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New Books and ARCs, 9/11/17

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 09/11/2017 - 16:06
Let’s start off the week right, with a big ol’ stack of new books and ARCs that have arrived at the Scalzi Compound. See anything here you like? Give it a shoutout in the comments.

The Death of an iPod Nano

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 09/11/2017 - 13:09
Folks, let’s have a moment of silence for my wife’s iPod Nano, a fourth generation version of the machine, which finally called it a day after nearly nine years of service, which in this age of planned obsolescence, is an impressively long run. Krissy went to wake it up this morning to run on the […]

The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 09/11/2017 - 08:36
And now, some of the most famous authors in the English language show a side that you probably never knew about — and Catherynne M. Valente uses that side to build up her latest novel, The Glass Town Game. CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE: So let’s say you’re a geeky kid, like any other geeky kid. School […]

Which John Scalzi Novel Should I Read First?

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 09/10/2017 - 15:33
I get asked a lot by people new to me (or new to my fiction, anyway) which novel of mine they should read first. I have a long-winded answer to this that says, well, I write nearly all of my books to be read as stand-alones, so no matter where you start you should be […]

Resilience Technology Part II: Simple measures to thwart possible collapse

Contrary Brin - Sat, 09/09/2017 - 17:09
Soon I will post about the passing of my colleague, science fiction author and unique American Jerry Pournelle. And of course much of what I post about today will be altered after we see what is wrought by Hurricanes Irma, José and Katia.  But this series conclusion is already prepared.

And it is about preparedness.

== What holds us back ==
There have been nasty pundits contrasting Houston’s recent experience with that of New Orleans during Katrina, snidely implying that some difference in civic character was responsible -- with possible racist implications. These nasty ingrates, of course, are ignoring the fact that a goodly part of the Cajun Navy – heroically swooping in to rescue Houstonians -- came from NOLA and surroundings, in all races and colors. 
Was the difference one of better preparation? For all their mighty virtues, Texans blatantly do not elect politicians who believe in foresight, preparation, planning, or even sapience. Houston's famous hatred of zoning and building codes blatantly contributed to tens of billions in damage that we'll all be paying for.

But in fact, we now know what may have made the biggest difference between Katrina and Harvey.
It seems that breakdown of the cell phone system was a chief factor that exacerbated every problem during the Katrina Crisis, crippling citizens of New Orleans from organizing themselves or collaborating with first responders. In contrast, partly due to post Katrina efforts by Verizon, AT&T and the others, cell systems in Houston proved more robust, serving people in many districts when they needed it most. And yes, this was also a matter of pure luck. 
Which brings up a pet peeve. For this entire century (so far) – and then some – I’ve said we could double North America’s resilience with one, simple reform…  demanding that phone-makers and cell providers give every unit the capability to pass along text messages peer-to-peer.
One anecdote from the Fukushima Disaster tells of a woman who was trapped and later found dead of dehydration in a basement. On her phone were dozens of outgoing texts. People had been walking and driving by for days, but the cell towers were down. If their phones all had a backup peer-to-peer texting capability, those messages would packet-hop until they reached a cell tower; then they go out to the world.
== Peer-to-peer text-passing. Small step; huge implications ==
The capability is inherent to “packet switching,” the underlying tech of the Internet, and hence we have known how to do this for 50 years. In fact, those clever tech innovators at Qualcomm have already incorporated this basic capability into their chips!  Qualcomm’s Matt Grob told me that P2P modes:
1.) Are now standardized (published in the 3gpp cellular standards.)
2.) They have done extensive tests/trials with partners – “it works great!”
3.) P2P capability has been developed to commercial trial grade.
Matt avows that much further work would be needed for AT&T phones to share texts with Verizon phones. But even if you were limited to one company, this could be a life-saver. Suppose you were a Verizon subscriber in an afflicted area, your send help texts could hop from one Verizon phone to the next until someone reached a working cell tower, at which point all the texts stored on her phone would leap forth across the planet.
Two important considerations:
FIRST - If we were to do this, we would gain unbelievable robustness. Take an extreme case: a hypothetical disaster that took down nearly all cell towers across the continent. Set up a few repeaters across the Great Plains and the Rockies, and Peer-to-Peer text passing (P2PTP) could give us a crude telegraphy system – just via texts hopping from phone to phone all the way from Atlantic to Pacific, uniting the country during any level of emergency. P2P telegrams. The Greatest Generation did pretty well with less.
== Well then, why the heck not? ==
It sounds blatantly simple even obvious. And yet, all calls for implementation of this emergency utility have been met with skepticism or opposition from the likes of AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, and even some device makers. All know what Qualcomm’s chips are capable of. And not one of them will turn the service on – not for the profit-potential or for the common good.
This article talks about their myopic obstinacy… and hopes that Hurricane Harvey might budge such unimaginative and unpatriotic fools. Though in fact, the report is about a much more timid thing that response agencies have asked for -- simple enhancement of the one-way alert system. We shouldn’t be satisfied with such measly steps; that is nowhere near enough.
In truth, there is no good reason for cell-co executives to fight against backup P2P texting! They could program their phones no to do this, if they detect a cell tower! Moreover, each AT&T and Verizon phone could be programmed to report such text-passings and bill the sender a small surcharge! (Giving small rewards to those who pass messages along.) The only net effect would be to gain a small revenue stream from dark zones that their current towers do not reach!
And yes, before many of you chime in, there are attempts to set up grid or mesh networks using Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth or other ways to get around the problem.  Here’s a walkie talkie app.  
Then there’s the Serval Network…. 
… and Fire Chat. 
Jott’s AirChat feature allows users to send data and texts without a connection to the Internet, using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios within 100-feet of each other. 
More recent: with the arrival of Hurricane Harvey, a free app called Zello WalkieTalkie that lets your phone communicate as a two-way radio so long as you have a network or Wi-Fi connection, has shot to the top of Apple’s App Store, making it the go-to service for rescue workers in the Houston area, seeing as many as 7,000 new registrations per minute.
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And people have written in to me with many others. (Feel free to offer more, below. under comments.) So sure, the super-skilled and savvy can already go P2P… and that barely begins to enhance our overall robustness. Not when they are limited to one user in ten thousand, and to places with easy-access WiFi.
No, Hurricane Harvey has made it clear. We need to start putting the screws on your favorite people, the cell phone providers. They could turn on this capability tomorrow! (Well, in maybe 6 months.) And they would gain business, not lose it!  That is, if they have technical brains higher than a cryptobiotic tardigrade.
And if the next disaster brings major losses of life and property -- losses that might have been avoided with a simple, robust comm system? Then it is time to bring out the lawyers. I mean it. Some law firm should start preparing this case, in advance, that a life-saving backup service was available the whole time, and that refusal to turn it on was tantamount to negligent manslaughter. They can pounce and then get 40% of billions.

