The Animated Storyboard as an Art Form in its Own Right

I’ve long proposed a concept for small-scale cinematic storytelling – one that could become a valuable studio pre-production tool, but might also grow into a medium in its own right, liberating small, writer-led teams to create vivid dramas, whether as first drafts or as final works of popular art. The concept is full-length, animated storyboarding.

For more than a century, the initial element in cinema has been the screenplay, generally around 120 pages for a ninety minute film. While offering detailed dialogue and some scene description, scripts remain sketchy about many other aspects. Moreover, screenplays (and their writers) are treated with little respect – as the most disposable or replaceable components of an expensive process.

In coming years the screenplay, as such, may become obsolete, both to sell an idea for filming and as a working production tool. Instead, a small team consisting of the writer, a computer-animator, a photographic specialist, a musical specialist and some voice actors might team up before hitting the studios with a pitch. Using animatics and integration technologies that already exist, such a team might create a complete 90 minute cinematic story wherein animated characters act and speak upon sets that are computer-merged from still-photos or video pans.

While (generally) too crude to display to the public as-such, these animated storyboards would nevertheless be much closer to realization than a mere 120 page bundle of paper sheets. For example, they would include simple musical background, sound effects, etc. These full-length drafts might be screened before live or online audiences, swiftly testing alternative plot-twists and endings. They would decisively bridge the gap between writer and finished product. (I have ideas how it could be implemented, in unexpected ways.)

Here’s one nifty aspect: producers would take to such storyboarding, and view it as a producer’s tool. Directors would see it as a useful director’s tool. But the main beneficiaries would be writers – originators of the core elements, ideas, dialogue, characters and dramatic tension — as they would rise 5 levels of execution closer to final product before relinquishing control.

If producers say “this looks promising, but we’ll want to make changes,” the creative team can say “We’ll be back on Monday with three new versions we can test before focus groups.” All of which can happen before any contracts are signed… leaving the creators in a strong position.

Now, crude or partial versions of this notion have been around. Amazon Storyteller let you upload a story/script and produce a customizable storyboard. And there’s ToonBoom and Crazy Talk Animator, as well as several others listed below. But none of them has been truly liberating.

A true animated Storyboard (AS) would flow smoothly, have music, and use real actors’ voices behind stick-figure (or rendered avatar) characters. The animation itself would not have to be lavish, just good enough to vividly portray the story and action. In fact, much of the movement can be computer interpolated between artist sketches, almost seamless to the eye.

Think of an animated script… with some scenes rendered more vividly to show off possible special effects. This could then be shopped around to directors & studios, saying “let’s make a deal based on this, and not arm-waved descriptions.”

One sub-variety – even more economical than the version described here — is the narrated storyboard, as illustrated by the famous Chris Marker film “La Jetee” (later remade as “Twelve Monkeys”) and more recently as “The Life of a Dog” by John Harden. (Both of them are in French, interestingly. A fertile technique, it has been under-utilized by indie film-makers and could easily be transformed into the full-voiceover version I propose here.)

Another cool aspect — the animated storyboard is a product in itself! Time and again it has been shown that people can accept and identify with very crude and even cartoonish representations, so long as the drama, pace, music, dialogue and voices are first rate. Even talking and moving stick figures (or a little better) can draw empathy and tears from an audience. Such full, feature-length renderings of a story might draw a following online, if the sequence of words-action-emotions and music are well done. And if that online following is all the story gets, at first? Well, fine, there are monetization methods… and there would soon be awards.

Moreover, if an AS feature gains a cult following online, that might lead to interest from producers, later on, giving the story a second chance.

Ideally, we’re envisioning a product that enables a writer and a few specialists, plus several voice actors, to interact under the leadership of a “director” knowledgeable in the program itself. A team of half a dozen could make a 90 minute feature, crude, but with incredible swiftness and agility, sometimes achieving drama better than many products coming out of studios today.

Now some news. While bits and pieces of this concept have been around for years, I can report on one company whose package appears to bring many of them together, at a level where small teams might actually accomplish something of value. The ToonBoom package is intended for professional storyboard artists. It’s more about making studio artists more productive (which is where the money is), but spec writers and their partners might soon use this – or similar – products to create an art form as influential as (but far better than) anything shown on any YouTube channel.

We’ll see.

And hear and feel.

