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The Big Idea: Marshall Ryan Maresca

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 03/17/2017 - 09:06
Stop, thief! In today’s Big Idea, Marshall Ryan Maresca explains why actions we wouldn’t approve of in real life we enjoy in fiction, and what that means for his new novel, The Holver Alley Crew. MARSHALL RYAN MARESCA: It’s fascinating how much we love the thief-as-the-hero trope, and we love having them pull a heist. […]

Shifting views on immigration

Contrary Brin - Thu, 03/16/2017 - 21:29
In 1939, the infamous ship St. Louis limped around the Atlantic and Caribbean with over 900 German Jews on board. Arm-twisted by the Nazis, but also shamefully, the United States and Cuba both refused sanctuary to the refugees. Eventually the ship returned to Germany and most of the passengers on board were eventually killed during the Holocaust.
Bard College professor an director of the Hannah Arendt Center, Roger Berkowitz talks about a luckier refugee, Hanna Arendt: In 1943, Arendt wrote a poignant essay 'We Refugees': "The stateless person, without the right to residence and without the right to work, had of course constantly to transgress the law."

Berkowitz expands on Arendt's experience: 
"The word, refugee, flattens a person and a people marked by loss and vulnerability. Having lost their home, their language, their friends, and their families, refugees live in camps, in public; they experience the rupture of their private lives and their public visibility as only a mass.
   "The refugee is transformed from a person with a history and world into a pitiable figure. We can have compassion for an individual, look into their eyes, touch their shoulder, and feel the humanness in their pain. But faced with masses of refugees hands open, seeking refuge, compassion is too often replaced by pity (if not by fear).”
I’ve long accused all sides of hypocrisy regarding immigration!

History shows that Democrats protect the borders and reduce illegal immigration --demonstrably better and more vigorously than Republicans (till Trump) -- for the same reasons that they boosted legal immigration — because legal immigrants can join unions and eventually vote. Yes, this sounds counter to popular impressions because liberals try to be kind to illegals, once they are here. But democratic presidents always boosted the Border Patrol (Obama deported all the illegals who misbehaved, who he could get his hands on).

Think about why, until 9/11, GOP presidents always slashed the BP. It's true!  Why? Because their owner caste loves cheap labor that must live in fear and that undercuts unions.
If cranky, white, male boomers want to blame anyone for the changing look of America, blame the Democrats all right! But for legal immigration.  The landmark Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 eased the path across the nation's borders for people from Asia and Africa by removing old regional quotas. That was moral and right.
And now the GOP Congress is moving against legal immigration.  
That 1965 Democratic Congress also did something that seems also to be right-sounding… easing the way for families to re-unite, if one member is already legally a U.S. resident. And there, well, I disagree

Sure, unite parents and children and spouses. But the sibling and cousin advantage is just immoral and wrong. 
Think.  Anyone in another country who has a U.S. relative is already much luckier than his neighbors in say, Bangladesh. Think, I mean it, actually think about this. Those relatives back home already get remittances and packages and favors, and help with legal paperwork trying to emigrate. They are already luck! Why should they automatically be luckier than their neighbors, in Dacca?  Don’t those neighbors deserve a chance, too? See my earlier posting: Hidden factors in the rush to immigration reform. Must luck be kept limited to arbitrary family chains?

Does this mean I approve of a Republican bill?  Really? These monsters who have betrayed Adam Smith and Lincoln and who have sent Barry Goldwater spinning in his grave? 

Well, in fact, while it seems old-fashioned, I am capable of fine parsing. And there are portions of this bill that are as loathsome as anything else spewing from Paul Ryan’s Confederate Treason Cabal. But to be honest, there are parts that I can shrug over.

Look, we need to prioritize. Obama himself had no problems with simultaneously creating a citizenship for "dreamers" - kids who came here as babies, while vigorously deporting slimes who betrayed their adopted land by wreaking crime and harm.  He called for kindness and help for hard-workers who were already here... while spending quite a few millions beefing up the Border Patrol and laying hundreds of miles of new fences, so immigration can channel through the legal processes.

Just in order to shock you all, let me say: "Build your stupid wall." It's about time Republicans were willing to employ lots of semi-skilled workers in infrastructure, creating high velocity money in the economy instead of sucking us dry with tax gifts to the rich.

If this were a negotiation, I'd let em have the wall, in exchange for... for... for not being jerks at war with facts and brains and heart in every way they can possibly find.

== Immigration and Violence ==
From the Los Angeles Times: Californians are 30% less likely to die a violent death today than other Americans. Since 1980, California’s rate of reported crime overall has fallen by 62%. The state’s criminal arrest rates, too, have fallen considerably, by 55% overall, and by 80% among people younger than 18 — a population, it is worth noting, that is now 72% nonwhite. 
Violent crime in California has fallen by an impressive 50% in the same period. This includes drops in robberies (65%), homicide (68%), and rapes and assaults (more than 40%). That last figure is even more remarkable when you consider that the legal definitions of both assault and rape were expanded during these years.
Trump often points at violence in Chicago. An outlier that is less blue and less immigrant rich, and far smaller than California. 

