Saturday, July 29, 2017

Science Fictional News & Updates

== Science fiction in action! ==

Ward Shelley a few years ago artistically charted the history of science fiction and fantasy - from Gilgamesh to Mary Shelley to the year 2000 - via a fantasy "leviathan" beast. It's quirky, fun, and leaves out a lot, e.g. modern non-English SF. Anyway, it's fun to be included, a couple of times.

Okay, so science fiction has conquered the world. It is the engine behind most of the big, money-making successes of Hollywood. It propels much of the political narrative, from dread of Big Brother to obsession with social collapse scenarios. And now, each year, ever more purportedly “literary” authors try their hand at “doing future” – resulting in romances set in space, thinly repurposed westerns and navel-contemplating angst-ridden time travelers. 

On Slate, Laura Miller appraises some of the most recent forays by artistically approved authors, and finds most of them wanting. Only then, what about Chabon? Bacigalupi? Rajamieni? Okorofor? Sue Burke? We embrace them. Yes, in part because they give a little love back. But also because they bothered to heed some of our history, some of our had-learned craft. Above all, they don't imply: "I just invented all this!".

 Still, should we be glad, or miffed by these cultural appropriations?  

Paraphrasing Gandhi: “First they ignore you. Then they mock you. Then they fight you. And then they claim to have loved you, all along.” Sigh.

== What's new in SF? ==

Ari Brin's excellent podcast - Novum - explores many topics related to science fiction and its influence on other media - and the world. In Episode 14, she begins a two part series reflecting on "Advertising in Science Fiction."  First, how advertising is portrayed in novels and films about the future, and then in Episode 15 about how advertisers use science fiction - and images of the future -- to sell, sell, sell.  And episode 16... about the origins of the "Jungle Gym," is even better! Terrific stuff.

Gregory Benford’s latest - The Berlin Project - explores another What-if about the Second World War, only this time, instead of maundering about implausible ways the Axis powers might have won, he delves into a way the struggle might have ended much sooner, if the director of the Manhattan Project had not made a crucial mistake. Had Leslie Graves listened to one fellow – who happens to have been Benford’s father-in-law – we might have had the bomb a year earlier, to use against Hitler’s capital. Like Benford’s classic Timescape, this novel shines light on the process of science itself in critical times. Only here, most of the characters – including the incredible Mo Berg – were real-life or even larger than life.  And Benford knew a great many of them. See Tom Shippey’s review in the Wall Street Journal.

Steve DeGroof, creator of the excellent Tree Lobsters comic strip, has a trio of short story collections: First LinesDandelion Seeds, and Scatter Plot -- all going for $1.99 on Kindle. See my review of science-based webcomics.

A lovely and pointed morality tale by Eliot Peper (author of Cumulus - an all-too believable tale of ubiquitous surveillance) is available on Kindle … True Blue… about a future when having blue eyes is the stigma-crushed minority. 

The rebooted Omni Media announces that it has partnered with the Museum of Science Fiction to bring back the original full run of Omni Magazine. Every issue ever published, all the way back to the 1970s, is now available online. Explore the iconic science fiction collection today. 

== Science Fiction & the Future ==

Global English Editing has created a fascinating web-graphic shows you many aspects from a recent study of literacy and reading in many nations, around the world. The good news is that reading is far from going extinct. More paper and e-books than ever are being consumed.. and yes, in the U.S. as well.  Though the graphic also shows reasons for caution. Among tidbits: There are books you can “pre-order” that are scheduled for release a thousand years from now (a stunt). But book publishing is the largest media and entertainment industry.

Wow okay, here’s one for the prediction registry: A study involving 34-week-old fetuses found they were more likely to focus on a pattern of lights that resembled a human face than on the same lights configured to look nothing like a face.” In other words, techies have started visually showing stuff to fetuses. How long before we get the teaching units I portrayed in “Dr. Pak’s Preschool”? A chilling story that forecast future parents giving their unborn off spring a “womb with a view”? 

What next? Poor women renting out their wombs to make advanced bio-mechanical devices, as in “Piecework”? Find both stories (and much more) in OTHERNESS.  

A call for volunteers to update my predictions registry!  It's a wiki. There's more, much more!