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* David Brin is a scientist, tech speaker/consultant, and author. His new novel about our survival in the near future is Existence.   A film by Kevin Costner was based on The Postman. His 16 novels, including NY Times Bestsellers and Hugo Award winners, have been translated into more than twenty languages.   Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and the world wide web. David appears frequently on shows such as Nova and The Universe and Life After People, speaking about science and future trends. His non-fiction book — The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? — won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.   (Website: http://www.davidbrin.com/ )

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NOTES:

Animation software examples:

ToonBoom https://www.toonboom.com/

Crazy Talk Animator Demo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_WLdBCns-s

CrazyTalk8: https://crazytalk.reallusion.com/

Anime Studio Pro: http://store.smithmicro.com/productDetails.aspx?pid=19282

Amazon Storyteller (no longer functioning): http://studios.amazon.com/storyteller

Studiobinder Templates:  https://www.studiobinder.com/blog/top-10-storyboard-software-of-2016-free-storyboard-templates/

Twinery: https://twinery.org/

TyranoBuilder: Visual Novel Studio  http://tyranobuilder.com/

Nevigo Game Design:  https://www.nevigo.com/en/articydraft/overview/

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Science on sacred sites: Can we find middle ground?

On June 21 — solstice day — the Supreme Court of Hawaii heard oral arguments in Honolulu on whether to approve a building permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope, which would be the biggest and most expensive in the Northern Hemisphere. And it is a real fight. Native Hawaiian activists claim that the snow goddess — Poli’ahu — lives on Mauna Kea and should be left in peace, on her sacred mountain.

(The more famous fire goddess — Pele-honua-mea (“Pele of the sacred land”) — lives on the more flamboyant (especially right now), active volcano Kilauea. Although the two goddesses are often conflated as the same, they were said to have been bitter rivals.)

For starters, let’s be clear; yes, indigenous peoples have a perfect right to be pissed off or suspicious over honkies who want to set up camp on sacred spots. I do not dismiss their righteous resentment as wrong! But if this truly is a theological issue, then should it not be argued theologically?

Humans have always sought clues to the will of the gods, and since they tend not to speak audibly and objectively, one approach has been to search for “signs” or things that are significantly and unambiguously out of the norm.

In this case, one trait of Poli’ahu’s mountain stands out as special, spectacular… even miraculous. It is the trait that brings the world to the Big Island, hoping to build temples of science. That trait is the mountain’s special — even unmatched — view of the heavens.

What other trait is so unique that many of the planet’s greatest minds pay homage? Mauna Kea is already home to thirteen of the world’s largest, most powerful telescopes, operated by astronomers from more than a dozen countries.

Sure, I’m just a haole sci-fi writer… though I featured characters from an independent and powerful Hawaii in the year 2060, in Heart of the Comet. Elsewhere I argue that all of humanity may speak Hawaiian, in a hundred years! So, it’s with deep respect that I point to the one miracle of Poli’ahu that’s inarguable and universally acknowledged by all. Perhaps she may be saying:

“Here is my mountain. I have made it special, so that you may host the world to gaze in wonder through my window to the universe.”

Wasn’t part of your proudest heritage as stargazers? The greatest navigators and voyagers the world ever saw? Among your heirs may be captains who lead our expeditions across the Great Galactic Night. It’s only a suggestion…

…but might you reclaim (along with others) your rightful title as the People of the Sky?

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Correlation, causation – and reason for precaution

“Correlation is not the same as causation.” This is a core catechism that is drilled into most of us scientists, along with “I might be wrong,” and “build your competitive science reputation by demolishing the half-baked work of others.”

Alas, “Correlation is not the same as causation” has become an incantation parroted by Fox-Watchers, as part of the Murdochian campaign to undermine science and claim that nothing can ever be proved. In fact, sifting for correlations is how experimental science begins. A strong correlation demands: “hey, check this out!”

But it’s more than that. A strong correlation shifts the Burden of Proof. When we see a strong correlation, and the matter at-hand is something with major health or safety or security implications, then we are behooved to at least begin taking preliminary precautions, in case the correlation proves to be causative. Sometimes the correlation is later demonstrated not to be causal and a little money has been wasted. But this often proves worthwhile, given long lead times in technology.

For example, we were fortunate that work had already begun on alternative refrigerants to CFCs, when their role in ozone damage was finally proved. Indeed, valid concerns over the health and environmental effects of tobacco and leaded gasoline were dismissed for years. Two must reads: Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, as well as the story of Clair Patterson and the obstructionism of the oil industry.

Another example: terrorism experts sift for correlations and apply intelligence resources to follow up, while giving potential targets cautious warnings. Many correlations don’t pan out. But a burden falls on those saying “ignore that.”

Parse this carefully. Strong correlation demands both closer examination and preliminary precautions.

But the underlying narrative of the crazy, anti-science right is: “Correlation is not the same as causation… and any ‘scientist’ who talks about a correlation can thus be dismissed as a fool. And since that is most of science, this incantation lets me toss out the whole ‘science’ thing. Yippee!”

Those who spout this incantation aren’t all fools, but you can tell by watching to see if they follow “Correlation is not the same as causation” with… curiosity! And acceptance of both precaution and burden of proof. Those who do that are “Skeptics” and welcome to the grand, competitive tussle known as science.

