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View From a Hotel Window, 1/18/19: Detroit

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 01/18/2019 - 15:32
Actually the picture is from yesterday, but since the view is essentially unchanged (including the sky), I figure it’s probably fine to post. We’re in Detroit for the annual ConFusion convention, which I have been attending since 2005 and which I consider my “home” convention. It’s a lot of fun and I wouldn’t miss it […]

The Big Idea: David Mack

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 01/17/2019 - 11:22
Author David Mack knows what you expect out of a book series. But with The Iron Codex, he’s making the argument that you should sometimes get something else than what you expect. Let’s read his thoughts on why this is. DAVID MACK: In the publishing industry, there are certain expectations that govern how a new […]

Bipartisanship? Not during the McConnell Presidency.

Contrary Brin - Wed, 01/16/2019 - 21:11
First, let's be clear about the government shut-down. Donald Trump loves the attantion. But in fact, he is doing absolutely nothing. True, he's threatened to veto any measure to fund agencies till he gets his "wall." But that threat is meaningless till such a bill reaches his desk. And the person who is preventing that is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell must be giggling and chortling right now, as old Two Scoops pulls all the attention away from him. And Democrats are falling for it, when they could instead aggressively mock the GOP senators as puppets of "President McConnell."
== Shall we welcome "neocon" allies against madness? ==
Oh irony. David Frum - one of the original "neoconservative" apologists - is like Oskar Schindler, a former partisan hack who found himself simply unable to follow his party beyond a certain point, down a hellhole of treason and evil. "The scandal of the Trump presidency leaves Americans only bad choices. Powers and privileges essential to the functioning of an honest and patriotic presidency are called into question by this dishonest and unpatriotic presidency. Succeeding presidents and Congresses will have to find a way to restore or replace busted norms with new ones—but pretending now that the old rules can function as intended is not only delusive, but dangerous." 
It's a well-written essay, offering insight into how hard it would be to subpoena the translator from those Putin meetings. (Still, Ms. Gross should be careful on the street, and avoid men with umbrellas.)
As for "reformed" neocons like Mr. Frum, well, we need all hands on deck, and I will fight anyone who tries to narrow the Union's big tent in this critical phase of the Civil War. That means receiving and welcoming help even from former monsters, even the 'Worst American,' George F. Will. In Schindler times, you welcome help from Schindlers, who refuse to sink all the way with their treasonous party.
So read this piece. It shows the minefield that would lead all the way to SCOTUS, if the House tries to subpoena the interpreter. And yet, there should be a path. In particular, I am appalled to learn the answer to a question I asked at an intelligence agency in 2004. "Do you have a small office dedicated to watching for enemy subornation at the nation's highest levels?" At the time, I was thinking about the Bush family's utter devotion to their kissing cousins in the Saudi Royal House, but such an office would have had the skills even more needed, today.I got no answer then, nor did I expect one. But now I know. We all know. Crap, they never had such a team. How in the world could that be? Back then, my "threats" slideshow featured one that spoke of "subornation" and it got indulgent smirks. No longer. Now, when I show it, I get gasps.

== Another must-read ==
On WIRED a truly key insight: "THE PATTERN OF (Trump's) pro-Putin, pro-Russia, anti-FBI, anti-intelligence community actions are so one-sided, and the lies and obfuscation surrounding every single Russian meeting and conversation so consistent that if this president isn’t actually hiding a massive conspiracy, it means the alternative is worse: America elected a chief executive so oblivious to geopolitics, so self-centered and personally insecure, so naturally predisposed to undermine democratic institutions and coddle authoritarians, and so terrible a manager and leader that he cluelessly surrounded himself with crooks, grifters, and agents of foreign powers that he’s compromised the national security of the US government and undermined 75 years of critical foreign alliances, just to satiate his own ego." 
Oh, but there's more, and better.
== Failing Bipartisan Efforts ==
A highly sapient article goes to why "bipartisan" efforts have been failing for 40 years. And why, faced with demographic collapse, GOP politicians reach for ever-more blatant methods of cheating. Secret money, gerrymandering and voter suppression are justified by your mad uncle who - with a straight face and no sense of shame - says "it's the only way we can win and keep back the mob."

