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Reader Request Week 2017 #2: Those Darn Millennials

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 04/10/2017 - 15:27
Srs asks: Many people over a certain age have the opinion that Millennials think they know it all/have overly inflated self-esteem/etc because they were given participation trophies when they were young. Do you think this opinion has any basis in fact? Nah. One, of course, an older generation being angry at the Millennials for the […]

Reader Request Week 2017 #1: Punching Nazis

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 04/10/2017 - 10:31
It’s time to begin this year’s Reader Request Week, and let’s start with something punchy, shall we? Janne Peltonen asks: What do you think of the whole ‘punching Nazis in the face’ phenomenon? I found it very confusing. It seemed to me to be mostly about performance (‘let’s show the power-hungry extremists that we resist’) […]

Those seven planets... what a universe

Contrary Brin - Sun, 04/09/2017 - 18:38
At a time when public confidence is (ironically) plummeting, we see example after example of our society's competence and reasons for confidence.

But first: does anyone know of some public event or resort along the path of the August Solar Eclipse that might need an astrophysicist-speaker-Sci Fi author and former solar astronomer (!) to liven up the festivities? Entertaining sci-blather R-Us! (See more, below, about the Big Event.)

== Goldilocks and the Seven Medium-Sized Meatballs ==

The NASA announcement of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a nearby red star, five of them at least arguably within that star's Continuously Habitable Zone (CHZ) or Goldilocks (just right) Zone  is wondrously thought provoking in several ways:

1) Just the awe and wonder of it. And how amazing it is that the transit method has found so many systems, when it can only catch 5% of what's out there.
2) Note the scale of this system. The star puts out 0.05% as much light and heat as our sun. All of the planets orbit within the same distance range as Jupiter's outer moons orbit our system's giant planet.  In fact, this star is only a little more than a giant planet.  
3) Ponder what science fiction foretold. This is essentially the mini solar system that Arthur C. Clarke envisioned surrounding an ignited Jupiter, in his novel 2010.  (This is Arthur's Centennial year.)
4) With that in mind, ponder Goldfinger's Rule.  One planet in a Goldilocks Zone is happenstance. Two might be coincidence.  Three....?  Five...?  I'm not "sayin'"... just hinting. Remember the 'Verse' from Firefly?
5) Before you get excited, remember these planets are likely to be tidal locked, with one face permanently starward.  And tiny red stars tend to be Flare Stars, intermittently burping radiation. So any life would face challenges.
6) This system would seem an excellent target for some kinds of exoplanet direct viewing missions. Advantages:  Well-understood orbits and a very dim star, allowing better contrast. Disadvantages: planets are very close to their star and hard to separate... only the system is close to us, so that's partly offset.
7) Their sun is a dwarf star. We're looking for family members in a "goldilocks Zone." What else could we call these seven worlds but Sleepy, Happy, Grumpy, Sneezy... and...
8) Should we aim SETI scopes to look in that direction?  Yep! Should we send "messages"? Nope.
== Earth based science ==
The new, geostationary weather satellite GOES16 offers gorgeous views of Earth.
(I must point out that the Bushes - both of them - sabotaged Earth science, especially by NASA and NOAA... but nothing like the slashing we are seeing from the Trump Administration, which has cancelled four weather-and-resource satellites and ordered NASA to stop all mention of studying Earth as a planet. 

(Why would anyone -- even fanatics servile to coal barons -- do such shortsighted and blatantly corrupt things?)
Back to progress... they can't stop it entirely. NASA has contracted for a new type of spacecraft that will refuel satellites in Low Earth Orbit and also provide boost to new trajectories. Downstream: the possibility of servicing higher orbits and even swapping out old, worn-out or obsolete parts.
The NASA astronauts who fly aboard Boeing's new spaceship will wear sleek, blue suits that are lighter, simpler and more comfortable than the bulky orange gear of the space shuttle era. 

A concept that was formerly only in science fiction: Japan's space agency JAXA launched an electrodynamic tether to catch, grab, decelerate and dispose of orbiting debris. This method, pioneered by the father of space tetherdynamics, Joseph Carroll, was illustrated in the first chapter of my novel, Existence. And way back in the 1980s, in my short story “Tank Farm Dynamo.” (Alas, late news. This attempted tether deployment failed.  When will they learn? If you want tethers to go, ask Joe.)
Kewl images of telescopes... taken at long range by telescopes in space.
==The Promises - and Perils - of Asteroids ==
Two upcoming asteroid missions: A newly announced NASA mission will send a spacecraft to Psyche - an asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. “With a diameter of 210km, Psyche 16 is among the 10 largest objects in the asteroid belt, and it's especially interesting because it is metallic, composed largely of iron and nickel. Scientists think the intriguing object may be the exposed core of a planet that was once roughly the size of Mars but lost its outer, rocky layers due to a series of violent collisions.”
Another NASA mission will visit the heretofore unexplored swarms of "Trojan" asteroids that have accumulated at the L4 and L5 points of Jupiter's orbit around the Sun.
It’s already clear that the Trump Administration will cancel NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) – sending robots to grab asteroid chunks and take them to lunar orbit for human analysis. They will replace it with the longtime Republican obsession, to re-do Apollo landings on the Moon, along with Russia, China, India, Europe and other wannabe copycats, eager for footprints on an orb with absolutely no near-term useful traits. This article tries to make it seem that ARM was similarly pointless. It wasn’t. It had dozens of excellent scientific and commercial goals, some of which might make our children spectacularly rich. Ironically, that is anathema to Republicans. Expect more propaganda like this. 

Late news: They just cancelled the mission to explore asteroids for resources that could threaten Earth-based resource extractor-parasites.  Just sayin'.
To be clear, it’s not just the spectacular riches that should take us to asteroids, but their potential threat.  Watch these videos about possible impact effects. Look into contributing to the B612 Foundation, which aims to protect us from giant rocks!  (I am on the Board of Advisors.) 