Those who use “Correlation is not the same as causation” as a magic incantation to dismiss all fact-using professions are fools holding a lit match in one hand and an open gas can in the other, screaming “one has nothing to do with the other!”

See my earlier list of examples  – including well-justified concerns over tobacco, smog and leaded gasoline – where this and other incantations delayed the proper application of science to public policy, leading to hundreds of thousands… maybe millions… of deaths worldwide.

Another central mythos: We all know that:  “Just because someone is smart and knows a lot, that doesn’t automatically make them wise.”

It’s true. But in the same way that Suspicion of Authority is wholesome, till it metastasizes, this true statement has been twisted into something cancerous:  “Any and all people who are smart and know a lot, are therefore automatically unwise.”

The first statement is true and we all know it. The second is so insanely wrong that anyone believing it is hence a stark, jibbering loony. And yet, the latter is now a core catechism of the confederacy, because they have been allowed to leave it implicit.

Of course, blatantly, the average person who has studied earnestly and tried to understand is wiser than those who deliberately chose to remain incurious and ignorant. When cornered, even the most vehement alt-righter admits that. But cornering them takes effort and – above all – careful parsing of the meme. It is a logical corner they’ve painted themselves into! But their memes are slippery.

Suspicion and distrust – of universities and smart people, as well as of people with knowledge and skill — now extends from the war on science to journalism, teaching, medicine, economics, civil servants… and lately the “deep state” conspiring villains of the FBI, the intelligence agencies and the U.S. military officer corps. This is bedlam. It is insanity that serves one purpose, to discredit any “elites” who might stand in the way of a return to feudalism by the super rich, which was the pattern of 6000 years that America rebelled against.

We need to be more proactive and tactically effective in fighting back against these agents of darkness and promoters of feudalism. There are clever shills who get rich providing incantations against science and other fact-professions.  We must show every uncle and aunt who parrots this nonsense how they have been hoodwinked. That is where phase 8 of the American Civil War will be won, in the trenches, getting one friend at a time to snap out of the hypnotics spells…

… by using evidence and logic and compassion to draw our neigjhbors back to a nation of progress and science and pragmatic accountability and hope for an ever-better future.

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The death of science-based policy

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) was one of our jewels. It normally had about 60 staffers, to help assist White House staff in creating fact-grounded policy. President Obama expanded it well past 100 personnel, bringing in more question-asking consultants, scientists and speakers… like yours truly (twice in 2016 alone). “The size of the office under the Obama administration reflected Mr. Obama’s “strong belief in science, the growing intersection of science and technology—”

Beyond advising the President on scientific discoveries and their implications for national policy, OSTP was involved in encouraging breakthroughs in STEM education and re-igniting a generation of skilled programmers. It is also responsible evaluating investments in Research and Development, as well as for crisis response. Heading the OSTP was the Presidential Science Adviser, a position generally filled by some of humanity’s sharpest minds.

white-houseAll of that is over. President Trump has attrited the Science Office of OSTP to zero…  that’s zero staff to consult with West Wing policy makers over anything scientific or related to science. OSTP as a whole is down to a couple of dozen placeholders.

Elsewhere, I wrote about David Gelernter, who seemed a front runner for the Science Adviser post, under Trump. A bizarre and polemically-driven person, Gelernter apparently would have been far too scientific for this White House. Perhaps they sensed that he would be capable – in extremis – of saying the hated phrase: “um… that’s not exactly true.”

Trump has not yet appointed a Science Advisor. And yet… “The Oval Office is surrounded by interest groups who would sculpt the facts to fit their agendas, and the president desperately needs an expert who can de-spin the facts,” writes Brian Palmer in Slate.

That, after all, was the criminal offense of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) which was banished by Newt Gingrich in 1995 for giving honest answers. And the fate now apparently destined for the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), for similar treasons against dogma.

Iscience-policy-ostpt is this fevered spite against all fact-users that makes our current civil war completely unrelated to the old-hoary-lobotomizing “left-right” political “axis.” When all outcomes and metrics of US health and yes, economics and capitalism do vastly better under democrats, fact users become Enemy #1. And that’s ALL fact-users, now including even the FBI, the Intelligence Community and the U.S. Military Officer Corps. (Look up the term “deep state” to see how the mad right is justifying attacking even them!)

The EPA’s head Scott Pruitt recently axed 38 science advisors from the Board of Scientific Counselors — which advises the EPA on its research programs. “This says to me that they do not want objective science,” said Peter Meyer, who resigned in protest last month. Deep cuts are targeted for the EPA budget, as well as reduced enforcement of environmental regulations.  Pruitt defends Trump’s rejection of climate change, and is now launching a program to critique the scientific consensus on the issue.