Examples from the article: the Democrats' foremost proposed bill HR1 would promote wildly popular (70%+ polling) anti-cheating reforms like: "public financing of federal elections through a voluntary small donor-match, requiring that Super PACs and “dark money” groups make their donors public, requiring the president to disclose his or her tax returns, creating a new ethical code for the Supreme Court, restoring the Voting Rights Act, creating a national automatic voter registration system, ending partisan gerrymandering in federal elections and prohibiting voter-roll purging."

"While Democrats are getting ready to roll out that broadly popular, nonpartisan, pro-democracy package, what are Republicans doing? In several states where they suffered midterm defeats, they attempted lame-duck sessions to launch anti-democratic power grabs. I

"In Michigan, where Democrats won the top three statewide offices — governor, attorney general and secretary of state — for the first time since 1990, the lame-duck GOP legislature attempted to dilute the power of all three offices."

The only remaining rationalization for volcanic levels of open cheating is "keeping back the mob." The same justification offered by feudal lords for 6000 years, and the reason for both the English and American revolutions... and every subsequent phase of the U.S. Civil War. This is not politics! Politics in America was killed, dead, by Newt Gingrich and Dennis "friend to boys" Hastert in the 1990s and Mitch McConnell squats like a lead gargoyle on the coffin lid as we thump and pry to open it.

If their putsch succeeds, it will be a world run by mafias. (Did you see the high five exchanged by two leading dons from the Kremlin and Riyadh clans?

There is some unease at these levels. The smarter oligarchs are starting to realize this coming world will not let them enjoy the fruits of restored feudalism. Not when they've made enemies of all the castes and professions who know stuff like science, cybernetics, molecular biology and fission. Their dreams now drift to "Postman" style redoubts in Patagonia, Paraguay and New Zealand. And yes, those mad dreams, too, are built on fairy dust. 

The truly smartest ones are realizing that the grand plan, for all its recent successes, will not have a future. More and more, Revolution's in the air, and only one choice will soon remain.

Will it be an American-style "revolution" like we had in the 1770s and 1860s, or when the Greatest Generation revitalized market enterprise while engendering a thriving middle class and still leaving the rich very comfortable? 

Or will it be the more common style, seen aross 4000 years, in which emotion carries the angry mob? Like 1917. Or 1789? 

Now may be a good time for cheaters to pick the color of their tumbrel.

== A great place to start demanding wagers ==
In an ultimate test of the utter gullibility of our poor confederate neighbors, many of them are fixated on the latest Kremlin-sourced meme, spread by every treason site, reportedly showing Rep. Nancy Pelosi prescribing a Democratic Party smear tactic. I know a number of RASRs – residually adult-sane Republicans – who are not hateful or unpatriotic fellows, but who cling to these treason sites, suckling obscenely deceitful crap. In this case, though, OMG! Not one of them questions how the video suddenly starts?
So eager are they to actually believe she's talking about democrats using that tactic, it never occurs to them to ask for the two minutes that just preceded the sudden start of this Pelosi “confession.” It is a blatant howler, but they actually, actually swallow such an obvious ploy.
See the context and whole footage provided by Snopes… one more reason why the mad-right calls every single fact-checking service “partisan.” 
I offered a wager to one RASR I know. If it turned out Pelosi was saying what the treason site claimed, I would pay him $100. But if I was right, and he’d been suckered, he would promise to never again trust the Kremlin-funded liars who post this kind of garbage, and to in-future ask the blatantly obvious questions, and maybe spread his net wider to get other views.
Alas, as always happens when I try to corner a RASR with a wager, he scooted away. But that doesn’t mean wagers are useless! There are maybe a million decent, patriotic, intelligent and still somewhat adult-sane Republicans out there who desperately cling to magical incantations, to maintain loyalty to a party that long ago left them, betrayed them and has plunged headlong into treason. Their obedience to oligarch-mafiosi and former KGB agents who were all raised from birth to be communists is… weird. But they evade all applications of logic, and run away from bets.
What you do accomplish by demanding a wager is to bring into play a different part of their minds, one that is pragmatic about actual money and honor and even long-forgotten things called facts! Oh, your RASR will run away from putting money on it. They never have the balls to actually bet on one of their incantations. But still, he (and it is always a “he”) sometimes is shaken into thinking new thoughts.
And let me be clear, these fellows, not a majority of GOP males but an important sub-set, are worth the effort! They are decent neighbors and the old-fashioned, sincere kind of conservatives. Alas, they truly – if mistakenly – think they are on the side of the American Experiment, instead of helping its enemies.
Winning just one million of them back into some kind of light is worth trying. Indeed, that may be the last best hope for our republic.
== The bizarre Bezos bonanza... ==
In desperation, the mad right-o-sphere is gleefully attacking Amazon's Jeff Bezos over his looming divorce from his wife MacKenzie, after 25 years. Ooh, wag your fingers over some slightly corny-embarrassing texts, why don't you. (Indeed, one can be puzzled over why rich and famous people use social media at all, let alone texting or twitter. Especially for any off-the-books relationships. Can't they afford intranets?) 

