A fascinating end of the year… and the b’ak’tun…
We just returned from a 7-day “Not the End of the World” Caribbean cruise (our first cruise ever) featuring speeches and seminars by an astronaut, a Mayan expert, several scientists, Hollywood’s Kevin Grazier and Andre Bourmanis, and a pair of sci fi authors (Rob Sawyer & me), climaxing in 200 skeptics climbing the second-highest Mayan Temple to mark the new bak’tun at Coba, Yucatan, staving off the end of the world with a headshake and using the potent incantation: “naaaaah!”
But it wasn’t all hard, world-saving work. Cheryl and I also managed to appreciate the fine efforts of the crew of the Norwegian Cruise Lines flagship, the Pearl, whose gracious chief engineer gave us an exclusive tour of the engines, purifiers and other systems. (Cruise ships are marvels: truly test beds for starships.) We also danced, went parasailing, wreck-snorkeling, waterfall-climbing, zip-lining, river-running, jet-skiing, more dancing, some eating, and met a dolphin or two… inspiring me to choose to write about them next. (There. Are you happy?)
And now, while wishing you all joyous holidays and a fantastic 2013, let’s polish off the year with a potpourri of interesting items for interesting times.
Starting with a podding — Chris Mooney and Indre Viskontias had me on their Point of Inquiry show just before we left for the Caribbean. Topics ranged all across the landscape (and galaxy-scape) – only occasionally touching upon our shared interest in the Enlightenment and its enemies. Note that Mooney is author of The Republican War on Science, an important and interesting book that I (as a part-time libertarian and registered Republican) find depressingly on-target. Though I reminded listeners that the Enlightenment does face some dangers from the opposite extreme, as well. For the most part, though, we explored farther ahead! Listen in and have some (occasionally infuriating but always fascinating) fun.
In an important article, We’re living the dream, we just don’t realize it, on CNN’s web site, Steven Johnson adds his voice to a growing tide of those questioning the news media’s obsession with gloom. Sure, journalists should expose flaws and mistakes and criticize stupidity and criminality! But that is a very different and vastly more helpful thing than wallowing in generalities of hopelessness. The former is how we made a better world and might improve even more. The latter is just treason.
In fact, statistics show things getting better for most humans on Earth at a fairly rapid clip. The reflex of doom is not limited to the Right in the United States but is an addiction shared by the far-left. Have a look at the article. Then do the thing folks never expect from optimists and moderates and pragmatists, but something recommended by Ray Bradbury. GET MAD! Get angry at the gloomcasters and cynics. They are actively undermining the can-do spirit of problem-solving and diminishing the future of your kids.
== Should language be precise? Or liberating? ==
Here’s a fascinating article about invented languages… the most successful being Esperanto (George Soros’s native tongue)… and especially a new one that is getting a lot of attention.
“If you imagine all the possible notions, ideas, beliefs, and statements that a human mind could ever express, Ithkuil provides a precise set of coördinates for pinpointing any of those thoughts. The final version of Ithkuil, which Quijada published in 2011, has twenty-two grammatical categories for verbs, compared with the six—tense, aspect, person, number, mood, and voice—that exist in English. Eighteen hundred distinct suffixes further refine a speaker’s intent. Through a process of laborious conjugation that would befuddle even the most competent Latin grammarian, Ithkuil requires a speaker to home in on the exact idea he means to express, and attempts to remove any possibility for vagueness.” and “In Quijada’s (unpublished) novel, Ithkuil is used as a “para-linguistic interface for an array of quantum computers that are being used to create emergent consciousness.” and “n Ithkuil ambiguity is quashed in the interest of making all that is implicit explicit. An ironic statement is tagged with the verbal affix ’kçç.”
Woof! These are marvelous exercises. And who knows? Sapir-Whorf theory suggests that different languages spur different styles of thought. Ithkuil seems to be designed to eliminate ambiguity and foster efficient precision… exactly like most of the Galactic languages that I have written about in my Uplift Series of novels. And indeed, there is something to be said for that approach. It may very well be that ancient races use such methods and that artificial intelligences (AI) might prefer them, too.
Nevertheless, I took a different perspective on this question on the pages of Brightness Reef, where I pointed out the downside flaws of languages like proto-Chinese, proto Indo-European and all the other “precise” linguistic systems of old. They used cases, declensions and all of that in order to eliminate ambiguity… and it can be argued that they cast thinking into rigid molds that repressed creative thinking. Many of the ambiguities and murky edges of modern English, that make it frustrating at times, may also have helped stimulate and spur the “what-if” mentality… the gedankenexperiment culture… that finally burst free of feudalism and assumptions of the past. And ironically enabled the advance of the Invented Language Movement.
Read the article, especially toward the end with some twists as the American inventor of Ithkuil meets the academic community of Russians who have embraced his new language as the key to wisdom….
== Science Fiction Old and New ==
A fascinating essay asserting that John Milton’s Paradise Lost was the grand-daddy of modern science fiction. “…the text of Paradise Lost is saturated in science. Milton met Galileo, for the first and only time, in a 1638 visit that Jonathan Rosen compared to “those comic book specials in which Superman meets Batman.” The “Tuscan artist” appears in Paradise Lost more than once. Book I compares Satan’s shield to the moon seen through a telescope. And the poem is studded with scientific details—“luminous inferior orbs” churning through outer space, descriptions of sunspots and seasons, creatures that evolve (according to divine plan, but still). Through it all, Milton, a storyteller, comes off as entranced by the laws governing the universe.”
