Friday, May 17, 2024

Science Fictional musings, a roundup and some preens!

Last month we hosted a memorial and celebration of our dear friend, prophetic author Vernor Vinge. Here is some video sampled from our farewell celebration of this wonderfully brilliant and sweet human being.  

Vernor’s Hugo-winning works include A Deepness in the Sky and Rainbows End, in which the UCSD Library is tech-persuaded to ‘get up and dance!’ His novella True Names foresaw the many vexing quandaries about identity and accountability, as well and many boons.

Vernor foresaw - by decades – so many implications of our world, including the Internet, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence (AI) and 'the Singularity,' with novels and award-winning stories translated into 25+ languages. Vernor was also a beloved professor of mathematics and computer science at San Diego State, since 1972. Here is Vernor speaking at a panel at Loscon39 about 12 years ago. 


Feel free to leave memorial messages there or under my blog tribute to Vernor. Or, on my video memorial honoring Vernor.


Oh, one last thing.  We hope to gather resources to establish an annual Vernor Vinge annual lecture to alternate at UCSD and SDSU, featuring great talks about plausible speculative futures. Please contact me if you are interested in participating.

== A couple of forgivable preenings ==

On Tim Ventura’s popular ‘cast – just released: “Legendary SF author David Brin discusses Dune! The new movies vs. the novels, contrasted and compared to Isaac Asimov's Foundation, Arthur Clarke and how certain obsessions of the 60s still resonate, affecting art & consciousness even today.” 

Especially this question: is Denis Villeneuve’s brilliant version questioning or even reversing some classic thematic elements of Frank Herbert's masterpiece?

Oh and this. My page devoted to both 250-word and 6-word stories. One of mine won WIRED's 6-word story contest a while back. Six words, containing three separate scenes! Action! Conversation! Love & loss and tragic irony!  A lot more story than 'baby shoes.'

== Others are pointing it out! ==

Are fictional dystopias blocking us from better futures? From Big Think

“Since the 1970s the prevailing vision of the future in popular culture has tended towards the dystopian. Commentators of all stripes — from celebrated movie critics to novelists and today’s "effective accelerationists" — have addressed the lack of blue-sky thinking. Michael Harris argues that dystopias are not a failing of their creators’ imaginations — and that fears about the future are rooted in the mechanisms of power and control.” 

Yes. It's one of the key points I make in Vivid Tomorrows!

…And yet, I also argue that some dystopias are not downers, but useful warnings! In fact, we are likely alive, today because of effective warnings by sci fi SPP… “self-preventing prophecies”! 

From Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove to China Syndrome and Soylent Green and Nineteen Eighty-Four, chilling tales drew attention to possible failure modes!

What is the difference between those effective ‘SPP’ dire warnings and dismal dystopian downers that only hurt our morale? Well, one difference is whether the warning is something we might DO things to help prevent! 

But the biggest difference is laziness. Dystopias or caricature tyrants with glowing eyes are trivially easy! Easy - for writers & directors – to write, to film, and to push at suckers!

Of course plotting a thriller becomes much harder, if the hero gets help from skilled professionals or even institutions... or neighbors! If the hero is a member of an actual civilization with skilled professionals eager to help. Can’t have that! The writer might actually have to work for a living, instead of just cloning every other lone-hero-and-pals-vs-Sauron cliché! Far easier to dismiss the plot complications that might impede the relentless slam(!) of vivid/implausible action sequences! 

Alas, there is a price we all pay for this betraying laziness. After generations of Hollywood flicks have preached that civilization never matters, it now feeds much of the propaganda that’s turning us into sullen pessimists. (For more see Vivid Tomorrows.)

And on that downer note, let's swivel back to fun!

== Science Fiction Updates ==

David Gerrold is being way-entertainingly vivid again! Chess with a Dragon – a revived classic from Open Road. Newly admitted to galactic society, naïve humans find out that the Galactic Encyclopedia has a user fee—and they are overdrawn! If the debt can’t be paid, humanity will be sold as slaves . . . or food.  