The lesson?  Elect dinosaurs and risk becoming like dinosaurs.
And yet, am I hostile to endeavors like Moon Express, which aim to win the Google Lunar XPrize, by landing a privately funded, mobile lab on the lunar surface by December 31? Of course not! Good luck to them and to the other contestants! May they prove me wrong about the dearth of near-term value to be found there. Moreover, we’d be fools not to keep sending scientific bots down to our nearest neighbor. At NIAC we have founded many prospective mission technologies, including robots that might rappel down into lava tube caves. Others would use mirrors to redirect sunlight to the bottom of polar craters and power rovers into that dark, possibly icy realm.
None of that is the same thing as redirecting NASA’s core efforts into a gigantic, multi-billion dollar manned moon landing boondoggle. Again, let Russia, China, India, Europe and other wannabe copycats chase second-place pride with footprints. I’ve lifted my gaze to Mars. And to get there, we’ll need to get rich and experienced with the real stepping stones.
== Eclipses and other wonders ==
The August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse will be the first visible only in the US since the American Revolution, and the first total solar eclipse to sweep coast-to-coast in 99 years. A total eclipse will be seen from a path over 62 miles (100 km) wide, and will last for two minutes or more. Happily, a partial eclipse will be visible from all of North America.  Totality will span a band 100km wide from Oregon to Missouri to South Carolina.
A cool Gizmodo article forecasts some of the scientific wonders we can expect, in 2017.  Including more gravity waves from LIGO, two new satellites that should appraise thousands of new planets, a first close look at the Milky Way’s super black hole, amazing bio possibilities with CRISPR tech, and yes, climate news. Watch the cultists bray for several years that “there’s no warming!” because 2016 streaked to such a record high (after five other record highs) that there will be some reversion to mean… which they will interpret as “global cooling!”
While I am generally deeply skeptical of UFO stuff, for many reasons, especially logical ones, I do keep a mind-section open to new inputs. And this one is kinda creepy. 
Axiom, the new Journal of Interstellar Studies, contains the following papers: Kelvin F. Long, Is the Concept of (Stapledon) Universal Mentality Credible? Tong B. Tang, Origin of Life, Inflation and Quantum Entanglement. 

Oh and -- David Brin, How Might Artificial Intelligence Come About: Different Approaches and their Implications for Life in the Universe.

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

Today’s View From a Window

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 04/09/2017 - 15:36
Not from a hotel window, from one of my house’s windows. Because I get to be home for a whole week! Whatever shall I do with myself? (Sleep, mostly.) Also, remember that I am doing the Reader Request Week starting tomorrow, so get your questions in — here’s the place to do that. And also, […]

View From a Hotel Window 4/8/17: Madison

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sat, 04/08/2017 - 16:34
A lovely, sunny day in the Midwest. Tonight Madisonians and those who choose to come into the city will have the opportunity to see me at 7pm at the Central Library. Why not take advantage of the opportunity? It will be lovely to see you! Tomorrow, I am home. For a whole week! It’s Holy […]

View From a Hotel Window 4/7/17: Northampton

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 04/07/2017 - 15:49
Perhaps the most inspiring view yet! Don’t worry, the hotel room itself is pretty nice. I’m in Northampton at the moment but tonight’s event is in South Hadley, at Odyssey Bookstore, at 7pm, with me, Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch. Our plan as I understand it is to sit around and talk about the writing […]

Reader Request Week 2017: Get Your Questions In!

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 04/07/2017 - 07:47
Next week, rather than being on tour for some or all of the week, I will be home the entire time, which makes it the perfect time to have my annual Reader Request Week! So let’s do this thing, shall we? For those of you just catching up, Reader Request Week is when you suggest topics […]

View From a Hotel Window, 4/6/17: Concord

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 04/06/2017 - 12:44
Today, another parking lot, but an extra-fancy parking lot because it has Tesla chargers in it. I’m getting all the swank, people. Tonight: Gibson’s Bookstore in currently rainy Concord, New Hampshire. 7pm. My understanding is that there will be pie. Oh, yes. Pie. Tomorrow: South Hadley, Massachusetts, and Odyssey Bookstore, where, if you attend the […]

View From a Hotel Window, 4/5/17: Brookline

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 04/05/2017 - 12:28
Today’s view is an interior one, into a little courtyard that features a large chess set. Wacky! Tonight’s event: Brookline, Massachusetts, at the Brookline Booksmith bookstore. Boston, bring yourself and every single human you’ve ever met. Tomorrow: Concord, New Hampshire and Gibson’s Bookstore. Come along! I understand there will be pie.

In defense of enlightenment: "science adviser" David Gelernter and the rise of anti-science intellectualism

Contrary Brin - Tue, 04/04/2017 - 16:54
Consternation rippled across the American scientific community, upon learning that Yale Professor David Gelernter interviewed with (then) president-elect Trump, for the job of White House Science Adviser. Gelernter became a doyen of the remnant conservative intelligencia, for denouncing liberal influence on college campuses. His 2013 book, America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats) blames “belligerent leftists” for purported disintegration of patriotism and traditional family values.  
Beyond standard Republican catechisms -- such as Climate Change denial, or opposition to vaccination – Gelernter’s views extend even farther to the right, for example attributing the decline in American culture to “an increasing Jewish presence at top colleges.” (Gelernter himself is Jewish.)
In bizarre irony, Dr. Gelernter’s jeremiads against science have migrated steadily, ever-closer to views espoused by Theodore Kaczynski, the “Unabomber,” whose mailed explosives maimed Gelernter, decades ago. Kaczynski’s new book, The Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How, asserts many of the same manifesto points, distilling down to a message that Gelernter shares: that our scientific-egalitarian enlightenment must be renounced in favor of much older ways.
Alas, offended communities may characterize this news in manichean terms – as just part of a sweeping War on Science. Take the fate of OSTP. Through resignations, firings and almost zero replacements, the Trump Administration has all but wiped out the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, sending it down the path of extinction that — in 1995 — swallowed the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, when Newt Gingrich ruled OTA to be irreparably “partisan.” (As - apparently - are 'facts.')