Oh, and California generates inventions and jobs faster than anyone. Texas keeps sending governors here to try to raid and poach our companies. Um, why? Can't generate your own?
Efficient government, top schools and universities... and sure, filled with problems... that are being handled better than any red state. Why? How? We haven't abandoned the formula of the Greatest Generation. We have unions, universities, infrastructure, tolerance and the rich pay taxes. And business flourishes. 
Oh, one more thing. We like being a little bit funky-crazy. It's cool. It is one of many reasons why we're the sane ones.
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

The Double Bubble

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 03/16/2017 - 14:32
For those of you thinking to yourself “Huh, I wonder if Scalzi is going to talk politics ever again,” today is your lucky day, because over at the Los Angeles Times site I talk politics! Namely, about the fact that I simultaneously live in rural conservative America and liberal cosmopolitan America, and what that fact […]

The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 03/16/2017 - 10:14
It’s relatively easy to start a book series — you just start writing. But ending a series on a logical and satisfying note? That’s a slightly more complicated trick, which Ryk E. Spoor attempts with Challenges of the Deeps. In this Big Idea, Spoor is here to tell you about sticking this particular dismount. RYK […]

The Big Idea: Randy Henderson

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 03/15/2017 - 11:28
In today’s Big Idea, author Randy Henderson and his protagonist have a chatty conversation about Henderson’s new novel, Smells Like Finn Spirit. Let’s see what they have to say to each other this time, shall we? RANDY HENDERSON: Well, Finn, this is it.  A trilogy!  As its main character, how do you feel? “Like you […]

Athena Gets Into College

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 03/15/2017 - 00:58
Specifically Miami University, down the road in Oxford, OH (to head off any comments on this score, the Miami in Florida is named after the Miami Valley of Ohio, which is where we live, and Miami University was actually founded before Florida became a state). We’re super-thrilled about this; Miami was one of Athena’s two […]

New Books and ARCs, 3/14/17

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 03/14/2017 - 17:18
A couple dozen books came to the Scalzi Compound whilst we were on the cruise — here’s the first stack of them. See anything you like? Tell us which ones in the comments!

Science Fiction: Into the future

Contrary Brin - Tue, 03/14/2017 - 14:38
Let's take a pause to envision how science fiction makes a difference.  First by pointing at the rocks that lie in wait, downstream, that might yet be avoided. Second, by shining light upon the possible -- on things that we might want, or the people we choose to become. And finally...

... the category of I told you so. Rubbing our Cassandra warnings in the faces of those who just didn't listen!  Very soon, I will post about how Robert Heinlein is suddenly oh, so pertinent again, in all three categories.  But for now, let us romp through the lesser but still fascinating tulips all around us.

== Appreciation from the mighty ==

We have fans in unexpected places.  For example, the (then) President of the United States - in his final interview in office - touted The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin and conversed tangentially about the Hugo Award. Yes, he has long been – tangentially – a sci fi reader. Great stuff!  But. Um hey, sir? Did you notice my name, in small letters, on the back cover of that book? ;-)

Well, well. In this interview, Obama says, “I don’t worry about the survival of the novel. We’re a storytelling species. I think that what one of the jobs of political leaders going forward is, is to tell a better story about what binds us together as a people. And America is unique in having to stitch together all these disparate elements – we’re not one race, we’re not one tribe, folks didn’t all arrive here at the same time. What holds us together is an idea, and it’s a story about who we are and what’s important to us. And I want to make sure that we continue that.”

What a terrific interview about books and reading with a truly amazing American who isn't done helping the world. 

Even more powerful... Google has shown its appreciation often. For example, I spoke last week at the blue-sky and far-out research group "X" -- with thanks to our host, Rapid Evaluation leader Rich DuVaul and his fine colleagues.  And in this article how another group, Google Creative Lab, is currently taking applications for The Five, a one-year paid program for five lucky innovators, drawn from a pool of artists, designers, filmmakers, developers, and other talented, multi-dextrous makers. And yes, SF authors.

In fact, open mindedness has always been present, at least among geniuses. Winston Churchill wrote an extensive essay about… alien life. How amazing! We will fight them on the beaches and the landing grounds...

== Cool links ==

Tune in to Episode 5: "Limits of Understanding: cosmology, imagination, and the role of theology", with Paul Steinhardt and David Brin, part of the "Into the Impossible" podcast series by UCSD’s Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination.
Also check out the extensive archives of Starship Sofa for more audio science fiction stories. 
Yea for time sinks! Dust offers a great collection of entertaining and provocative Sci Fi short films.
Good Omens, Neil Gaiman’s first novel, done with the late Terry Pratchett, will be televised by the BBC. And Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land is coming to television as well. 
On the international front... Looks like a really interesting contribution to the African SF Renaissance.  Nigerians in Space by Deji Bryce Olukotun, who has been asked by his nation to steal a piece of the moon.

And this from the New Scientist: In China, this is Science Fiction's Golden Age, by Lavie Tidhar. 
Did SF predict the iPad, Skype... or Trump? Business Insider lists: The seven most freakishly accurate ways science fiction predicted he future.

== Sci Fi novels in the news ==
Larry Niven’s classic story Inconstant Moon asks the question, “What would you do if it were your last night on Earth?” and takes place over one catastrophic night in Los Angeles.  It’s been picked up for a film by the producers of The Arrival.  Terrific!  
In other Niven News, Larry’s terrific novel Protector is assigned reading for the Special and General Relativity course at West Point! The tale’s vivid depiction of interstellar spaceflight at relativistic speeds culminates in a relativistic space “dogfight” past a neutron star.  Though of course the tactics shown at the end of Startide Rising ain’t shabby, neither, ahem. 
Jeez, what’ll it take to get some royalties, around here? Have a look at an Interesting spin on dittos in a video game…  that actually looks kinda cool. 
And then there’s this: “Terminator and Avatar director James Cameron has signed a deal with AMC to produce a six-episode documentary series, titled James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction. The series will explore how science fiction has tried to answer humanity’s “big questions” throughout history.”  I’ve been on a lot of these shows, e.g. Masters of Science Fiction and Sci Fi legends, but I expect Cameron to bring a big budget sensibility and a strong sense of why we are all different from our ancestors. Largely because of a new habit of looking ahead.

