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Perils of Pandora, Part II: how James Cameron might still set things right

Contrary Brin - Mon, 03/23/2015 - 18:41

Last time, I went on a bit, describing some logical faults in a motion picture that -- in fact -- I deeply admire. After all, criticism can be well-intended. And clearly, James Cameron intended his epic film -- Avatar -- to be much more than just an orgy of visual delights. He meant both to provoke discussion and to teach some valuable lessons about our modern, self-critical, technological and grudgingly-progressive society. His intentions were good...
...and (I am forced to assert, alas) the lessons were utterly blown.
But we'll get back to Avatar in a moment.  First, let's step back and study the trap that snared this brilliant director. And clearly, it's not his fault. Because this snare catches almost everyone.
== Civilization (automatically) has to suck! ==
Let's make this even more general. Most Hollywood films (and nearly all dramatic novels) share one central tenet: society doesn't work.
It seems an almost-biblical injunction.
“Thou shalt never show democratic-western civilization functioning well. Especially, its institutions must never be of any help solving the protagonist’s problems.”
In The Idiot Plot: Why Film and Fiction Routinely Depict Society and its Citizens as Fools, I describe a core reason for this relentlessly consistent rule. But here's the short of it: Your job as a storyteller, above all, is to get the audience rooting for your heroes by keeping them in pulse-pounding jeopardy for 90 minutes of film -- or 500 pages of a novel -- and that central chore is easiest to achieve if you make sure they never get any useful help from boring professionals.
Suppose our movie's protagonist, the poor schlemiel who stumbles upon a terrible danger-scenario in scene one, were to dial 9-1-1 for help... and help came! Skilled pros rushing in, taking charge, doing their jobs well and honestly, saying "we'll take it from here, sir."
It's the very thing we'd want in real life.
But in an action flick? What a buzz kill! Hence the iron rule for storytellers: you must separate your protagonist from meaningful help!
Think about that. A functioning, decent, competent civilization is a drama killer -- because violent drama is the very last thing that taxpaying citizens want in real life!  So we spend heaps of money hiring savvy pros who use diplomacy to avoid war. We pay taxes to create skilled armed forces whose main job is to deter and thus not to fight. We deploy highly trained police who swiftly answer 9-1-1 calls and chase bad guys. Then we hire attorneys to watch the police, and regulators to watch the attorneys, and activists to watch regulators. (And I have a book about this process, called The Transparent Society.)  

Every hour of every day, emergency professionals stand ready to leap into action because we want most of the danger removed from daily life...
 ... but we don't want it sucked out of our movies and novels! People yearn to have it both ways. They demand that all the cogs and gears of responsible civilization keep turning... but we also want to fantasize that none of it works!
There is, in fact, a sliding scale of how competent our civil servants are allowed to be, in proportion to the power of the villains in a film.
At one extreme -- say, Independence Day -- the heavies are so bad-ass that even the U.S. government and military are allowed to be both good and competent! So they can act as spear-carrier backups to the one or two main heroes.  (When else do you see that happening?)
The Idiot Plot syndrome extends to anyone who might have prevented the problem. They must be either stupid, incompetent or in cahoots with the villains.
Take every Michael Crichton book or film, revolving around some horrible misuse of science. In each case, the calamitous new technology was developed in secret. Why? Because the normal give and take of open scientific transparency would swiftly eliminate nearly all of the dopey failure modes that drive every Crichtonian plot.
("Hey, Jurassic Park dudes. Try this. Only make HERBIVORES first! A billion people will pay to come. And you’ll only have to pay for the lofty-elegiacal half of the John Williams musical score. Not the scary half.") 
You can see why common sense is avoided, at all cost, in Hollywood films.
But does it have to be avoided so completely?

== Our neighbors all go ba-a-a-a! ==
Oh, and this extends beyond public institutions. We also love to fantasize that our neighbors are all fools. How many westerns portrayed the town-full-of-cowards – when in fact nearly every frontier village was packed with Civil War veterans? Why do no brave bystanders rush to tackle the Joker’s henchmen, despite the fact that almost every mass shooter in real life has been brought down that way? (And such heroes thwarted the hijackers of flight UA93, the only action that worked on that awful day - 9/11.) 

