial intelligence.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Space Opera and Science-Fiction (part 5)

So which do you prefer? Space Opera, Hard sci-fi, or a mixture of both? Hard sci-fi can fall into the trap of becoming too realistic, where much of the time is spent detailing things in order to give them realistic legitimacy. A similar problem in Space Opera is the tendency to spend time explaining things to justify the absurdities. However, with Space Opera, it is easier to let things go and let the imagination run wild, as long as a fair level of consistency is maintained throughout. Hard sci-fi is less forgiving, for fans of the genre may have extreme difficulty getting past even a small inconsistency. While we tried to maintain realistic consistency in some areas of Solar Echoes (weapon damage, wounds penalties from suffered damage, armor, vehicle and robot degradation when damaged, etc.) we also took a few liberties in other areas that we felt balanced the game more towards fun (healing nanites can remove some wound penalties, cloning can give your character another chance if your character dies, etc.) In the end, we wanted Solar Echoes to feel realistic and fair, but to encourage fun adventures and creative tactical choices.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Space Opera and Science-Fiction (part 4)

Though Solar Echoes certainly does fall into the space opera genre, it is interesting to note that much of the game was designed with realism in mind—we even have an Astronomy appendix entry in the Mission Controller's Guide with details on actual science and how it compares with the universe we created. We detail the various types of worlds that exist in the universe, the types of stars, and what current science indicates about the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life. To quote, “Since we have yet to find a habitable world around another star, all we can do at this point is base our game world upon the best knowledge we have at the current time. Someday, hopefully we will be able to find another Earth-like world out there, and what we learn from that experience will change our understanding of the whole universe.”

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Space Opera and Science-Fiction (part 3)

What is “hard sci-fi,” then? If Solar Echoes is considered to be a space opera, what about it prevents classification as hard science fiction? Hard sci-fi involves an emphasis on scientific accuracy and technical detail, but there is some flexibility in how much the story can stray from established science. For instance, faster-than-light travel (FTL) is something many hard sci-fi authors avoid, though sometimes it has been used as a necessary plot device. In such cases, the story must be rigorously consistent and detailed with regard to how an FTL society would be realistically depicted. The “hardness” of the genre is often measured by how practical and theoretically plausible the scenarios are.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Space Opera and Science-Fiction (part 2)

Another defining characteristic of space opera is its almost cinematic feel, with starship dogfights, laser gun battles, and dramatic adventure. Colorful characters are central and heroic in a space opera, and the plots usually involve large-scale action with war, piracy, and the military. Commonly, the setting has an optimistic tone and is written with characters that are sympathetic. The stakes in the plots of space operas are often very large, and quite often involve “saving the universe.” All of these characteristics can certainly be applied to Solar Echoes, just as they are obviously applicable to Star Wars. Though we didn't set out to write in a specific sci-fi sub-genre, Solar Echoes fits quite well into the category of space opera!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Space Opera and Science-Fiction (part 1)

I had an interesting discussion this weekend with a friend after we watched the new Star Wars trailer. Cheesy and impractical light-saber hand-guards aside, we talked about how Star Wars falls squarely in the “Space Opera” genre. Then I asked my friend if Solar Echoes should be considered a space opera, and I wondered what defined the genre and set it apart from “hard sci-fi.” I had thought that Solar Echoes was kind of a mix of the two, but it turns out, it really does fall into the genre. I had mistakenly believed that one of the main factors that qualified Star Wars as a space opera was the presence of the magical ability known as “the force.” I thought that space operas involved fantasy elements, so whether we label the force as psychic powers or as something derived from intelligent, microscopic midichlorians that live in our cells, to me it all seemed to be fantasy and not science fiction. It turns out that fantasy elements are not the defining element of a space opera at all!