Fans of the movie “Idiocracy” – and die hard confederates – may openly avow wishing for this rise of the know-nothings. But your conservative aunt might be swayed to pull away from this madness, if you dare her to name one profession of folks who actually know stuff that is not under open attack by her crazy husband and his ilk. She knows she will need skilled people, from time to time.

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The battle must begin at state level

There are vital issues that get shunted aside in the ongoing public obsession over Trump’s latest tweetstorm. In The Case for Paying Less Attention to Donald Trump, Ed Burmila, in Rolling Stone, makes a cogent point that we should pay less attention to our current president — and more to what the confederacy is doing to our fellow citizens, down at the state level, where the GOP’s lock on more than thirty out of fifty statehouses and 65 out of 98 state legislature chambers, has set them to work doing no less than re-establishing feudalism.

LESS“Donald Trump’s presidency has been a disaster, but he has succeeded beyond his wildest expectations in one key way: getting attention – attention that fills the void where the rest of us have a soul…. (But fighting back) begins with winning back the state legislatures that draw electoral maps and make the rules that shape elections,” writes Ed Burmila.

In other words, this is no time for timid appetites. The goal should not be to shift twenty-five swing Congressional seats, but 125! And that will be a hollow victory without a thousand State Assembly wins.

These state races are the most important battlegrounds for now.

This coalesces three themes that I’ve pushed for some time.

impeach-trump1: Don’t seek to impeach Trump! Not yet. Our civil servants are now fully alerted to the insanity and they should be able to protect us, for the time being. For now, Trump is the Republicans’ nightmare. Impeach, and the confederates will just rally behind a President Pence and march with savage discipline. See this explored in more detail in my essay, The Move to Impeach Trump is a Trap.

2: Gerrymandering (one of the most horrific betrayals of citizen sovereignty) and other electoral cheats — such as voter suppression — are central. These plagues upon our electoral system have metastacized till even Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts cannot ignore them, anymore. (Or else they are simply not Americans.) But we need clever and strong backup plans, explored further in Gerrymandering & American Democracy.

3: Retaking many of those states will not be done by running Santa Monica liberals in deep red districts. Go ahead and run liberals and Bernites etc in swing constituencies. But in districts that are deeply conservative by personality, we need candidates who are pro-science, pro-rights, honest, logically fact-loving and un-bigoted… but who can also relate to locals… by personality.

Elsewhere, in a 3-part series, I talk about the richest possible source of such candidates, military colonels and captains. Men and women of rectitude who can compel even the reddest voter to actually listen to a democrat, possibly for the first time in his or her life.

See also 314 Action, which seeks to advocate for a pro-science and fact-based agenda in public policy — and also to encourage scientifically and technically trained men and women to run for office.

crowdpacBack to the article by Burmila… the point relates to how YOU should allocate your political time and energy. Yes, national issues matter! Give money to the fight against gerrymandering, and Schwarzenegger will match your contribution in this  campaign on Crowdpac: This is our chance to make gerrymandering unconstitutional. 

Furthermore, Burmila adds:

“The payoff of being politically active simply is greater in down-ballot races. House and Senate races are of course important, but the marginal benefit of adding one more volunteer to those campaigns is small compared to what an activist can contribute to a local race. Throwing your donation and evening volunteering hours into the miasma of money and noise that is a modern congressional race is like spitting into the ocean. In a local race, the time and money you can donate will be much more impactful. Knocking on doors and speaking to a few hundred voters on behalf of an unknown candidate in a state assembly primary could make a real difference.”

This is where you can make a difference — at your local and state level.

Give the rest of it a read. Then give some thought about that retired officer you know, who happens to live in a red district. It’s arm twisting time.

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Russian relationships: collusion or treason?

I know bunches of sincere, thoughtful conservatives who are THAT close to defecting. They admit their party has gone insane, but cannot bring themselves yet to use the “T-Word.” They keep being distracted by squirrels. Like “There’s been no proof yet of actual collusion.” Or “Russian meddling didn’t clearly affect the election outcome.”

1. Irrespective of GOP-Russia collusion, the fact is that Putin’s FSB Security Agency wanted the GOP to win, not just the presidency, but across the board. That outcome is what they blatantly sought. And that is a fact of profound political redolence. It should deeply bother all patriotic Americans. While that motive and goal is not a court-of-law conviction, it is consistent with mountains of evidence that the Republican Party is not healthy for the U.S.

2. All right then, but did the GOP collude with Moscow, toward that goal? We are not (yet) in a court of law, so demanding court-of-law proof of GOP-Russia collusion is just plain wrong. The pile of circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. It’s a mountain!

