Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon

November 16, 2018

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my three or four favorite science fiction writers.  Red Moon, which just came out, is not his best, but I like it. 

The action takes place in 2047 in China and on China’s future colony on the moon. The main viewpoint character is a young American named Fred Fredericks, who seems to be on the autism spectrum.  

He goes to the moon to deliver a secure two-way communication device based on quantum entanglement, and is framed for murder by mysterious Chinese political conspirators.

He becomes involved with a pregnant young Chinese woman, Chan Qi, who is both the spoiled, proud daughter of a powerful member of the Politburo and the figurehead leader of a vast Chinese protest movement.

They escape capture, flee, are captured again, escape again and flee again back down in China and up on the moon again. 

The growing relationship of these two characters, so very different in personality and cultural background, is the emotional core of the novel.

The second most important viewpoint character is Ta Shu, an elderly poet and celebrity Chinese poet, who takes a liking to Fred and tries to befriend him.  He engages in conversations with various old friends that provide the reader with background information on Chinese history, culture and current and future problems.

Ta Shu sees Chinese history and culture as continuous. and the Communist regime as the latest Chinese ruling dynasty, not as a revolutionary break with the past.

Then there is a rogue agent within the Chinese Great Firewall surveillance network, who is trying to track Qi and Fred while trying to teach an artificial intelligence program, nicknamed Little Eyeball, to think autonomously.

Robinson’s future China has benefitted from Xi Jinping’s reforms, of which the most important he sees not as  the Belt and Road Initiative (aka the New Silk Road), but landscape renewal and restoration.  The benefit is not only repair of the environmental damage created by China’s rapid industrialization, but in reduction in the amount of poverty and improvement in public health.

China in 2047 is the world’s foremost economic and technological power, and has used its new wealth and knowledge to colonize the southern hemisphere of the Moon, leaving the northern hemisphere to late-comers—the USA, the European Union, Brazil and other great powers.

But many problems remain.  First and foremost among these problems is a vast underclass, comparable to unauthorized immigrants in the USA, consisting of 500 million poor peasants who have left their villages without authorization to seek a better life in the cities, but who are mercilessly exploited because they are outside the protection of the law.

The goals of the protest movement are to abolish the hukuo system, which forbids Chinese to change residences without permission, to restore the “iron rice bowl” (guaranteed job security) and to establish the rule of law.  None of the characters wants to overthrow Communism, only to make the Party live up to its ideals.

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Is Arthur C. Clarke’s Babylon our destiny?

August 1, 2018

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote a story, published in 1960, about how a Communist dropped by his home in Ceylon to thank him for us idea of television broadcasting from earth satellites positioned over fixed points of the earth’s surface.

He said the Chinese planned to use this idea to saturate the United States with pornography and turn Americans into a nation of brainwashed pornography addicts.

They would start with broadcasts of images of erotic art on Hindu temples, but then produced specialized programming aimed at every sexual taste identified in the Kinsey Report.  They would also have a sideline of sadistic violence, starting with bullfights and working up to every torture and atrocity documented in the Nazi archives.

All this was fiction, of course.

My old friend Steve, who called my attention to this story, said that we Americans are now doing to ourselves what Clarke envisioned our enemies doing to us.  As conservative Christian journalist Rod Dreher writes:

We are conducting a radical experiment that has never before in history been tried, because it has never been possible. What happens to individuals and societies when images — moving images — of the most bizarre and violent sex acts imaginable can be instantly accessed by anyone, anywhere, at any time? What does that do to our brains, our minds, and our hearts? What does it to do us as a people?

Source: The American Conservative

The American Psychological Association is undecided whether to call excessive porn watching an addiction, a compulsion or just a bad habit, but, in layman’s terms and for all practical purposes, it is an addiction.

Of course, some people enjoy pornography with no obvious ill effects.  I have a friend who has read every issue of Playboy since it began its publication in 1953, and he scoffs at my concern.

But compared to what’s out there today, looking at Playboy’s centerfolds is more like looking at the lingerie ads in the old Sears Roebuck catalogs than it is like looking at the porn of today.

And he started at age 18, not age 13.  The effect of pornography on young children is different.

