The Science Fiction Community and Penguicon

There is a venerable saying with much truth to it that the golden age of science fiction is 14. And it was certainly golden for me at that age. I could imagine myself as Kimball Kinnison, fighting the Boskonian menace and making the universe safe for Civilization. And I certainly inherited the Baslim Reflex. People like Smith, Heinlein and Asimov helped to make me the man I am today, and I like that. I imbibed some good values that way.

But one of the things that Science Fiction does to an impressionable youth is give the idea that the future may be different. Heinlein in particular focused a lot on social change and how mores would shift over time. Reading about line marriages in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, or about the polyamorous nest in Stranger in a Strange Land had me question exactly what values I had about that, and even more so, why I had them. And I remember the idea in Space Cadet that you need to doubt received wisdom. So I questioned and doubted as I looked for the values I would stand for, all the while remembering that they might not be the values that the current society promoted.

Does that mean I rejected all of the current values? Not at all. I am very happily and monogamously married to a woman I adore, and and have adored for 39 years. I don’t think that is going to change. But I know some other people have different ideas in this community of Science Fiction, and as long as they don’t try to hurt me it comes under the heading of “none of my damn business” (a very Heinlein-esque value; he always derided the “Mrs. Grundy” types.) I am also firmly heterosexual, something else that is not likely to change, but I don’t get upset with people who have different preferences, again just so long as they don’t try to hurt me. Something I never gave much thought to in my younger days was transgendered people, but then I ended up knowing some, and that tends to alter your view a bit. And then there is Samuel R. Delany, a one-man wrecking crew for your inbuilt prejudices.

So to me Science Fiction was always about social change as much as about technological change. I think Science Fiction fans live in the future, and when I am at a Science fiction convention I always feel like I am with “my people”, the ones who also try to live in the future. Unfortunately, living in the future is not universally liked by all Science Fiction fans. I think some of them are like Francis Fukuyama, who famously wrote about the End of History. They think that a variety of questions have been answered for all time. Among these are:

1. Free Market Capitalism is the only possible economic system that can work.
2. Nationalism is the only way for people to experience freedom.
3. Equality of the sexes violates natural law. And by the way, there are only two sexes, and that is determined by chromosomes.

I suspect a certain amount of this comes from Social Darwinism in their thinking. And that is bad Darwinian thinking, as any good biologist can tell you. In biology, you cannot legitimately claim that there is a ladder of progress to evolution, such that each change in the organism makes it “better” in any sense. All you can say is that some organisms fit their environment well. And similarly, Nationalism and Capitalism are not better than other arrangements, just things that seemed suited to particular circumstances. A true Science Fiction fan should subject all of this to questioning, to Heinlein’s “doubt”. And the same thing goes for sexual identity and sexual practices, and indeed for any social arrangements. Science Fiction is about raising alternatives and seeing how they might work (or not; both cases are worthy of study).

So when someone says Science Fiction has to go back to some golden age in the past, I think that would be a betrayal of everything Science Fiction is. The only golden age is 14, and if you cannot find that 14-year-old sense of wonder any longer, I feel sorry for you. The Science Fiction community will, I hope, continue to live in the future. Anything else is betraying who we are.

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Activism 101

As someone who first got politically active in the 1960s as an anti-war activist, I have learned a few things about how to do this. And it starts with the observation that some amount of effort is required to have any chance of success. It doesn’t have to be as big as marching on Washington (fun though that may be) to get something useful done. For example, you can sometimes push a Congresscritter to do some good, and it can be done with a small effort.

What you need to always bear in mind is that in D.C. the first thing every politician cares about is re-election, and you can use that to your advantage. They will look for signs of what is important to their constituents, and that is where you come in. Messages to Senators and Representatives can, if there enough of them, influence their vote. In some cases, they will even go against the wishes of their PAC contributors if they see enough interest from constituents.

