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Science, Fiction, and points in between

Saturday 1 June 2002


§ They've found the water on Mars!
Scientists, as a rule, are not a giddy bunch. But evidence from the Mars Odyssey spacecraft of underground ice on Mars has astronomers tossing out descriptions like "stunning" and "amazing."

CNN, May 30, 2002


§ Cloning is good, says Katharine Mieszkowski, who advises "Get those dystopic nightmares about genetically enhanced clone armies out of your sci-fi addled brain..." before interviewing Gregory Stock, director of the UCLA Program on Medicine, Science and Technology, about his new book, Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future (Houghton Mifflin).
And that prospect doesn't frighten you? The sci-fi-ish one?

When I look at the world of the future I'm not so sure that it will be a place that I'll be entirely comfortable with, if I were alive. If I'm lucky enough to live long enough to see it, maybe I wouldn't be comfortable there. But that doesn't mean that our children are not going to be comfortable there.

I think that future humans are going to look back at this period now, and see it as a very, very primitive time. I think they're going to go: "My God, people used to live into their 70s, and then they died of horrible diseases at that young age, and children were just the problem of this random meeting of sperm and egg. This is really strange."

Salon, May 25, 2002


§ Here's The Economist worrying about mind control.
A public debate over the ethical limits to such neuroscience is long overdue. It may be hard to shift public attention away from genetics, which has so clearly shown its sinister side in the past. The spectre of eugenics, which reached its culmination in Nazi Germany, haunts both politicians and public. The fear that the ability to monitor and select for desirable characteristics will lead to the subjugation of the undesirable-or the merely unfashionable-is well-founded.


§ There aren't just more science fiction awards every year, there are more awards of all sorts, many with big cash prizes.
The number of international awards over $100,000 has shot up to 100 from about 25 in 1990, says Larry Tise, the president of the International Congress of Distinguished Awards.

Yet as big-money honors multiply, people in philanthropy have begun to question whether the large awards are an efficient use of resources or simply elaborate marketing gimmicks that siphon funds and energy from serious philanthropic work.

New York Times, May 25, 2002


§ Survey Says: Britons read fiction 11 minutes per day.
Distracted by television, the internet, newspapers and magazines, Britons are in fact spending only 11 minutes a day reading a work of fiction - less than they spend microwaving their dinners.

Add to that the fact that 40 per cent of the population never read books and a household is more likely to have two cars than two regular novel readers, and Britain's literary health no longer seems so rude.

The statistics are published today in the first national survey to gauge how much leisure time in 21st-century Britain is spent in the time-honoured activity of reading.

Independent, 27 May 2002


§ But then, there are some writers we just cannot read. Tom Bissell, in a long essay, wonders about whether writers improve as a reader grows older, the bad writers readers love and the great ones they hate, and the thrill of reading simply for pleasure.
Serious readers -- by that I mean readers who are given to Jacobinical passion, readers who hate and love and argue -- are, in crucial respects, looking for what one might as well call friends. This species of reader often evolves into that of the writer, and writers, I believe, tend to feel this intense, surrogate neediness for books much more than civilians. Thus it is always faintly painful to read of one favorite writer (Lawrence, in my case) disliking another favorite writer (Conrad, whose "Lord Jim" Lawrence dismissed as "snivel in a wet hanky"). At such moments, one feels as uniquely alone as when two beloved friends, meeting for the first time, despise each other -- as insignificant as a bit of cartilage between two gnashing bones.

Salon, May 28, 2002


§ Perhaps nowhere does literature reflect society more obviously than in kiddie-lit.
Consider this scenario, taken from a children's book: An 11-year-old girl is wandering the streets of New York. Her parents don't know where she is. She walks down alleys, climbs onto roofs, and actually breaks into strangers' houses. What is the likely fate for this child?