== Coda ==

It looked like sci fi when a Hollywood film portrayed three hurricanes at a time in the Caribbean area.  Now see a picture of reality

All across Red America, folks tune into the Weather Channel. They make plans based on advanced satellites and storm models, peering days ahead with breathtaking accuracy.  The meteorologists who do this - having transformed the old, pathetic 4-hour "weather report" of my youth into forecasts that are now useful up to TEN days...  these geniuses are very well paid by a wide variety of eager customers from governments to insurance companies to shippers, agriculture, industry... and they have no need for piddling "climate grants."
And yet, lo and behold, all of them - every last one of them - will tell you human generated climate change is real and a danger to your children. The same gas-dynamics modeling equations that they use to track hurricane paths also feed into longer term models that fit global warming exactly. The same equations. They understand and use them. Fox News screeching shills do not. So, where do you get your science?
Dear Texans and Floridians, you have our prayers and comradeship. The nation stands with you.  You show fantastic resilience and courage. But you elect the worst politicians on the planet. Lying, thieving scoundrels who have betrayed you and our country, and your children in every conceivable way. As the media that you watch and listen to has betrayed you, by urging you to hate every fact-using profession. Their incantations are lies and the shiny "squirrel!" distractions they wave in front of you are beneath contempt.
The Republican party has sabotaged and slashed many of the satellites and instruments we need, in order to understand these things. They forbid state officials from looking at changes or preparing for them. They forbid NASA and other experts from even looking downward at the Earth! They scream slogans to over-rule evidence. They lie : "There's been no warming!" and lie and lie and outright pants-on-fire lie to you... and then they get YOU to repeat such outright, insane, dumbass lies.
Please, when the mud is cleared away and the tax dollars that we send to you are spent and when you get some breathing room, consider taking a community college class in some of this stuff? An online course? (See "Hurricanes: a Science Primer.") Visit the nearest university and wander the halls asking people who actually know something about what's actually going on? Ask your smartass niece or nephew. You'll find that fact-people aren't demons or commies! 

 And if you refuse to do any of these things, can we ask at least that you stop pretending you know stuff, just because Hannity croons it at you? American conservatism use to have intellects like Goldwater and Buckley and 40% of U.S. scientists.  (It's now 3% and plummeting.) 
American conservatism does NOT have to be lobotomized and self-destructively stupid. Your movement has been hijacked by monsters - you've been talked into electing them in great, howling packs. 
We're not asking you to become lefty flakes! Or even moderate liberals. We're asking you to take your movement back from lying shills and then bring a rational, science-friendly American conservatism to the bargaining table. 

We'll negotiate, I promise.

. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

RIP, Jerry Pournelle

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 09/08/2017 - 22:51
Word reaches me by the president of SFWA and other sources that Jerry Pournelle passed away today, in his sleep. This makes it a sad day for science fiction. Pournelle was an outsized voice in the field, publicly often cantankerous and privately quietly devoted to the field, both as a member and former president of […]

New Books and ARCs, 9/8/17

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 09/08/2017 - 16:21
Another September weekend, another stack of new books and ARCs for you to peruse. What looks good? Spill in the comments! (If you need a bigger picture to look at some of the graphic novel titles, here you go.)

The Big Idea: Ferrett Steinmetz

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 09/08/2017 - 12:23
Nerds love the idea of the Singularity, but as Ferrett Steinmetz hypothesizes in The Uploaded, even in the Singularity, the rapture of the nerds is not evenly distributed. FERRETT STEINMETZ: Writers are evil people. You’re walking down the aisle of your wedding, lost in marital bliss, and your writer friend is thinking yes, yes, this is […]

Yes, I’ve Heard About the New South Park Game’s Difficulty Settings

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 09/07/2017 - 13:57
And yes, the game rather concretely makes the “lowest difficulty setting” point. Here’s an article about it. And here’s the video showing it in action: Before anyone asks, no, I had nothing to do with it, and no, I have no idea if the people who made the game read or knew about my article. […]

The Big Idea: Max Gladstone

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 09/07/2017 - 11:12
Cities, sisters and war: Max Gladstone’s new novel The Ruin of Angels talks about each, together and apart. Here he is to explain how it all weaves together in his work. MAX GLADSTONE: Consider two sisters. Kai and Ley live in different worlds, but sit at the same table. They grew up together, but they […]

Sunset, 9/6/17

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 09/06/2017 - 21:28
One long shot, one close up.

Super hurricanes and solar storms and EMP… lessons about resilient tech (Part I)

Contrary Brin - Wed, 09/06/2017 - 20:01
We’ll get to the solar storm alertand its implications, in a minute. But first… the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey tears open our hearts in empathy for our fellow humans and citizens in Texas. (See a list of ways you can help.)

It also forces us to think about bigger scales – like what will it take for civilization to endure and thrive, amid an onrushing future filled with shocks? Harvey is, after all, the third “500 year event” to strike Texas in the last three years, and the tenth in a decade. Confronted with this “coincidence,” the state’s director of emergency planning – a confirmed climate denialist – snarked that “anyone can toss ten heads in a row.
Sure, but I invite you to go without eating till you manage it. Better yet, go win ten 1:500 quick-pick tickets in a row. Do that and someone’s gonna check into your cousin working at the Lottery. (See an earlier posting of a chapter from my 1989 novel EARTH, portraying a future (2038) Houston persevering after hurricane flooding.) 
Of course climate change doesn’t explain everything.  It blatantly increases the frequency and severity of bad news – like Hurricane Irma, a category 5 and bearing down on Florida, just a week after Harvey. (Irma is the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, and two more storms are forming, as we speak.) But some nasty events were going to happen, anyway.  

Separately, the topic that should be foremost is getting ready for when – inevitably – the sky will fall or the earth will shift, beneath our feet.
California's past and coming superstorm: This article reminds us, for example, of great floods that struck California in 1862, swamping the entire Central Valley and crushing towns all across the west.  Nor was this the worst that nature can bring. “Scientists looking at the thickness of sediment layers collected offshore in the Santa Barbara and San Francisco Bay areas have found geologic evidence of megastorms that occurred in the years 212, 440, 603, 1029, 1418, and 1605, coinciding with climatological events that were happening elsewhere in the world.”
The core issue is: shouldn’t we be preparing better? Especially since climate change is actually real?
== Cyclones only begin our list of perils ==
Likewise, we’ve had other natural catastrophes on our minds -- and variable levels of sagacious preparation. Does it surprise you that, in what can safely be called opposite-to-wise governance, the Trump Administration has been yanking support from both earthquake and tsunami-warning systems?
Few prophesied dangers raise hand-wringing as much as civilization-wide disruption by an Electromagnetic Pulse, or EMP. After all, what do you figure Kim Jong Un imagines he might accomplish with the one or two bombs he might get through to North America? Even landing one amid a city would be little more than another disaster to overcome, with a resilient and mighty nation swooping in to help the afflicted, rebuilding and mourning with one hand… while stomping him flat with the other. Kim knows this…
…but he might convince himself that one nuke exploded high over our continent could neutralize all our satellites and throw America back to a pre-electronics stone age. 