After 25 years, the Bezos divorce is described as amicable, and hence -- human flaws and some silly things notwithstanding -- this is not very much my business, or yours. But sure, Red America, you are free to hold up your divorce rate against Blue America's, or rates of success for your "abstinence only" sex education programs, or rates of gambling, addiction or teen pregnancy, or STDs and so on. By all means, let's compare outcomes.

Seriously?  You can try to tar a democratic leaning zillionaire as "immoral" for a divorce far milder than any of Newt's three, Limbaugh's three, Reagan's, Trump's two, McCain's... and then perverts like Larry Craig and Roy Moore and Dennis "friend to boys" Hastert, who both buggered children and buggered America by deliberately ending all negotiated politics in the USA?

You know I was just getting started. The list goes on and on. But it really boils down to one fact -- that Jeff & MacKenzie Bezos were among the most effective teams in the history of our species. And I'd wager they'll continue to be.

. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

My “Storming the ConFusion” Schedule

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 01/16/2019 - 16:31
I’m going to be at the ConFusion science fiction convention this weekend, and if you’re going to be there (or are considering going, and you should!), here is what I’ll be doing and when: Friday 9pm (Michigan Ballroom): Dance Party. That’s right, I’ll be DJing on Friday with danceable tunes across several decades to get […]

Mary Robinette Kowal is Running for SFWA President and I Endorse Her Candidacy

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 01/16/2019 - 10:42
She announced it last night. Here is her platform, which I encourage you to read if you are a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (and even if you are not). Some of you may recall that I was SFWA president once, from 2010 to 2013. Mary Robinette was my vice […]

The Big Idea: Brenda W. Clough

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 01/15/2019 - 10:23
In today’s Big Idea, Brenda Clough explore the issues of power, and superpowers, and whether both are more trouble than they are made out to be — and how that affects her new trilogy, of which The River Twice is the first installment. BRENDA W. CLOUGH: I was born in Washington DC and have lived […]

I’m Not Saying Sugar Is Judging You, But

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 01/14/2019 - 19:05
In fact, she is totally judging you. She is in reality the most judgmental of all our cats, the cat voted Mostly Likely Not to Be Angry, Just Disappointed (although in fact she’s got a temper, so don’t cross her). Busy Monday around here. How was yours?

The Cat Catches On Quick

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 01/13/2019 - 19:43
“What? You want me to pose for a photo? Well, I suppose I could –” ” — wait, what?” “Oh, I get it. Smudgeception. Very cute, human.”

Revenue Streams, 2018

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 01/13/2019 - 13:22
Eight years ago I wrote up this piece about my revenue streams, talking about where it is my money comes from. In 2010 I had just made the switch to having the majority of my income be from writing fiction, after two decades of having other sorts of writing be my primary source of income. […]

The alluring dream of "Central Planning."