Manafort, Flynn, Pence, the ENTIRE circle of people surrounding Jared Kushner, secret meetings and channels! Scads of business connections and sweetheart deals with Russian-mafiosi oligarchs. Exxon, for H sake! “Emoluments” amounting to billions! You know I could go on and on.

Dig it. We do not need to be hamstrung or stymied by court-of-law standards when deciding that something stinks to high heaven and the security of the American state is at stake. Those who demand court-of-law standards are Fox shills. They scream “witch hunt!” while the townsfolk close in on a coven of pointy-hatted, Satan-chanting crones who have children suspended over a cauldron. These may not quite be witches — (heck, not one of them is female) — but we are perfectly right to demand answers to our questions.

3. Court-of-law hairsplitting over definitions of “obstruction” are necessary when deciding on criminal prosecutions and whether to deprive the perpetrator of either life or freedom with prison. But it is an absurd standard politically. These are traitors, pure and simple. That is “traitors” with a small-t … for now… until it’s proved in court. But the shoe fits.

4. The same term applies to those who drag their feet over reforming the weaknesses that the Putin-cabal tried to exploit. The issue is not whether the FSB etc were THE tipping factor in 2016. The issue is the fact that Congress is holding ZERO hearings about how to strengthen U.S. electoral processes, investigating corruptible voting machines. The horrific influence of partisan secretaries of state. Gerrymandering. Weaponized narrative. They would leave all of that in place, for future elections. If you don’t call that implicitly complicit, then you have your head in the sand.

They are complicit. As the old saying goes: “We’ve settled what you are. Now we’re just trying to determine the price you sold us out for.”

It is the “T-Word.” We’re only arguing over whether it is “t” or “T.”

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Six Science Fiction Questions

I’ve been answering quite a few queries over on the question and answer site Quora. Here are a few selected questions about science fiction, dystopias, fantasy, and more…

How plausible do you find Huxley’s Brave New World?

BraveNewWorldYour question is exactly the one asked by Huxley himself, and by his top-caste character, World Director Mustafa Mond., who accepts that change may inevitably come to his tightly organized world. That is one of many contrasts with Orwell’s 1984. Where one party controls with fear and pain, the other does with eugenics, conditioning and pleasure, lots of pleasure.

Note what happens when some alphas start asking inconvenient questions. Are they killed? No, they are sent to “the Islands” where they can study, experiment and keep arguing for changes to be made. This shows that Huxley’s directors are aware that change may come, but demand a steep burden of proof… while seeing value in those who question. A lot like Huxley himself.

For years, Orwell was deemed the one making a plausible prediction. But today the scientific and skilled classes and even the “prols” have so much potential power in their hands – making today’s “terrorists” seem lame by comparison – that no government can risk for long angering those castes or abusing them. Not for long. (Hence the utter stupidity of today’s oligarchs, who wage war on science and all the fact professions. Nothing else could show as starkly how deeply stupid the oligarchy is.)

No, any dictatorship in the future will have to be like Brave New World… or an augmented China … committed to keeping the populace content.

For more see my essay: George Orwell and the Self-Preventing Prophecy.

Which science fiction scenarios do you find the most disturbing?

MV5BNzQzOTk3OTAtNDQ0Zi00ZTVkLWI0MTEtMDllZjNkYzNjNTc4L2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjU0OTQ0OTY@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_The Matrix, for suggesting that advanced AI’s would be spectacularly self-defeating and stupid. The novel, Revolt in 2100 by Heinlein, for predicting with stunning accuracy how America might go crazy. The film Idiocracy, for coming true before our eyes.

Almost anything by Philip K Dick, for questioning our perception of reality. Orwell’s 1984 for prescribing tech empowerment of older means of despotism based on terror.  Huxley’s Brave New World for showing how the same thing could happen with pleasure and fun.

And hey, what’s my novel The Postman… chopped liver? Its premise is coming true before your very eyes.

Which science fiction book offers the most likely scenario to a better world?

51WFumUHOCL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_If you want prescriptive preaching, set in plausible tomorrows and above average writing, try almost anything by Kim Stanley Robinson (his latest is New York 2140). He chides and finger wags, like LeGuin. But his aim is always to propose A Better Way. (I agree with him a lot… but he gives up too easily on regulated market enterprise.)

Iain Banks novels show alluring, post scarcity societies. (See his culture series: Consider Phlebas.)  So does Star Trek!. So does Robert Heinlein’s prescriptive utopia Beyond This Horizon. (Ignore the silly gun stuff at the beginning.)

My own novels Earth and Existence offer ruminations on the path ahead.

What do you consider to be the best Sci Fi/TV franchise?

MV5BMTc3MjEwMTc5N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzQ2NjQ4NA@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Stargate was by far the best and most thorough exploration of a science fictional premise. It was tightly consistent and episodes all correlated with each other in a series of very well-managed plot and character arcs, while always striving to at least nod in the direction of scientific plausibility. It was also successful at engendering massive numbers of hours of diverse stories at a fairly low budget.