(In which case, we should ask ourselves: “which power would benefit most from a no-America vacuum? And might this explain why Pyongyang’s technicians have grown so ‘capable,’ all of a sudden?” I know one sentence that could - possibly - get that major power to back down.)
Okay, set aside the threat that a single, North Korean nuke might cause, popping an EMP over North America. What about natural versions of the same calamity, courtesy of our sun? Speaking to you as the discoverer of the Great Solar Flare of 1972 – (I was the duty observer at the Big Bear Observatory that summer, when it burst) – let me tell you them things can be fierce! The resulting Coronal Mass Ejection can be rough, especially when a CME happens to flow right at our planet. As seems likely this week, according to NOAA!
The effects can be beautiful, when our protective magnetosphere channels solar particles from a small-to-moderate CME away from temperate climes and toward the magnetic poles, charging atmospheric gases to glow in gaudy aurorae. (Any high-rollers out there; I’ll be guiding an arctic aurora expedition, next March.) And to be clear so there’s no cause for immediate panic; this week’s event isn’t likely to do much more than make a show for people north of Chicago. But when a bigCME strikes us head-on, the effects can be much more serious.
We’ve has ‘sunspot’ disruptions of our communications within living memory, but nothing like the Carrington Event of 1859, that fried telegraph systems around the world. And tree ring analysis suggests that another solar event may have made the 1859 one look tame by comparison, several thousand years before written records. Almost annually, for decades, I have urged various defense agencies to pay more attention to our civilization’s vulnerability to a deliberate or natural EMP.
EMP/CME impact on our electricity grid has long been foreseen - and more of a risk than nuclear war or an asteroid strike. See James Cameron’s Dark Angel post EMP apocalypse TV show. Now The Economist is highlighting it. My own tech sense is that a higher fraction of our tools would survive or reboot. But we’re fools not to be spending 20x as much on this. 
Without any doubt, human activity – e.g. climate change or enemy action -- is making our dangers far more serious. But even without deliberate meddling, this kind of thing is going to happen! We’d best spend time, energy and money making sure that we’re robust.  

Hence, I urge you all, as individuals to give some thought to your family’s emergency plans and supplies.  And look into getting trained for CERT – your local Community Emergency Response Team – which does civil defense prep in your area.
And reiterating -- for decades I have hectored (by invitation) members of our Protector Caste at the Pentagon, CIA, OSTP, ODNI, DTRA and many other alphabet agencies, that they cannot carry this burden alone.
As revealed by the heroic neighborliness of the “Cajun Navy,” it’s clear that the Cincinnatus tradition of America can still rely on a resilient citizenry! In fact, on 9/11, every single good and useful thing that was accomplished that day – including fighting back against the hijackers of flight UA93 – was done by average folks, empowered by … cell phones.  (See Rebeccas Solnit’s book: A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster.) 
So that’s what I'll talk about next, in Part 2.

. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

The Big Idea: Michael J. Martinez

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 09/06/2017 - 08:45
Politics! It happens in Michael J. Martinez’s new book MJ-12: Shadows! For good reason! Prepare yourself! MICHAEL J. MARTINEZ: “We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success.” – Samuel Smiles, 19th century Scottish author and government reformer Oh, Sam. If only. It’s certainly easier for an individual to learn from their mistakes than, […]

Voyager's proud lesson. Our skill proves we're better than this mishegas.

Contrary Brin - Tue, 09/05/2017 - 14:19
Today is the 40th anniversary of the Voyager missions. PBS last month released a documentary to commemorate this human milestone: The Farthest: Voyager In Space, which can be streamed online.  

I can't shout loudly enough how epic this was, and is, in every possible way. Not only because of the spectacular scientific advances or the stunning beauty of images from Jupiter, Io, Callisto, Saturn and so on, so beautiful they might have been painted by Van God. Nor is it even the dramatic theological implications of this feat and those that followed, as we proceeded to perform so incredibly well the very first task that was assigned to Adam -- to 'name all the beasts' -- seeking and studying and describing and naming new moons, craters, asteroids, phenomena and ever more wonders of creation.

No, what strikes me most about these fantastic accomplishments is how good at it we are! How skilled, when we focus and combine our talents and knowledge and teamwork, even with primitive 21st or near-neolithic 20th Century technologies. We are good!  Or we can be, as a people, nation, civilization, species. And those who would have us retreat from such challenges -- hunkering down in dumbass old feudalism, or studying only the myths of bronze-age herdsmen -- insult the potential that was given to us -- by God or by Nature -- to be so much more.

As it is said in Genesis itself: "... nothing will be beyond them."