Now members of Mr. Trump’s transition team have called for eliminating OSTP, altogether. In part this is reflex reaction to the way Barack Obama boosted science across the board, more than doubling OSTP and bringing it into the Executive Office Building, on the White House Grounds. (I gave two presentations there, in 2016, about 'Wider Perspectives on Threat; exactly the use that a nation might make of hard science fiction.)  Indeed, I'll talk more about the purge of OSTP, soon.

But at another level, this was to be expected. Indeed, when you tally professions on the alt-right’s enemies list – from journalism, medicine, economics, teaching and law to civil servants -- and now  the 'deep state' intelligence/military officer corps – an ironic effect is to make us shrug in resignation.

But in this particular case, shrugging may be premature. There are still corners of that movement that will react to light. So, let's shine some on a fellow who may soon become emblematic of our peril.
First some context: our revolution called progress
Across time, the very notion of human advancement has evoked powerful cross-currents. Pericles, the sage of Athenian democracy, extolled how steady improvements in both wisdom and daily life can occur when free citizens build on each others’ goodness and innovations, while openly critiquing or canceling each others’ crimes or mistakes – an early expression of faith in a positive-sum society.  In sharp contrast, Plato condemned openness and democracy, calling for a self-proclaimed elite to paternalistically protect gullible masses from dangerous ideas.
This battle between visionaries and curmudgeons accelerated when technologybecome a chief agent of disruptive change, starting with glass lenses and printing presses that prosthetically expanded what human beings could both see and know. With each expansion of sight and knowledge, grouches gloomily forecast a worsening of hatred, chaos and war, prophecies that nearly always came bitterly true – in the short term. Over the long run though, optimists proved more accurate, as books and literacy allowed ever-greater populations to sympathize with faraway cultures and peoples.
We’ve seen the same pattern with successive expansions of perception and memory – from newspapers and radio to television and the Internet. Each knowledge revolution at-first fostered abuse by demagogues, followed later by enlargement of citizenship and empathy, as average folk adapted to drinking information from an exponentiating fire-hose.
This historical perspective is badly needed as we see the very same dynamic emerging yet again, in an unfolding 21st Century knowledge mesh and the looming prospect of artificial intelligence, or AI. This prospect rouses the same array of gloom merchants and dizzy romantics, issuing either dire lamentations or proclamations of utopian transcendence. The latter personality, typified by singularity-promoter and immortality evangelist Ray Kurzweil, certainly weaves a fascinating spell, predicting confidently that we’ll soon – within decades – attain godlike powers and satisfactions. But I’ll not spend any time on them, today…
… because, as always, cynics seem more compelling in the short term. For one thing, they often do point at needful warnings! Dyspeptic Jonahs are at their best when calling out failure modes to examine and then prevent. 

Alas, pessimists become a failure mode, perhaps one of the worst, when they undermine the confidence of a can-do, problem-solving civilization. That, indeed, is the only failure mode I truly fear. And so much for context.
Burgeoning attacks upon science
Anti-scientific sentiment appears to be rife at both ends of the hoary-clichéd and lobotomizing "left-right axis," with campus post-modernism representing one, sinister wing. 

Still, you would have to be hibernating to miss the far more copious torrents of hostility pouring at science from the other end. Take, for example, Tides of Mind, David Gelernter’s book that posed an interesting, if simplistic model of human consciousness, while riffing hostility toward a purportedly close-minded scientific establishment. This caused me to revisit his core manifesto, "The Closing of the Scientific Mind," an essay that appeared in the first 2014 issue of Commentary Magazine.  
The title is an homage to The Closing of the American Mind, a 1987 book by Allan Bloom, that once served as a central declaration of the New American Right. Bloom's earlier tome foretold that the United States -- and Western Civilization -- would soon tumble into heck and darnation if the scientific mind-set were allowed to (among other modernist crimes) ruin the subjective-conservative-humanism of impressionable youth. Carrying on with that Spenglerian theme, David Gelernter proceeded to denounce scientific modernity and nearly all its mental works.
To be clear, this was not always his message. Mr. Gelernter's 1993 book Mirror Worlds forecast a coming era when Big Data models will replicate objective reality so closely that cyber and physical may merge in useful ways, empowering us all – a rosy view of technological change that not only put him in the transcendental-optimist camp, but earned him devastating attention from the Unabomber. 
Whether or not that painful, crippling brush with a luddite lunatic was precipitating, Gelernter soon shifted his emphasis increasingly to nostalgia and exceptionalism in tomes like Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion, striving to justify the brief reign of Straussian neo-conservatism -- a fervently messianic belief that America could transform other peoples and nations into enlightenment-republicans almost overnight, by sheer, overwhelming force of our unstoppable will.
When that manic phase proved calamitous in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and Straussian neocons went politically extinct -- Gelernter then helped swing the American Right into its later, bipolar cycle of apocalyptic depression. From frenetic imperial activity to a grumbling determination that government should do nothing at all. Doomcasting in the mode of Allan Bloom, Gelernter zeroed in upon a national intelligencia that had been skeptical of both those frantic, Bushite wars and the ensuing melancholia. His book America Lite is a growling dismissal of U.S. universities – which are, ironically, the nation's one realm of completely unambiguous superiority in a fast-changing world.
Irony, alas, appears to escape many of those who engage in intellectual finger-wagging. For example: Gelernter sings paeans to the Greatest Generation (GG) of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, who endured a Depression, defeated Hitler, contained Stalinism, spurred entrepreneurial enterprise, went to the Moon and built the vast American middle class. He touts especially their intellectual honesty and prowess -- while expressing contempt for the world and nation that generation built, along with every political and social edifice that they created. 