A final point about Stargate… it is one of the only SF franchises to revolve around a motif that is essentially optimistic. Of course, the equally good Star Trek had all of those traits, with a bit lower score on consistency, but even more hours and even more optimistic.

Ranking in the same general area – with similar qualities – would by Babylon Five.

See where I explain why optimism is so hard to do, in sci fi and hence so rare in my article: The Idiot Plot.

An excellent SF TV franchise at the opposite end of the optimism scale would be the remake of Battlestar Galactica. The premise and universe remained kinda dumb. But it had the best damn writing team imaginable. You had to watch.

And The Expanse has similar qualities.

What is the most interesting magic system from fantasy or science fiction?

Most magical systems rely upon a short list of basic fulcra:

fantasy1- similarity — make something similar to the object you seek to control. A voodoo doll of a person. Or a model of a valley where you want rain to fall.

2- contagion – add something that was part of the object to control. Add a person’a real hair trimmings to the voodoo doll.

3- True Names. Related to similarity. You gain power if you know the object’s full (or even hidden) names.

4- Appeal to powers…Invoke mighty spirits – or God – by offering what they want. Something valuable, ranging from a human sacrifice all the way to promising to be a good boy or girl.

5- Art… a florid- dynamic-dramatic VERBAL INCANTATION helps… it is the technique used by cable news and politicians – especially one side – to dazzle millions into magical thinking and hostility to fact-based and scientific systems. Other art enhancements could be visual or musical.

Note that all of these seemed to be reasonable things for our ancestors to try, even though magic almost never worked. Why? First, because these are all methods that work… on our fellow human beings! Persuasion uses all of them and other humans are the most important part of the environment. It was just an extrapolation for people to believe they could also persuade the capricious and deadly forces of nature.

Second, pattern seeking. We invest our hopes into an incantation… and shrug off when it fails, but shout with confirmation, if the thing we wanted happens.

All told, magic has been a horrid sickness that hobbled humans for ages, preventing us from honestly separating what work from what doesn’t. But we are all descended from priests and shamans who got extra food and mates because they pulled off this mumbo-jumbo really well. Their genes flow through our brains, today. No wonder there’s a War on Science!

But if you truly want a different system of magic, try my fun novel The Practice Effect! 😉

What is your most promising science fictional concept?

I suppose most people would cite the “Uplift” of pre-sapient creatures like dolphins and apes to full partnership in our civilization. It looks more likely by the day.

EarthHCIn my novel Earth, I posited both gravity lasers and a way the planet itself could become self-aware.

In Sundiver it’s — well — a way to go to the Sun.

In Existence it is the ultimate implication of self-replicating interstellar probes.

But my favorite is the machine I wish I had, from Kiln People, in which you can make 5 or 6 cheap, temporary clay “ditto” copies of yourself, each day, so that every single thing you needed to do, that day, could get done. I want that. I need that!

== See more questions on Quora, follow the links for more answers and lively discussions of each of these questions, or follow me on Quora.

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Do we need an election fraud panel?

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday forming a commission on voter fraud and elections, an action many Democrats say is aimed at justifying his unfounded voter fraud claims.  (“Millions cast illegal ballots, giving Hillary Clinton her huge popular vote margin,” right.)  Instead of appointing a blue-ribbon, bipartisan committee of nationally respected sages, the commission will be spearheaded by Vice President Mike Pence and controversial Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Kobach, who helped on the Trump transition team, is a lightning rod for critics who have accused him of extreme racism and having ties to white nationalists.

Kobach has advocated for strict voter identification laws. Riiight.  Kansas. By far the worst governed state in the Union. Go there for wisdom.

To be clear, I have never objected to gradually ramping up the requirements that voters show ID. But there are two giant considerations:

(1) there is not evidence at all that this is a major problem requiring urgent-rapid action. Voter fraud has repeatedly been shown to be almost nonexistent.

(2) there is a simple test as to whether the  red state GOP legislators, where voter ID laws that have surged, are sincere, or attempting bald-faced suppression of US citizens exercising their rights.  What is that simple test? When red states have passed these restrictions, have they also allocated money for compliance assistance? 

Whenever the federal government – or most states – apply new regs upon business, there is almost always some provision offering those businesses help in complying with the new regs. Sometimes the help is modest, often it is substantial. But the principle is well-established. Moreover, if a new regulation’s impact hits small fry hard – like mom and pop establishments – then the calls for compliance assistance are compelling! See my earlier posting: Voter ID laws: scam or accountability?