Again, this rule has one core purpose, to keep the protagonist in peril by denying her or him storykilling help -- but it also appeals to the viewer's own vanity! Don't we all love picturing ourselves as the savvy ones, surrounded by a myriad neighbors who are clueless as sheep?
There are many help-suppression tricks, and not all of them are cheats! In fact, you must do it, to some extent - as a director or action writer - in order to keep your heroes in jeopardy**. But is it too much to ask you directors out there to do this imaginatively, without preaching that “society and its institutions and citizens are all automatically stupid?”  It has happened, now and then! Films like Ransom, The Fugitive, Sleeping with the Enemy, and so on come up with clever reasons why the heroine cannot call for skilled help from society or neighbors.
A good storyteller will come up with clever, non-cliché ways to keep the hero in jeopardy despite being a member of a pretty decent civilization.  One that's trying to get better all the time. (Or as I depict here.) 
The way that citizen James Cameron would personally count on a decent civilization to come rushing to his aid, should he ever need help. Even though he went to great pains, portraying that civilization as vile, in Avatar.
== Avatar did more harm than good ==
Bearing all of that in mind, let's return to my list of ways that this wonderful epic and visual feast - alas - missed its intended goal... coaxing us to be better people.
7) The dramatic situation conveyed by Avatar is both lazy and poisonous… making it typical.
Yes the "dances with others" plot-line works. It takes some of the best aspects of Joseph Campbell’s classic hero's journey, weaves in a love story, hammers the brave-underdogs theme and then does the neo-western thing -- fascination with the alien, the different and foreignAll very well and good. But we’ve seen that when fascination-with-other becomes hatred-of-us, we tread dangerous ground.
Especially when you recall point #2. The major difference between Avatar's scenario and other dances-with tales -- its setting in the future. Our future. The corrupt westerners committing these crimes aren't our benighted ancestors, who -- barely out of the caves -- had a lot to learn. Now it's our descendants doing all the awful, deliberate crimes. Obstinately refusing to see parallels in their own history or to learn from past tragedies.
And heckfire -- it could happen! 
In the world of Avatar, it seems our best efforts did not bring forth new generations raised in good intentions and avoiding mistakes of the past. The human improvability that James Cameron himself represents – a civilization that listened to Ghandi and Martin Luther King and that tries every day to overcome our Cro Magnon flaws -- went no further in the next two centuries.
Doesn't that mean that Avatar itself – and guilt-tripping movies like it -- failed to make those centuries any better? Bummer.
Again, I say all this in all friendship. We must speed up the pace by which we humans improve our ethics, compassion and commitment to responsible care... especially of this magnificent planet! So why does Avatar fail?
Because those who would be persuaded by simple guilt trips already have been converted by past guilt trips... from Soylent Green and Silent Running to Fern Gully and the works of Ursula K. LeGuin.  Guilt flagellations and "we're-all-so-awful" lamentations will not sway the remainder who wallow in blithe shortsightedness. They recognize a finger-wagging lecture and - smirking - turn it off.
Meanwhile, alas, Avatar proclaims, that our children will not learn, despite all we say and do. Our vileness is rooted in inherent human nature.  The best thing is for humanity fail.  And heroic humans ought to help ensure that happens.

Is there a way out?   Next we'll explore some ways that Mr. Cameron might redeem all this, and actually deliver on his good intentions.

Continue to Part III...(coming soon!)

or return to Part I: Perils of Pandora


. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

Novel Completion Queries, Day Eight

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 03/23/2015 - 10:31
Is the novel finished? NO Today’s question: In honor of convention runner Peggy Rae Sapienza, who passed away yesterday: Name the first convention you went to. It can be a science fiction/comics/nerd-oriented convention (which I suspect is most typical for this crowd), but I’d also count conventions/shows for other enthusiasms as well — cars, video … Continue reading Novel Completion Queries, Day Eight →

RIP, Peggy Rae Sapienza

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 03/23/2015 - 09:31
Saw these tweets this morning: I regret to inform you of the passing of my mother, Peggy Rae Sapienza, '98 Bucconeer #WorldCon chair, '07 Nippon North American Agent… — Eric Pavlat (@EricPavlat) March 23, 2015 … co-chair of #WorldFantasyConvention (#NebulaAwards) for #WSFS for the last few years, mother of 2, grandmother of 8, wife to … Continue reading RIP, Peggy Rae Sapienza →