Check out this article: Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” predicted devastating climate change, inequality, space travel and “Make America great again” 31 years ago. I miss Octavia! As a friend and for her uncanny ability to encourage our active conscience. Only, unlike the Hollywood depression machine of today, she laced her warnings with hope.

Here's a recent bibliography of SF about the Law: “Bibliography: Law in Science Fiction,” by Stephen Krueger.

Here is an interesting and cogent appraisal by Noah Smith of the “Dark Forest Problem,” – the core driver of every plot element in Liu Cixin’s wonderful (and Hugo winning) science fiction epic The Three-Body Trilogy… or Remembrance of Earth’s Past. (I am mentioned several times. Also spoilers.) I must agree on many levels – (though the trilogy is still magnificent and fascinating!) – that the premise depends upon our galaxy being far more opaque to knowledge and observation than it actually is. And that the tale’s zero-sum premise is hard to support in light of either actual evolution or game theory. Still, this critique offers worthy insights about a magnificent epic so grand that it can take a little scrutiny!

Lightening the mood: We found the movie Future 38 to be silly and way-fun! A take-off from 1930s screwball comedies, with a sci fi twist, as we’re supposed to believe the flick was actually made in 1938, projecting a future 2018, getting a flurry of predictions both hilariously wrong and even more amusingly spot-on. As almost never happens in Hollywood, there’s optimism all over…and some real wit. 

(In the future, it’s perfectly normal for ‘jolly’ couples to get married. They demo'd the formica bomb on a useless Nevada ghost town... Lost Wages or Lost Vegas, I think.  ;-).  And so on. I expect there will be GPT personas offered soon that mimic Mabel the Operator.

== SF Miscellany ==

My novels - Earth and Glory Season - have just been re-released with gorgeous new covers by Open Road, along with my Uplift titles, such as Startide Rising

Audio tales? This one by Asimov - A Pebble in the Sky - is a lost classic that I refer to in Foundation's Triumph. (Though it ignores the novel’s main plot arc.) But there are lots more...

My colleague Bruce Golden has released a new collection. Everything Aliens Always Wanted to Know About Sex (*But Were Afraid to Land and Ask) features short stories, satire, novel excerpts, and factual reports about love, sex, romance, lust, and the realm of human desire. Inside its pages you'll find tales both dark and humorous, romantic and passionate, weird and wonderful.

Lawrence Schoen’s story "The Panda's Dream" is moving and sweet.

An anthology of positive future climate stories and scenarios - The Climate Action Almanac - is available free from ASU's Center for Science & the Imagination.

== Finally, another preen… ==

Finally... a montage of photos from Panama... just before I keynoted the conference on Beneficial Artificial Intelligence (see my talk summarized here.) And okay, John Cena I ain't! But lucky at love!

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Romanticizing the past is fear of future irrelevance

In so many ways, we are all in deadly danger due to … romanticism. Especially idealized and flat-out wrong notions about history.

Elsewhere, I talk about how the romantic side of humans… imagining and fantasizing wishes or nightmares, envisioned in vivid, luscious subjectivity… is an essential human trait! We’d be a drab, impoverished species without that rich, inexhaustible realm of delusion. Indeed, I make my living catering to it, selling imaginary trips of high vividness...

...delusions that are openly and honestly sold as delusions.  

Nevertheless, I argue here – and in Vivid Tomorrows  -- that delusion can also wreak utter hell. Across 6000 years of horrific misrule that we call “history,” our romantic figments have justified an endless parade of horrors.

And hence, running an actual civilization calls for something better. 

Let me make clear: all strains of human life, including politics, are rife with delusions! And alhough I am about to dive into the way that many of our neighbors have  gone particularly loco… I also avow that there are crazy romantics infesting and doing great harm, on my own political 'side.' I inveigh about those preening idiots, from time to time.

 But still… well… we must prioritize. One thing at a time?