Contrary Brin - Sat, 01/12/2019 - 19:45
== Central Economic Planning ==

Central economic planners generally do it badly, and we know this since the Pharaohs. But Guided Allocation of Resources - or GAR - has improved somewhat, over the centuries. The Soviets used simple accounting tools and firing squads to build massive, primary infrastructure... dams, railroads and steel mills etc. But they were incompetent at the secondary economy... making a refrigerator anyone wanted. The Japanese took computerized skills and capitalist zaibatsu structures and planned their way to great success... that hit a wall in the tertiary economy. The brainy engineers in the Chinese politburo think their shiny AI models can evade any wall. They are probably wrong, but we'll see.

If you find yourself with some time and really want to dive into this, here's my older piece explaining the underlying difference between GAR or "Guided Allocation of Resources," which all but a very few kings engaged in, for 6000 years, commanding from atop... 

...vs. FIBM or "Faith in Blind Markets," which is a libertarian religious dogma in the west that never, ever was verified, because almost all FIBM preachers just want power transfered from the state into the hands of a few thousand corporate oligarchs. In other words... more GAR! Just a lot less diverse or accountable. Seriously, see the point made here

A third path, the one actually prescribed by Adam Smith (he never called for a completely "invisible hand") and used successfully in our recent renaissance, has been Maximized Open-Fair Competition. Only, in order for it to be open and fair, the state has to intervene, at-minimum to prevent inevitable cheating. Also, by investing heavily in education, health, infrastructure and the environment, we raise up the maximum number of poor children out of cauterized-possibility, and thus maximize the utility-availability of competition-ready talent! 

Read that again. Some kinds of socialist interventions -- those that reduce cheating or that raise up the children of the poor -- are competition friendly, according even to the values of Friedrich Hayek and especially Adam Smith. This supplies a pragmatic -- not just moralizing -- justification for at least half of liberalism.

(Any libertarian who questions specific methods of liberal MOFC intervention may be helpful; criticism is valuable and some liberal "programs" really sucked! On the other hand, any who disparages it in principle is not only heartless, but either a fool or a hypocrite, no market-lover, after all.)

And yes, these MOFC interventions to keep competition flat-open-fair, plus generous state investments in R&D, are definitely a form of state planning. Much looser than most forms of GAR and certainly better than the oligarch-loving prescriptions of FIBM. In fact it is the only way to keep the "half-blind" mass-creativity of modern markets alive and vibrant.

The crux: Our system is based on a belief - rooted in our success over 200 years - that you cannot define optimum conditions for an economy, but you can create general attractor states. Example: the existence of any flat-fair-open competition at all is an attractor state that results in vastly more creativity and production…

...but that condition is unstable and critically vulnerable to cheating. Our society achieved a semblance of flat-fair-open competition by intentionally - and with deliberate foresight - altering the boundary conditions of market forces so that fair competitors and not cheaters prosper.
Case in point: the breakup of toxic pools of economic power - like monopolies and duopolies. Anti-trust rules enacted by several generations (under several Roosevelts) were spectacularly effective at limiting cheating and opening up genuine competition. Take the auto industry. With 25+ major car-makers across the globe, competition is genuine and hence, we get better cars for less money, every year. Add in further regulations to incentive emission and efficiency improvements, and one result has been that consumers saved scores of billions at the pump, since the CAFE rules were enacted.
Of course, eliminating all such regulation, especially against toxic concentration of market share, has been among the top goals of cheater-oligarchies, who seek economy-warping power. Above all, the wisdom of the Greatest Generation -- using regulation as a means to keep markets vibrant -- has been relentlessly torn down by the supposed "friends" of competitive enterprise, with the result of skyrocketing wealth disparities and decline in every metric of economic health. 

See how Robert Reich explains the “Monopolization of America.” And be outraged that the Boomers let slide the wisdom of their parents and grandparents (who adored Roosevelts for good reasons.)
Yes, I am libertarian enough to want a light hand! I am also fiercely liberal about eliminating unfairnesses, cheater conspiracies, and the prejudices and poverties that waste talent. Liberal interventions that enable all children to shoot for their potential aren't just moral, they are pragmatic -- any society that wastes talent to poverty or oppression isn't just evil, it is stupid.