== I get to talk to fascinating innovators ==

At “Science Foo Camp” – hosted on the Google Campus by O’Reilly Media – I got to chat with some truly epic folks. George Church talked about using DNA as an information storage medium with far higher bit density than anything electronic. He is also a pioneer of efforts to fully understand genomes of lost species, like mammoths. And leading the open de-extinction effort as director of Revive & Restore was Ryan Phelan(along with her co-director and arm-candy, the inimitable Stewart Brand) one of whose projects is to resurrect the passenger pigeon.
The controversy surrounding the possibility of de-extinction is presented in How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-extinction, by Beth Shapiro. An article from The Atlantic, Welcome to Pleistocene Park, by Ross Anderson, discusses how restoring herds of mammoths might help save the world from human ecological stupidity: "In Arctic Siberia, Russian scientists are trying to stave off catastrophic climate change—by resurrecting an Ice Age biome complete with lab-grown woolly mammoths.”
Other luminaries at Science Foo included Google Chief of Research Peter Norvig and computer science pioneer Danny Hillis (who designed the 10,000 year timepiece being built for Stewart Brand’s Clock of the Long Now.) Science journalist George Dyson was there, and philosopher of attention Linda Stone plus sci-tech publisher Tim O’Reilly and Pete Worden, who as director of NASA Ames shepherded the great planet-finding Kepler Mission, before taking over Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives (aiming to both do SETI and pioneer the kind of laser-driven light sail ships I describe in Existence.) Pete and I argued amiably during an open-discussion panel about how to ensure that mature processes take place, before zealots shout “messages” into the cosmos. There were so many fascinating people, I came away convinced that humans must be capable of finding ways past our problems, right?
I then hurried to Monterey for the Starship Congress, having dinner with Miguel Alcubierre, the renowned Mexican cosmologist whose concept for an FTL drive seems the “least implausible” of those calculated so far. The next day, after my starship talk, I delivered another at the nearby Naval Postgraduate School on the vast panoply of worrisome “threats” our civilization must confront, before we make it to the semi-mythological other side -- a mature civilization.

 Oh, on the same trip I addressed about a hundred alumni of my alma mater, Caltech, on the “Art of Prediction.”
Hey, it’s rough work, but someone has to do it.
== Problems and progress ==
Is it time for one of our science roundups!

Can a cancer cure lead to bioweapons? Intel executive John Sotos argues that the eventual success of Joe Biden’s “cancer moonshot”, a U.S. government-funded program that’s aimed at finding vaccine-based treatments for cancer, would necessarily open up the potential for bioweapons of unimaginable destructive potential.
Every year, a "dead zone" appears in the Gulf of Mexico. This year's dead zone is the biggest one ever measured. It covers 8,776 square miles — the size of New Jersey.  The Black Sea is already effectively dead.  The Mediterranean and Caribbean are dying.  We live in a science fictional world of severe danger… and a denialist cult proclaims that all worries are “hoaxes.” These folks need to know: the angry world that ensues will look for obstructionists to blame, who prevented civilization from using science to act in time.  That’s not a threat. It’s just cause and effect.

Oh, a couple of notes on the recent calamity in Texas. First, that Hurricane Harvey gained its "1000 year event" power while lingering above that very human-caused dead zone I just mentioned. Just sayin'.

Second, while we cheer the pluck, stamina and resilience displayed by Texans -- aided by their Louisiana neighbors -- let's keep in mind that they elect the worst politicians in the nation. (Far more was done for them by the "federal bureaucrats" they despise.)

(See my earlier posting of a chapter from my 1989 novel EARTH, portraying a future (2038) Houston that's resilient and thriving after yet another hurricane flooding.)
== More signs of being misled ==

As told by SCOUT: “Last week New Scientist reported on an important signal of Russia's increasingly sophisticated cyberwar capabilities. It's a signal that would be easy to miss if you weren't paying attention, so I'm highlighting it here for your attention.  Back in June, 20 vessels in the Black Sea experienced likely GPS spoofing -- essentially their GPS units suddenly thought they were somewhere they weren't. (In this case, on land at a Russian airport more than 30 km away.) This is different than GPS jamming, which causes the GPS receiver to die, sounding an alarm.”
Care to connect the dots to the two U.S. Navy destroyers that suffered weird navigation errors in the same crowded waterways, leading to deadly and expensive collisions? Read Frederik Pohl’s chilling novel The Cool War. To see where this might take us. We need leaders.
A quirky look at the notion that we might go beyond tsunami warning systems and go to tsunami remediation.  
== Our evolutionary past ==
Let's get back to that notion of possibly reviving old-timey species.... There are enough Neanderthal skeletons in the birth to adolescent range to make some interesting comparisons to Homo Sapiens of the same age. The Neanderthal baby at birth has the same size and shape as a human baby but afterwards there is an important divergence. The Neanderthal baby brain follows that of a chimpanzee with regular increase of brain size until adult but the human baby brain grows 250% in the first year vastly outstripping the growth of Neanderthal babies and most of that is in the prefrontal cortex. It is asserted that our specific type of intelligence comes from this crucial first year of life. 