Well, it depends on when the book was written. In a contemporary book, she would certainly be about to learn, the hard way, the results of such dangerous behavior: She might be kidnapped, or threatened, or encounter bad boys or drugs. Maybe she would be removed from the home where she is so tragically unsupervised. But in 1964, she was Harriet M. Welsch, heroine of Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy. The note-taking she does in strangers' houses teaches her valuable lessons and constitutes the safest, happiest part of her life. Harriet the Spy would surely be unpublishable as a new book today.

Slate, May 29, 2002


Thursday 23 May 2002

§ Everyone is excited about scientist Stephen Wolfram's new book, modestly entitled A New Kind of Science. It's a 1280-page tome, published by Wolfram Media Inc., all about cellular automata.

Edward Rothstein in The New York Times, May 11:

[H]is claims surpass the most extravagant speculation. He has, he argues, discovered underlying principles that affect the development of everything from the human brain to the workings of the universe, requiring a revolutionary rethinking of physics, mathematics, biology and other sciences. He believes he has shown how the most complex processes in nature can arise out of elemental rules, how a wealth of diverse phenomena the infinite variety of snowflakes and the patterns on sea shells are generated from seemingly trivial origins.
David Appell in Salon, May 15:
The problem with traditional mathematics and physics is that it has of necessity restricted itself to simple cases that are "computationally reducible," systems such as a planet orbiting a star where mathematical analysis provides a simple equation describing the motion. But in other domains, such as predicting the weather, it has failed miserably.

Wolfram's new science -- a science largely devoid of equations -- demonstrates, he says, that there are many common systems whose behavior cannot be described except by explicit simulation on a computer. Most of the world, he asserts, is in fact computationally irreducible. The mathematical emperor does have clothes, but not much more than cotton skivvies and an undershirt with an unseemly spaghetti stain on the front.
Perhaps part of the attraction of the story is the romantic personal angle, the image of the lone wolf scientist, working in isolation, plotting to overthrow established wisdom. Steven Levy in Wired:
Not long after our dinner, which occurred in the spring of 1992, he became, in his own words, a "recluse." He moved, with the woman he had recently married (a mathematician), to the Chicago area and started a family. He rarely made the two-hour drive to Wolfram Research, his thriving software company. Instead, he put himself in a kind of voluntary house arrest, single-mindedly devoted to the completion of the book. "He dropped totally out of the scene in every sense of the word," says his friend Terrence Sejnowski, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute. "He hasn't published a word, he doesn't go to meetings. He's in a self-made isolation center." To maximize his concentration, Wolfram became nocturnal: He worked at night, when the world was asleep, and retired at 8 in the morning.
And Time Magazine, May 20.
Coupled with the fact that conventional equations can describe only the simplest natural phenomena (you can write an equation for the orbit of a single planet around the sun, for example, but not for an entire solar system, let alone a living cell), the success of his simple programs made Wolfram suspect that science has been heading in the wrong direction for the past 300 years or so. Instead of trying to write complicated equations for everything, he says, scientists should have been searching instead for the cellular automata that correspond to what they are observing.
This line of thought leads to the theory that [Levy again, page 6]
there is a single rule at the heart of everything - a single simple algorithm that, in effect, generates all the rules of physics and everything else ... Not only does a single measly rule account for everything, but if one day we actually see the rule, he predicts, we'll probably find it unimpressive. "One might expect," he writes, "that in the end there would be nothing special about the rule for our universe - just as there has turned out to be nothing special about our position in the solar system or the galaxy."
Levy has a shorter piece, pairing Wolfram with Dean Kamen, in the current Newsweek.


§ Doom and gloom about the publishing world, from Michael Cader.
There was one line of good news in the report: Americans will spend slightly more on adult and juvenile books during the next five years.

And several paragraphs of bad news: Books will cost more and fewer will be sold. "Total sales of trade units declined 6.4 percent in 2001," Cader pointed out. "Declines are predicted for 2002 and 2003, and with tiny growth forecast thereafter, the estimated number of books sold in 2006 is still predicted to be lower than the total sold last year."