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Science fiction the way it used to be

July 27, 2018

SF writer Neal Stephenson, speaking at a conference in 2011, lamented the decline of the U.S. space program and of big engineering projects generally.

Another panelist, Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, said this is partly the fault of science fiction writers themselves.

He said science fiction is culturally important in creating hieroglyphs—symbolic goals such as Robert A. Heinlein’s space rockets, Isaac Asimov’s robots or, in a later era, William Gibson’s cyberspace.

Science fiction writers, he said, need to abandon their dystopian preoccupations and revive the spirit of techno-optimism of the 1940s and 1950s.

In response to this challenge, Arizona State University commissioned an anthology entitled HIEROGLYPH: Stories & Visions for a Better Future.  Containing stories by 17 writers, it was published in 2014.  I came across it a few weeks ago in a Little Free Library.

Project Hieroglyph asked them to write about ideas that could be realized within one professional lifetime and implement technologies that exist today or will exist in the near future.  Writers were encouraged to consult with ASU scientists, and each story is followed by Internet links discussing feasibility.

I found the resulting stories interesting and I read the anthology to the end.  Somebody with a stronger background in science and technology than mine probably would find them more interesting.

Calls for “techno-optimism” is are calls for optimism not just about the possibilities of technology, but also about the possibilities of American capitalism.

In the same way, Soviet science fiction writers in the 1970s and Chinese science fiction writers today were supposed to encourage technological innovation, but not political innovation.

Science fiction writers should not be limited to suggesting incremental improvements and improving public morale.

∞∞∞

Science fiction and the loss of the future

When I was a boy and young man in the 1940s and 1950s, I looked forward to the future.   I had more opportunities before me than my parents had, and I saw no reason why this would not continue for future generations.  I devoured Robert A. Heinlein’s SF boys’ books and thought his positive vision was reflected in the world around me.

I no longer feel this way.  Succeeding generations have fewer opportunities than I did.  My main reason for hope is the knowledge that the future is unknowable.

Few young people today read Heinlein or Neal Stephenson, whom I consider Heinlein’s literary successor.   They read the dystopian Hunger Games trilogy because it is an extrapolation of their lives.

In my youth, the world’s best thinkers thought about how to make the world a better place.  Now they think about how to avoid catastrophe.

Neal Stephenson, in his “Innovation Starvation” article, says science fiction writers are too pessimistic and this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But there are many science fiction writers who are very hopeful about human possibility.  I’m thinking of Kim Stanley Robinson, Ken MacLeod and the late Ursula Le Guin; if I followed the field more closely, I’m sure I could think of others.

These are not considered techno-optimists, even though Robinson and MacLeod are very sophisticated about technology, because their hopefulness is based on the possibility of fundamental change.

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Why I like this Harry Potter fan fiction novel

June 9, 2018

I never read the original Harry Potter novels, but I have been completely engrossed in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a fan fiction novel by Eliezer Yudkowsky published on-line, chapter by chapter as it was written, from 2010 to 2015.

The premise is that Harry Potter’s foster-father was not the vile Vernon Dursley, as in the original novels, but Michael Verres-Evans, an intelligent and kindly Oxford biochemistry professor, who encouraged Harry to read science and science fiction.

Consequently young Harry is a committed rationalist, who regards the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft not as a refuge from an unkind Muggle world, but as a puzzle to be solved and a challenge to be overcome.

He also is a genius, with the intellect of a Richard Feynman and the ambition of a Napoleon Bonaparte, along with the emotional maturity of an 11-year-old boy.

His plan is to use the methods of science to unlock the secrets of magic, then to combine the powers of both to “optimize” the world on rational principles  As a character remarks, this is not far from wanting to become a Dark Lord.

Young Harry escapes the control of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore and Professor Minerva McGonagall and allows himself to be mentored by the cynical Professor Quirinus Quirrell, while trying to wean fellow student Draco Malfoy from unthinking malice and Hermione Granger from unthinking goodness.

There are many adventures, in which young Harry seemingly triumphs by applying his intelligence and the rational method.  He becomes impatient with Hogwarts’ witches and wizards for failing to understand cognitive bias, Bayes’s Theorem, game theory, effective altruism and the other principles of rationality.