“Also, Milton kinda sorta thought that extraterrestrial life might be possible. In Book III of Paradise Lost, Satan flies down from Heaven to Earth, passing distant stars that, on closer inspection, turn out to be “other Worlds.” Other worlds with aliens on them? Could be! “Who dwelt happy there,” Milton explains, the archangel “stayd not to enquire.”
My friend Ramez Naam, whose nonfiction book More Than Human I really liked, has a novel: Nexus. Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing says “Nexus is a superbly plotted high tension technothriller… full of delicious moral ambiguity… a hell of a read.” I always find Naam interesting and ready to poke at fresh ideas.
Some kind words from London’s top-selling newspaper The Sun – this best-of recommendation for my latest novel, Existence:
“Science fiction fans were finally given what they crave: Real science explained and possible science dreamed, all wrapped up in an excellent story. After reading it, you feel like you’ve done an A-level and experienced a cultural event. Daring yet plausible, challenging yet rewarding, it raised the bar for grown-up alien contact sci-fi.”
Oh but the San Diego Union-Tribune’s “Best Books of 2012” disagrees and instead emphasizes:
“All of this in an incredibly thought-provoking and fast-paced story, each page loaded with a sense of wonder and optimism that is often lacking in today’s science fiction.”
Sigh. I wish they’d make up their minds! (Oh, it’s almost your last chance to order the hardcover. 😉
Here I conclude a series of recorded readings… I now present to you Chapter Three of EXISTENCE. All three can be found at my web site davidbrin dot com. (These three readings and chapters introduce three entirely separate characters and can be taken in any order.) Enjoy!
== Movies, movies… ==
Finally. We just watched Peter Jackson’s THE HOBBIT: An Unexpected Journey. And I had to turn dials. Meaning that I enjoyed the film… what’s not to like about a vision created with such lavish and loving detail? But in order to enjoy the endless, manic, run-on-and-on action scenes I really had to crank down most of my critical faculties re plot and story.
Seriously. Some fans unfairly criticized Jackson for cutting some aspects out of LORD OF THE RINGS, a nine hour epic that I considered darn near perfect. It would not have been improved by doubling to eighteen. The story supported nine hours and the action hung upon a plot robust enough to bear up the dramatic battle scenes.
Alas, in THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, Jackson did not cut and trim, he added swathes of plot that were never in Tolkien’s oiriginal book (e.g. the entire plot thread of the vendetta between Thorin and the orc king; or the scenes with Radagast the Brown). Thus he sought excuses to bloat a three hour story to nine. Escapade after manic escapade with little to care about, no casualties among the protagonists and almost glacial advancement of the already slender plot.
Oh, I’ll watch the whole thing. Jackson is skilled and I doubt Tolkien would have felt betrayed by any of the additions. They merely flesh-out (or plump-out or inflate) THE HOBBIT’s spare skeleton. But antic fun is all that I expect. This is a long, long dessert, not soul-food. (See my essay: J.R.R. Tolkien vs the Modern Age.)
== An Accessible Worldcon – in Texas! ==
This coming August 29 weekend will see the 2013 World Science Fiction Convention come to San Antonio under the name Lone Star Con 3. Membership, transportation and hotel rates are unusually low for a worldcon, this year and if you buy before January 1st you’ll save $20.
It will be a great show. We’ll be there to help provide stimulation. Sign up and come on down!
==More stuff to ponder… ==
Entrepreneur Mark Cuban has unleashed another volley at Facebook, calling it a giant time suck. “FB is what it is. It’s a time waster,” Cuban writes (all emphasis his). “That’s not to say we don’t engage, we do. We click, share and comment because it’s mindless and easy. But for some reason FB doesn’t seem to want to accept that its best purpose in life is as a huge time suck platform that we use to keep up with friends, interests and stuff. I think that they are over thinking what their network is all about.”
Rare diseases affect over 250 million people worldwide, yet less than five percent of the 7,000 known rare diseases have any therapy. Now a new effort has gathered 19 companies to donate $400,000 worth of cutting edge technology, services, and cash. And yes, it involves crowd-sourcing and all that. A $10,000 prize for the best idea that will be determined by Facebook voting. To be fair: There are actually many different organizations and institutes for rare and orphaned diseases, with the Office of Rare Diseases Research and NORD being two examples. None of these organizations are inadequate and they all do great work, but the new endeavor diverges by giving all 7,000 rare diseases an equal opportunity to be researched if they just put together a proposal.
Scientists have come up with a clever way to make earthworms fabricate quantum dot nano particles out of raw materials and store them in their livers.
In 1956, on an episode of then-popular game show “I’ve Got a Secret,” 96-year-old Samuel J. Seymour tottered out on stage, sat down gingerly beside the program’s host, and proceeded to blow the audience’s mind. Over ninety years earlier, he had witnessed the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Washington D.C.’s Ford Theatre.
And with that… let’s say farewell to 2012. And remember… centuries tend to really “start” on their 14th year. What a cheery thought.