Washington Post, May 13, 2002


§ The Harry Potter spell is wearing off Down-Under, too.
Despite Rowling's outstanding personal success, children's book sales in Potter's birthplace, Britain, have fallen for the fourth year in a row. In Australia, declining book sales overall since the introduction of the GST have skewed the picture, according to the Children's Book Council of Australia, but the pattern has no doubt been repeated.

The Age, May 19, 2002

A coalition of dedicated children, husbands and aspiring Jedis has combined to finally oust Harry Potter from the top 10 of the bestsellers list in Australia...

Sydney Morning Herald, May 16, 2002


§ David Shields, author of three books of fiction and three of nonfiction, wonders if (adult) fiction is irrelevant in contemporary society.
The Pulitzer Prize in Fiction was awarded this year to Richard Russo's "Empire Falls." Have I read it? No. Will I? No. I come not to bury Richard Russo, but to dispraise fiction, which has never seemed less central to the culture's sense of itself. ... I doubt very much that I'm the only person who is finding it more and more difficult to want to read or write novels.

San Francisco Chronicle, May 19, 2002


§ Judith Shulevitz doesn't think the "One Book, One City" reading programs will have their intended effect.
Even if the chosen book is great, I can't imagine a reader getting a thrill out of something officials have designated a tool of civic improvement unless he miraculously manages to wriggle free of that crushingly unsexy concept.

Despite what your high school English teacher may have told you, literature does not make us or our society better. To be seduced by fiction is to live at cross-purposes with most of the really important things in life. I've never entirely succumbed to a story without blowing off housework, neglecting social obligations and flubbing career-critical deadlines.
...

One Book, One City people believe that reading as a group will turn us into a unified body of productive citizens. That's a noble goal, I guess, and not all that different from what some cultural pundits hope for when they call for a return to a traditional curriculum. Our students need a common body of knowledge, they say; otherwise, we will not cohere as a culture.

What canon warriors often overlook, though, is that few of the books included on the usual lists actually espouse the Western values they're supposed to espouse. We're told to read the canon because it's the repository of our cultural heritage, which is broadly true in the sense that some of our forebears read some of these books on occasion. In the narrow sense, however, most writers now considered canonical wouldn't have recognized a Western idea if it bit them -- they considered themselves Greek or Hebrew or Christian, not Western, and bitterly opposed most of the other ideas now mushed together into the porridge pot that is our idealized past.

New York Times Book Review, May 19, 2002


§ Using probability theory to support belief in Jesus' resurrection?
Then, while his audience followed along on printed lecture notes, [Richard Swinburne, a professor of philosophy at Oxford University] plugged his numbers into a dense thicket of letters and symbols using a probability formula known as Bayes's theorem and did the math. "Given e and k, h is true if and only if c is true," he said. "The probability of h given e and k is .97"

In plain English, this means that, by Mr. Swinburne's calculations, the probability of the Resurrection comes out to be a whopping 97 percent.

New York Times, May 11, 2002


§ The latest on the mind/body problem.
The feeling you have as you read this sentence, Wegner argues, is an illusion pulled off by a complex machine in your skull. It not only reads and understands this sentence, he says, but also makes you feel as if you have experienced the reading of the sentence. In other words, the brain, not content with being a remarkably complex machine, also convinces itself that it isn't a machine at all.

Washington Post, May 20, 2002


Friday 10 May 2002

§ Everyone's doing the blog...

Judith Shulevitz in The New York Times Book Review, May 5.