Then, in the end, he discovers that he has completely misunderstood his situation and brought himself, Hogwarts and Magical Britain to the brink of doom.  But he thinks his way out of his plight at the very last minute and saves the day, although not without cost.

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A parable of the lesser evil

December 1, 2017

An alien monster beamed Joe and Jim up to its spaceship, and offered them a choice—be put down on a planet with a surface temperature of 1,000 degrees or a planet with a surface temperature of 10,000 degrees.

Joe said, “Given those alternatives, I have no option but to choose the 1,000-degree planet.”

Jim said, “That’s no choice at all!  I refuse to consent to either alternative!”

Enraged, the alien monster sent them both to the 10,000-degree planet.

In the micro-seconds before he expired, Joe turned to Jim and said, “This is all your fault.”

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An SF writer’s diagnosis and cure for capitalism

April 27, 2017

In the opening of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new SF novel, New York 2140, two unemployed financial software engineers known as Mutt and Jeff—unemployed because they refuse to design a possibly illegal program for high-speed trading—contemplate a flooded lower Manhattan from atop the former Metropolitan Life building.

One of them says he has figured out what’s wrong with capitalism.

The basic problem with capitalism, he says, is that the forces of the market forces producers to sell products below cost.

How can you sell below cost and survive?  By offloading your costs onto someone else—onto customers, onto neighbors, onto taxpayers, onto the wider community and onto future generations.

This enables an individual enterprise to survive (sometimes), but, in the long run, leads human society into bankruptcy.

In the novel, global warming has taken place, sea levels have risen and lower Manhattan is under water.  Skyscrapers such as the Met Life building are still survive amid a kind of new Venice.  Uptown Manhattan is 50 feet higher in elevation, and is dry.  In the middle is a tidal zone, where the poor and homeless congregate.

Some environmental problems have been solved, or at least are being coped with.  Gasoline, jet fuel and other fossil fuels no longer exist.  Air travel is by dirigible, ocean travel is by sailing ship and land vehicles are electric.   But the financial structure and distribution of income are more or less like they are now.

New skyscrapers—”superscrapers”—in uptown are owned by the world’s wealthy elite, as investments or as one of multiple homes, and are often vacant.

A hurricane late in the novel leaves many homeless.  They try to storm the vacant uptown towers, and are turned back by private security forces, who outgun the New York Police Department.

Rather than attempt a violent revolutionary overthrow, the common people attempt a political and economic jujitsu.

They join in a nationwide debt strike.  On a given day, they stop paying their mortgages, student loans and credit card balances.  The financial system is go highly leveraged with debt upon debt that it comes crashing down, just as in 2008.   So the financiers go to Washington for another bailout, just as they did then.

But this time, the President and Federal Reserve Chairman, who are in on the plan, act differently.  They tell the banks and investment companies that they would be bailed out only on one condition—that the government be given stock of equal value to the bailout, as was done in the bailout of General Motors.   Those who refuse this deal are allowed to fail.

Now the federal government has the authority to force the banks to act as public utilities.  And the huge profits that once flowed to the financial elite now flow to Washington, which makes it possible to adequately fund public education, infrastructure improvement, scientific research and all the other things the country needs.

And so the American people live happily—not ever after and not completely, but for a while.

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The guaranteed incomes of the top 0.1 percent

January 14, 2017

notwork11

Hat tip to occasional links and commentary.

Radicals propose a universal guaranteed income for all, regardless of whether you are gainfully employed or not.   But as Matt Breunig pointed out, it already exists in the top 1 percent and 0.1 percent income bracket.   They receive income from their financial assets regardless of whether they work or not.

There is a strong argument for a guaranteed.  It is that the reason that the national wealth today is greater than in the past is largely due to the inventiveness and effort of our ancestors, not to anyone living today, and that therefore all of us are equally entitled to the fruits of their effort.

This was the philosophy of the social credit reform movement, which provided the background for Robert A. Heinlein’s great utopian science fiction novel, Beyond This Horizon.

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What if the Axis had won the Second World War?

December 26, 2016

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Philip K. Dick is not my favorite science fiction writer, but many of my favorite science fiction movies—Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, Next and The Adjustment Bureau—were based on his ideas.

I did greatly admire and enjoy his novel, The Man in the High Castle, which gives the Dickian imagination free rein but has a more coherent plot than many of his other stories and novels.