Oh, here's another interesting novel, this one by Norman Spinrad (author of Bug Jack Barron and The Iron Dream). HIs latest, The People's Police tells of New Orleans in a near future when Category 6 hurricanes are the norm, when deflation is getting millions tossed from their homes, when voodoo comes alive... and when the police tire of serving the money-masters, devoting their loyalty instead to the common people.   

Norman can get a bit polemical... then he makes you laugh out loud with something outrageously unexpected, like a vodoun spirit talker elected governor of Louisiana. I think he gets wrong how our public servants will rise up to protect and defend and serve us.  But it is a near-certainty that they will.

Just released: a graphic novel adaptation of Octavia E. Butler's powerful novel, Kindred. 

And Margaret Atwood has created a graphic novel, Angel Catbird -- a tale of genetic engineering.. and a superhero who emerges after the accidental merging of human DNA with that of a cat and an owl. Volume 2, To Castle Catula has just been released.

Following up on his classic American Gods, Neil Gaiman's latest novel, Norse Mythology was released in February -- with his own colorful re-telling of the legends of the ancient Norse pantheon of gods. 
== Science Fiction & Politics ==
Slate has invited ten writers to envision the possible (dystopic?) future of Trump's America. You can read compelling selections by Lauren Beukes, Jeff Vandemeer, Elizabeth Bear, Saladin Ahmed, Nisi Shawl, Ben Winters and others in The Trump Story Project.  

Our metaphors fill society.  This one was posted with zero commentary needed.

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

The Big Idea: Tom Merritt

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 03/14/2017 - 07:33
Sometimes, as a fan, you hope your a new book or show or album from your favorite creative people will give you the experience you want. But sometimes it doesn’t. What then? If you’re Tom Merritt, you use that as an inspiration to create a novel. Here’s Merritt now to talk about how his book Pilot […]

Still Life With Author Copies and Cat, Plus Audiobook News

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 03/13/2017 - 13:01
While I was on the JoCo Cruise, the US and UK editions of The Collapsing Empire arrived at the Scalzi Compound. Here they are, with cat for scale. Also, there’s this tweet from last night: Tomorrow, I begin narration on the audiobook for @scalzi's The Collapsing Empire. It is such a great book! I am […]

The Big Idea: Jake Kerr

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 03/13/2017 - 08:25
It’s Thursday! No, not the date (it’s still Monday, sorry about that), but the novel, written by Jake Kerr. And in it, Kerr attempts an update on a classic, if dated, fantasy novel. How hard could it be, right? Well… JAKE KERR: So, my new novel is about a future Earth where the population escapes the […]

The JoCo Cruise 2017 Final Concert Photoset

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 03/12/2017 - 17:23
How I spent my first post-JoCo Cruise Sunday afternoon: One, weaving slightly, because I still do not have my land legs back, and two, going through the roughly one thousand photos I took of the JoCo Cruise 2017 final concert to bring you all a curated selection of highlights and portraits of the performers as […]

Back From JoCo Cruise

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 03/12/2017 - 12:41
And we had a lovely time. Probably a longer write-up later, and definitely more pictures, but for now please enjoy this picture of Krissy having a windy day moment. She seems to be okay with it.

Inconvenient facts: The future of news.. and "otherness" has been stolen!

Contrary Brin - Fri, 03/10/2017 - 18:51
I recently spoke (via Beam robot) at a conference on “The Future of News Media” hosted by the Institute For The Future (IFTF), in San Francisco. An erudite gathering of concerned men and women from around the world discussed problems of Fake News, declining advertising revenues, state interference, self-censorship, and the web’s tendency to corral individuals into self-isolated pocket universes that reinforce their prejudices. In the short time allocated to me as kickoff speaker, I tried to give (ahem) ‘unusual perspectives’ on each of these topics.

Make no mistake, the survival of independent and professionally trained news media is vital to our civilization, just as undermining such experts is essential to the agenda of our rising caste of would-be masters.
I always have lots of unconventional things to say, but one stands out and you will see it repeated forever, till it’s tried on a large scale. Wagers.  Dares!Bets. Putting money on actual verification or disproof.
It is the only approach that will work, in an era when romantics have declared that all is subjective. That incantation works for macho guys… till something tangible is on the table. Then? Recall that most of these fake-news slathering fellows are also sports fans. And they know, deep down, that there comes a time when you can no longer talk your way out of comparing actual facts.
They grasp the idea that a wager has to be resolved. And it will turn on what can be proved. And now machismo becomes our friend, since it over-rules subjectivity!  If you flee from a bet, you are shamed. And if you refuse to pay-up, you are un-manned, period.
I broached this at the conference, as one of many observations and speculations about the future of news. It only got blinks of confusion from those erudite folks, showing how alien is their elite, mature, fact-loving world from that of the Confederacy that gave us this tsunami of fake-news. But give it time. Experiment with it. Because something has to be done. And this approach will go to the root, the heart of the problem.
== "Otherness"... redefined by monsters! ==

Ouch! Do we never get to keep nice things? Way back around 1990 I coined a term that later became the title of my 2nd story collection: OTHERNESS. It stood for the trend - in our recent, enlightenment renaissance - to be fascinated with horizons. To look beyond the immediate and near and familiar. And, yes, this manifests in many of us - those with some confidence - in a willingness to expand our boundaries of inclusion, to encompass "others."