(I portray Neanderthal revival in EXISTENCE.)
Oh, but there were earlier calamities that opened opportunities. The current theory for how multi-cell animals got their start is pretty amazing.  A couple of decades ago my old Caltech housemate Joe Kirschvink stitched together evidence that our world had gone through an “Iceball Earth” phase, a bit less than a billion years ago, when the Sun was cooler and the boundary of its Continually Habitable (‘Goldilocks’) Zone (CHZ) was farther in. Which meant that if too much greenhouse gas was removed by the photosynthetic microbes – especially algae, then swarming the oceans -- a deep cooling was possible. In The Atlantic, Ed Yong writes: 
Around 717 million years ago, the Earth turned into a snowball. Most of the ocean, if not all of it, was frozen at its surface. The land, which was aggregated into one big supercontinent, was also covered in mile-thick ice.” This giga ice age would have lasted till volcanoes replenished (and overshot) the atmosphere’s CO2, causing a melt of incredible speed. Joe thinks it might have happened more than once.
The ice melted, and the surface of the sea reached temperatures of 120 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. By 659 million years ago, the world had transformed from snowball to greenhouse. And just 14 million years later, the ice returned and the planet became a snowball for the second time.” This fascinating (recommended) articlecleverly calls the cycle (as did my longtime colleague George Martin) “a song of ice and fire.”
Bearing some similarities in appearance to modern flying squirrels, the earliest examples of gliding mammals yet discovered are dated to the Jurassic period about 160 million years ago.
And finally....
Growing up with Alexa: Researchers looked at how children ages three to 10 interacted with Alexa, Google Home, a tiny game-playing robot called Cozmo, and a smartphone app called Julie Chatbot. The kids in the study determined that the devices were generally friendly and trustworthy, and they asked a range of questions to get to know the technologies (“Hey Alexa, how old are you?”) and figure out how they worked (“Do you have a phone inside you?”). This articleexplores some of the pros and cons. But it leaves out the obvious, that certain children always had this, in the family servants. It is one more case of middle class humans wanting and getting the chance to live in ways once restricted to lords. (Like having a clean change of clothes; what luxury.)

Okay. Cool stuff.  Ponder Voyager a bit, today!  Watch that PBS special.  Then fight for this glorious, scientific civilization. 

Start by pinning your crazy uncle down and getting him to admit he's been trained to hate scientists! (And every other fact profession.) He'll deny it. Don't let him get away with that.  Take him to the nearest university and introduce him to some. (Yes! Just walk down a hallway and knock on doors. You'll have a great time and learn tons of things you never knew.)

 Sure, you won't change Uncle's mind by much, though every little bit helps. The one who really matters -- your quiet but sane aunt -- will be listening.
-->. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

2017 and Writing

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 09/05/2017 - 11:13
I was asked recently how writing is going these days. Here’s the answer: Slow. Why is it going slow? Well, in no small part, because 2017 is one big gigantic trash fire, for reasons that I suspect are well known and about which I don’t need to delve into detail right now. Because of this […]

Labor Day Weekend Photos

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 09/04/2017 - 12:00
Just some from around the house.  (Arachnophobes, be aware the penultimate picture is of an orb weaver.)   Hope you’re having a good Labor Day long weekend.

Politics: Break away from the usual "axis"!

Contrary Brin - Sat, 09/02/2017 - 15:24
Many of you know that I've long railed against the hoary-lobotomizing so-called "Left-Right Political Axis." Oh, sure, it's one thing to use it as a very rough marker. But anyone who assigns it actual, intellectual meaning is pretty much discredited from the git-go. Want an example?
This "study" of the political divide in America - supposedly thorough and insightful - only proves you can perpetuate a calamity, by asking the wrong questions. Focusing on race, identity politics, immigration and vague economic populism, the perpetrators of this mess never getting to any of the real reasons for today's inchoate rage.  
Just one question would have blown out every other factor, demarcating our cultural divide:
"Which 'elites' in American life do you blame and despise?"
Almost all Americans share a reflex called Suspicion of Authority (SoA), taught by every brave Hollywood underdog tale. Republicans fret about faceless-conniving bureaucracies and Democrats about faceless-conspiring corporations. In normal times, each side can grudgingly admit the other may have a point. But today's enemy elite fixations are more stark. 

Liberals know the U.S. is being taken over by a plutocrat oligarchy. Fox-watching conservatives save their true rage for -- not other races or immigrants -- but scientists, journalists, teachers, doctors, civil servants and every other type of expert-smartypants. Those smarmy-lecturing-patronizing elites are the enemy, and aristocrats can do no wrong.
This is the old underpinning of the US civil war, going back to 1778 when southern tories supported the King and when 1860s confederate soldiers marched for their plantation lords. Today's oligarchy knows their greatest obstacle is the millions of expert fact-users... and hence fact-users are now Enemy #1.
Racism is real and deadly! But it does not map as perfectly onto American conservatism as hatred of fact. (And note: facts tend to kill racism!) 