Take the Mad Right’s relentless incantation-fetish about the 1950s, an era when – for sure – middle class white guys felt they were on top.  Though – um – even they, in vast majority, voted Democrat! Back then, the Greatest Generation guys remembered how FDR et. al. rescued the nation from previous, monstrous stupidities -- like an earlier effort by rich lords and inheritance brats to re-establish feudalism.  Those veterans, bolstered by New Deal policies and the GI Bill, set in motion the greatest surge in productivity and prosperity any nation ever saw.

Still, that unparalleled growth and progress was incremental and comparative! It was a build toward better days, not a culmination or lost paradise. Indeed, YOU have a duty, in case any of you ever face romantics who actually actually claim that America was a better place in the 1950s!  

If you run into that utter garbage, here is your ammo for shooting down that bald-faced lie-travesty. And yes, I mention not only FDR and Ike, but also utter the words Jonas Salk!  

== The cult memes keep flowing ==

Want another madness of the gone-loopy U.S. right? It’s one that infests all forms of conservatism. (Though sure, some portions of the left have their own bad habits.) Yes, it is rife even among conservatives who (sanely) despise Donald Trump. 

You've seen me talk about it before. But I'm going to keep hammering this as a lonely Cassandra, until I see someone out there joining me in denouncing a dangerously infectious madness.

It’s called cyclical history, and it is noxiously rampant now across the American right. See where I shred that grotesque fantasy-twaddle here.  

== Originalism Sin ==

Here's another one. Rising to a higher – though still dismal – intellectual plain, there’s a fetish among the dopey shills at AEI, Heritage and Federalist Society called originalism. It is the core rationalized excuse offered by the John Roberts majority for easily half of the jibbering-awful Supreme Court judgements they have shoved down our throats, in recent years. 

“The Founders clearly intended…”

Seriously? That is the argument? 

My friend Joseph Carroll offers three items that may rattle originalist cages. One I have seen elsewhere, but two of them not.

1. "I recently read that through most of the 19th century, there was largely no control of immigration, and immigrants were allowed to vote as soon as they arrived. 

Hence, under originalism, should we go back to both of those policies, and discard any later court decisions that justified limits on immigration and immigrant voting? 

2. "George Washington hated political parties. And I think they have no status in the Constitution. 

Hence, should an originalist want to preclude political parties from imposing any constraints on congressional procedures?

3. "Thomas Jefferson was a key original, but an anti-originalist in many ways. He wrote an essay to Madison in 1789 on the theme: "Earth belongs in usufruct to the living."  He spells out various implications, including a constitution not remaining valid once the new generation outnumbers the old who were alive when it was established. And he saw no validity for debts lasting long enough to saddle later generations with them. Using new life expectancy data, he decided that 19 years was a reasonable limit. That may be partly why he wondered about whether one needed a revolution every 20 years (as Mao tried!), and the 17 year validity of patents. (I presume that might also have to be true for copyrights.)"

To which I answer... hmmmm!

== Romanticizing the father of liberal enlightenment… as an apologist for oligarchy! ==

I know and like many libertarians - such as those who help run the Freedom Fest gathering, at which I used to speak occasionally... before the movement was entirely bought and suborned by Steve Forbes and other inheritance caste oligarchs, whose top priority is to prevent self-styled libertarian folks from ever waking up from the lord-worshipping trance.

... along with many others who cling to old loyalties, despite being nauseated by Trump, they repeat these magic words.... 

“I know that Republicans have gone insane… but … but democrats are worse!  

"THAT’S the ticket!  Despite all the proof to the contrary, democrats are even worse!” 

It's a koolaid incantation that gets repeated over and over, again and again, to excuse being complicit with the forces of restored feudalism.

Back to Adam Smith...

The ‘libertarian philosopher’ about whom I keep reminding folks - Adam Smith - pushed the one viable alternative to 6000 years of feudal lordship-stupidity. The alternative of fecund-flat-fair-open-transparent market competition by the widest range of healthy, educated, confident and unafraid competitors. 