You do need to exert some effort, though, to be effective. Here are the ways you can do this, in increasing order of effectiveness:

  1.  E-mail a message – Most politicians have e-mail messaging, which may be a normal e-mail address, or may be a Web form. This is the easiest for you to do, but also the least effective precisely because it is so easy. If you literally have no other option, it is better than nothing, but if you can do better you should. We are assuming you want to be an activist, and that you do in fact care about this, right?
  2. Make a phone call – I have entered into my Contacts list on my phone the e-mail address, the Web site address, and phone numbers for both the Washington office and the local office for my Congressmember and both Senators. I also have the phone number in Lansing (my state capital) for my state Senator and state Representativc. That way I can when necessary phone them immediately about any issue. This is the best thing to do when time is of the essence and a mailed letter may not get there in time. However, many offices have a voice mail that screens calls, and the voice mail box frequently gets full and refuses to accept more messages. Today, for instance, one of my Senators had a full  voice-mail box. When that happens you can try two things: 1) If they have an option to speak to a staff member, try that; or 2) if the DC office is unreachable, call the local office. Pro-tip: Most pols are not, at this point, checking phone callers to see if they are constituents. So give it a try with some other pols outside of where you live.
  3. Write a letter – This is the best bang-for-the-buck solution, and has been ever since my anti-war days in the 1960s. It requires you to write the letter, put it in envelope, address it, put on a stamp, and mail it. And because it requires more effort, your politician will treat that a a signal that you are very serious. That is why it is the most effective. And you can learn some interesting things about your politicians. When I was a young fellow in Massachusetts, I learned that Senator Edward Kennedy really didn’t give a damn about letters from constituents. But Senator Edward Brooke (a Republican in a Democratic state) always replied with letter. Pro-Tip: don’t write a long, detailed analysis. Your politician won’t be reading any of the letters, they will just get a report from a staff member that tells them what the mail shows. So a two sentence letter is fine. And if you get a reply, that was also written by a staff member. You want personal service? Become a major campaign contributor. I don’t make that kind of money, sadly.

Now, these things are the ways ordinary citizens can influence politicians to do some good. And there is nothing that says you have to limit yourself to only one method. I like to hit them with a phone call right away, then write a letter when I get home. I buy a book of the First Class Forever stamps whenever I run low, and I have a box of inexpensive white #10 envelopes, available at any Office supply store. So I am ready at any time to make my voice heard. And while one letter or phone call may not seem like much, it is when the phone lines are jammed by outraged citizens and sacks of mail come pouring in that they take notice. We can all do our part there.

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Making a Revolution, 21st Century style

One of the big stories of 2016 has been the two outsider candidates, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. They aren’t all that much alike, as it turns out, except in that they diagnose a problem of elite politicians who are out-of-touch with “real Americans.” And there is some validity to that. Still, the fundamental question you would have to answer is how that can be changed.

I am old enough to remember the last time people in the U.S. tossed around the term “revolution” as a solution, which of course was the 1960s. The assassinations, the Vietnam war, the draft, and so on provoked this, but of course this was unrealistic. What actually happened was that the pendulum began to swing back to a more right-wing culture after a fairly long period of liberal ascendancy. This began with Nixon, grew under Reagan, and finally self-immolated with George W. Bush. This opened the door to another swing of the pendulum back towards liberalism (or as the kids say these days, progressivism) that almost got going under Bill Clinton, did really get going under Obama, and will continue under Hillary Clinton.

But change at the top is not how you make a revolution in the 21st Century. And that has been the weakness of the left in this country, and in particular of the young people who made up the Bernie Sanders forces this year. It is great to be inspired by a politician running for President. I get it. I was a McGovern volunteer in my very first Presidential election. And McGovern got the nomination, before being crushed by Nixon. I learned some valuable lessons from that campaign, not least that I should not judge the course of a Presidential election by what I see around me. I lived in the only state McGovern carried, but I was convinced he was going to win because everyone I knew was going to vote for him. But real change starts from the bottom, in your local communities. My cousin Jim, who is a city councilman in Beverly, Massachusetts, could probably give you an inside view, but I think a good way to understand this is with a sports metaphor. You need a good bench to mount a championship run. No baseball team is going to go far without a good bullpen. No football team will make it without depth. And in pretty much any sport you need a deep bench of quality players. Let’s stay with baseball for a moment. The players who will move up to become your bench are developed in the minor leagues, where they hone their skills, and the best of them eventually get called up to the majors. And that is what local politics does, it helps to develop the bench. In your local community there is probably a city council, a school board, a parks commission, and so on. Who are the people that are getting elected to these positions? Do you know? Do they represent your views?