The setting of The Man in the High Castle is a 1962 USA which has lost World War Two and been partitioned between Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire, with the Rocky Mountains serving as an unoccupied neutral zone.

There are two plots.  One involves high-level Japanese and German officials conspiring to avoid a nuclear war between the two superpowers.  The other involves ordinary Americans trying to survive in Japanese-occupied San Francisco and one of them traveling to the neutral zone in search of “the man in the high castle,” author of a novel in which the Allies won the war.

Amazon Prime has started a series based on the novel, which incorporates most of the material in the novel, but which branches out to include Nazi-occupied New York and the Reich itself.

I subscribed to Amazon Prime mainly to watch this series, and Seasons One and Two have been well worth it.

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Philip K. Dick’s greatest hit

April 2, 2016

Philip K. Dick was a science fiction writer whose main theme was the fluid boundary between illusion and reality, and sanity and insanity.

Sadly his insights were partly due to his own drug use and mental illness.  This may have been the reason so many of his novels and stories lacked coherence.

It also may explain why movies based on Philip K. Dick novels and stories – The Adjustment Bureau, Blade Runner, Imposter, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly and Total Recall – were all better than the originals.  I say nothing about other Philip K. Dick movies because I haven’t seen them.

man-castleI recently saw the Amazon Prime series based on The Man in the High Castle, which was excellent, and I went back to the original out of curiosity.  Unlike the others I mentioned, the novel is better than the TV series, both as a novel and as a science fiction novel.

Both the TV series and the novel depict a world of 1962 in which the Axis has won the Second World War.  The Nazis occupy the United States east of the Rockies, and the Japanese occupy the U.S. Pacific Coast, with the Rockies a neutral buffer zone.

There are three plots in both.  One is an attempt by hardscrabble Americans in San Francisco to make and sell fake art objects to sell to rich Japanese antique collectors.  Another is an attempt to head off a conspiracy by a Nazi faction in Berlin to launch a nuclear first strike against Japan.

The third is a search for “the man in the high castle.”  In the novel, he is the author of a underground novel set in a world in which the Allies won, which, however, is different from the real world (I almost wrote “our” world).  In the Amazon Prime series, he has mysteriously obtained actual newsreels of the real world.

The novel is better because it is more realistic, and because the characters have more psychological depth.  The Amazon Prime series has an anti-Nazi Resistance movement, which is not in the novel, and characters undecided about their true allegiance, which wouldn’t be tolerated either by real Nazis or real anti-Nazi fighters.

The excellence of the novel and the TV series is in showing how living under Nazi and Japanese occupation could come to feel normal, and in developing realistic and memorable characters.

One is Mr. Tagomi, the humane Japanese bureaucrat whose life is guided by the I Ching.  Another is Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith, who appears in the TV series but not the novel.

I look forward to Amazon Prime’s second season in the series, which will take the characters beyond the scope of Dick’s novel.

Love and weirdness

February 14, 2016

valentines.day_weirdnessNSource: Zen Pencils.

A question about economic efficiency

November 16, 2015

The following is from Retrotopia, an on-line utopian science-fiction novel currently being serialized by John Michael Greer on his web log.

“Mr. Carr,” Melanie Berger said then, “Since the end of the embargo we’ve been approached four times by the World Bank and the IMF.  I’ve been involved in the discussions that followed.  Each time, their economists have made long speeches about how the way we do things is hopelessly inefficient, and how we’ve got to follow their advice and become more efficient.  Each time, I’ve asked them to answer a simple question: ‘more efficient for what output in terms of what input?’  Not one of them has ever been able, or willing, to give me a straight answer.”

Source: The Archdruid Report

Yesterday’s city of the future

September 23, 2015

harvey-corbett-city

This is the city of the future, as imagined by an architect named Harvey Wiley Corbett in the 1920s.

It was included in Gregory Benford‘s The Wonderful Future That Never Was, a collection of predictions from Popular Mechanics magazine.

I lifted it from a blog post by Dan Wang, who teaches economics and philosophy at the University of Rochester and whom I’ve never met.

‘We will need writers who remember freedom’

December 30, 2014

Via Ursula Le Guin’s Viral Video.