And clearly we need the boundary conditions to include incentives and deterrents that account for externalities, like planetary health.

On the other hand, how liberated and healthy-educated young people then sort themselves out to work for (or create) truly competitive companies should be up to them. This is a conversation that the two cousin philosophies - liberalism and libertarianism - could be having! And the top priority of the Murdoch-Putin-Mercer-Koch oligarchy is to prevent those cousins from ever recognizing what they share... a common enemy.
Hence, I feel behooved to veer toward a small but important faction on the American political landscape. One that has been suborned to side with aristocracy. But if they shift, they might make a crucial difference.

== Grab the lapels of those lapel=grabbers... ==
You LIBERTARIANS out there need to to stop imbibing Forbes/Koch-financed propaganda that Republicans are somehow “just enough less-bad” than Democrats in matters of liberty. 

The common aphorism is: “Democrats favor freedom in the bedroom and republicans like freedom in the board-room.” 
Well, yes, if by “freedom” you mean liberating 5000 golf buddies in the CEO-Wallstreet caste to connive in secret, ending free-market competition by creating market-stealing feudal zaibatsus. You must mean that “freedom.” Not the kind that Adam Smith and the Founders fought for and the real Tea Party was all about. (BTW, you Rand followers... ever notice that her novels always portrayed old-boy corporate lords as the real monsters, not pathetic socialists? Try actually paying attention to your patron saint!)
You  freedom-lovers should notice the color of the states who are ending the goddam Drug War. States where who-you-love is nobody’s darn business. States where the attorneys general let you record your police encounters, training cops to shrug it off and act professional. States with open meetings laws for councils and agencies. States where your freedom of information requests are (mostly) not stonewalled. 
Oh, and competitive enterprise always does better under Democrats. Yes, including in "pinko" California and New York. Are you scientifically rational and "objective" enough to look at actual outcomes? I will bet you my house. 
Step outside. Breathe the much cleaner air and tell me that polluters who wreak damage on our commons should not be told to incorporate those costs in their offered goods. Eat some fresh fish caught at piers in downtown Pittsburgh. Now go to the nearby college and test for pollutants you can't smell. Go to the beach with a Ph meter and measure ocean acidification. You nerdy libertarians are supposedly bookish, so which political party is waging open war, not just against science but against every fact-using profession, even the U.S. military officer corps?
Yeah, yeah, you hate campus lefties (I despise the worst SJWs, too.) And you nurse theories about a so-called “deep state.” Sure, five million officers, scientists, teachers, journalists are all in a conspiracy together, secretly agreeing on identical lies. Riiiiiight.  Yet somehow you never cast your eye on those 5000 lords who are working with foreign mafias to restore the feudalism that crushed freedom for 60 centuries… 
...while empowering their cops to smash your camera and maybe your head. Face it, the civil war is back and the same side that made America and ended slavery is now fighting for your very right to live.
== International ==
How to “win the present rivalry with China?” asks Fareed Zakaria. “Were Washington to be more strategic, it would have allied with Europe, Japan and Canada on trade and presented China with a united front, almost guaranteeing that Beijing would have to acquiesce. It would have embraced the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a way to provide Pacific countries an alternative to the Chinese economic system. But in place of a China strategy, we have a series of contradictory initiatives and rhetoric.”
The author continues: “History tells us that if China is indeed now the United States’ main rival for superpower status, the best way to handle such a challenge lies less in tariffs and military threats and more in revitalization at home. The United States prevailed over the Soviet Union not because it waged war in Vietnam or funded the contras in Nicaragua, but because it had a fundamentally more vibrant and productive political-economic model. The Soviet threat pushed the United States to build the interstate highway system, put a man on the moon, and lavishly fund science and technology.”
I agree on all points. But I have also pushed folks in DC to grasp the power and importance of polemics. The PRC cares supremely about the memes absorbed by its people. They rigorously control what may be viewed or browsed. And they counter simmering public resentments with deliberately stoked jingoism, justifying an aggressive international stance and predatory mercantilism with “getting even for colonialism.” 
As it happens, there is a simple polemical way to utterly neutralize that meme. Indeed, the survival of the world might depend on calming that incitement in the best way passible… with one pure and crystal fact.