This matters, because at some point the Mayor’s job will open up, a State Representative or State Senator will retire, and guess who will run for those positions? The very same people who started on the City Council, the School Board, or the Parks Commission. They have been building support in the community, collecting political “chits” from local people, and they can leverage that into a run for the higher office. Once they are there, the process repeats. They do the constituent service, they build political support, and eventually a seat in Congress or the Governor’s job opens up, and they are in position to do it again. Rinse, repeat. Do a good job, build your political base, and then you have a shot to move up again. A US Senate seat might open up. Rinse, repeat. And finally you get a shot at running for President. Bernie Sanders’ own history demonstrates this. He initially tried to run for Governor and US Senator in Vermont in the 1970s. And he lost! But then he ran for mayor of Burlington, Vermont in 1981, won that election, and was re-elected three times. Then he ran for U.S. Congress, won and ended up serving 8 terms. From there he ran for U.S. Senate in 2006, and was resoundingly re-elected in 2012 with 71% of the vote. If he had not served those four terms as mayor of Burlington, there would not have been any Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016.

If you don’t make sure there are good people entering the pipeline, you will never have good people to vote for at the highest level, it is as simple as that. At the very least, you should vote. That is how people get into office in this country. Even better is to vote intelligently. And as it happens it is not that hard these days. Most places will have a way to see the ballot before you go to vote. In Michigan, the Secretary of State has a Web site where you can see and print out a sample ballot. Then let Google be your friend. Most candidates will have a Web site these days, and you can get an idea of who is the best candidate in each race. And if you are serious about making a difference, look at doing a spot of volunteering or contributing a few bucks. Every campaign needs that kind of help.

And if you want more information on your state, here is a site for all 50 U.S. states with a series of videos, one per state, and each one is about 2 minutes long, that explains what you need to do. Registration deadlines are coming up, so you need to act, but it is not terribly hard. And really, if you say you want a revolution in this country, this is how you do it.

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YouTube Video Subscriptions

I recently had a conversation with Ken Fallon of Hacker Public Radio that resulted in me offering to discuss my YouTube video subscriptions. And since that is a good topic for Palain.com, I thought I would start here.

Although my wife and I have a Cable TV subscription, I have maintained I could give it up easily because so much of what I am interested in is online anyway. For many people that might mean Netflix or Hulu, but for me it means YouTube. This is the golden age of narrow-casting, as opposed to broadcasting, because YouTube gives so many creators the opportunity to find their own audience for things that don’t appeal to the masses. A television show needs to reach millions of people to be economically viable to advertisers who pay all of the production costs, but with the rise of services like Patreon a video series can be viable with just a few thousand viewers as long as they are willing to pay a small amount (often as little as $1 per month or per video) to support the creators. For less money than the salary of one Hollywood star, you can have an entire ecosystem of interesting videos. The ones I like might not appeal to you, of course, but that is the point. A thousand flowers can bloom in this environment.

Patreon

Patreon ( https://www.patreon.com/ ) is a subscription site that lets you pledge to support creators of content. You give them a credit card they can charge, and then make your pledges. You can pledge in a variety of ways, but for these videos I typically pledge either per month or per video. At the end of the month my credit card is charged, and Patreon sends me an itemized statement of what I have paid for. Now, none of these is behind a pay wall, so you could free ride, but I’m sure no one I know would do that. If I subscribe to a series I am willing to pay for it if they ask (some of them are advertising supported).

YouTube Subscriptions

When a video series is on YouTube you will see a button under the video that says “Subscribe”. Right now that does not do a whole lot other than build the stats for the creator, but for advertising-supported series that is a good thing. But one thing it does let you do is sign up to get an e-mail when a new episode is released. To activate this feature, log in to YouTube with your Google account, and on the left side go all the way down to the bottom and you will see a button to Manage Subscriptions. Click on that, and you will see that you can put a check-mark to get e-mail updates for any subscription. I like to do that, and put the e-mails in a folder in my Gmail. I can then delete the e-mail when I have watched the video.

