I frequently preface and postscript posts where I talk about politics, ethics, religion, philosophy, or other touchy things with the categorical statement “I’m interested in the discussion/conversation. My opinion doesn’t matter.”
The last couple weeks have reminded me of just how odd that sounds in our current cultural context, and it occurs to me that many of you reading might find that orientation quaint, futile, or somewhat daft.
So, by way of explanation, I invite you to take a look at one of the better TED talks I’ve seen in a long time, and then continue on from there, if you dare, and put yourself through the related free course that the speaker offers to everyone. You’ll find the TED talk embedded here:
And now, if you dare, here’s the first episode in Sandel’s free Harvard course on ethics, morality, and justice. You’ll find it very accessible and rich with student interaction (just as the TED Talk was). I highly recommend it:
If you envision science-fictiony science projects as children that come in generations, then the generation that gave birth to SETI is a pretty impressive generation indeed. The minds behind it are contemporary with (and sometimes, identical to) the minds that came up with ways to find black holes, with nanotechnology, with asteroid mining, with AI, with digital communications, and with dozens of other technologies we live with every day.
As aspiration, SETI is wondrous. I love it. Can’t get enough of it, in fact. And you can’t find a better spokesman for a fringey-science area than Seth Shostack, who is a seriously grounded guy and a major mensch (and a pleasure to listen to). And it’s predicated on things like The Drake Equation, and on the grandest notion in all of science (and science fiction): That the universe might just be teeming with intelligent life, and no matter how far we grow, an infinite horizon will still lie before us.
But as science? It’s kind of like that kid in your first grade class who looked promising, was ultra-cute and really smart, and then wound up sort of lazing through life living in his parent’s garage and working on his guitar licks hoping he’ll be the next Slash. SETI hasn’t accomplished much. A few promising (and unreplicated) data points aside, they haven’t found anything yet.
This post contains language you might not want your boss to read over your shoulder. It’s a comparative taxonomy of two subspecies of four-letter excrement. You have been warned. Continue reading ‘On Equine Excrement’
By popular request, here are the Rules of Scotch, as defined in Down From Ten. According to Carol in the book a good scotch:
1) Must be unpolluted (served neat–no water or ice)
2) It must be individualistic (single malt only–no blended scotch)
3) Must be bold (i.e. distinctive flavor character)
4) Must be as mature as you can possibly afford, and under no circumstances may it be aged fewer than 12 years.
5) Follow these rules, and you will never have an unpleasant experience, except through overindulgence.
Of course, in the book, the entire thing is couched in an elaborate and highly disturbing dirty joke which makes it much, much more memorable.
Stripped of the joke, though, they are a good guide for choosing good scotches in the absence of other evidence. More advanced Scotch drinkers know that there are some spectacular 10-years out there, but there are also some really awful ones. The same is true for blended scotch–some of them are wonderful, most are mediocre, and a few are god-awful. 12-years and up, single-malt with a good sense of itself is the most reliable way to go.
If you’re not the kind of obsessive geek I am, you might have missed that yesterday the first major accomplishment in de novo life extension through gene therapy got published. This project has been going on for a while, but up until yesterday, all therapies and attempted engineering have either caused cancer or other degenerative diseases, or just flat not worked in any significant way that’s applicable to humans, because they relied on flipping genetic switches that evolution flipped for us millions of years ago. Now, though, a one-shot gene therapy has been discovered that that successfully increases life-span and health-span by 13-25% in adult mice, and it’s a kind of therapy that humans can actually benefit from (i.e. it does something that our biology doesn’t already do for us).
Reading the (above linked) article late last night got me thinking along lines I’ve posted on before. We’ve all started saying things like “we’re living in the future” because we’ve now got toys that look (and sometimes act) like tricorders, and we have video conferencing and Internet access and other cool stuff, but the world around us often feels quite prosaic, if tumultuous and threatening. And, really, most of the stuff we look at as “new and shiny” are incremental, rather than revolutionary, improvements. They’re welcome and they’re fun, but do they really change the game all that much?
Well, last night I made a list of revolutionary developments in technology (and its applications), business, and science in the last four years. Some look minor, others are hard to wrap one’s head around. In no particular order, here they are: Artificial Life — life forms invented from scratch by humans. One of the current application projects involves making biological computers.
DuPont begins the process of transitioning from petrochemicals to bio-engineered plastics and chemicals — This is one of a handful of big things that needs to happen to end the fossil fuel era. Details scattered throughout this lecture.
Asteroid mining — Now open for business. A moderate asteroid contains over a trillion dollars worth of Iron, Nickel, Gold, Platinum, Titanium, and Rare Earth elements (which won’t be rare once the payloads start arriving). The maturation of this industry means 1) Serious reductions in the costs of spaceflight (due to ice extraction and the creation of orbital fuel stations, thus reducing the water and fuel spacecraft have to carry out of the gravity well), 2) The abandonment of terrestrial mines for everything but coal, salt, and similar minerals (no more open-pit mines and their environmental, economic, and human costs), 3) The radical increase in the material wealth of the entire planet as the materials that our everyday tools and luxuries are made of plummet in price, opening up new opportunities for people all over the world to invent new things with materials previously available only to the very wealthy, 4) A serious reduction in greenhouse gasses and demand for coal as smelting and refinement are carried out in space (better and cheaper) instead of on earth, 5) As a side-effect, the creation of an orbital power generation infrastructure that can create surplus electricity (mostly solar) for sale back to Terrestrial markets.
The Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, the world’s most advanced ground car, the research for which is already spawning revolutionary changes to the world’s automotive industry, to the advantage of both consumers and the health of the environment, such as the following item:
The Volkswagen XL1 — A ~300 Miles-Per-Gallon car that hits the market in Britain late this year. Initially planned as a limited test marketing, the next decade will see more and more of this kind of thing, even if the XL1 doesn’t achieve high-volume production status.
This is just what I could come up with off the top of my head. It doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what I’ve seen and read about in the last four years. It’s gonna be socially uncomfortable dealing with the move to abundance materially, socially, and in terms of lifespan, but holy shit, the future snuck in the back door while we were all worried about mortgages.
I spend my life cultivating and exploring questions at all levels from the inane to the putatively profound. Part of my job is asking questions–in fact, if you squint hard enough and look through enough lenses, you will be able to find a question or cluster of them behind every story I write.
As I prep to tackle the next round of The Antithesis Progression and another pair of SF novels later this year, I’m having fun wrestling with some biggies. Long story short, I thought it would be fun to share some of them with you guys, partly for the fun of the conversation, and partly to give you a peek behind the curtain for those of you who are interested in seeing the process that begins with a question and ends with a story or a novel.
So, to kick it off, here’s my nomination for one of the biggest questions anyone has ever asked.
“Where is everybody?”
Biggest question…seems kind of a grand claim, but I’m going to go a step further: I think it might be the single most terrifying, and the single most exciting, question anyone has ever thought to ask.
To illustrate why, I’ll give you a little context. This is the question that a man named Enrico Fermi asked when he turned his radio telescope at the heavens to listen in on television and radio broadcasts from alien civilisations, and found only static.
The universe is a big place. If carbon chemistry is common (as it seems to be), and if life bootstraps really easily, (which is now virtually certain), then in a big universe there should be at least some other folks out there who are building civilizations, and since all civilization is defined by energy use, they should be making some noise.
So…where is everybody?
It only took humans one generation between the invention of the radio (the ability to make cosmic noise) and the nuclear bomb (the ability to silence that noise forever, without reprieve). What if everybody eventually, inevitably, succumbs to self-destruction? Terrifying, isn’t it?
On the other hand, what if we’re the first? What if we are truly alone? This one’s terrifying too, but it sure is exciting–there’s a lot of universe out there that’s not being used, and oh, the places we’ll go!
But there are other answers, and some of them are very intriguing. Certainly, we haven’t figured out all the potential answers yet. I’ve got some ideas that I’m exploring in projects I’m currently working on, I’ve even got a few opinions.
It is a big question, though, maybe one of the biggest. Because whatever the answer is, it will forever define our relationship with the universe around us, and will profoundly affect the way our civilization unfolds as it winds out into the solar system and beyond.
Read more about this question here, then tell me…What do you think about this question?
In the great search for other earth-like planets, things have oscillated between encouraging and downright weird. So few of them seem rocky at all–mostly just gas-giants–but we’ve assumed that it’s just because the detection methods we’ve been using (gravitational wobble) are biased toward finding gas giants in close orbit.
Because this one deals a lot with the law again, the usual disclaimers apply: I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. This is one man’s opinion on how business is done. Always consult a qualified legal professional when seeking legal advice.
It’s come to my attention that in some of my business posts I’ve inadvertently fed an unspoken, and erroneous, business assumption shared by many people in the arts (and, frankly, most people in society at large). It goes something like this:
“Corporations are all-powerful. They have bigger lawyers than you do. You’ll never find a lawyer to take your case if one rips you off, so you’re just going to have to roll with it if your record label cooks the books, your movie studio subjects you to creative bookkeeping, or your publishing house pads their returns. You’re only the talent–you should expect to be the victim. The talent always loses.”
In other words, you can’t fight City Hall.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a con. You CAN fight City Hall. And you can win. But you have to be savvy.
First Things First
When I say things like “You don’t want to be a test case,” as I did in my chapter on the Peggy Lee decision and its implications for artist contracts everywhere, it’s easy to hear that as reinforcing the erroneous idea I’ve delineated above–an impression for which I owe some of you an apology. It’s true that in untested areas of law, a dispute on a point that’s not entirely clear is a test case, by definition, and that these kinds of cases are a pain in the ass. It’s also true that these kinds of cases are, by their nature, uncertain in their outcome. However, by stating that being a test case is a pain, I don’t mean to advocate fear of lawsuits, or a strategy of folding before parties who have bigger lawyers than you do. Not at all.
What I meant to advocate, and what that chapter will more clearly advocate when these chapters are edited and collected in a book, is a basic principle which I’ll call “Defensive Business.”
“Defensive Business” has its analog in “Defensive Driving” rather than in “paranoia” or “social defensiveness.” You don’t have to be paranoid or live in fear to practice defensive business–in fact, paranoia will usually lead you to rash behavior that can get you into trouble.
You hear a lot of talk of “discovery writers” and “outliners” in the writing world. The “pantsers” and the “plotters,” respectively. It’s true that there are a lot of people that fall into both categories–including many of my friends–and human nature loves dichotomies, but I’ve never fit comfortably either, and I suspect I’m not alone.
Last night, I had occasion to have a long conversation with a new writer who’s vexed and confused by the options before him when it comes to writing process, and saying “you have to find your own way” only left him more despondent. I know that look–I’ve been there many times when faced with a new field of endeavor with so many options that at once feel constraining and non-specific. So, in the hope of letting those new writers who don’t comfortably fit a category know that they’re not alone, I’m going to describe my method. Continue reading ‘Playing Jazz With Words’