== And finally... ==

An excellent and insightful essay looking back a century at 1919... as we head toward the next "double-number year"... 2020.

And a reminder of my own observation... that each of the last 4 centuries seemed to "find its them" during the second decade. Let's hope to turn ours upward, while there's still time.
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

Yes, There’s a Point to Bad Reviews in 2019

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sat, 01/12/2019 - 13:53
Got a request: Would be interested in @scalzi ’s take on “The Art of the Pan” – given his experience as a pop-culture reviewer — AJ Hogg (@alanhogg) January 12, 2019 So I read the piece. And here are some thoughts, informed by having been both a professional critic and reviewer, and a professional […]

New Books and ARCs, 1/11/19

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 01/11/2019 - 16:33
Hey, it’s 2019, and this is our very first stack of new books and ARCs for the year! See anything here that you would like to inaugurate your 2019 reading list with? Tell us all in the comments.

That’s Entertainment

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 01/11/2019 - 13:21
So I put on one of those YouTube “videos for cats” — usually videos of birds and small mammals scampering about — to see if the cats would, in fact, be intrigued by them. The answer, for Zeus at least, is yes. I eventually had to turn it off because he was trying to figure […]

And Now, the Dickhead Report

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 01/10/2019 - 20:41
An email from a reader today, which (to paraphrase) noted I don’t seem to mix it up as much with dickheads here or elsewhere, and wondered whether that had to do with maturity or just because everyone’s moved on. Maybe both? On the personal level, I’m rather less feeling the need to bother with the […]

What Regret Looks Like, Cat Division, January 10, 2019

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 01/10/2019 - 18:57
“I had not been sufficiently informed of the recent temperature drop and resulting snow, which was not here previously. Please let me back into the house.” (Spoiler: I let her back in. Eventually.) The next ten days will be at near-freezing temperatures. I expect a lot of indoor cat time. As usually happens in the […]

Look What I Got Today

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 01/09/2019 - 16:35
These are crowns for a molar and pre-molar, respectively, from top, and the teeth they were applied to are right next to each other in my mouth, which is why I got them at the same time; didn’t seem much point to getting just one of them done. These are my first crowns, so I […]

Wonders of science

Contrary Brin - Tue, 01/08/2019 - 23:15
Those of you in the Bay Area, Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal and one of the most vivid minds on Earth will be giving talks in San Francisco (at the Long Now idea hutch) and in Palo Alto in mid January.

Have you been following the tale of the tiny Chinese spy chips that were inveigled into countless electronic devices then sold to the West?  Fascinating story. Great line: "Two of Elemental’s biggest early clients were the Mormon church, which used the technology to beam sermons to congregations around the world, and the adult film industry, which did not."

Of course, aside from some areas in which they are not behaving helpfully to the human enlightenment, there are many more worth cheering! The successful Chang'e-4 mission to the far side/polar region of the moon is cause for celebration by all humankind, and I hope they will prove me wrong about the value of the lunar surface (compared to asteroids.) Alas, the Jade Rabbit rover is solar powered and hence cannot take its assay radar into the permanent shadows where deposits of ice may lurk!

Which leads us to... a science fictional future? China wants to launch satellites to reflect sunlight to Chinese cities at night.
One more reason why SF readers need to help launch TASAT, the memory project about sci fi concepts that might be pertinent to contemporary problems. 
Meanwhile - China won't share samples of its deadly flu virus: "Given that this (Chinese H7N9) flu virus is a potential threat to humanity, not sharing it immediately with the global network of WHO laboratories, like CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], is scandalous."
== Good Stuff ==

 A long floating boom is being towed from San Francisco to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — an island of trash twice the size of Texas. The Ocean Cleanup, which has raised $35 million in donations to fund the project, including from chief executive Marc Benioff and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, will deploy 60 free-floating barriers in the Pacific Ocean by 2020. “One of our goals is to remove 50 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years.” (Alas, more recent news suggests part of the system may have broken. The ocean is tough.)
Scientists have used CRISPR to reverse the gene defect causing Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) in dogs. DMD is the most common fatal genetic disease in children. 
SapientX makes conversational AI software for the auto industry. Their digital assistants can control primary functions in a car via a conversational voice interface. You can nag your car and become the worst front seat backseat driver!