Does humanity’s future rest on Mars?

November 10, 2014

The Earth has existed for billions of years, and life arose only once.  We know that because the DNA of all living creatures, from humans to yeast, is related. For all we know, Earth is the only abode of life in the universe.

Life has existed for hundreds of millions of years, and intelligence life appeared only once.  Vision came into existence by means of several different evolutionary paths, but intelligence exists only in creatures with brains.  Even if some kind of life exists elsewhere in the universe, Earth may be host to the only intelligent life.

The whole saga of human life may be a brief and unimportant episode in the history of the universe, and human civilization a minor and short-lived part of that.

marsPIA02653-fullBut that’s not the only possibility.  It is possible that the history of human life and civilization on Earth may be the prelude to the spread of life through the universe, a story that would continue for billions of years.

Recent discoveries show hundreds of planets around stars within observation distance.  We don’t know how to get to those planets, but we do know how to get to planets within our Solar System, which would be a first step.

The billionaire American entrepreneur Elon Musk, the lesser known Dutch promoter Bas Lansdorp and others have announced their intentions of establishing a human colony on Mars.  They want to be real-life versions of science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein’s David Delos Harriman character in The Man Who Sold the Moon.  Like Harriman, they seek profits only as a means of sending humanity to the planets and stars.

vikinglander1-1I am torn between the grandeur of this enterprise and the seemingly hard practical facts.  Establishing a permanent human colony on Mars would be infinitely more difficult than, for example, establishing a self-sustaining colony in Antarctica or the Gobi Desert or a domed city at the bottom of the ocean.

Would people go?  Many say they would.  Could they sustain themselves in an environment so much more unforgiving than anything on Earth?  Would there be an economic payback?  Would people on Earth commit to supporting them indefinitely?

I don’t know enough to answer these questions, but my gut feeling is “no”.  But then again, I agree with Arthur C. Clarke, another science fiction writer, who said that the only way to know the limits of the possible is to venture a little bit into the impossible.

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Rare movie footage of the war of the worlds

October 11, 2014

Source: The Great Martian War

Hat tip to Boing Boing.

The Great Martian War is a documentary-style made-for-TV movie that conflates World War One with H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds.  I find this trailer (the full movie isn’t available in the USA) to be weirdly fascinating.

The actual World War One was just as fearsome, and just as much of a break with everyday life, as the events in H.G. Wells’ story.  But while the actual World War was tragic and unnecessary,  a war against extraterrestrial invaders would have been meaningful and glorious.

David Graeber on the lack of flying cars

September 21, 2014

David Graeber, the brilliant anarchist-anthropologist, wrote about possible reasons why technological progress seems to be slowing down, and why the science fictional dreams of his boyhood did not come true like the dreams of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

David Graeber

David Graeber

One is that American institutions are reshaping themselves on the model of the for-profit corporation, where everything has to be justified on its potential for short-term profit.  If you have to show in advance what you intend to invent, and its guaranteed cash value, you’re not going to invent anything very new.

Another is that the government and corporate elite is not interested in radical new technologies that will disrupt the power structure.  So research is focused on high-tech automated weapons, on surveillance technology, on psychiatric drugs to keep us calmed down, and on special effects, virtual reality and electronic gadgets to keep us distracted.

Yet another is that the payoff from technology, in terms of profits, is reaching a point of diminishing returns, which, by the way, is something Karl Marx predicted.

I strongly recommend reading the whole thing.  Click on Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit to read it.

Rise of the machines: Links & comments 8/19/14

August 19, 2014

The Internet’s Original Sin by Ethan Zuckerman for The Atlantic.

The basic problem with the commercial Internet, according to this writer, is the use of advertising to finance Internet services.

Because an individual advertisement on the Internet has little impact, the value of advertising is based on the ability of the firm to target individuals who are interested in this particular product.  And the only way to do this is to gather data and use it to profile individuals.

Invasion of privacy is not a bug.  It is a necessary feature.  The reason it is necessary is that most people would rather give up their privacy than pay for Internet services.

Zuckerman thinks this is the reason that NSA surveillance is no big deal for most Americans.  We’re already accustomed to giving up our privacy.

He doesn’t have a good answer as to what to do about all this, and neither do I.