So, here’s the simple test. Have any of the GOP-led state legislatures who passed stiff voter ID laws also passed funds to help poor citizens to GET the IDs they need? Very few actions would be as much a win-win, since getting clear ID will also help poor folks to do banking, establish businesses and lift themselves out of poverty. A concerted effort to help a state’s citizens get ID would be both beneficial and prove that those legislatures were sincere. It would refute the accusation that these laws have one sole purpose – cheating.

Okay, here’s the crux. The on-off switch. The total fact that proves criminality and treason. Not one of these red states have passed even a single penny of compliance assistance, to accompany a stiff, new regulatory burden they slapped on their poorest and most vulnerable citizens.  In fact, many of these red – no, they must be called gray – states went on a binge of closing DMV offices “to save money” and mostly in poor or democratic-leaning counties. They made compliance with their own law harder. Deliberately much harder.

Hence the indictment is proved. As it is with the utterly laughable-hypocritical “commission” that Donald Trump just appointed.  They are exposed as liars. Cheaters. Betrayers. Hypocrites. Confederates.

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Science: To March or Not to March?

I will be marching for science on Earth Day this weekend, to support scientific research… and our future. If you can’t attend the main march in Washington DC, there are over five hundred events in cities across the globe.

What is it all about? The organizers explain, “The March for Science is a celebration of science. It’s not only about scientists and politicians; it’s about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world. Nevertheless, the march has generated a great deal of conversation around whether or not scientists should involve themselves in politics.” As Brian Resnick writes in Vox, “The March for Science will celebrate the scientific method and advocate for evidence-based decision-making in all levels of government.”

Specific issues of concern include steep cuts proposed for science and environment budgets, the marginalized role of science in policy decisions and the lack of a science advisor for the current administration. Trump’s view of climate change as a hoax is particularly worrisome.

slate-scienceIs this the best way to engage the public? A recent essay in Slate – Scientists, Stop Thinking Explaining Science Will Fix Things – attempts to show (days before the march) that scientists need better tactics in explaining matters like climate change to the public. And yet, I find the writer’s proposed methods to be little improvement:

Tim Requarth writes, “Research also shows that science communicators can be more effective after they’ve gained the audience’s trust. With that in mind, it may be more worthwhile to figure out how to talk about science with people they already know, through, say, local and community interactions, than it is to try to publish explainers on national news sites.”

Sure, but those suggested methods are way to wimpy for this stage of a civil war, in which every fact-centered profession is under fire. As the author himself shows:

“At a Heartland Institute conference last month, Lamar Smith, the Republican chairman of the House science committee, told attendees he would now refer to “climate science” as “politically correct science,” to loud cheers. This lumps scientists in with the nebulous “left” and, as Daniel Engber pointed out here in Slate about the upcoming March for Science, rebrands scientific authority as just another form of elitism.”

P1010497This kind of tactic needs ferocious, not tepid response. How have I dealt with those who wage war on science?

It’s useful to remind people of the benefits of science. “Science has always been at the heart of America’s progress. Science cleaned up ur air and water, conquered polio and invented jet airplanes. Science gave us the Internet, puts food on our tables and helps us avoid pandemics,” writes Denis Hayes in The Los Angeles Times. Our exploration of space has led to innumerable payoffs, including solar cells, fuel cells, advances in robotics, human health and image processing, as well as communication, navigation and weather satellites — plus a generation of scientists, engineers, artists and teachers inspired by the marvels of space.

Basic research keeps American manufacturing and industry competitive. I find it effective to point out that at least half of the modern economy is built on scientific discoveries of this and earlier generations. And… that Soviet tanks would have rolled across western Europe without our advantages provided by science and research.

I ask whether expert opinion should at least inform public policy, even if experts prove to be wrong, maybe 5% of the time. I ask them if we should listen to the U.S. Navy, which totally believes in climate change, given that the Russians are building twelve new bases lining the now melting Arctic Sea.

I ask why, if they demand more proof of climate change, their leaders so desperately quash the satellites and cancel the instruments and ban the studies that could nail it down.

Sure, it pleases vanity to envision that scientists – in fact the most-competitive of humans – are sniveling “grant huggers.” But if that’s so, then:

1- Where is a listing of these so-called “grants”? After 20 years, no one has tabulated a list to show that every scientist believing in climate change has a climate grant?

2- What about meteorologists? They are rich, powerful, with no need of measly “climate grants.” Their vast, sophisticated, world-spanning weather models rake in billions from not just governments but insurance companies, media and industry, who rely on the miracle TEN DAY forecasts that have replaced the old, ridiculous four-hour “weather reports” of our youth. These are among the greatest geniuses on the planet… and nearly all of them are deeply worried about climate change.

science-haiku3- Funny thing. The Koch brothers and other coal barons and oil sheiks have offered much larger grants” to any prestigious or widely respected scientists who will join the denialist cult… I mean camp. None has accepted. So much for the “motivated by grants” theory.