The arrival of cheap, reliable zinc-air batteries for electrical storage could be a major game changer. 
The breach of coal ash ponds in the hurricane ravaged Carolinas has revived criticism of the Trump administration’s efforts to loosen restrictions on how power plants dispose of the toxic waste. 
A NASA balloon mission has revealed a band of clouds known as PMCs. These “polar meospheric clouds” are thin and wispy, but they might hold clues that could reveal the mechanisms that control turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere. The video offered by this site is truly incredible!  Both gorgeous and explanatory. And it’s not only far-off planetary missions that show how cool we are!

== A sci-roundup ==
“A new evaluation of data from the exoplanet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope and the Gaia mission indicates that many of the known planets may contain as much as 50% water. This is much more than the Earth's 0.02% (by weight) water content.”…. “Scientists have found that many of the 4000 confirmed or candidate exoplanets discovered so far fall into two size categories: those with the planetary radius averaging around 1.5 that of the Earth, and those averaging around 2.5 times the radius of the Earth.”
Now a new model indicates that those exoplanets which have of around 1.5 Earth radii tend to be rocky planets (of typically x5 the mass of the Earth), “while those with a radius of x2.5 Earth radius (with a mass around x10 that of the Earth) are probably water worlds…” …but with very hot, steamy atmospheres. It’s unclear whether organic chemistry would work well in such steamy hothouses.  Read more at
Huzzah for Japan’s Hyabusa 2 mission!  Carefully calibrated approach to the Ryugu asteroid, deployment of two small landers that have already hopped to new positions, gathering data. Let’s do this 100x more times!
Anyone seeking to understand the brilliant, early conceptualists who foresaw some of our era’s wonders should be familiar with names like J.D. Bernal and John Von Neumann and Alan Turing. And especially Vannevar Bush, whose essay “As we may think” shortly after WWII squinted at a future when all people might have access to most of the world’s information. Now a group has brought Bush’s proposed “Memex” system to life and the video is very interesting. Though it would have been good to have it explained that the sound effects were meant to mimic what Bush expected, which was remotely-physically accessing microfilms and mico-fiches.
Amazing BlackFly personal aircraft… though I had a hoax-tickle at the back of my scalp, there’s nothing on Snopes.  Yeah, amazing, though I expect drone grabbers to pick up pods as a more likely final thing. That's what Volkswagen is betting on.
Ion Drive. No, Scotty it’s already a workhorse, out in space. But for flight on Earth? Well, MIT researchers made a drone that manage - barely - to stay aloft using “ion wind”. Which means zero moving parts. 

== Evolution of life ==
Interesting! Dinosaurs evolved during, or immediately before the Late Triassic oxygen low (between 10 to 12%, equivalent to an altitude of 15,000 feet), a time when oxygen was at its lowest value of the last 500 million years. 