Extending my essay "The Dogma of Otherness" (in OTHERNESS), I later showed how this process is inversely proportionate to fear, and has been, across most (maybe all) human cultures. It explains why the calmly confident society crafted by the Greatest Generation became one obsessed with expanding horizons.

Alas, all that has been sabotaged. Instead of rising in confidence - as Americans and all advanced and advancing nations should be doing now, amid very good times - we are letting ourselves be talked into quaking, quivering terror.

That I find upsetting. But want to see me really pissed off? Now my optimistic and brave term - "otherness" - has been stolen! Appropriated not only without credit or provenance, but given diametrically opposite meaning!

Oh you monsters. It's like the way they took the term "fake news" - which stood for their tactic to rile up an unsapient confederacy - and grabbed it as one more polemical weapon to use - in stunning irony - against real news media.

Alas, even those writing cogently against the madness keep falling for these traps, as with this fellow, who blithely accepts the alt-right definition of "otherness," ceding ground, even while whining about it. We can do so much better.

== Teaching the young – and old farts ==
Stanford professor Sam Wineburg lays out the steps educators need to take to help students discern what is fake news or not. “The tools we’ve invented are handling us,“ he says, “not the other way around.”  
A commenter suggested that the way to counter “alternative-facts may be to use their own s### against them: “When Trump says that 3 million illegals voted in the last election, tell them it doesn't matter because a majority of them voted for Trump! If he asks where you got the information, just say it was from the same source that he did. Or that it is common sense. Or that you "heard it on the internet." Or all the other lame excuses they use.
“When they make up stuff, make up stuff about their stuff. Be truthful about our stuff, but for their stuff, let you imagination run wild. Without facts to back up their claims, there is no way they can disprove any claim you make.”

It is a very, very dumb proposal.  We have other ways to win.
== The fact people ==

Evonomicsis the place for erudite and fact-rich proof that inequality and huge wealth disparities are NOT healthy or faithful to fair-competitive market enterprise or even capitalism. 
An article online about cheating in economics explains how we are rediscovering the wisdom of Adam Smith and how parasite “rentiers” are not the friends of capitalism. Monopolists, “finance wizards” and passive lease-collectors create nothing and certainly do not compete. See both how Smith denounced the vampire effects on markets… and how it’s played out - to Dracula proportions - today.  
The Real "Takers" in America: Michael Lind’s article in Evonomics shows the kind of rooseveltean thinking that the oligarchs deeply fear might take hold. “An Anti-Rentier movement would oppose unproductive, ill-begotten wealth, not the rich in general. Wealthy individuals who get richer by investing in start-up companies or funding long-lived, creative blue-chip firms provide a valuable benefit to society, even as they risk losing their own money. Such risk-taking investors are the opposites of financial sector rentiers who seek to bribe policymakers into letting them privatize their gains while socializing their losses.”
Radical? A bit, sure. But what’s the alternative? Do the rentier-oligarchs actually believe they can crush us back into inherited-nobility and feudalism?  If the coming re-set is not a moderate-pragmatic, rooseveltean one - as instituted by the Greatest Generation - then it will be something much more radical. Already, search results for Karl Marx” have skyrocketed, in recent years.
Finally, someone else is pointing out that "Obamacare" was always the Republicans' own plan, all along! This young, democratic Congressman lays it out so clearly that even a Fox-watcher would understand… and perhaps start scratching his head, asking: "So what was all the screaming about? And why did I ever watch Fox?" 
Oh, I am gonna keep my eye on this Rep. Brendan Boyle fellah.
== Other things that got (a lot) better ==
Expect a new section in these missives: Bad News/GoodNews.
The Bad News: Obama’s Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is an example of the brainpower and expertise that we lose. He’s a nuclear physicist for MIT who has been involved in government energy projects for two decades. His designated successor, former Texas governor Rick Perry, has no comparable educational or business background that would equip him for the job.
(To be clear, I am miffed that our present situation leaves me delighted to see Perry in the cabinet. For all his faults and awful limitations, RP seems at least to be an American of normal IQ and no cultist. Such a low bar.)
The Good News:  Read how Moniz says that our accomplishments in developing efficient, sustainable and non-carbon technologies are irreversible. Despite treasonous obstruction by The Cult, these techs have now taken off, reaching beyond break-even, drawing every utility and energy-using entity away from carbon sources. “Smart government policies have encouraged and reinforced this evolution, but it now has a life of its own, studies suggest.”
Filthy coal has collapsed as U.S. supplies of much cleaner natural gas burgeoned, with America attaining effective energy independence under Obama, for the first time in 40 years.  The Energy Department estimates that 61 percent of the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in the power sector from 2006 to 2014 came from switching from coal-fired plants to gas-fired ones. (A side effect no one seems to have reported: even with our troops helping governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no longer a U.S. aircraft carrier battle group in the Middle East. We just don’t need that region for our own survival, anymore.)
Gas is a stopgap. “Continuing declines in the costs of alternative energy sources are making them increasingly competitive. Since 2008, costs have fallen 41 percent for land-based wind power and 64 percent for utility-scale solar power. The cost of efficient LED light bulbs has fallen 94 percent since 2008. The cost of battery storage has declined 70 percent over that period, making electric vehicles more affordable. As of last August, there were 490,000 electric vehicles on the road.”
Want another? Chart some national statistics and how they did across the Obama administration. In only one case was there not a huge improvement… the national debt.  But the size of the debt is a huge lagging indicator.  Far more significant is the rate of change of the rate of change of debt. By that metric, any fiscal conservative can see on a single chart (that I provide) how they would be insane ever to trust a republican with a burnt match.