He also neglects to mention that the favorite living human of that admirable American generation was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Further, by deriding every value of the succeeding -- boomer -- generation, does not he (and confederates like Steve Bannon) hammer GGs with the worst insult of all? That they were bad parents?
But all of that is prelude. As illustrated in his 2014 Commentary piece, Mr. Gelernter's main denunciations focus on science – or rather the elite and deceitful priesthood that (he claims) science has become.
This isn’t new, of course. Lamentations against modernity and scientific thinking erupt with rhythmic regularity, not just from centers of scholastic nostalgia on the right but also with eerie similarity from the very-far-left, whose scoldings differ only in detailed specifics, not tone.  They call to mind C. P. Snow's famous "Two Cultures" essaythat rocked academia 50 years ago. Snow portrayed simmering resentment in some university departments toward scientists, who the humanities dons viewed as usurping their authority over matters of "Truth."  (And note that this divide is completely orthogonal to the usual, left-right measuring rod.)
Although Dr. Gelernter is a computer engineer, his apologia in Commentary reiterates Snow's divide:  "Scientists have acquired the power to impress and intimidate every time they open their mouths, and it is their responsibility to keep this power in mind no matter what they say or do. Too many have forgotten their obligation to approach with due respect the scholarly, artistic, religious, humanistic work that has always been mankind’s main spiritual support." 
Wow. We could discuss those assertions and assumptions all day -- for example by probing whether classical Romans, or post-Alexandrian Hellenistics, or medieval scholastics were ever mass-effective at preaching an admirable life. Or whether anyscientist has ever sought to "impress and intimidate" as heavy-handedly as nearly all kings and priests and scholarly pedants did, in times past. But never mind. Mr. Gelernter then veers away from the provocatively interesting, to the absurd.
"Scientists are (on average) no more likely to understand this work than the man in the street is to understand quantum physics."
To which, I am behooved to put it plain. That constitutes one of the most profoundly and demonstrably counter-factual assertions I have seen in years. Pick almost any scientist, almost at random, and this calumny will collapse, as she or he displays far greater than average knowledge of art, literature or history. Indeed, nearly all first rate scientists have artistic or humanistic pastimes that they pursue at almost professional levels. C. P. Snow’s two-cultures divide was never symmetrical.
But let's not linger there; David Gelernter goes on to construct one accusatory strawman after another while accepting no burden of proof. No wonder he sings the praises of subjectivity. In fairness, do go and give his missive a slow and attentive read. I'll wait right here. 
The ancient, dismal, underlying premise
What ultimately underlies Mr. Gelernter's rant in Commentary, and indeed, similar railings against modernity by Francis Fukayama and other Bush Era court intellectuals, is something called Zero-Sum thinking -- the dispiriting belief that if a person has superior powers in one realm, that plus must be paid for with a minus of inferiority in some other aspect of human life. This underlies strange and unsupported assumptions, e.g. that success automatically makes one shallow, or that suffering inherently ennobles.
In promoting this ancient reflex, Mr. Gelernter channels the jealous snarkiness of Walt Whitman's poem: "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" -- implying that boffins who peer through telescopes or understand Maxwell's Equations -- the language God spoke when he said "let there be light" -- cannot, thereupon, ever grasp the beauty of a rainbow, or experience compassion, or have soul.  This compulsion isn't rare. Indeed, zero-sum thinking tugs naturally at us all; it was the common human reflex that dominated almost every past human culture... though not our own.  
Our enlightenment civilization is the only one ever to have been based firmly on the notion of positive sums - that we can be many. That each success does not require a compensating failure. That each winner does not always have to stand upon a smoldering loser. That we might become greater than our parents, as the best of them would have wanted us to be, and then see our children excel far beyond us. That a person who has been lucky and comfortable can still feel the pain of others (it's called empathy). And that limitations on the breadth and depth of human reach are mere impediments, not immutable law.
No greater proof is needed than us. We live in a world filled with spectacular positive-sum results, where most children no longer grow up steeped in tragedy, but with some likelihood that they might leverage their talents, uplifting themselves andothers too. That easily-supported and statistically proved assertion is not a call for Pollyanna-complacence. Rather, all of our tentative progress constitutes an urgent clarion summons to completethe partly-fulfilled Enlightenment Promise. Indeed, we judge ourselves and our society harshly in proportion to how far shortof that ideal we still lag, proving how embedded the ideal has become, in our hearts.
Moreover, scientists lead the way.  For every bad thing science engenders (and most-often scientists issue the alerts), there are a hundred genuine advances. 
When cliché becomes outright slander
May I be forgiven for reiterating a central point? Anyone who has spent time around top-level scientists knows that they tend (with some exceptions) to be profoundly broad in their interests. Most are well-read and thoughtful far beyond the so-called "objective" realms. At three years old, I was privileged to watch Albert Einstein perform with his violin. As an undergraduate, I got to discuss patterns of history and humanism with physics Nobelist Murray Gell-mann, before we shifted to Joyce's “Finnegan's Wake.” Richard Feynman was among the world's greatest bongo players; he also painted brilliantly and wrote passionately about humanity's need to combine bold exploration with humility before a stunning cosmos. (And he stole my date once, at a Caltech dance.) Lynn Margulis showed us how to view our planet as a living entity. The anthropological insights of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy challenged smug dogmas of both left and right, showing how we are simultaneously rooted in our ancestral past and profoundly launched far beyond it all.
Perhaps Professor Gelernter has never spoken with such people, or else he is deliberately spreading a known calumny. Either possibility is both troubling and deeply discrediting for a person who would presume to give guidance to the mighty. 