No, I’ve weighed in elsewhere about how to deal with this cult. And it does not pay to be gentle.

Science matters. If you can’t make it to the March in Washington D.C, find your local Science March and let your voice be heard, loud and clear.

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Science Fiction, Cool War and Civil War

Science fiction – or more accurately, speculative fiction –  has a rich tradition of exploring What if... scenarios, exploring alternative paths of important historical events, asking questions such as, “What if the South had won the Civil War?” or “What if America had lost World War II?”

Just a few of the multitude of novels diving into divergent paths for the American Civil War include Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South, Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain, and Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee. The recent, best-selling Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters posits that the Civil War never happened and slavery persists in regions of America. Even politician Newt Gingrich has written in this genre: his novel Gettysburg, co-written with William R. Forstchen, explores how history might have unfolded if the Confederacy had won this crucial battle. In a more outlandish speculation, William Forstchen’s Lost Regiment series, beginning with Rally Cry, envisions a Civil War era Union regiment transported through time and space to an alien world.

But science fiction more often projects into the future. Something deeply human keeps us both fascinated and worried about tomorrow’s dangers. Several recent novels have foreshadowed a possible – and plausible – hot phase of the recurring American Civil War. I’ve written extensively about what I view as ongoing Phases of our American Civil War; luckily most segments of this persistent animosity have been tepid or cool, though the 1860s fever was near devastating. Indeed, I fear, with current tensions, the possibility that something could go volcanic. This was portrayed – in retrospect – by my post-apocalyptic novel The Postman, which has been receiving a surge of attention lately, for its depiction of “holnists” whose rationalizations sound very much like those of Steve Bannon.

One novel I’ve touted lately is Tears of Abraham, by Sean T Smith, which chillingly takes you toward a disturbingly hot second Civil War, a deadly struggle of countryman against countryman. What would happen if the U.S. split apart into warring states — set off by a far-reaching conspiracy? A president who declares martial law as states take steps toward secession. This page turner offers vivid, believable action and characters, along with sober, thoughtful insights into what it may mean — when the chips are down — to be an American. What divides us… and what unites us?

This seems particularly relevant considering the deep divides across America during the election cycle of 2016, where Red States and Blue States were more bifurcated than ever, seemingly unable to fully comprehend the opinions and problems of their own neighbors.

220px-TheCoolWarAnother science fiction vision that came to mind, given evidence of recent efforts by foreign powers to sabotage our democracy and economy, is The Cool War, published by science fiction master Frederik Pohl back in 1981. This tale portrays ongoing slow-simmering international tensions, a series of shadow wars where rival countries seek to sabotage the economy and markets of their enemies — and allies. In fact, I deem no novel to be of more immediate pertinence to any member of our defense and intelligence communities.

Wars, cool, cold or hot? David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Affairs, distinguishes them, commenting, “The purpose of the Cold War was to gain an advantage come the next hot war or, possibly, to forestall it. The purpose of Cool War is to be able to strike out constantly without triggering hot war, while making hot wars less desirable (much as did nuclear technology during the Cold War days) or even necessary.”

51YXFeqOcQL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In a similar vein, the near-future thriller Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by P.W. Singer and August Cole envisions a revived Cold War, with rising tensions between the United States, China and Russia. An all-too believable war played out not just on land and sea, but also in space and cyberspace.

Returning to parallel universes, Philip K. Dick’s alternate history of World War II,  The Man in the High Castle — follows a scenario where the Nazis have won the war; it has been vividly adapted in the recent television series of the same name by Amazon. I’ve also explored that dark aftermath where the Nazis won World War II in my graphic novel, The Life Eaters. Connie Willis has revisited World War II in her novel, Blackout. Three time travelers find themselves stranded in London during the Blitz, facing air raids and bombing raids.

Another book just hitting the shelves –  American War by Omar El Akkad – is a dystopian novel about a Second American Civil War breaking out in 2074. The United States has been largely undone by devastating ecological collapse, a presidential assassination, the onset of a virulent plague arising from a weaponized virus, and a militantly divided North and South. The novel vividly portrays a doomed country wracked by vicious guerrilla raids, refugee camps interning displaced citizens, accompanied by relentless violence and death.

Whew! One can only hope that dark visions from these nightmarish scenarios might serve as self-preventing prophecies — much as George Orwell’s prophetic 1984 girded many to fight against the rise of any possible Big Brother to their last breath. Can we resist the divisions that threaten our country?

Indeed, our civilization’s ultimate success may depend on our foresight — perceiving potential problems we are able to navigate, mistakes we manage to avoid. Science fiction has often served to shine a light to reveal possible — and catastrophic — pitfalls in our shared future.

Warnings we would be wise to heed… and wounds we would be wise to heal.

 

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