Ah, but PrezDon screamed that all favorable statistics under Obama were lies... but now that the momentum on jobs is continuing... it's all real!  
The ultimate answer to government is useless: Evonomics chose my essay as ideal to cap off a tumultuous year, and to welcome one that might be much better. That is, if we choose to remember where all our good stuff came from. It came from a civilization that (once) encouraged negotiation based on facts. One that benefited from educating millions. One that developed the fantastic tool known as science.
One of you wrote in to comment about how intense public reaction stopped Paul Ryan’s reavers from: 1- neutering the Congressional Ethics Office, 2- rushing Trump’s confirmations before ethics reports come in, and 3- canceling the ACA before a new health plan is ready.  Sayeth Stefan: “Calling and emailing your representative and senators WORKS.  You look up their contact information here. 
And if you want to get involved in organized resistance, you read the Indivisible guide and join one of their local groups.”

And yet, while I will write letters and even sometimes march... that is not how we'll win.  It's yummy and satisfying, but only entrenches civil war. This sumo is what they want. It's necessary, but if we only do sumo, we lose.

Victory will only come via Judo.
== The expert on despotism ==
Populism and Totalitarianism: Roger Berkowitz Sheds light on probably the greatest expert on despotic regimes, Hannah Arendt. In her chapter on “The Totalitarian Movement” in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt notes that the leaders of movements are marked by their “extreme contempt for facts as such.” The reason for this contempt for facts is that the world is complicated and uncertain. For the masses of people who are suffering dislocation, instability, and meaninglessness in their lives, “movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself; in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations.”
The great danger in all movements is that they can have no firm goal; as movements, they continually need to stir up their supporters who drive them forward. If any goal is met, a new one must be contrived. So movements are motivated less by a firm end than by a promise to fulfill a deep spiritual need. That is why movements mobilize masses who are longing for a “completely consistent, comprehensible, and predictable world.” There is a “desire to escape from reality because in [the mass of the people’s] essential homelessness they can no longer bear its accidental, incomprehensible aspects…
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

The Big Idea: Cat Sparks

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 03/07/2017 - 09:00
In today’s Big Idea for her novel Lotus Blue, Australian author Cat Sparks talks about the enduring power of stupidity, and what it takes to save the world from it… or not. CAT SPARKS: I’ve been a fan of science fiction – in particular, post-apocalyptic narratives – since I was a child. Unsurprising that I eventually […]

Which crisis will we face next?

Contrary Brin - Mon, 03/06/2017 - 14:45
All right, here is the danger I fear most right now. The heads of four world powers desperately fear democracy in their own nations. All four want to trigger war between the United States and Iran.

A while back, I did a round-up regarding international affairs and their calamitous bungling, in recent weeks. But I left you with the impression that war with Iran might happen because of “stumbling,” as described here in The Atlantic. But in fact, things are far worse. It appears that a confluence of pivotal world leaders want  this to happen. 

Are these four nations all enemies of the U.S.? Heck no. One of them is an “ally” - Saudi Arabia. Another is best pals with our president - Russia’s Putin regime. The other two may shock you. They are the United States and Iran.
Both Donald Trump and the Iranian mullahs know that time is not on their side. Their people tire of them, daily. Hence, both of them try pumping up support through fear — of “terrorism” or “Satanic American meddling.” 

But eight years of almost-perfect safety, under Obama, has made paranoiac fear very hard to push, outside their fanatical base. Both Trump and the mullahs would benefit - domestically - from some kind of crisis — war, or a “Reichstag fire” — to reverse their slide.
The Saudi position is even simpler — and more shortsighted. They rightfully fear the rise of a Shia empire, arcing through Syria and Iraq and Iran to Bahrain and their own non-Sunni coast. But they believe rattling sabers and even hurling bombs will prevent this, even though such things have only strengthened the Ayatollahs, every single time. And in the event of a major conflict, the Persian regime will just cling for protection to their next door neighbor — nuclear armed Russia, sealing their nascent alliance.
Hence, of the four, the only one wanting an Iran-U.S. War for clever reasons is, of course, Vladimir Putin.  And well, we all know about his puppet strings to you-know-who.
Find all this implausible? Look at the foreign affairs team appointed by Trump, from Tillerson and Bannon on down. Every single one of them has called for confrontation with Iran, which would only undercut the democracy movements  among Tehran’s rising middle class. There are no exceptions. Every… single… one of Trump’s people have spoken glowingly of struggle with “Iran,” ignoring the fact that a majority of its people want to join the modern world.

Of course there is a final ingredient -- removing Iranian oil from world supply would instantly boost prices for... well, guess whom.
You can see this in the recent Travel Ban, which fiercely clamped on not just Iran (which - despite a lot of noise - has done us very little tangible harm, since 1980) but also our supposed best Shia ally — Iraq.  Moreover, there was word recently that the Trump Administration wanted to fire at an Iranian military skiff near Yemen, but was stopped by cooler heads. Only, what if the mullahs order more skiffs to charge ever closer? How long before we see some sort of Gulf of Tonkin incident, that serves the interest of both sets of rulers?

And no, forget this ramping up into something truly conflagration-level. Sure, Trump and Putin might like that, for their own reasons.  (Trump because he is a Republican, and Republicans like gaudy styles of war.