Vlog Brothers

The brothers Hank and John Green have created a pretty good collection of videos. They started, as far as I can tell, by sending videos back and forth to each other (Vlog Brothers), and that continues. But then they got serious and created a convention called Vidcon (http://vidcon.com/) that showcases many of the video series creators and their work. YouTube then got the idea to promote an expansion of videos and provided money to support new work from folks like them. This lead to a group of videos under the heading Crash Course (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crash_Course_%28YouTube%29), which is not one series but a collection of them. The first ones were World History and Biology, and then they added American history, Literature, Ecology, Chemistry, Psychology, and so on. They also have a series of science-related videos under the general heading of SciShow (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SciShow). When the YouTube seed money ended, they switched to a crowd-funding model, and are currently on Patreon. They also partner with PBS Online for some of their series.

My favorite show from this group is Healthcare Triage. A doctor gives straight analysis based on actual studies, and explains which studies are more reliable and why. I guess I am a bit of a data geek, but that appeals to me. Plus, I have worked for a few hospitals in my career, and previously taught a little about healthcare economics.

Brady Haran

Brady Haran is a video producer originally from Australia who went to the UK, worked for the BBC for a period, and then decided to become independent. He has a fascinating group of video series that a lot of geeks would like:

  • Computerphile – about the history and underlying technology of computers. If you ever wanted to know about flip-flops, nand gates, and Acorn computers, this show has covered all of them.
  • Deep Sky Videos – All about astronomy, including a detailed look at the telescopes at the European Southern Observatory in Paranal, Chile.
  • Numberphile – All about mathematics, and the unusual numbers that pop up. What is the largest number described? They covered it.
  • Objectivity – A look at objects from the history of science, and in particular the collection of the Royal Society in England.
  • Periodic Videos – An award-winning series on Chemistry, demonstrating some fun experiments. Sir Martyn Poliakoff is the host.
  • Sixty Symbols – The world of advanced physics, this covers everything from Quantum Mechanics to Relativity to String Theory

Miscellaneous

In addition to the two big producers I looked at above, there are a lot of YouTube series that I love from the smaller producers. Here are some of them:

  • Alton Brown – First made famous as host and creator of Good Eats on the Food Network, Alton is known for scientific approach to cooking and food.
  • BBC Earth Unplugged – Science videos from the BBC
  • BrainCraft – The science of the brain, produced by PBS Digital
  • BrainStuff – How Stuff Works – How Stuff Works is another place that produces a number of video series, this one is science-related.
  • Candyrat Records – This label specializes in guitar music, and a number of my favorite people record for them. They very sensibly publish videos on YouTube to promote their artists, and I have purchased a number of CDs as a result.
  • Dan Carlin – Host of Hardcore History and Common Sense, two of the audio podcasts I subscribe to. On this channel is the occasional video.
  • FW Thinking – Mostly about the future and how it will be different.
  • How Stuff Works – More of a general knowledge show.
  • It’s OK To Be Smart – Another science show from PBS Digital.
  • Kurz Gezagt – One video a month on a science-related topic.
  • Mental Floss – Trivia!
  • Minute Earth and Minute Physics – Short science videos.
  • NASAeClips – Videos from NASA.
  • nature video – Science videos from nature magazine.
  • Physics Girl – Exploring physics with interesting experiments.
  • Piled Higher and Deeper (PhD Comics) – Science videos.
  • Science News – Science videos from Science News magazine
  • SpaceFrontierOrg – Occasional videos on space-related topics.
  • Takei’s Take – Yes, George Takei has a video channel. What’s not to love?
  • TheFrugalComputerGuy – How-to videos that are very good.
  • Veritasium – Another science-related series.
  • Vsauce – A quirky look at a number of odd topics. Hard to describe really.
  • Welcome to Night Vale – A video channel to go along with the audio podcast that everyone in the world should be listening to.

So it is obvious that I subscribe to a lot of science-related channels, but that is what I enjoy. With all of my subscriptions, I probably average 6-7 new videos per day that show up in my mailbox. But with so much content now available on YouTube the chances are that you will find lots of things you like, so give it a try.

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Review of Turing’s Cathedral

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital UniverseTuring’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George B. Dyson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is for someone who is interested in the the history of computing, and in particular the early days around WWII when many of the basics were set. Although the title references Turing, and he does receive some attention in this book, the focus is more on John von Neumann and the group at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University. And of course the author is the son of Freeman Dyson, who is a prominent scholar at IAS, and that may have helped in getting access to archival materials.