How We Imprison the Poor for Crimes That Haven’t Happened Yet by Hamilton Nolan for Gawker.

The science-fiction movie Minority Report imagined a world in which it was possible to predict when people would commit crimes and to arrest them before the crime occurred.  A predictive science of human behavior does not exist, but that does not stop people in authority from acting as if it did.

American courts are increasingly using what’s called “evidence-based sentencing” on which the severity of the sentence is based on a computer algorithm’s determination of the likelihood that the person will commit another crime.

In practice, what this means that that poor youth who grew up in a family without a father will get a worse sentence than a middle-class youth with access to psychiatrists and good job opportunities.

This is contrary to the basic principle of equal justice under law.   If you commit a crime, you should be punished for what you did, not for what somebody thinks you may do.

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Science fiction’s dreams and yesterday’s future

July 1, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson, a science educator whom I admire, laments the loss of interest in the space program, which he equates to a loss of hope in the future.   I can understand that.  There was a time when I thought that the human future depended on the space program.

My thinking was shaped by reading science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s, and, in particular, Astounding Science Fiction magazine, edited by the visionary John W. Campbell Jr., and the young adult (then called “juvenile”) and Future History novels of Robert A. Heinlein.

ASF_0241While science fiction in those days was varied and imaginative, there was a kind of consensus future which constituted a kind of default setting and shared background for many (not all) SF writers of that day.

The common assumption was that the next stage of human history was the Age of Space, which would be for the Planet Earth as a whole what the Age of Discovery was for Europe.   It was to begin with the construction of space stations and expeditions to the Moon, Mars and Venus, which would soon by followed by colonization of these worlds.

The default idea of Mars was a desert planet with frozen canals and an ancient extraterrestrial race with occult powers and secret wisdom.   The default idea of Venus was a jungle planet, something like Congo or Amazon basins and something like Earth in the age of the dinosaurs.   Mars was an old planet and Venus was a young planet.  Other worlds of the Solar System also were thought to be habitable and ripe of human colonization.

Poul AndersonThe next step was to be discovery of a faster-than-life drive and the spread of humanity through our galaxy.   Human beings would the leaders in the formation of a Galactic Federation, much like the Federation in Star Trek.   This was to be followed by a Galactic Empire, much like the Empire in Star Wars.   The empire would decline and fall, like the Roman Empire, and be followed by an age of chaos and the creation of a new and more advanced civilization.

Humans, not extraterrestrial beings, were to be the leaders and guides.   Campbell was a humanity chauvinist; he had a rule that he would not publish a story in which aliens got the better of human beings.

I didn’t exactly believe all of this, but I did anticipate the Age of Space with great hope and curiosity.  I thought this age was about to begin with the moon landings in 1969.   I did not realize, as I do now, that the moon landings were a stunt, carried out for prestige, to prove that the USA was more advanced than the USSR.

I’ll say this:  I felt proud to be a citizen of a nation with the sense of purpose and the capability to decide to do something so difficult, and to carry it out.   But the moon landings didn’t lead to anything.  What I thought of as a beginning was the high point.

Now hopefulness about the future has migrated to other nations, and we Americans, to the extent that we thing about the future at all, are very rightly concerned about averting catastrophe—economic decline, political collapse, environmental catastrophe, exhaustion of fossil fuels, mutant diseases, global climate change, et very much cetera.

Maybe there will be an Age of Space someday, whether or not the United States is the nation that leads the way.   My heart is with Neil deGrasse Tyson.   I don’t want to terminate the space program, either.  But the younger generation doesn’t see the future in terms of Heinlein’s Space Cadet.   Their vision of the future is Hunger Games.

Brainwashing and mind control are possible

June 4, 2014

Elizabeth Loftus, the psychologist and memory researcher, has documented a disquieting success in implanting false memories by simply suggesting to a subject that he has experienced a fictitious event.

Such pseudo-events, invented by psychologists, may vary from mildly upsetting or comic incidents that, for example, as a child, one was lost in a mall to more serious incidents that one was the victim of a serious animal attack, or a serious assault by another child.

After initial skepticism “I was never lost in a shopping mall”, and then uncertainty, the subject may move to a conviction so profound that he will continue to insist on the truth of the implanted memory, even after the experimenter confesses that it never happened in the first place.

via Oliver Sacks | The New York Review of Books.