Wow. A quantum improvement in hobby drones. Controlled via face and hand gesture recognition, in addition to the usual remote controls. Put out your hand and it will land on it. Gymbaled camera, image stabilized. Amazing.

The Problem with Hollywood's visions of Artificial Intelligence - a re-evaluation of Alex Garland's film Ex Machina. 

== The Sheep Around us? ==

Using his WIRED soapbox to promote his new novel, Walkaway, Cory Doctorow takes the occasion also to fight some of the most hoary and destructive instincts of modern, lazy storytelling in his essay: Disasters Don't Have to End in Dystopia.

“Here’s how you make a dystopia: Convince people that when disaster strikes, their neighbors are their enemies, not their mutual saviors and responsibilities. The belief that when the lights go out, your neighbors will come over with a shotgun—rather than the contents of their freezer so you can have a barbecue before it all spoils—isn’t just a self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s a weaponized narrative. The belief in the barely restrained predatory nature of the people around you is the cause of dystopia, the belief that turns mere crises into catastrophes.”

This paraphrases the core point from my novel The Postman, which I wrote as a rebuttal to the Mad Max genre’s perpetual contempt for the average person.  In my novel (and I admit that Kevin Costner did remain faithful to this notion) all hope for a restored civilization rests upon the survivors remembering one core fact: “I was once a mighty and noble being, called a citizen.”  And hence, the great accomplishment of the story’s hero is not to defeat the villains, but to remind the people of that central fact.

Rebecca Solnit - one of the finest essayists in America - makes the same point in A Paradise Built in Hell, showing that time and again, our neighbors show pluck and guts, as when 80 average citizens rebelled, aboard flight UA93.  And yet, authors and directors relentlessly trot forth the banal dystopia that Cory criticizes.

Doctorow distinguishes this tiresome cliché with his notion of the  guardedly upbeat utopia. Not the boring aftermath of an enlightened and better civilization — no drama there! That’s why - in the much better tomorrows of Iain Banks, of Star Trek and my own Kiln People - most of the tales take place at a fringe or frontier.  (The Federation is decent and good and fair, which is why we almost never look there.)

Likewise, Doctorow eschews a preachy utopia in favor of portraying its beginning, in danger and ferment.  The initial problem may be chaotic and deadly, as in a dystopia, but with a crucial difference.

“Stories of futures in which disaster strikes and we rise to the occasion are a vaccine against the virus of mistrust. Our disaster recovery is always fastest and smoothest when we work together, when every seat on every lifeboat is taken. Stories in which the breakdown of technology means the breakdown of civilization are a vile libel on humanity itself.”  He asserts that: “ the best science fiction does some­thing much more interesting than prediction: It inspires. That science fiction tells us better nations are ours to build and lets us dream vividly of what it might be like to live in those nations.”

As is very often the case, Doctorow presents important and thought-provoking notions. Alas, Cory does tend also to wave signs implying “Look here! I invented this idea!”  

And so, only in the interests of fairness, I do urge you also to have a look at my much-earlier missive on “The Idiot Plot,” and compare.

== The Big Announcement? ==

The hacker group Anonymous claims that NASA has evidence for alien life. I have heard such rumors all my life. This one sounds especially implausible, for several reasons:

1. Given my overlapping sectors of interest in alien life - as an astrophysicist, the SETI scholar who has catalogued "Fermi" hypotheses, a NASA consultant, a known speculator on alternative biology, and as an expert in science fiction scenarios of First Contact, I can pretty much guarantee you that any contact committee that makes no use of me is both stupid and crazy.  I say that (obviously) without modesty, and yet bolstered by the simple reason that I do not leap to premature conclusions, unlike almost every other savant in the field.

2. Okay, let's shift from one diagnosably egotistical statement to the worst narcissist in the world... do you actually think that our current president would refrain from seizing such an announcement as his own?  Especially as a distraction from current problems? Heck, he might just make something like this up! One third of the country would follow him. The notion that he would leave such a thing to NASA is pure fantasy -- as, blatantly, are most UFO tales.