Specifically, almost no modern scientist declares the non-existence of subjectivity or its irrelevance to human life, despite Dr. Gelernter’s claim that most do. That scarecrow accusation is a dodo based on 1960s fads of Logical Positivism and Skinnerism – which were minority views even then -- an obsolete libel that is only raised by postmodernists of the far-left and right, clutching justifications for resentment.
Likewise, David Gelernter condemns a purported scientific fixation that our human minds are mere software - a position taken literally by only a few researchers in artificial intelligence. Many scientists who ponder deeply about Artificial Intelligence – for example Christof Koch, director of Seattle’s Allen Brain Institute, or the cosmologist Andre Linde -- reject the mind-as-purely-software model. Most apply the comparison only as a metaphor, expedient for generating experiments and models, contingently useful, with exactly the tentativeness and humility that Gelernter claims technical people lack. Which makes me doubt that this "computer scientist" gets out very much.
 Indeed, I need only use two words to cast hilarity upon David Gelernter's absurd strawman. Those two words are --
… Roger Penrose…
… whose fabulous speculations about the specialness of human consciousness run diametrically opposite to Gelernter's stereotype, yet are backed by one of the most brilliant -- and cantankerously contrarian -- physicists of our age.  A personality trait that is, in fact, prevalent among the best scientific minds.
Bridging the "cultures"
Where do Icome into all this talk of human beings -- individuals, groups and a rising civilization -- bridging the gap between C. P. Snow's Two Cultures? I speak as a scientist and engineer who makes most of his living writing novels that weave vivid subjective realms for readers to roam, exploring everything from interstellar flight to what it might feel like to be a speaking-sapient dolphin, or an autistic person who has been empowered by new tools to take on the world. Like Sagan, Asimov, LeGuin and Clarke, I aim to blend science with artistically-conveyed empathy. 
As we do at UCSD -- in America's lower left corner -- where every academic department signed on to help establish the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, a cross-disciplinary collaboration combining everything from neuroscience to modern dance, in Arthur's polymath tradition. Pure proof that Snow's dream of a healed divide can come true. 
But coming back to "The Closing of the Scientific Mind," I confess that my attention started to flag as David Gelernter continued flailing at statues made of hay, slinging one counter-factual assertion after another, bereft of citation, evidence or even illustrating anecdotes, tempting this scientist-artist-humanist to paraphrase the classic womanly-chiding: "Hey! My eyes are way over here. And so is the rest of me." 
Still, in an essay rife with fabulations, this one near the end truly took the cake:
"Science needs reasoned argument and constant skepticism and open-mindedness. But our leading universities have dedicated themselves to stamping them out…" 
Shades of Allan Bloom! But in fact, across the vast and tragic history of our species, no human field ever taught those skills as sincerely and relentlessly as science. Each day scientists – the most competitive human beings our species ever produced – go at each other in a spirited tussle, ever-searching for each others’ errors, with ferocity and transparency and sportsmanship that would make any athletic league proud. And when – anecdotally – those standards lapse, it is always other scientists who bring it to light.
In other words, David Gelernter's diametrically opposite-to-fact assertions are worthy of Orwell's Ministry of Truth.  Indeed, it is his warped view of science and its practitioners that makes the prospect frightening, how close he might stand to the elbows of the mighty.
If civilization has recently advanced against a myriad ancient crimes like racism, sexism and environmental neglect, it is because science taught us how to refute and cast down comfortable prejudices that allof our ancestors – including each era's scholastics, priests and "humanist" scholars -- took for granted. Preaching didn’t end those horrid, subjective excuses to waste human talent. It was relentless, scientific disproof of stereotypes about women, minorities and so on, that finally overcame the dismal, filthy habit of blanketing entire groups with slander…
…the way David Gelernter attempts (laughably) to blanket libelous slurs across the one field of human life that keeps insatiably asking questions. The one habit that he clearly fears.
One final example
Let me conclude by offering an even better refutation. I invite you to acquire and watch Jacob Bronowski's "The Ascent of Man," the groundbreaking 1970s television show that led to Carl Sagan's Cosmos and so many other joyous celebrations of a great irony -- that science is simultaneously cheerfully youthful and soberly mature, eager to challenge all limitations, to construct ever-better world-models, and yet always aware that every theory is imperfect. 
See especially Bronowski's episode "Knowledge or Certainty," in which he shows how much interplay there is between science and the arts/humanities.  How science, unlike any other "priestly" system, never claims and never can claim perfect knowledge. Amid its greatest triumphs, science reminds us that our models of the world are always contingent, improvable, and perpetually fringed with a chastening aura of uncertainty.
It is in this combination of adolescent-voracious curiosity and perpetual humility that humanity's ascent continues, by climbing out of the pit of monstrous certainty that infested and infected most dogmatic systems of the past.  Indeed, this cheerful sense of contingency is the trait of science -- far more than all of its accomplishments and power -- that most unsettles and terrifies those wanting some zero-sum absolute to cling-to.
It is in the dismal trap of platonic essences -- with their declarations of derived or heavenly or scholastic certainty -- that hell truly resides.
David Brin - March 2017
David Brin is a scientist, tech speaker/consultant, and author.  His new novel about our survival in the near future is Existence.   A film by Kevin Costner was based on The Postman.  His 16 novels, including NY Times Bestsellers and Hugo Award winners, have been translated into more than twenty languages.   Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and the world wide web. David appears frequently on shows such as Nova and The Universe and Life After People, speaking about science and future trends. His non-fiction book -- TheTransparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? -- won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.   
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

View From a Hotel Window, 4/4/17: Cleveland!

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 04/04/2017 - 15:09
Ah, the classic parking lot view. So relaxing. We had a bit of excitement today when my connecting flight into Cleveland was delayed until 5pm (from 2:30 pm originally), which means as I write this, it still hasn’t taken off. It leaving then would have meant I would have missed commitments, so I ended up […]

The Big Idea: Griffin Barber

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 04/04/2017 - 08:25
Never sass Eric Flint about his bestselling “1632” universe — or you might find yourself co-writing a book with him! Or so Griffin Barber tell us in this Big Idea, about the genesis of his collaboration with Flint: 1636: Mission to the Mughals. GRIFFIN BARBER: About eight years ago, I met Charles Gannon at The World […]

Kristine, 4/3/17

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 04/03/2017 - 15:02
She photographs well. Also, if the writing thing doesn’t work out, I think I might have a future in department store portrait photography. Presuming there are any department stores left in the near future.