But that is where both the mullahs and the Saudi royals might balk. Certainly the Israelis, who know that Tehran already has a bomb. And they know where it's aimed.
== Which battle will Republicans choose? ==
A House committee voted on Tuesday to eliminate an independent election commission charged with helping states improve their voting systems as President Donald Trump erroneously claims widespread voter fraud cost him the popular vote. Let's be clear on this.  The EAC is the only force currently thwarting efforts to rig every voting machine in red states. (Blue states nearly all have paper ballot receipts that can be audited, limiting cheating.) 

There is no other conceivable reason to eliminate a voting-fraud-preventing agency that costs next to nothing, in a year when everyone is screaming about "voter fraud." The reason is simple.  The GOP intends to do even more election fraud.  It is a matter of survival.
Meanwhile, the president endorsed civil asset forfeiture, which lets police seize even innocent people’s property.  Hey libertarians!  Add this to the one hundred ways that Republicans are vastly, vastly worse than democrats for freedom. And any libertarian who chooses the GOP as his "hold my nose" choice or lesser of two weevils, is an utter dunce and traitor to Adam Smith.

== AH, hate Obamacare much? ==
"For seven years, opponents of the Affordable Care Act vowed to make its repeal their top concern, warning that the law would turn America overnight into a socialist dystopia. Now these opponents have unfettered control of the government and they aren’t even talking about repealing," reports Dana Millbank in The Washington Post

Seriously? Seven years railing it was work of satan. (In fact Obama crafted it after Romney-care/Heritage Care and the GOP's own platform, hoping they'd react with gratitude.) Seven years screeching and demanding immediate cancelation and replacement. Seven years they could have offered an alternative! Seven years you dopes have swallowed this koolaid...
... and now the max they are talking about is (1) tweaking a few fixes the dems were eager to negotiate, and (2) changing a lot of the names of things! Renaming the program and its parts. And you dopes will swallow that. You'll swallow anything you're told.
BTW... see here why GOPpers actually think that names matter more than substance.
== Disturbing Miscellany ==

Hayley Miller reports that despite the Trump administration’s renewed focus on fossil fuels, a new Pew poll says two-thirds of Americans favor a path to a renewable energy future. Writing from Hong Kong, Li Jing reports that Chinese officials say they are prepared “to take a leadership role” in defending the Paris climate accord no matter what the new Trump administration decides to do.  
Combat readiness — I've long pointed out that it plummeted for the US military under both Bushes and raised up to almost 100% under Clinton and Obama. One member of this blog community reported: "There are elaborate systems that track readiness: SORTS and DRRS.  When I was reporting for my unit, it was on a classified system, and we would evaluate our ability to conduct our mission vs our 'Designed Operational Capability (DOC) statement'...usually we had minimum number of qualified and current personnel and mission capable equipment.  If we were good to go, we were "C1" if not, we might be marginal or some degradation "C2", but always tried to avoid not mission capable "C3" or worse C4."

 Definitions: Department of Defense Readiness Reporting System (DRRS), improved upon by Status of Resources and Training System (SORTS).
Candidate Donald Trump was a big fan of leaks, especially when they targeted Hillary Clinton and reports of her deleted emails.  "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," Trump said last July in Florida. "I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press."  

Now in the White House less than a month, President Trump is far less enthusiastic about leaks in general, and those involving Russia in particular.
Is Ohio Governor John Kasich gearing up for a primary run against Donald Trump in 2020, as this article suggests?  Or is something more immediate and bold afoot?  Someone report here if you notice Kasich meeting with McCain, Murkowski, Portman, Collins, Graham and others.  It’s too soon. But something bigger may be back-burner simmering.
Evan McMullen tried, hard, to help the folk of Utah to spurn the recent collapse of American conservatism. Had they listened, they might have escaped direct, shared responsibility for this calamity, instead of lining up with the most opposite-to-Jesus set of leaders America has ever seen. Well, McMullen and his minority of followers continue to stand up. They might seed a new American conservatism – an adult kind – to rise from the coming ashes.Trump makes false statements about U.S. murder rate to sheriffs’ group. The president claimed the country’s murder rate is the highest it’s been in 45 to 47 years. But the rate actually is almost at its lowest point, according to the FBI.  You who are complicit and making excuses for this.  You are flirting with madness and riding a rabid tiger.
Meanwhile (same day) -- Open-carry advocates walked into a police station with a loaded rifle. Officers were not amused. Seriously, after declaring open war on the US Military and Intelligence officer corps, now the alt-right is doing everything in its power to bully police.  Seriously? You had those conservative-by-personality clades safely republican, some years ago.  Now the cops & spooks and generals are fleeing, like every single other knowledge and fact-based profession.
‘“I’m a Leninist,” Bannon proudly proclaimed.’  So goes the anecdote told by Ronald Radosh on The Daily Beast, about President Donald Trump’s Rasputin. ‘“Lenin,” he answered, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Bannon was employing Lenin’s strategy for Tea Party populist goals. He included in that group the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as the traditional conservative press.’
== North vs South ==
Having a blog community can be handy.  One of my commenters (and I have the best)  went and appraised how many cabinet members recent presidents have chosen from states on which side of the Civil War.
For comparison: Obama's initial cabinet:      3 Westerners, 1 Confederate, 10 Unionists. G.W. Bush's initial cabinet: 1 Westerner, 5 Confederate, 9 Unionists.Clinton's initial cabinet:       2 Westerners, 6 Confederates, 6 Unionists.Bush the Elder's cabinet:   3 Westerners, 4 Confederates, 7 Unionists.Reagan's initial cabinet:    2 Westerners, 1 Confederate, 10 Unionists.Carter's initial cabinet:      2 Westerners, 4 Confederates, 7 Unionists.(skipping Ford as he inherited the cabinet of:)Nixon's initial cabinet:      3 Westerners, 1 Confederate, 8 Unionists.
Reagan’s was the most tilted in favor of the Union, followed by Obama. 