3. Look, I have written scads of SF about cryptic or suddenly-disclosed alien contact! It makes for great drama. I can entertain the thought. It's just that nearly every publicly bruited scenario I have seen and heard, across half a century, has been so dismally dumb! Tawdry, temporally and sociologically and scientifically illogical blarings of the cheapest Hollywood melodramas, with the added trait of nearly always being stunningly... bo-o-oring. (Zzzzzzzzz.)  Wel... with some exceptions.

4. Okay, maybe I over-rate my own value. But I also know many of the scientists and other thinkers who would be called in to consult, in case of something truly dramatic. And I see no sign of any of them scurrying about frantically or disappearing from the map.

5. But just in case, let me add that I can concoct scenarios under which intelligent and sincere public servants might (a) understand what's going on and not need (or believe  they don't need) input from a sci fi writer... (who has given many talks at alphabetical security agencies.) (b) have genuine and valid reasons for secrecy (see my story "Senses, Three and Six.")  And (c) have compelling reasons not to inform an untrustworthy chief executive.  I admit that all of that is possible...

...though down that road lie many rationalizations, deeply rooted in human nature and bad old practices that seldom led to good. If I were on the commission, I would go along with decided policy... but would perpetually be the fellow inside who questions pat assumptions.

I spent more time on this than the rumor was worth. If it comes true, I would win some wagers and lose others. And pray that we are not led by fools.

== Coming events!  ==

I'll be keynoting at the coming Interstellar Conference, in Monterrey California on August 7. Headlining along with warp drive inventor (or at least the least implausible version) Miguel Alcubierre.

A few days before, I'll be attending the annual Science Foo camp at the Google Campus.

Recent events! July 13 I gave the dinner keynote at "Realizing the Future: Genome Engineering 2017," in Minneapolis. At San Diego's Comicon International, I was on a July 21 panel about alien civilizations with Jimmy Diggs and Mark O'Bannon and others. The next day I was on a couple of panels at Freedom Fest, in Las Vegas. Then we went see Penn & Teller! (Penn's a sci fi reader and futurist, too.)

August 26 - come by the San Diego Festival of Books.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Religious and polysyllabic justifications for treason

== He's at it again ==

The Worst Man in America - and among its most relentless traitors - is at it again, blaming the collapse of American conservatism on "vulgarians," rather than a 30 year campaign to hijack and lobotomize the entire movement -- financed by the very same oligarchs to whom George F. Will has given decades of devoted service. This gifted savanarola has concocted rationalizations for sapient Americans to remain loyal to a movement that long ago left them to become a cult, waging open warfare against every fact-using profession, starting with science, journalism, teaching, medicine -- but including now the entire civil service, law professionals, the FBI, the intelligence services and the United States Military Officer Corps... all of them dismissed as "deep state" conspirators against freedom.

Add them to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which barely survived an attempt on July 26 to slash its budget almost in half, abolishing the CBO's Budget Analysis Division,  in revenge for their effrontery -- actually crunching the numbers on GOP proposed legislation.

Throw in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the EPA, NOAA, The Centers for Disease Control and even the National Institutes on Health, on a growing alt-right Enemies List -- fated to join in extinction the long killed Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). All declared to be deep-state, partisan liars, because they dare - now and then - to let experts murmur "that's not really true" at fanatical-delusional manifestos of an American right that George F. Will helped to turn insane.

Oh but Mr. Will only points at the surface symptoms.
"Today, conservatism is soiled by scowling primitives whose irritable gestures lack mental ingredients. America needs a reminder of conservatism before vulgarians hijacked it, and a hint of how it became susceptible to hijacking."

hint of how it became susceptible to hijacking? A hint, sir? I'll give you a "hint,"
 you horrid little hypocrite, George F. Will!   You are the hijacker. The "vulgarians" are your creation. Monster.

Proto-feudalism fever tries periodically to destroy the American experiment. The common thread of his sickness... from 1778's southern tories to Calhoun in 1830, to Jeff Davis in 1861, to the Klan and robber barons, to the 1930s fascists, to today... is one thing. "Give power back to the feudal lords!" That's why they push the never-once-right-ever Laffer-incantations of Supply Side Voodoo which have had three effects, skyrocketing debt, slowed growth and vast enrichment of the aristocracy at our expense.