“What? You’re Going Back On Tour? Again?”

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 04/03/2017 - 14:16
As you can see, Sugar is shocked, shocked, that I will once again be leaving the house to head out into the world for more tour stops. Trust me, that’s the cat version of very concerned. Tonight’s stop: Dayton! This is a hometown stop at Book & Co. in Beavercreek. 7pm. Tomorrow: Parma (near Cleveland) […]

Marching for Science... and then some tech marvels

Contrary Brin - Sat, 04/01/2017 - 13:57
My science postings used to be free of politics -- and this one will be, in a bit. But how can they be detached, when the central political issue of our time is whether evidence, fact-based argument and truth discovery can survive? I know that on Earth Day (named after my novel, I presume) April 22, I'll join my fellow scientists in the street. 
See more information about the March for Science, as well as satellite marches held around the world. Scientists will speak out and hold events to explain their research to the public. 
Though let me be clear. I also think that marching and protests are secondary. At a moment in history when all fact-professions are under attack, no less than survival is at stake. Marches and protests are like pushing back in a Sumo match. You might gain inches, but what's needed is judo.

How do people comprehend (and trust) science? It's complicated. A recent study has found that people place more confidence in the claims of a popular science article than they do in the claims of an academic article written for experts. They seem to be dissuaded by the academic papers' in-depth discussions of negative results, margins of error, and alternate explanations -- rather than the concise certainties of popularized articles.

 "This emboldens people to reject the ideas of experts who they see as superfluous to their understanding of an idea (which they have already grasped)," writes Scotty Hendricks in Big Think.
== The war is now explicit ==

Through resignations, firings and almost zero replacements, the Trump Administration has all but wiped out the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, sending it down the path of extinction that — in 1995 — swallowed the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, when Newt Gingrich ruled OTA to be irreparably “partisan.” (As - apparently - are 'facts.') Now members of Mr. Trump’s transition team  have called for getting rid of OSTP, altogether. 
Mr. Trump, says an anonymous official, is still reviewing candidates to be his chief science adviser and he “considers the science and technology office important.” Ah but the two leading candidates for White House Science Advisor - Princeton's William Happer and Yale's David Gelernter - are notorious climate change denialists who regularly express contempt for their scientific peers on abstract and cultural grounds. (I'll be posting about the latter fellow, soon.)
Trump isn’t interested in science and that scientific matters are a low priority at the White House,” said Vinton G. Cerf, a computer scientist, vice president of Google and one of the chief architects of the internet.  Indeed, not one person still working in the science and technology office regularly participates in Mr. Trump’s daily briefings, as they did for President Barack Obama, who more than doubled the OSTP staff, to 130, and moved the office into a building on the White House grounds. (Where I spoke - twice - in 2016 about "big perspectives on threats to civilization."

Obama turned to the science office during crises like the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa; the 2011 nuclear spill in Fukushima, Japan; and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The staff of the science office developed the White House’s recommendations for regulation of commercial drones and driverless cars at the Transportation Department. Last year, the staff produced an attention-grabbing report that raised concerns about the threat that robots posed to employment and that advocated retraining Americans for higher-skilled jobs. (I participated in an OSTP campaign to get computer programming back into the schools.) The staff also put on the annual White House science fair.
Only now... let's go back to pointing out just how marvelous it is to be a member of a bold, open-minded and scientific civilization. 
== Marvels of research ==
Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have developed the first stable semi-synthetic organism — a bacterium with two new synthetic bases (called X and Y) added to the four natural bases (A, T, C, and G) that every living organism possesses. Adding two more letters to expand the genetic alphabet can be used to make novel proteins. 

Moreover, they found a clever way to ensure that these experimental organisms won't escape the lab. Researchers engineered them to react to a genetic sequence that doesn’t have X and Y as a foreign invader (an immune response).  So any new cell that dropped X and Y would be marked for destruction.  That enabled their semisynthetic organism to keep X and Y in its genome after dividing 60 times, leading the researchers to believe it can hold on to the new base pair indefinitely.
Helping to feed the world? Agronomists have developed a new species: a cross between wheat and its wild cousin, wheat grass - Salish Blue - that's like wheat but grows back year after year, allowing farmers to plow much less and reduce erosion. This holy grail now seems within reach.
An exciting and way overdue international consortium has been formed to develop vaccines much faster. A coalition of governments and charities has committed $460 million to speed up vaccine development for Mers, Lassa fever and Nipah virus. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi) aims to have two new experimental vaccines ready for each disease within five years.
The recent discovery of metallic hydrogen could revolutionize many things, especially spaceflight.  
Theoretically predicted a few years ago, ‘time crystals’ are a notion – a new state of matter - that have a structure that repeats in time, not just in space. A time crystal will keep oscillating in its ground state without expending or needing energy, like current in a superfluid. And two teams claim to have made them. “While we're waiting for the papers to be published, we need to be skeptical about the two claims. But the fact that two separate teams have used the same blueprint to make time crystals out of vastly different systems is promising.”  
== Scientific nature? ==
According to Bruno Lemaitre, an immunologist at the EPFL research institute in Switzerland, science is filled with “narcissists.” Having read the article, I must respond that this is stunning malarkey and part of the right’s intensely bitter War on Science. And indeed, their war on every single knowledge procession that deals in fact, verification and proof. 

Are there narcissistic scientists? Plenty! They are human and I have known doozies! But scientists are also (in my opinion) the most independent-minded and competitive humans our species ever produced, going at each other with knives of experimentation and scalpels of disproof. All of it moderated by rules of grownup behavior that make us seem all friendly and polite.