Alas, while Robert Heinlein predicted all this, more than a century ago, democrats seem compelled to ignore the one factor that correlates perfectly. And bright-but-stupid 'studies' like this one fall into the same, tiresome trap.

See more on how desperately the right is fighting against facts.== Danger! Danger! ==
The most important civil liberties advance of the 21st Century, so far, was when the Obama Administration joined multiple courts in declaring a citizen's right to record the police. I wrote about this 20 years ago in The Transparent Society (1997; see p.160) discussing how vital it is that we can exercise sousveillance at the level of the street, where power can most-directly affect us. I'm generally a moderate fellow, but we must be militant about our right and power to look back at authority, or else our revolution and renaissance and brief era of hope will end.Only now:  "In a free speech ruling that contradicts six other federal circuit courts, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a district court ruling that says Americans do not have a first amendment right to videotape the police, or any public official, in public."
News reports on this are scanty and some claim that this is only about making recordings inside a police station. Even if that's so, I'd claim a steep burden of proof falls on those who would restrict a citizen's right to record.

Sure enough, in a deep-red state, this principle is under attack. 

Only... I blame the good side's lawyers! They base their arguments for sousveillance on the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment and sometimes the Fifth... when it is in fact the under-appreciated SIXTH Amendment that most clearly protects the citizen against abuse by authority. That's the rule granting us the power to compel revelation of facts in our own defense, allowing our ultimate recourse...

...the Truth.

== Inspect your own assumptions ==

If you plan to have credibility - both with your opponents and in your own mind - you should grade and scale your political and social reactions. Yes, your opponent may be bad and wrong.  Indeed, today “he” (and I refer to the whole movement that engendered you-know-who) is very bad.  

Nevertheless, may I offer some impudent, off-axis and contrary suggestions?
First off, be able to question your own assumptions.  Here's a method I’ve provided, called the Questionnaire on Ideology. Take the test! You’ll learn plenty, especially about your own reflexes and underpinning values.
But coming back to our current civil war…
1) Keep in mind ways that things could be a lot worse than they are. (And hence why impeachment is a very bad idea.)  
2)  Don’t just oppose reflexively.  There are times when it’s appropriate to push back directly, as in Sumo wrestling. But many more when it’s best to look for a judo move. Let me repeat (ad nauseam?) one that I wish half a dozen democrat leaders would do, even if they have to hold their noses -- the Short Straw Gambit.
The current storm falling on Senator Diane Feinstein, because she counseled "patience" is a worrisome example of the "left" imitating the right's intemperate tantrums.
3) Win over your opponent’s wavering allies by proving that his caricatures about you are lies. For example, every single metric of U.S. national health - including those that conservatives should care about, like military readiness, entrepreneurship, employment, business startups and trends in deficit spending - all have had better outcomes across democratic administrations. Oh, and Berkeley protestors are not “typical of liberals” whatever Sean Hannity says. Deny them the comfort of their favorite stereotypes.  
4)  Look for concessions that make you look like the moderate reasonable one — before you wage total war on your crazy opponent’s unreasonableness.  For example (and you are not gonna like some of these):
- Build the damn wall.  There is nothing intrinsically evil about maintaining control over our national border. Clinton and Obama each doubled the border patrol and prioritized legal immigration over illegal. (Ponder why Republican factory and farm owners actually preferred the latter.)  As for the “wall”? Sure, Trump’s macho project is an exercise in phallic overcompensation! So? Then use it as a bargaining chip. Make an offer that he’ll leap at.
“Okay. We’ll pass a few billions to upgrade fences and maybe do a stretch of absurd “wall”… if you’ll amnesty the Dreamer Kids and do some bipartisan Obamacare fixes.”  

You don't think he'd leap at that? Prioritize!
- Voter ID. Sure, in principle, over time, we can envision everyone identifying themselves in order to vote. Don't make your opposition about that! Instead make it -- 

“You $%%#! GOP cheaters blatantly are using this "I.D." thing as an excuse as voter suppression.  But that would change if you red-staters finally allocate major funds for compliance assistance, to help the poor, divorced women, the elderly etc. actually get their ID straightened out. That would help them in dozens of ways, far beyond regularizing voter registration (which should be automatic, by the way.) Ideally, both sides would win-win.
"Of course that’s the last thing you cheaters want, as you deliberately close DMV offices in order to make getting ID harder. But if you do offer massive compliance assistance, we'll go along with gradually phasing in voter ID."

- Voter fraud. Donald Trump’s new 'electoral commission' is the most blatant gathering of thieving, lying cheaters seen in our lifetimes. But it can be turned against them: 

“We’ll cooperate in a full scale investigation to find your mythological “dead people voting”… if we get equal representation on this commission and it also goes after right wing cheats like rigged voting machines, purged voter rolls, gerrymandering and Tuesday-only voting.” 