This round of the recurring cycle - this attempted oligarchic putsch - is a big 'un, guys. They are afroth and will destroy everything if we let them.

== Religious justifications for hate ==

Dominionists preach that those they define as non-Christian are "condemned," and that includes all but a few hundred thousand true-believers. These elect won't just get eternal bliss (while 99% of their neighbors and fellow citizens writhe in endless torment). The latest cult catechism is that in this world - soon - true believers will get everyone else’s stuff. Our homes and property, and cars and TVs and bank accounts. Yippee.

Let's be clear, since no one else seems willing to. Those who prefer the Book of Revelation - over the kind and generous actual words of Jesus - pray not only for their neighbors' damnation, but also for an end to all democracy, freedom, argument, ambition, science, independent human thought… and for an imminent end of the United States of America. 

Now read about the latest anti-Christ (literally) polemic from the mad right… that the poor deserve poverty, yes, including children. Dominionism is core to the GOP wing best represented by Vice President Mike Pence. That's one reason why -- please -- think twice before rushing to impeachment.

Fortunately we have allies. Such as those who can see the obvious... that the bearded, beaded, pacifist-socialist Nazarene would despise “camels” who are obsessed with taking other folks' stuff.  Camels who will never fit through a needle into heaven.

Another ally? Pope Francis, who is assertively taking a stand against Steve Bannon's ilk. This article signed by a Jesuit and a liberal Protestant together is in La Civiltà Cattolica - a very old Jesuit magazine - and it's obvious that the article expresses the views of the pope, criticizing the "Ecumenism of hate" -- the joining together fundamentalist evangelicals and integralist Catholics. There is a careful decryption of "Religion, political Manichaeism and a cult of the apocalypse", not to mention critique of the Dominionists' raving 'prosperity gospel.'

== Swerving to 
Healthcare and the "drained" swamp == 

From The Atlantic: "With Democrats accusing the administration of sabotaging the health law, two GOP committee chairmen urge the president to continue payments to insurers that could shore up the insurance market."  

Having failed to pass their own health care bills, despite having 7 years to prepare, now Trump and his allies are talking about "letting Obamacare explode." But with a problem that Obamacare is only exploding in red states.  It is only failing where the political caste has sabotaged it.

To be clear: (1) All Obamacare needs, in order to work fine, is an upping of the Individual Mandate penalty, encouraging young people to buy health insurance.  All of the insurance companies say that would work, almost overnight. It won't happen.

But the biggest hypocrisy is (2) the GOP won't admit that all major aspects of Obamacare were their OWN DAMN PLAN.  The GOP platform since 1995 and the model for Romneycare and Trump supported the heck out of it... till Dennis "friend to boys" Hastert made it Republican religion to never credit Obama or a democrat with anything, even making their own damn plan come true.

Want irony? All Trump has to do is swivel and declare victory! "We tricked the democrats into supporting our own plan!"  Then make it work and kill that as an issue for 2018. Judo.

For the record? Most dems never liked the ACA! A majority in the DP would prefer Canadian style health. The ACA was an attempt to lure the GOP into negotiating by giving them their own damn plan.  It didn't work. As soon as Obama touched it, their 
own damn plan suddenly had cooooooties.

== Miscellany ==

How the swamp is drained!  Attempting at first to keep it secret, theTrump White House granted more ethics waivers – letting lobbyists jump directly into regulating their own industries – than any three other administrations, combined.

When President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement, he acted in concert with 22 Republican senators, who collectively receive $10,694,284 in contributions from the coal and oil industries.  

== Historical Perspective ==

What Churchill and Orwell had in common: Churchill & Orwell were both savagely critical of the gloom-sayers of their own parties: right and left. "At a time not unlike today — when people were wondering whether democracy was sustainable, when a lot of people thought you needed authoritarian rule, either from the right or the left — Orwell and Churchill, from their very different perspectives, come together on a key point: We don't have to have authoritarian government."

This author shows how the conservative Churchill was deeply critical of oligarchy and the leftist Orwell despised communist fanaticism. Another key point, he says, is that they were "both willing to say, 'No, my side is wrong on this.' "

Both believed - along with Adam Smith and the American Founders and Lincoln and FDR and so on, that moderate, negotiated reform and steady progress could overcome the crises precipitated by insatiable fools at all extremes. And history shows they were right.