Trump’s is by-far the most tilted toward former Confederate states.
See Trump’s cabinet, with C for confederate state, U for union state, W for western state (not admitted in 1865):
C: TX (SecState)U: NY (SecTreas)W: WA (SecDef)C: AL (AttyGen)W: MT (SecInt)C: GA (SecAg)C: FL (SecComm)C: TN (SecLabor)C: GA (SecHHS)C: FL (SecHUD)C: KY (SecTrans)C: TX (SecEnergy)U: MI (SecEd)U: PA (SecVA)U: MA (SecHS)
3 Westerners (states not admitted during the War)4 Union9 Confederate States
2016 estimates (Census Bureau):Current population of today’s Confederacy: 113 millionCurrent population of the West: 33.5 millionCurrent population of the Union: 177 millionTotal population of the United States: 323.5 million
Probability that a randomly chosen Cabinet member would be from:* the Union: (177/323.5) = 54.7%* the Confederacy: (113/323.5) = 34.9%* the West: (33.5/323.5) = 10.3%
Probability that a randomly chosen Cabinet would contain:4 or fewer Union denizens: CDF(binomial, 15, 0.547, 4) = 2.7% 9 or more Confederate denizens: 1 - CDF(binomial, 15, 0.349, 9) = 1.2%
Conclusion: There is a statistically significant bias against the Union and in favor of the Confederacy in choices for Cabinet members. 
Of course there are quibbles.  Indiana long ago stopped being for the Union and Virginia is ditching Dixie. Many Western states are confederate hotbeds.  Still….
== Ask... Demand ... they define when America was Great! ==

The struggle for our civilization will be a long and complicated one, especially as our greatest weapons – facts – have been undermined with clever - though ancient - appeals to tribalism. It appears we shall have to slog through refutation after refutation. 
Ironically, you can refute the current “everybody knows that” poisons with even stronger things that “everybody knows.”
Take the nostrum: “Make America Great Again.” I do not recall even a single Democratic pol, or sage pundit, or reporter ever asking – even once – “WHEN was America’s iconic moment of greatness?”
Of course one reflexive answer is obvious – the halcyon 1950s of “Happy Days.” Only notice that it’s never actually said, in order to avoid the unfavorable comparisons that I make here:  Was 1957 America Better Than Today?  
In fact, you get nowhere by denigrating the 1950s.  

What’s vastly more effective is to lead these nostalgic folks out onto a limb, getting them to express admiration for the “Greatest Generation” that endured a depression, crushed Hitler, contained Stalinism, went to the Moon, spanned the continent with infrastructure and universities, and built a market economy so strong and rich that we could then afford to take on a myriad old sins, like poverty, racism, sexism and planetary neglect.
Do the Greatest Generationers deserve our gratitude and respect? Sure! Might they have been better and greater than their boomer children? Well, sure… maybe… though that insults them as having been poor parents.  Still, yes, those men and women of the Greatest Generation truly were great! 
Only, didn’t they achieve all those mighty things at high tax rates on the rich? And with fierce regulation of banks and monopolies?
Weren’t all those mighty accomplishments of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s achieved with strong labor unions? With intense national respect for teachers and scientists? Wasn’t that when the most trusted American was a journalist (Edward R. Murrow, followed by Walter Cronkite), the most admired was a scientist (Jonas Salk), and the most beloved – by far – was Franklin Delano Roosevelt?
Given that not a single promise ever made by Supply Side Economics ever once came true, is the prescription for making America Great again truly to reverse every single thing that the Greatest generation did and believed in? 
Hey, just askin’
 == Wrapping up...==
Okay, some tactics should be beneath us. Still, one can get a chuckle out of this site that will connect you by phone to some Trump business venture, around the world, so you can do what foreign leaders and oligarchs already can do… talk policy through the back door of DT’s businesses.  
According to a classified FBI counterterrorism policy guide obtained by The Intercept, “white supremacists and other domestic extremists” have been joining law enforcement agencies across the United States.
Counter-factual drivel abounds: "Unlike his predecessors, Trump is serious about winning. To do so, he is even willing to take the radical step of accepting Israel as an ally." See where I long ago discussed how Republicans and Democrats wage war.
The Turkish Parliament passed constitutional amendments last weekend that could allow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to amass unprecedented power. 
“Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South." 
-- Sam Houston, denouncing the Texas convention’s decision to secede, in 1861.
-->. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

Facing a future of technologic wonders: Artificial Intelligence

Contrary Brin - Sat, 03/04/2017 - 13:56
Don't be demoralized; we've faced waves of anti-science mania before. Today, let's assume we decide to resume being a boldly confident, ever-ambitious, scientific and technological civilization, in which children believe they can be better than their parents... but parents make that goal hard to achieve, in the best way, because we're improving too!

Okay then, consider some innovations that will change the world: Artificial intelligence (AI), hyperimaging, macroscopes and smart sensors are some of the biggest innovations that will help change our lives within five years. 

Take super-vision (giving us all real time access to vast swathes of spectrum), democratized access and tools to analyze Big Data, early disease detection, and advanced chemical sensors letting us sniff everything from pollutants to pheromones. And all of it in our phones.
Credit: ForbesForbes offers an exploration of the Top Ten Hottest Artificial Intelligence Technologies, including machine learning platforms, deep learning platforms, natural language generation, biometrics, text analytics, speech recognition, and decision management, among others. The chart (shown here) compares the anticipated trajectories toward progress on each of these fronts.