John von Neumann created the basic architecture of computers as they continue to this day, so the decisions he and his colleagues made still inform our use of computers. And along the way they created many techniques. One in particular that I was interested in was the technique of Monte Carlo simulation. As someone who has taught Statistics to college classes, I was familiar with this technique, but didn’t know the whole history. It was developed as a way to model, in a computer, the results of atomic bomb explosions. And it is clear from this book that the driving force in the development of computers at this time was nuclear explosions. But the book also looks that artificial life experiments and other excursions, even if they were not the main driver.

If you like this sort of thing, it is worth a read.

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Review: Welcome to Night Vale

I recently discovered this podcast, though it is so popular I imagine many people reading this already know all about it. Night Vale is a fictional town located in the desert somewhere in the Southwestern United States, and the podcast is presented as a community radio broadcast of the goings on. So the format is that of a small-town radio presenting all of the usual community news, such as the PTA meetings, actions of the city council, high school sports reports, and so on. But this is a town where all conspiracy theories are true! Some of the descriptions I have seen are:

  • Lake Wobegone as seen through the eyes of Stephen King
  • NPR meets The Mothman Propechies

I am enjoying this immensely, and I think you should check it out and see if you might enjoy it as well. Each show is around 25 minutes in length, and they are released twice a month.

The web site for this podcast is http://commonplacebooks.com/welcome-to-night-vale/

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Review of The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind

The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the MindThe Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind by Michio Kaku
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book, but then I like Michio Kaku in general so I was not surprised. He takes a look at the research on how the brain functions, and at the medical studies involved in tapping into the brain to do things like mentally control machines. The implications for assistance technology are pretty mind-blowing. From there he goes into whether it may be possible to upload a complete neuronal map into a computer, and what that might entail. Then he looks at beaming such a map via lasers to another star system as a form of interstellar travel. It is all very “science fiction”, but grounded in solid science. The BRAIN initiative from the Obama administration could make all of this come true sooner than you expect. I recommend highly.

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Turning Off Comments

It has gotten to the point where pretty much every comment I get is spam. I was manually moderating the comments, in addition to employing filters, but I don’t really see the point any longer, so I am turning off comments. If you are a real person you should be able to find me without any trouble.

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Review of Open Sources

Open SourcesOpen Sources by Chris DiBona
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is for people who like to go back and revisit the early days of Open Source. When this was written, Google didn’t even appear, Yahoo was the world’s #1 web site, and Netscape was the fresh-faced challenger upsetting the established computing order. Much of it involves long explanations of things like licenses that are probably well-known to people today. But it can be interesting to revisit this history, particularly if you were not paying that much attention when it first happened. For example, understanding what Cygnus was doing before it got bought by Red Hat can be enlightening, and now that some people want to get away from the GCC it may even be relevant. The book is a series of essays written by the participants, and explain arcana such as why we use RFC’s (and why are they called that, anyway?) For that reason, I would not call it a book to sit down read through cover-to-cover. This would be a great book to dip into when you had 20-30 minutes to spare, however, and didn’t want to start on a long novel.

There is a follow up volume called Open Sources 2.0 which I have started reading, but it also is one I dip into, so it may be some time before I finish it.

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Review of Zero Day

Zero DayZero Day by Mark Russinovich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mark Russinovich is the developer of the Sysinternals suite, and moved to Microsoft when his company was purchased by the Redmond Behemoth. And this matters because this is a techno-thriller where accuracy matters, at least to those of us who understand how this works. Hollywood thinks you can just type “Override’ on any green monochrome terminal and get instant access to any computer system. But Mark knows how things actually work, and it shows in this book. Everything in it is plausible and believable.

As you might infer from the title, the plot hinges on a deadly computer virus/malware that has no known “antidote” when first encountered. It has seriously bad effects on computer systems, and is responsible for multiple deaths because those systems control so much of of our infrastructure today. That is one of the things this book really brings home, how vulnerable we are to a properly crafted piece of code that can turn our systems against us.

But who is behind this malware? And how do they plan to benefit from this? That is what you need to read the book to find out, I don’t plan to give any spoilers.

This is part of series involving the main character, but it is the only one I have read so far.

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