Hence the propaganda by  insatiable fools at all extremes, aimed at demolishing moderate, fact-using professions and mature argument. NPR Reporter Steven Inskeep stands up against this campaign, and the 200 year: "agreement that objective reality exists, that people of goodwill can perceive it, and that other people will change their views when presented with the facts of the matter."

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Boycotts and other weapons for the Union Side

Tactics and strategy.  

The Confederacy has taken Washington and -- as usual -- America (the Union) is slow responding to an all-out war against every logical or fact-using profession, against the Constitution and against common sense or decency.  Aware that they must act, leaders of the Democratic Party have announced a Better Deal, hoping to leverage in middle Americans a dim memory of the love that their parents -- The Greatest Generation -- had for FDR and his New Deal...

...and as usual, the Dems seem to be clueless.  None of this is about the economy. Nor will it be, until the Trump Recession begins. 

It is about memes. And psychology. And hate. And money. But most of all a deep, simmering confederate hate of all things urban, or scientific, or professional, or expert, or associated with despised universities... or the future.  In the face of such mindless, fevered hate, attempting to offer policy anodynes is just reinforcement of the nerd-wonky image that these folks already have, or democrats.

No, this will require adoption of a whole range of new tactics that directly deal with the psychology and money and the underlying hate.

Indeed some tactics should be blatantly obvious!  Like how to deal right now with a fragile-ego, prickly, mercurial, and flighty president. Earlier I proposed the "Short Straw Gambit"... how DP leaders should draw lots and the losers use flattery to end Donald Trump's dangerous isolation.  The flattery can be sardonic! It can be couched in ways that betray no principles and that are even obvious to Trump's cabal: Bannon & company! They'll scream: it's a trick! It won't matter. Even something as blatantly manipulative as this...

“I disagree with almost everything he says… but boy is our president good-looking for a man his age. Perhaps one of the most-handsome presidents in history.”
... will work! Even knowing he's being manipulated won't matter. Donald Trump likes people who flatter him. Period.  He will invite them to lunch, to golf. And those channels would then make a real difference. We are betrayed by those who refuse to use this! It could save all our lives.
== Ethics and Oversight ==

Who was (or is) on your side? The fiduciary rule, finalized by the Obama Labor Department in 2016, requires certain financial advisers to disclose potential conflicts of interest to clients. It also expands the types of advisers who are mandated by a “fiduciary” standard to act in their clients’ best interests, not their own. 

Read that twice. Until then, your “financial adviser” could legally steer you to investments benefiting her, not you, and not tell you. Democrats failed for decades to overcome Republican support for that system, by legislation, so Obama finally found a way to change it administratively, through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (Which Trump is trying to kill.)  Now the civil servants in Trump’s Labor Department appear to have prevailed in preventing DT’s people from rescinding that rule. An example of how we are being served, still, by a “United States Government.” Just not the Confederate preeners in Congress and the White House.  

For decades, POGO — the Project on Governmental Oversight — has worked with government insiders to expose wrongdoing that affects the public. I have long pushed for reliable, graduated and careful, but effective whistle-blower laws. 

You might think the independent Office of Government Ethics (OGE) would have authority to deal with this matter. But, it turns out, OGE not only lacks the proper authority to investigate ethics complaints, it also lacks the ability to discipline people for violations. POGO - the Project on Government Oversight - is urging Congress — specifically Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Elijah Cummings (D-MD) — the respective Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee — to expand the law so OGE has independent authority to investigate ethics complaints and issue corrective disciplinary actions for noncriminal violations. Here’s how you can help.

At his confirmation hearing, President Trump’s pick for deputy secretary of Interior told a Senate panel that the president’s political positions will be prioritized over the science when deciding agency policy -- such as drilling offshore or on public lands. 

For 6000 years, autocrats and oligarchs ruled badly because (being human) they suppressed facts. Their reign of error and terror ended when we found a better way, actually arguing and negotiating based on evidence. But the oligarchs are swarming back, financing a War on Science and every other fact-based profession.