No, what the Cultists of the far-far-left and today’s entire right — two wings of a monstrous anti-modernism — share is their desperate need to discredit every profession that does the unforgivable… shines light upon delusion. Science, journalism, teaching, economics, civil servants, medicine… and now the intelligence and military officer corps.The enemies of maturity and truth use anecdotes to displace statistics. They concoct stories to counter facts. They proclaim — as did the priests and kings of old — “there is no fact! There is only whose voice is loudest!”  Or the best subsidized by today's popes and medicis -- the oligarchy.
== Tech Marvels ==
Oh but we do persevere!  For example, engineers have developed a prototype 3D bioprinter that can create totally functional human skin

Other researchers have pioneered how to regrow bone and the interlaced blood system. 
Several international student hyperloop teams came to SpaceX to compete by hurling their vehicles down the 2nd biggest vacuum chamber in the world.  
Researchers have produced a LED pixel out of nanorods capable of both emitting and detecting light. These nanorods manage to both detect and emit light. Envision Light Fidelity (Li-Fi) technology.  Screens will be able to watch you without a camera and screens could talk to each other.  And yes, we need to talk about this. Openly. Watch the video.
See these amazing photos of one of Greenland’s towns, in an article about the wrangling over the opening of a rare earth elements mine.

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

Your April Fool’s Day Fun: Build Your Own Fake Collapsing Empire Cover

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sat, 04/01/2017 - 13:51
As you may know, recently a fellow with more ineffectual rage than sense recently attempted to cash in on The Collapsing Empire by rushing out a “me too” book with a “me too” cover. I don’t suspect it fooled very many people, or did much other than to confirm some people have too much time on […]

New Books and ARCs, 3/31/17

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 03/31/2017 - 16:13
Before we get to April and all its shenanigans, here’s a final March stack of new books and ARCs to peruse. Find anything here you would want to take home with you? Tell us which ones in the comments!

Quick Update on Film/TV Stuff

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 03/31/2017 - 11:56
Because the announcement of the TV deal for The Collapsing Empire has people asking questions, let me quickly catch everyone up. Here’s where everything stands at the moment. I have four active options at the moment: The Collapsing Empire, Old Man’s War and Redshirts, and a project I can’t talk about yet (but which has been […]

Choosing sides -- fighting autarchy

Contrary Brin - Thu, 03/30/2017 - 16:18
Okay, this one will be reflective, if a little bit fierce. And see below how some folks are citing my novel The Postman as (alas) prescient about our current messes.

But let's start with news that could be important: let's pray this is the beginning of the end of an utter-evil insanity called gerrymandering.

See where I analyzed gerrymandering, for years.  There are countless ways to fix this vile crime and treason... including a few you'll read nowhere else. One approach would solve it without any need for "impartial commissions" or taking sovereignty away from state legislatures. 

There are half a dozen ways that three men -- John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch -- might decide to be Americans first, and to save us from the monstrously inexcusable.

== What is the nature of our ‘side’ in this Civil War? ==
"I have never seen my country on an inauguration day so divided, so anxious, so fearful, so uncertain of its course. ... I have never seen an incoming president so preoccupied with responding to the understandable vagaries of dissent and seemingly unwilling to contend with the full weight and responsibilities of the most powerful job in the world."
That was Dan Rather, who bore witness to everything from the JFK assassination to the terrifying ructions of 1968, to Civil Rights and Vietnam torments, to Watergate, to near misses with incineration in the Cold War, to 9/11 and the surrounding miasma of lies. Indeed, even in 1968, there was still a “middle” in America wherein moderate democrats and moderate republicans tried to negotiate. Richard Nixon crossed party lines to establish the Environmental Protection Agency. Democratic Congresses modified, but then passed, budgets sent to them by Republican presidents.
Today’s great, national divide is entirely one of perception. The country that our new president described in his speech… one that is undergoing collapse and “carnage”… simply does not exist.  Not to any substantial or statistically significant degree, compared to past decades. 

Problems? We got. But every metric of U.S. national health has improved. Nor should we be lectured by a man and a party who did nothing to alleviate the problems of the unemployed or poor. (They are painfully aware of their accomplishment-free record; that's why only one republican leader between Reagan and Ryan was even mentioned during the recent GOP convention.)
No, our divide is very real, but it is psychological. There is one third of the American spirit that has swallowed memic poison. It’s not “left” or “right” but a paranoia that will not respond to facts. That rejects facts. That is enraged by facts and all of the professions that use them.

And to be clear, the left contains some of this ilk! Just as today's US right consists of fact-evaders and suppressors. See: Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds, by Elizabeth Kolbert.
As for the inevitability of feudalism... well, the odds have always been against us. It's almost a miracle that a few generations of humans were able to rise above ourselves for this long.
But there is a process to it, that I describe here and here.
Have hope.  We are not lesser men and women than the 'Greatest Generation.'  We can do this.
== Targeted propaganda ==
Oh, but the forces arrayed against our great, anti-feudal experiment are formidable. "The conservative Koch network plans to spend between $300 million and $400 million to influence politics and public policy over the next two years, intensifying its nationwide efforts in the initial years of Donald Trump's presidency." This after spending roughly a billion across the 2nd Obama term. And the Saudis spent about the same... and none of this mentions Muscovian meddling.
An expert troller who helped get alt-right rolling talks about the reverse psychology methods that have worked so well for that scurrilous festival of provocations and lies.
Okay, but all of this has gone nuclear. It's gone to the matrixes.

Affliliated with Steve Bannon and alt-right, a company called Cambridge Analytica has activated an invisible and nearly impenetrable Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine that preys on the personalities of individual voters to create large shifts in public opinion. The Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine has become the new prerequisite for political success in a world of polarization, isolation, trolls, and dark posts, as Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath report in Scout.
 "We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communication has played such an integral part in President-elect Trump's extraordinary win. --- At Cambridge, we were able to form a model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America." - Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander James Ashburner Nix; quoted on Vice's Motherboard blog.   "[Our approach] could pose a threat to an individual's well-being, freedom, or even life." - Michal Kosinski, researcher apparently behind (but not part of) Cambridge Analytica's processes; ibid

Ohh and know this: that Trump strategic advisor Steve Bannon is on the board of directors of Cambridge Analytica - right? Now you get it.
== Preventing Autocracy ==
Worst case scenario. We are seeing a calamitous failure of the entire democratic experiment. I don’t believe that — not yet.  I think the oligarchic putsch has made a big mistake by attacking our professional classes and intel and military officer corps. 