Blogs provide a counterweight to the increasing unreality of mass journalistic culture -- its quality of having been processed beyond the realm of the recognizable, its frequent tone of unearned authority. They're the antidote to the blow-dried anchor, the unsigned editorial, the pronunciamento of the token credentialed expert.
Scott Rosenberg in Salon, May 10 ("Not another piece on blogs!" The reporter threw back her head in mock anguish.), correcting Shulevitz's characterization of weblogs as "one-person pundit shows":
True -- but only of some blogs. Then there are those, like the venerable MacInTouch site, that express little or no opinion, but rather compile news and links on some specific subject -- and that, yes, sometimes break stories of interest to devotees of that subject. There are those, like the one run by San Jose Mercury News technology columnist Dan Gillmor, that are experiments in opening up the process of professional journalism to a more informal give-and-take. There are those, like Jim Romenesko's MediaNews or Lawrence Lee's Tomalak's Realm, that provide links with no opinion at all.
Steven Johnson, also today in Salon.
What makes blogs interesting is precisely the way in which they're not journalism. ...

The true revolution promised by the rise of bloggerdom is not about journalism. It's about information management. The bloggers have the potential to do something far more original than offer up packaged opinions on the news of the day; they can actually help organize the Web in ways tailored to your minute-by-minute needs. Often dismissed as self-obsessed "vanity sites," the bloggers actually have an important collective role to play on the Web. But they're not challengers to the throne of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. They're challengers to the throne of Google.
Blogish links in passing: Daypop Top 40 Links, a meta-weblog listing articles most often linked from weblogs; and Weblog Bookwatch, a compilation of books most often linked from weblogs.


§ Booktrack, or Bookscan, the computerized system for tracking book sales figures, could revolutionize traditional bestseller lists, as in this example from Pan MacMillan Australia fiction editor Cate Paterson.

The following summer [after Booktrack launched in Australia], Paterson published Cecilia Dart-Thornton's fantasy tome The Ill-Made Mute and watched as it hit the Herald's bestseller list, ranked next to major mainstream authors like Sue Grafton and "serious" fiction such as Zhou Wei Hu's novel Shanghai Baby. Paterson was exultant. The technology had, in one swift blow, destroyed a decades-long bias against her genres. "It's showing that what people are really buying was simply not reflected in the old bestseller lists. They weren't even vaguely reflecting reality."

Now the American market is poised to experience the same uneasy revolution.
The article goes on to offer some interesting comments from traditional bestseller-list editors about why they are not particularly interested in exact sales figures...

Washington Post, May 5, 2002


§ Here's a shock: many bookstore clerks don't know a lot about books.

I ask if he knows of a book called The Colour Orange by Alice Walker. "Let's put the title in and see what comes up," he says. There is no exact match, but there is a book with the words orange and colour in the title and then a lot of symbols. "Could that be it?" he says and pushes the screen round. It is about metallurgy. I tell him that I think it's a novel. "Is it possible you've got the wrong title?" he asks. I concede that it is. There follows a stumped silence.
(Querying online booksellers like Amazon is no better; see end of article.)

Guardian, May 7, 2002


§ Once again, science fiction websites are shut out of Webby Awards nominations.


§ The first ID chips to be installed in humans have gone to... Alzheimer's patients. Later chip models will have GPS locators.

Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2002


§ William Saletan is terribly worried about the implications of roboticized rats.

Slate, May 9, 2002


§ Isn't it clever when a religiously-inclined scientist is able to justify his religious beliefs in terms of his science? Here's a review of a book by Michael Ruse about how Darwinism and Christianity are not only not inconsistent, they're really just two sides of the same coin, with some interesting implications.

[T]he book is a splendid example of how a trained academic can extract himself from a philosophical thicket through the relentless chopping of logic. For example, in a chapter on 'Extraterrestrials', Ruse wrestles with the implications for Christianity of life having evolved elsewhere in the Universe. Would this life be human-like and blighted with original sin? If so, who would save the fallen aliens? Ruse floats the possibility of an 'X-Christ', who could redeem sinners throughout the Universe - an intergalactic Jesus shuttling between planets and suffering successive crucifixions. 'One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that,' George Orwell wrote (in a quite different context). 'No ordinary man could be such a fool.'

London Review of Books, 23 May 2002


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