Smith made clear that the chief enemy of such creatively competitive markets has almost never been ‘socialists!' Especially not the Rooseveltean or Scandinavian styles of limited socialism – e.g. efforts to uplift poor children, turning them into healthy, educated and confident competitors. The part that creates fecund market competition with the maxim “stop wasting talent!”

Indeed, the trait that has made today’s Mad Right -- and a majority of self-styled ‘libertarians’ – turn their backs on Smith is his savage indictments of oligarchic-aristocratic cheating by inheritance brats, the bane on both freedom and markets across 99% of the last 6000 years. 

… a malediction that now has surpassed French Revolution levels of wealth disparity and competition-suppression and cheating. 

Smith’s caustic denunciations of rentier-caste corruption – and the American Founders’ revolution against precisely that caste – plus later history’s hugely successful liberal rebellions against feudal slave-holders and then Gilded Age titans – led to today’s ironic desperation by shill orgs like Heritage and AEI and the GOP  to avoid ever mentioning that name.

Adam Smith.

Friday, May 03, 2024

Updates in Science & Tech

First some miscellany. 

Join a podcast where - with the savvy hosts -  I discuss Machines of Loving Grace.” Richard Brautigan’s poem may be the most optimistic piece of writing ever, in all literary forms and contexts, penned in 1968, a year whose troubles make our own seem pallid, by comparison. 

Of course, this leads to  a deep dive into notions of Artificial Intelligence that (alas) are not being discussed – or even imagined - by the bona-fide geniuses who are bringing this new age upon us, at warp speed. 

(This Monday, I keynote one of the RSA Conference tracks on this very topic.)

The mighty physics-YouTuber and host of Into the Impossible – my friend Brian Keating - says: “Here’s my exciting interview with David Brin" - Your Privacy is Overrated. So is the Government's

Try new tactics! Regarding my longtime push for using wagers effectively, one of you offered: “British climate scientist James Annan has been making (and winning) wagers with climate deniers for a couple of decades now:  At "Annan climate bet" and you'll find more examples.”

 I find one particular wager demand always sends denialist cultists fleeing, in panic. No mountain of blather incantations can distract from the pure fact of Ocean Acidification due to human-generated CO2 pollution, poisoning the seas that our children are gonna need. 

Regarding ocean acidification, I really like this article by three oceanographic chemists from New Zealand. It starts out at the level of high school chemistry, but takes you a lot farther into the details than most popular articles do. The basic principles are simple but the details get messy - multiple coupled chemical equilibria in regimes where the standard textbook approximations aren't valid. One thing that surprises a lot of people: the formation of calcium carbonate shells in the ocean is a net source of atmospheric CO2, not a sink. Conversely, weathering of carbonate rocks is a sink for atmospheric CO2.

Still, it boils (almost literally) down to a clear fact that would make any honest person admit: "Okay, we do got a problem, here." 

 Denialists are not honest persons.

== On to science ==

Caltech researchers developed a way to read brain activity using functional ultrasound (fUS), a much less invasive technique than neural link implants and does not require constant recalibration.  Only… um… “Because the skull itself is not permeable to sound waves, using ultrasound for brain imaging requires a transparent “window” to be installed into the skull.” Woof.

Here's a fascinating interview with my friend Roger Penrose, rambling across so many concepts, like an alternative theory of consciousness – a time-jumping, multiverse-killing notion of reality(!) Notable here is the savvy and cogency and understanding of questions by host Andréa Morris, who Roger very clearly enjoys and respects. 

== Industry! ==

Producing iron from iron-oxide ores now requires use of high carbon coke, spewing 8% of the world greenhouse gas, more than all the cars!  A new method for stripping away the oxygen would use sustainable electricity sources feeding into a battery-like anode-cathode system with salt water, making pure iron plus lots of industrially useful chlorine and sodium-hydroxide. The latter of which can suck in CO2 making the process (in theory) carbon negative. 

Wow. Unlikely to work on the moon, alas. But still. Hope it works to scale.

== Bio & Medicine ==

In my novella “Chrysalis” I project where things might lead, if we develop Regenerative Medicine: Regrowing Limbs & Organs. Innovators in this field presented incredible result’s at Peter Diamandis’s Abundance Summit in March, sharing insights about their work on regrowing limbs and organs.