Novel Completion Queries, Day Seven

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 03/22/2015 - 11:37
Is the novel finished? NO Today’s question: Salted caramel. Thoughts? My answer: I mean, I like it well enough when I have it. But I think the craze got a little carried away. Not everything has to be salted. You? (Extra credit: Do you pronounce “caramel” as “Care-a-mel” or “car-mel”? I usually tend toward the … Continue reading Novel Completion Queries, Day Seven →

Perils of Pandora (Part I) -- why Avatar (tragically) fails to make us any better

Contrary Brin - Sat, 03/21/2015 - 13:52

Well it seems we're all going back to Planet Pandora. And why not? With the proclamation of a coming sequel to the blockbuster sci-fi epic Avatar -- no, make that three sequels -- the near-universal response from one and all has been "Sure! Just tell me much money to bring and where to stand in line!" 

Even the recent announcement of a one year production delay hasn't dampened the ardor and anticipation.
James Cameron's epic was the most important science fiction film of the first decade of the 21st Century, least of all because it proved that animation tools have matured enough to portray almost any story. For example, the vivid animal characters in Life of Pi. Or else -- perhaps someday soon -- dolphins piloting starships? 

(An aside: I liked Christopher Nolan's Interstellar even more, in part because it contained more for my inner adult... a theme that I'll develop here.)
But of course, Avatar was about much more than special effects. Director-producer James Cameron often conveys fascinating messages. He wants to entertain everyone, but also to make some members of the audience think. Hence, it is the lessons of Avatar that I plan to engage and dissect here, today... and across two more installments.

Specifically, did James Cameron succeed in his blatant goal with Avatar -- to craft a great teaching moment? *
Okay then, regarding Avatar, let's start by admitting that --
1) James Cameron's heart is in the right place.
Hm, well. In a sci fi context, you can't take the clichéd meaning of that statement for granted! In fact, I have no direct knowledge of JC’s cardiopulmonary placement....
Seriously, there's no question that Mr. Cameron means well.He's intent on doing more than just wrestle cash out of the pockets of a billion people. He wants them to behave better. To care more. To broaden their horizons of tolerance, diversity, vision and possibility. Moreover, he's worried about how sketchily we're handling our duty as planetary managers. All of these are causes that I share and that I try (with more limited reach) to convey in works like Earth and Existence
So, I'll not criticize James Cameron for using his art to help make a better world. 