Of course they'd refuse.  But the offer paints them in a corner and makes clear theyare the electoral fraudsters.
== A suggested compromise sure to rouse your anger ==

- And now, a judo offer that will rile nearly all of you up and make you snarl at me!  It starts with this headline: “Trump pushes to sharply cut the number of legal immigrants and move U.S. to a 'merit-based' immigration system.” 
Let’s be clear, illegal immigration was always an absurd issue. Red Americans seem upset that our nation's demographics are changing, but undocumenteds aren’t doing that.  It is legalimmigration that's been altering the face of America, and Democrats truly are responsible for that! Dems have always favored legal immigrants, who can join unions and eventually vote, over undocumenteds, who undercut union wages and cannot either vote or complain about bad work conditions.
To be clear, I am not objecting to America’s changing demographics, per se.  If the kids adopt our open-tolerant-diverse-rambunctious-hopeful-individualistic-scientific-pragmatic-ambitious-generous and fun-loving culture… did I mention culturally diverse?... then we (this civilization and humanity) win. It's the revolutionary, anti-feudal and pro-future meme that makes us different/memorable and worthy of forging tomorrow.
 We are a nation of immigrants.

But all liberal policies aren’t automatically correct in all ways, boys and girls. And you gain credibility when you’ll admit that maybe 5% or 10% were errors. In particular, many aspects of the legal immigration structure that Democrats put in place have been stupid and self-defeating. 

Like basing most of it on an endless web or ‘chain’ of family reunions. Re-uniting separated family members is right and proper for parents and children, and maybe in a few other cases. But I don’t agree when it comes to cousins, aunts, uncles and yes, most siblings. And before you lash out, will you please try to pause and consider just how evil and unfair this system has been?
Take Somalia. A country filled with people who want to come to America. Why should Joe be luckier than Fred, just because Joe has relatives in the U.S.? Joe is already luckier than Fred, because his U.S. relatives send him money and hire lawyers to help him with red tape. But Fred and his daughter Malia are just as deserving of luck!  What if Fred and Malia work harder? What if they strove more diligently for education or to build skills that have a ready market in America?
Is it awful to give some preference to immigrants who worked harder for it? Who will more likely be creative, productive and pay more taxes here? Taxes that will then let us increase our generosity in the world? That is what already happened! The rich nation of immigrants that was America after WWII was the engine that propelled the whole world upward. And yes, that means our criteria should be generous and non-racist and all that... but we can still have criteria.  And 'family reunions' are among the least generous and least morally supportable criteria imaginable. All that policy has ever done is declare: "if you are already luckier than everyone else in the homeland, then you get to stay luckier, as a matter of law."
The new Trump proposal "ends chain migration," Trump said, referring to the preference for uniting family members in the current immigration system. It would implement a points-based system for awarding lawful permanent residency, or green cards.
Dig it, pals. I despise that whole crew and you know how hard I have fought them! How hard I continue to fight them.

But we are better off rank ordering our priorities!  Let's make clear some things are non-negotiable and others… well… we’d talk about, if they ever send us adults to talk to?  That gives us credibility with the wavering adults who are right now pondering jumping off the GOP’s sinking ship.
And it is in those five or ten million residually-sapient American conservatives that our hope for victory will be found.
==  What are YOUR biases? (yes, you) ==
Time to draw attention back to my Questionnaire on Ideology.
Seriously, you are in no position to rant about our political landscape unless you know your place on it. And the stupid-lobotomizing so-called “left-right political axis” is not helpful. In fact, it does vastly more harm than good.
So go ahead. Take the quiz!  The Questionnaire on Ideology will cause you to ask yourself things you had taken for granted. Have the guts.

  . . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

View From a Hotel Window 9/1/17: Washington DC

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 09/01/2017 - 12:50
And out the window is the convention center that the National Book Festival will be at tomorrow. Along with me! I have an event at 3:30 and a signing at 4:30. If you’re in the area I hope to see you there. Otherwise, it’s nice to be back in the area I lived in for […]

The Big Idea: Katherine Locke

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 09/01/2017 - 08:40
Magic is made-up — but sometimes, Katherine Locke argues, it helps to look at the real world through the lens of the imaginary. She’s here to explain why, and how it affects her novel The Girl With the Red Balloon. KATHERINE LOCKE: I’ve been thinking about Luna Lovegood’s glasses lately. I’d forgotten (forgive me, Potterheads) […]

In Which I Am Interviewed For an Hour on the Subject of Photography

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 08/31/2017 - 18:23
By whom? By comedian Jackie Kashian, on her Dork Forest podcast. If you ever wanted to hear me prattle on for an hour on a topic unrelated to my professional capacity, now is your chance. Note: She’s got about five minutes of intro stuff, and then I come in. Enjoy.
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