I truly like the show PBS Space Time.  It’s for folks like you and me.  Very informative and in-depth and fascinating. (even the advert at the end is way cool.)  In this case, the topic is one I spoke to, in the classic show Life After People. What traces of our civilization’s tenure on Earth might be detectable in the near, middle and far future eras – after we are gone? And might civilizations ‘clean up’ signs of their presence, in order to make that kind of detection more difficult? 

Perhaps by dumping the ‘dross’ of their cities and other messes into plate-subduction zones, the ultimate recycling system?  As I show in Brightness Reef? (You’d love it! Plug.)

This Orca matriarch feeds her whole family on this Great White. Yipe! 

== Linguistics: save rare languages because… ==

Grammar changes how we see.... “Just 200 years ago at least 300 languages were spoken by people in Australia. Of that enormous group of languages, most belonged to the Pama-Nyungan family, with dozens of branches that descended from a protolanguage probably spoken 6,000 years ago in the northeastern part of the continent. Since colonization began in Australia in 1788, the number of Aboriginal languages still spoken in Indigenous homes in the country has been roughly halved. Of those remaining, only 13 are learned as a first language by children. Murrinhpatha, part of the relatively small group of non-Pama-Nyungan languages, is one of these 13—forming an unbroken thread of dynamic cultural inheritance that extends back many thousands of years. The language's survival is nothing short of astonishing.”  It also has some very unusual traits!

Somewhat related – studies show that humans have among the most precise and subtle awareness of both musical tonality and ‘beat’, or rhythm. Monkeys and apes have some, culminating in the display dances I portrayed in The Uplift War!  Studies further show that newborn infants can heed the beat and notice when it falters, arguing for an evolved biological foundation of beat perception. Hence music – in varied forms pervasive across human cultures may have at some point offered “an evolutionary advantage to our species.”  

== Bio-history ==

And speaking of speaking almost-lost languages… "We believe this is the first such communicative exchange between humans and humpback whales in the humpback 'language.'" Naturally, the headlines imply vastly more 'communication' than actually happened... apparently a friendly exchange of repeated "Howdy" greetings in Humpback-speak. Still, it's a start.

Greek researchers said they spotted dolphin with fins that appeared to have thumbs — an anomaly scientists claimed they'd never seen.  I’d be very interested whether they observe anything like independent movement of this ‘digit,’ as it does have its own thumb bone. If so, all the Up[lift Institute?  What did I call these in Startide Rising?

New models based on dust kicked up by the dinosaur-killing asteroid impact, 66 million years ago, have revealed that a shutdown of photosynthesis — the process by which plants use sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to produce energy and oxygen — was directly linked to the fine dust ejected into the atmosphere that blocked the sun. Based on the Tanis, South Dakota site that reveals spectacular details about the event… like that it happened in the spring.

Biologists checked a theory of ‘fitness landscapes’ by starting with a quarter million specific versions of e coli, each with a different variant of a gene vulnerable to an antibiotic, and watched as mutations caused each type to drift, most often toward antibiotic resistance. Fascinating that they can experiment usefully on such scales, getting strong results.

And if you are one of those folks eager to imagine the Reaper can be beat… the blood pressure drug rilmenidine seems to slow aging in animals. That is, if   "animals" = C. elegans. Good news if you're a roundworm!  ‘The effect seems similar to calorie restriction, so maybe it's applicable to humans.’ More likely… not. For reasons I describe here

== Are they like us?==

Much has been said about differences between Chimps and their cousins, bonobos, with much of the press favoring bonobo amicability and (relative) lower levels of violence. Only now along comes a fascinating observation to rattle that tree, so to speak.

Aaaaaaand while on the topic of our simian cousins...

== Final note: what a deal! ==

Open Road will - on Monday the 6th - offer my Hugo-winning novel The Uplift War in a classy e-version on many platforms and sites for just $1.99!

By Grapthor's hammer, what savings!