One measure of our progress toward AI is... poker, one of the hardest games to master, for it requires extensive game theory, and decision-making in the face of uncertainty.

The Great A.I. Awakening: Gideon Lewis-Kraus offers up an insightful exploration of one branch of Artificial Intelligence -- the blossoming field of machine learning via evolving neural networks -- by showing us how Google Brain completely transformed the field of Language Translation in 2017. Articles like this one are why the new president had better be wrong about the "failed" New York Times.

AI may be key to 'future proofing' our power grid, monitoring smart meters and sensors, ensuring resilience and the ability to deal with changing demand -- or the occasional crisis. 

AI will also revolutionize healthcare, improving the accuracy of diagnoses and recommending treatments. See how IBM Watson is advancing cancer care. AI can now identify skin cancer as well as a trained doctor. 

Oh, but what about our dark-side fears? Members of the European Parliament have sought to require that developers of robots both explore what kinds of rights the most advanced versions might earn and provide “kill switch” capability to prevent machine beings from harming humans. A capsule view of our society’s lovely ambivalence, wanting to be simultaneously ethical, successful and safe. 
As we head into our robotic future... John Markoff's new book: Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground between Humans and Robots, considers some of the tough issues we will face in integrating these developing synthetic beings into our daily lives. An issue also explored by James Barrat in Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era.

(BTW I was at Caltech and took a class with Richard Brautigan, when he was a visiting lecturer and wrote his great poem "Machines of Loving Grace.")
Is AI ready for prime time? I'm sure most of you have seen the buzz around a bizarre "conversation" between two Google Home units. It's okay. This will be why the last few humans will be kept around. To talk to each other while AIs laugh! In fact, right now, at this moment, they might be tracking your eye movements as you read... 
Along similar lines, we just attended a performance of the play Marjorie Prime, which touchingly strokes the poignancy of creating AI shadow duplicates of lost loved ones. The upcoming film, starring John Hamm and Tim Robbins, will likely add gunfire, alas.  Still, maybe it will be more like the lovely film Her.

== How do we balance technology with human needs? ==

Here's a deeply disturbing tale about how we may be way over-reliant upon the digital age, which might be wiped clear of knowledge at any moment.  In Vernor Vinge's near-future science fiction novel Rainbows End, the librarians at UCSD's Geisel Library put the entire book collection through a glorified wood chipper in order to digitize them. But at least in Rainbows End they saved the content of the books. This ... on the other hand, came from one commenter:  “Over the summer, workmen removed most of the remaining books from our Science and Engineering Library at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Roughly 80,000 books, worth between $2 - $6 million were destroyed or shipped off campus to distant storage facilities.”  Yipe.

How will technology further fully integrate into our world... and utterly transform our daily lives? The Fourth Transformation: How Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence Changes Everything, by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel provides pentrating insight into the overwhelming changes ahead for business and commerce, as well as education, entertainment and personal interactions. 

Amazon, Google, Facebook, IBM and Microsoft have joined to establish Silicon Valley's new Partnership on AI to examine the ethics of Artificial Intelligence and ensure the trustworthiness and reliability of AI technologies.

In what could have been the biggest news in this roundup: at the Beneficial AI 2017 conference, January in Asilomar, California, 100+ AI researchers sought to formulate principles that might help to keep artificial intelligences benign and beneficial.  A good start… 

...though at a glance I can tell the statement is missing several elements, alas.  Their role model -- in 1975, the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA was held to discuss potential biohazards and regulation of emerging biotechnology. The best-practices recommendations that emerged then provided important guidance to generations of researchers, lowering risk while not impeding research. The conference on AI offered guidance that seems too abstract and gap-ridden, alack.
A very long but rewarding essay by one of Bell Labs’ finest, about what it takes to be truly creative and productive… at least in some industry where inventiveness must be pragmatic and productive, blending individual inspiration and ambition with teamwork and good leadership….
… of the sort that made the U.S. the center of world productivity and progress… til the rise of a new confederacy.

== And yes, it comes around to politics ==

You thought I could do a science roundup without mentioning the War on Science?  How, when science itself - along with every single profession that deals in factual knowledge - is under direct attack?

For example, denialist cultists have long spurned expert advice on Climate Change. "We need more data before deciding what to do!" or "The jury is still out!" While simultaneously eliminating satellites , instruments and data that could reinforce the overwhelming evidence of our own eye. But at least under the Bushites, science was sabotaged less spectacularly and openly. 

Now all pretense is dropped, as the Trumpists slash NOAA and every other agency doing climate research, while ordering NASA never again to look downward at our home planet.  
Their solution is that of a 3 year old: "If we don't look at it, the problem doesn't exist!"
The victim is no longer science. It is your children.
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

Outta Here

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 03/03/2017 - 13:00
About to get on a plane to go to where I will get on a boat to be with a couple thousand other nerds. Not planning to be on the Internet whilst at sea. Definitely not reading the news. Please don’t blow up the planet while I’m away. Most times I’ve said that before it was […]

The Big Idea: Jack Cheng

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 03/03/2017 - 08:37
As someone who knows the joy of naming a character after a particular astronomer and popularizer of science, I’m delighted that Jack Cheng continues in this tradition with his novel See You in the Cosmos. In his Big Idea, Cheng talks about how our mutual brain crush inspired his story. JACK CHENG: I remember the exact […]

New Books and ARCs

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 03/02/2017 - 18:26
I’ve got a super-sized stack of new books and ARCs for today, because apparently March is like that. There’s some fabulous stuff in here — what grabs you? Tell us in the comments!
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