It is possible to remember things that never happened.   It is possible for a skilled psychiatric professional to implant false memories in people.

And now research with rats indicates that it is possible to work on the brain so as to delete—and restore—memories by physical means (but so far only in rats).

As an old guy who is starting to suffer from loss of memory, and whose greatest fear is dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, I think research on memory is a good thing, not a bad thing.

But a world in which memory deletion, memory activation and memory falsification were understood is a science-fiction dystopia.  It means that it is technically possible for a future government to exercise totalitarian control over the individual to an extent that Hitler, Stalin and Mao only dreamed of doing.

These far outweigh the possible benefits of these techniques, such as in treating post-traumatic stress syndrome.  And even there, I expect that, just as with psychiatric drugs, many therapists would use memory deletion techniques without fully understanding their limitations and wider effects.

LINKS

How to erase a memory—and restore it: Researchers activate memories in rats in Science Daily.  Hat tip to naked capitalism.

Speak, Memory by Oliver Sacks in the New York Review of Books.  A report on false memories.

How Memory Speaks by Jerome Groopman in the New York Review of Books.  A review of research on the neurological basis of memory.

Johnny Mnemonic by William Gibson.  Science fiction.

Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy

April 22, 2014

Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people”:

Jerry Pournelle

Jerry Pournelle

  • First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisers in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.
  • Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself.  Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization .

via Report Template.

This rule of thumb applies equally to government bureaucracies, corporations and other private organizations.  I saw a good example of this during the 24 years I worked as a reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y.   Many of us reporters were (or thought we were) dedicated to the profession of journalism, and to the professional goals of good writing, accurate reporting and fearless investigation of wrongdoing.  Many people in the business departments of the newspaper resented our indifference to the goals of increasing the newspaper’s circulation and advertising revenue.

This is not a case that we in the newspaper department were righteous and the people in the circulation and advertising departments were not.   If people didn’t buy the newspaper, and businesses didn’t advertise in it, we reporters and editors would not have had a means to do our work.  You need a balance between both — those devoted to professional excellence and those devoted to making the organization flourish.

Click on Saving Labor From Itself for another example.

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Jerry Pournelle is, among other things, a best-selling science-fiction writer.

Click on Chaos Manor for his home page and web log.

Did China bungle its age of discovery?

April 21, 2014

Voyages_of_Zheng_He_1405-33

More than 50 years before Columbus, the great Chinese admiral Zheng He (aks Cheng Ho) voyaged throughout the Indian Ocean, and down the coast of east Africa.  Some historians think he may have reached the Cape of Good Hope.  But he had no successors.   His voyages were merely a stunt, for the sake of prestige, like the U.S. moon landings.

Some historians have speculated that if the rulers of the Ming dynasty had followed up, there might have been a Chinese age of exploration and discovery, to rival the great European explorers.  Zheng He’s fleet was larger, both in numbers and in the size of the individual ships, than anything the European explorers sent out.

I’m not so sure.  As James C. Scott wrote in The Art of Not Being Governed, Chinese rulers historically have sought to control large numbers of people, not large areas of territory.  I have read a smattering of Chinese philosophy in translation, and it is all about a ruler who is wise and just can increase his wealth and power by encouraging people to migrate to his realm.

In the light of history, this might not have been a bad choice..   The English, French, Spanish and Portuguese spread all over the world, and they have millions of descendents in North and South America and other parts of the world, but this no longer adds to the power of the English, French, Spanish and Portuguese nations.

Today China, which did not seek to rule an overseas empire, is much more powerful than any of these countries.  That is not to deny that China is an empire.  Just ask the Uighurs (in what used to be called Chinese Turkestan) or the Tibetans.   It is that China is a more unified and enduring empire.

China never needed a merchant fleet or overseas outposts to participate in the world economy.   Since the days of the Roman Empire, merchants traveled the Silk Road across central Asia to buy Chinese silk, porcelains and other manufactured products.

Spain and Portugal sent out explorers to find routes to China and India so that their merchants could bypass the Muslim countries in between.   The Spanish conquistadors were greedy for gold and silver because it was scarce.  China and India had favorable balances of trade for centuries and a large fraction of the world’s precious metals ended up in those countries.   The Spanish regularly sent out treasure galleons from Mexico to the Philippines to trade with China.