There appears to be strong evidence that parasites can sometimes turn “commensal” or beneficial to their victims, as discussed in Heart of the Comet many years ago.
My old Caltech classmate Joe Kirschvink, who has innovated and investigated more varied aspects of life on Earth than anyone I know, has teamed up with RARE EARTH author Peter Ward in A NEW HISTORY OF LIFE, a bold look at recent, radical discoveries that are rewriting some of the known chapters. Joe is the fellow who discovered that there were several “iceball Earth” episodes, just before the spectacular pre-Cambrian explosion of complex living species. He’s also an expert on magnetism in bird and other brains(!) And in one chapter he goes on about how crude mammals are, when it comes to lungs and breathing.  
“The history of animal life on Earth repeatedly showed a correlation between atmospheric oxygen and animal diversity as well as body size: times of low oxygen saw, on average, lower diversity and smaller body sizes than times with higher oxygen. … Low oxygen times killed off species (while at the same time stimulating experimentation with new body plans to deal with the bad times.”  Also –  in mid-Cretaceous times the appearance of angiosperms caused a floral revolution, and by the end of the Cretaceous period the flowering plants had largely displaced the conifers that had been the Jurassic dominants.  The rise of angiosperms created more plants, and sparked an insect diversification.  More resources were available in all ecosystems, and this may have been a trigger for diversity as well.  Yet the relationship between oxygen and diversity, and oxygen and body size has played out over and over in many different groups of animals, from insects to fish to reptiles to mammals.  … With a bipedal stance the first dinosaurs overcame the respiratory limitations imposed by Carrier’s Constraint.  The Triassic oxygen low thus triggered the origin of dinosaurs through formation of this new body plan.”
Wow. He goes on to explain that birds supplement lungs with a “plenum” air-sac network that is rooted in their hollow bones (it’s not just for lightness!) allowing them to do efficient “flow-through” breathing. Which I referred to in a couple of my older stories. Now if only we could retrofit innovations from other species! Those dino-bird lungs. Camel kidneys. A bear’s ability to hibernate. Cancer-proofing in mole-rats. The muscle attachment points that make chimps so strong… and so on.  I’d be willing to pay them back with a little brain uplift. Well… except for bears.

== Horizons of Inclusion ==
In an earlier posting, I discussed how one of our society’s biggest projects has been to expand our “horizons of inclusion,” by not only giving full respect to previously excluded human groups, but also expanding this via “otherness” to higher animal species, or AIs, or even ecosystems.  Yet, there is argument within the community seeking such expansion/inclusion! I portray Earth’s councils expanded to include apes and cetaceans, but there are activists who despise this concept, because of the “meddling and pain” it would take, to get there. (I, in turn, assert that they may yet turn out to be seen as the selfish ones refusing to lend a hand, seeking to keep a paternalistic humanity on top, forever.)
These aren’t the only factions!  In a variant on my argument re: "horizons" inclusion of animal species in our concept of "us." Kevin Esvelt  of the MIT Media Lab has yet a third approach. Instead of just saving ecosystems and leaving other species to fight-flee-die in the natural Circle of Life, he observes that life for most wild animals is filled with paranoia, fear and pain, even in a healthy ecosystem. Moreover, millions of animals would not get to exist, if we stopped raising many myriads of them for our use (an argument also made by Temple Grandin.) 

Hence, what Esvelt wants is for us to intervene!  Not my approach -- to daintily uplift a few sub-species to join us as fellow sapients -- but rather, his would act across the whole range of animal life to reduce pain!  To replace death-fear and agony as much as possible. To maximize "hedonic value" across the whole animal kingdom.

Yipe!  What a hubristic ambition!  I've only seen it portrayed once in sci fi, in the very last story of Clifford Simak's compilation epic entitled CITY
And finally....
San Diego gallery was charged with selling over a million dollars worth of illicit ivory objects, reminiscent of that scene in EARTH.

If ice ages return, the Dogger Banks between England and Denmark will rise again. Doggerland!
The online science podcast “Smarter Every Day” is pretty terrific. 

. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

The Big Idea: Jess Montgomery

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 01/08/2019 - 09:54
Who tells the story of a novel? For her new novel The Widows, the question is not an academic one for Jess Montgomery — her story of 1920s Appalachia hinged on the right voice to tell the tale. JESS MONTGOMERY: A few years ago, we were planning our first trip to visit our younger daughter […]

So This Is Interesting, He Said, With No Self-Interest Whatsoever

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 01/07/2019 - 17:00
Tim Miller, David Fincher to Create Adult-Themed Animated Shorts Series for Netflix I’d watch that.

Author Incomes: Not Great, Now or Then

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 01/07/2019 - 11:03
What’s being passed around among authors in the last few days: The latest Author’s Guild survey, which shows that the median income for all authors (from their books) is $6,080, while the median income for full-time authors is $20,300. That $6k median figure is down significantly from previous years. So if you made more than […]
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