Ah, but with this clear aim, how well did Mr. Cameron succeed? And did this messianic ambition harm his art? Hold that thought.
2) Almost every review of Avatar compares the plot to Dances with Wolves…
…or other classic cautionary tales that preached similar values -- e.g. Pocahantas, Fern Gully, Silent Running, or Ursula K. LeGuin's The Word for World is Forest -- all of them portraying powerfully rapacious and greedy modern people (e.g. male European invaders of North America) in tense conflict with a group or tribe that -- albeit technologically primitive -- possesses superior, earthy wisdom. Whereupon one of the invaders goes native and joins the oppressed tribe, aiming to help them resist his own, morally-misbegotten, original folk.
At surface, that is indeed what we see in Avatar. Some of the sillier, satirical references to this overlap -- such as "Dances with (very tall) Smurfs" or "Lawrence of Ferngully" -- are both snarky and funny. I hear that Cameron takes them in good humor. A successful person can. (Watch: Everything Wrong with Avatar in 4 minutes!)
Now, I prefer storytelling that's less derivative. A bright fellow like James Cameron should be helping to lead Hollywood out of its current creativity-funk -- a dismal cycle of remakes, comic book reworks and rehashing old tropes -- that is resisted with consistency only by Christopher Nolan and Alfonso Cuaron. Even Steven Spielberg has retreated (albeit brilliantly) into retelling old tales. Perhaps we just live in cowardly times.
Hence, the derivative-cloned story is not what bothered me about Avatar. When I go see a flick, I adjust expectations and try to enjoy each movie in the spirit that it's offered. Generally, that requires cranking my originalitydial way down, along with the logic meter. For Avatar, I then spun up my cool fun and gosh wow androot-for-underdog dials ... and wound up enjoying it immensely!
Alas, A couple of other scales… well… I wish I hadn't been forced to zero them out.
3) A key point: Avatardepicts an evil-westerners-type story unfolding in our future.
Where Dances with Wolvesand Pocahantas were set in the past -- and Fern Gully in the approximate-fantasy present -- James Cameron sets his story in a time-to-come, after humanity has had another 200 years of experience, learning and technological progress -- plenty of time to discuss its own flaws, failings and potential for righting wrongs. Its potential for compassion and genius.
Ponder how our own values have grown more broad and subtle, in just the last 50 years, since Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. A journey that’s incomplete! Indeed, Cameron hopes to propel forward our grand conversation about human self-improvement. A conversation that will be taken up by our children, and theirs. A conversation -- and please consider this carefully -- whose past will have included movies like Avatar.
Ponder the irony. Avatar portrays a future in which films like Cameron's have apparently achieved nothing! We have learned zilch, despite the best efforts of billions of sincere people, including James Cameron. The social progress and rising acceptance that emerged from 1945 to 2015 stopped dead, and even reversed.
Oh, there've been changes, between our present and the future shown in Avatar. We've not only become interstellar travelers, but have invented a wondrous method for putting our minds literally into the bodies of other beings and walking around for a mile or more in their skins. (Not too unlike the technology that I posit - but handle very differently - in Kiln People.) The avatar-embedding machinery at the core of the story is potentially the greatest tool for tolerance, empathy and cultural learning imaginable! Indeed, that is how Cameron portrays it being used...by one person. Maybe two.
Indeed, we've just set the stage for Avatar'smoral collapse: rooted in the fact that thisversion of the "dances with others" scenario is set in a depressingly ordained-awful future.            Consider.  With Pocohantas and Dances With Wolves, the audience contemplates the folowing implicit lesson:
"We come from a savage past, when immature ancestors did terrible things, while a few heroes lit candles in the darkness. Those mistakes still cling to us. Let's learn from our past and continue to do better."
In sharp contrast - and without intending it - by setting the very same story in the future, Cameron preaches:
"Humans are hopelessly rotten. They will be oppressors with horrible institutions, no matter how advanced we get and no matter how many tools of empathy we develop."Films like this one won’t help, either.  "Give up."
To be clear -- that's not what he meant to teach!  

But it is exactly how people felt, upon leaving the theaters.