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A 50th anniversary docu-drama on Doctor Who

November 23, 2013

Once upon a time I was a regular watcher of the Doctor Who TV program.  I was never a hard-core fan and I lost interest after the Tom Baker era.  But I was interested in this trailer for a BBC docu-drama about the show’s 1963 origins.

Click on BBC Two – An Adventure in Space and Time – Clips for more.

Hat tip to Avedon’s Sideshow.

Two types of totalitarianism

October 14, 2013

orwell.huxley.fatpita (1952)

Maybe both of them were right.  An authoritarian state and a trivial mass culture are not mutually exclusive.  They are mutually reinforcing.

Hat tip to We are respectable negroes.

General Keith Alexander’s star-flights of fancy

September 16, 2013

sbiblahGeneral Keith Alexander, who heads the U.S. Cyber-Command and the National Security Agency, commissioned an Information Dominance Center patterned on the bridge of Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s Starship Enterprise.  Architect’s drawings are shown above.

Foreign Policy magazine reported:

When he was running the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command, Alexander brought many of his future allies down to Fort Belvoir for a tour of his base of operations, a facility known as the Information Dominance Center.

It had been designed by a Hollywood set designer to mimic the bridge of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek, complete with chrome panels, computer stations, a huge TV monitor on the forward wall, and doors that made a “whoosh” sound when they slid open and closed.  Lawmakers and other important officials took turns sitting in a leather “captain’s chair” in the center of the room and watched as Alexander, a lover of science-fiction movies, showed off his data tools on the big screen.

“Everybody wanted to sit in the chair at least once to pretend he was Jean-Luc Picard,” says a retired officer in charge of VIP visits.

via Foreign Policy.

I wouldn’t trust anyone, myself included, with the power to monitor the electronic communications of any American, including the public officials who vote his budget, and no accountability as to how this information is used.

But I especially would not trust anyone who uses public money to act out personal fantasies.  There is something to be said for getting in touch with your inner weirdness, but not in mixing it with public policy and national security.

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The great SF writer Frederik Pohl is dead

September 6, 2013

Frederick Pohl, the great science fiction writer, died earlier this month at the age of 93.  He was politically aware, scientifically literate and a fine storyteller.  His stories are imbued with a hopeful cynicism—a knowingness about how the world actually works and the possibility it can be made better.

I have read and admired Pohl’s work for 60 years, since as a teenager in 1952, I read “Gravy Planet,” a serialized novel in Galaxy magazine by Pohl and his friend Cyril M. Kornbluth about a future United States ruled by advertising agencies and corporations.  Pohl’s imagined future society has no tolerance for subversives known as the “Consies”—conservationists, or what we’d now call environmentalists, who oppose unlimited consumption.  One of the characters says that these fears were unfounded.  When the world’s oil and gas was used up, “science invented the pedi-cab.”

waythefuturewasThe serial was published the following year in book form as The Space Merchants, which critics consider to be one of Pohl’s two greatest novels, along with Gateway, published in 1977.  If you have any liking for grown-up science-fiction—as distinguished from science fiction as wish-fulfillment fantasy [1]—I’d recommend one of these two novels or Slave Ship, The Age of the Pussyfoot, Man Plus, Jem or The World at the End of Time.

Pohl  also was a fine short-story writer.  Some of his best were “The Midas Plague,” “The Gold at Starbow’s End,” “The Merchants of Venus” and “The Tunnel Under the World”—the latter a Philip K. Dick-type story written before Philip K. Dick was ever heard of.

He was a Unitarian-Universalist, like me, and UUs will be amused by the Unitarian minister protagonist in The Cool War and the Unitarian exorcism performed in A Plague of Pythons.  

While nothing Pohl wrote was completely without interest, some of his works—especially sequels to his most popular works—were not as good as his best.  If you’re curious about Pohl and not familiar with his work, I’d recommend you keep your eye open for the titles I mentioned the next time you’re in a used-book store or the stacks of your public library.  They’re better than 99 percent of what you’ll see in the SF section of Barnes & Noble.

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