But I could be wrong. In which case, we will have to study from those who have lived under despots and learn the arts of resistance.
Consider these bits of advice in: “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” by Masha Gessen.  
Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says.Rule #2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality.Rule #3: Institutions will not save you.
I am still a sucker for this one.  But go read what she says, anyway.
Rule #4: Be outraged. In the face of the impulse to normalize, it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock.
Rule #5: Don’t make compromises. Like Ted Cruz, who made the journey from calling Trump “utterly amoral” and a “pathological liar” to endorsing him in late September to praising his win as an “amazing victory for the American worker,” Republican politicians have fallen into line. Democrats in Congress will begin to make the case for cooperation.
History supports this. Democrats always always try to negotiate, while the GOP has become the most tightly disciplined partisan machine in American history, utterly hewing to the “Hastert Rule” (concocted by their former speaker and leader and convicted sexual pervert and child-predator, Dennis Hastert) to never, ever negotiate in good faith. DP Congresses always meet Republican presidents halfway. GOP Congresses never do that with Democratic presidents. But today, “halfway" is still utterly insane treason.
Rule #6: Remember the future.
Says this deep futurist… amen.
A fan and fretful American just sent me this excerpt from my novel, The Postman. There are others. Lesson: no matter how low this goes. Remember you are the noblest kind of human ever created. Citizen.
Judo teaches you how to fall!  And roll and come back up fighting.
== The next round of protest ==Will the coming scientists’ march be effective or counterproductive? This author on Slate asserts that Culture War is so locked in that the marchers will only be preaching to the democratic base. That the GOP is already so hostile to science that the marchers will only nail in place Red America’s suspicion that all scientists are partisan lefties. 

“In a post-election analysis at FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver found that Trump held a 31-point advantage in the nation’s least-educated counties, while Clinton held a 26-point advantage in the best-educated ones—and concluded that income explained only part of this effect.”
Daniel Engber further asserts: “In the same way that fighting the War on Journalism delegitimizes the press by making it seem partisan and petty, so might the present fight against the War on Science sap scientific credibility. By confronting it directly, science activists may end up helping to consolidate Trump’s support among his most ardent, science-skeptical constituency. If they’re not careful where and how they step, the science march could turn into an ambush.”
But Mr. Engber misses the point. Science and journalism are not isolated cases. 
Indeed, an you name for me one fact-using profession of knowledge and skill that’s not under attack by Fox & its cohorts?  Teachers, medical doctors, journalists, civil servants, law professionals, economists, skilled labor, professors…. 
In fact there are three educated clades not under open attack by the Murdochian-Confederate cult.  Can you name them?
Fighting the rising madness...
In his Vox article, David Roberts defines “Tribal Epistemology” to mean “evaluating facts, information, and narratives primarily on whether they are advantageous to the tribe in their war against the opposing tribe (in this case, liberals).
Tribal epistemology is inherently hostile to institutions that claim independent authority based on trans-partisan norms and standards — the academy, science, and journalism, in particular. They see those institutions as tools of their enemies.” 
In the case of Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science Committee, the purpose of science is to concoct justifications for already chosen social or political agendas.  Donald Trump is the sole reliable source of truth, says the chair of the House Science Committee. 

And now, more scientists are planning to run for office. For more on science intersecting with politics, see How to Win the War on Science, by Jonathan Foley, as well as Will the Science Community Go Rogue Against Donald Trump?

Norman Spinrad can see the horizon.  Like me, he reads a little farther ahead… as in his new book The Peoples’ Police, in which the cops, long viewed with suspicion by the left, are finally welcomed into a coalition of the loyal and sane, against the rising madness.
== And finally: The Short Straw Democrats ==

I've suggested this before and will repeat it. Donald Trump is about personality disorders, not ideology!

Today he declared war on the GOP's Freedom Caucus -- the 30+ Republican Tea Party radicals who torched Paul Ryan's "Obamacare replacement" bill.  Putting aside the obvious glee of pundits, Trump's move offers an opening for what I call "short straw democrats."

The principle is simple. Trump responds ferociously to those who dislike him and warmly to those who say nice things. Period. Full stop. There is nothing more. There is nothing less, or left or right. Or anything else.  So let me repeat it.

Donald Trump responds ferociously to those who dislike him and warmly to those who say nice things.  Period.

And hence, Democrats should hold a caucus to draw straws. Those with short straws must say nice things about Donald Trump.

This does not demand betraying principles! Your stances and votes can all remain the same! But you'll simply and deliberately end any statement about the president with a compliment. For example: "While I respectfully disagree with the President on this and a myriad other issues, I will admit that he is among the best-looking leaders this nation ever had."

Will the pandering be obvious? Sure! Will there be nods and winks? Uh-Huh. Will Hannity & Co. scream denunciations? Yep! And Trump's inner circle will rail at him to ignore the blatant manipulativeness of the other side's "short straw" volunteers.

But it won't matter! The compliment will stick in DT's head, where facts and policy positions do not. He will invite the complimenters to dinner, to golf. He'll listen. He'll sway.

Surely there are a few Democrats with the intelligence and strength of character and stomach to do what clearly must be done?

Well.  No.  I guess we've seen the answer to that one.

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

The Collapsing Empire’s First Week

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 03/30/2017 - 07:41
So, The Collapsing Empire had a pretty good first week! In terms of total sales, i.e., actual units sold, it had the best first week of any book I’ve written, ever; as I noted on Twitter, I’ve sold more copies of it in a week than some of my novels (including at least one Hugo nominee) […]
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