This is life-or-death people. Look at the endless chain of horrors called "history," run by self--indulgent, cranky asshole-babies called "kings" and "lords" and owner aristocrats. Do you want that era back, but armed with atom bombs and genetic engineering?

The War on science is waged by enemies of your children. Stand up. Add your name to call out Trump's anti-science nominees on 314 Action.

== Boycotting madness and treason ==

Speaking of economics, many are riled enough to start using America’s inherent economic power against this era’s plantation lords. The economic weapon with potential immediate impact?  Boycotts.  Oh, but boycotting whom?

It seems easy to target Trump properties.  But all that will do is make the family sell hotel rooms to foreign governments and lobbyists even more unctuously than before -- and foreign purchases of U.S. hotel chains has been found to be directly related to industrial espionage, the stealing of trade secrets, and honeypot blackmail traps. (Be careful who you bring to your room, the walls have eyes and ears! And never let your electronics out of your sight.)  Still, have a look at the new "Boycott Trump App"  as well as the #GrabYourWallet list. And if he's your bette noir, then fine. 

But I am unimpressed with DT as a heroically evil figure. Far more hapless and now rather neutralized.

No, skip the symptom and go for the disease. It remains up to the nation to find some way to make the Fox News hypnosis model less profitable. Sure the boycott of Fox News advertisers is much, much harder for an average citizen than saying: “I won’t buy any Ivanka shoes or stay in a Trump Hotel!” Keeping track of a long list of Fox advertisers – and favoring their competitors – is far more taxing of time and inconvenience. 

Moreover, there’ll be times when you just have no other good choice. Or picking the alternative will make a real price difference. Or when it would mean dropping your gym or AARP membership. So?  Perfection and purity aren’t the aim!  What matters is overall movement.  

This could be your most powerful tool as an individual American – after voting and political activism and helping to keep your own state and locality above the sinking U.S. average. Especially if you form a little boycott club among Facebook friends and share lists and help each other to stick to a diet.

This could also extend to the gambling dens of Sheldon Adelson, who funneled $5 million to the Trump Inauguration, a fund that took in over a hundred million dollars in blatant bribes from oligarchs. Did this bother and of those who screamed about Clinton speaker fees, that were a thousand times smaller?

== A Great Hero? Not. But possible an American ==

Senator John McCain faces an especially aggressive and nasty form of cancer that's generally a death sentence. And this indeed, saddens me.

For all his many faults, John McCain is an adult and an American and not totally allergic to facts. In other words - not a confederate cultist deliberately helping to hijack U.S. conservatism. Oh, he has helped it happen, over and over. But at least he has rationalized reasons to believe he was doing the right thing. And on occasion, he has even spoken out against the madness, earning him plenty of ire.

Recall how Donald Trump mocked McCain with: “I like people who don’t get captured.” That’s just the tip. This Koch-ist shill decries John McCain for saying that Vladimir Putin is more dangerous than ISIS. But let’s be clear: Vladimir Putin - who I do admit and avow to be a genius — is organizing an "axis" of like-minded autocrats that stretches from Ankara, Damascus, Minsk and Tehran through its pivot in Moscow through the Altaic region to include now Manilla, with much friendly cooperation by Beijing.  

The shared narrative across this axis - that democracy is decadent and useless and dangerous and that the Western Enlightenment must be brought down - is now the core and driving philosophy promoted by the right-wing oligarchy in America, as well.  Given that this campaign has achieved a principal goal of discrediting -- in the eyes of 1/3 of Americans -- every single profession that deals in facts, from, science and journalism to the U.S. military Officer Corps...then yes, this foe is vastly, vastly more dangerous than ISIS.

Still, it comes down to this.  With little time left to accomplish anything, might John McCain gather together the 6 or 7 GOP senators who still view themselves as sapient and loyal Americans, and admit that their party is now pure treason?  If that core started a new, Adult American Responsible Conservative Party, millions would flock to their banners and McCain would go down in history as a great man.

I began this missive with a suggestion for some brave Democrats, to carefully and cleverly reach out to a flighty and terrified Donald Trump.  I finish with a desperate wish that a few Republicans - led by a man who should live up to his "hero" rep - to turn their backs upon that madness.