            “I wish I were Na’vi, instead of a cursed human.             "Or worse – an American.             “I can’t wait till the next time I can revisit Pandora and pretend I am defeating scuzzy humans!            "Especially Americans.”
 4)  A movie asserting to be all about native tribal life and ecology ignores everything we know about either. 
While seated in the audience, enjoying the color, beauty and action of Avatar, we are so busy being visually awed -- and receiving let's-all-cooperate-with-nature messages -- that we blithely accept a raft of contradictions. For example:
(a) On Earth, all functioning ecosystems are about competition, predation and death. Animals in nature endure lives that are vastly more tense and fretful than ours, not more placid and relaxed. Hunger lurks just ahead. Brutal attack and death are always on the minds of predator and prey and almost everyone, even the lion, dies violently. In other words, Disney lied to us.
But on Pandora? Sure we do glimpse a couple of predators and some hunting by the Na'vi, but all of it softened and isolated. Nature, for the most part, is a cross between Lewis Carroll and Land of the Sugarplum Fairies.
(b) The Na'vi are a warrior people! Worthy of respect, much as we are taught to respect the Lakota (Sioux) - the tribe that gets all the motion pictures about Native Americans, from Little Big Man to Dances With Wolves. And okay, the Na'vi sure do act like noble warriors cloned from the American plains... except...
... except who have these "warriors" been fighting, all those years and eons before Earthlings came?
At least in Dances With Wolves there's no evasion. The Lakota are shown as what they gladly acknowledged themselves to be, at the time – a brutally violent people, yet somehow noble and endearing -- while the equally violent whites were not.
Okay. Fine. But in Avatar that whole background is wiped away from view. They get to be gruff, adorably macho warriors, without any context of endlessly vicious tribal war.
(c) As if to illustrate that fact, just like in Dances With Wolves, the "noble" natives in Avatar come that close to treacherously slaying the protagonist several times, once by a cowardly arrow in the back, without the slightest personal grievance or provocation from either Lieutenant Dunbar or Jake Sully, offering them no opportunities to honorably defend themselves.  In the Costner film, they are dissuaded by a medicine man saying "let's not kill him today." In Avatar, the same brief mercy derives from magical (or coincidental) symbolism. Ah, how admirably better that is, than -- say -- due process of law.          
There are scads of similar oversimplifications that do not strengthen James Cameron's case. But the key point is that none of them were necessary, even under the pressure of a 3 hour run-time. The story and lessons could have been conveyed, with the same visuals and characters and overall plot, without patronizing us. Without pressing the director's thumb on the scale.
Which brings us to a major point --
5) The Na'vi are portrayed as justified to be both obstinate and incurious. 
Indeed, some of the traits that Hollywood adores in the upper plains nomads were despised by many neighboring tribes of the time. Obdurate insistence on tribal changelessness, macho-male dominance and utter unwillingness to adapt to powerful new ways. (Except adopting the white man's weapons which, of course, the Na'vi do, as well.) Utter contempt for any thought of compromise. Plus a recurring rash impulsiveness that kept giving the most evil-despicable 19th Century white men hypocritical excuses to start the next war. 
Why do no sympathetic Hollywood movies sing paeans to tribes who exhibited traits like calmness, curiosity and adaptability, as shown by the Iroquois and Cherokee nations, who -- by the way -- respected women and who invented democratic methods that were models to the American founders? Tribes whose principal heroes included diplomats, inventors and intellectuals -- like Hiawatha and Sequoia -- instead of alwaysbrave, reckless raiders on horseback? Hey, I don’t disdain the admirable qualities of Crazy Horse; he deserves his new monument in the Black Hills! But for Hollywood to fixate only on that kind of Native American hero isn't respectful. It is yet another kind of patronization.
Getting back to Avatar, it is one thing to see a native people who are in tune with their world preaching to us that we should try this at home. Terrific. Yay, that!
But it is quite another to be finger-wagged by folks who never faced the temptations that we faced, and who yawn in complete lack of interest when they meet people who are able to cross the vast gulf between the f%#ng stars!
All right, compassion, love, courage and eco-oneness rank high in the pantheon of traits. But right after those, can you think of any gift more admirable than curiosity? In Avatar, there are humans who express all four!
Show me one Na'vi who does.
6) Other critics: The White Messiah Complex.
This brings us to one of the more obvious criticisms of Avatar, bruited by reviewers like David Brooks and John Podhoretz, who bemoan the “white messiah complex.”
It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic... that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades... that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.” -- writes David Brooks.

Hm, well… duh? And you’re shocked, shocked (!) that a film-maker who is gambling hundreds of millions of dollars would go with a core protagonist who is guaranteed familiarity and viewer identification in his core audience? Ever hear of a film called Rapa Nui? I didn’t think so.

No, I won’t carp on James Cameron for centering his story upon Jake Sully. The creator of Sarah Conner and the kickass girl-marines of Aliens has nothing to apologize for.  We owe him some benefit of the doubt.

Indeed, one could reverse the complaint. Clearly, the most relentless preaching in Avatar is not about the technological or tactical or messianic talents of Jake Sully, but the moral and esthetic superiority of the Na’vi, along with the beyond-all-redemption vileness of every aspect of western civilization.

== Sympathy for the alien… and ourselves? ==

Elsewhere I talk about our quirky Western/American habit of relentless self-criticism. Our reflex to dismiss our own culture’s value while extolling the other. (See my essay: The Dogma of Otherness.) Sure, it’s not universal, even among Californians -- we all know plenty of neighbors who display smug insularity, chauvinistic nativism and even xenophobia. But the counter-trend has been powerful for more than two generations, and it has won more battles than it lost.

For example the widespread notion that ‘greater wisdom’ is to be found in eastern mysticism has ranged from the very real value that Steve Jobs got from his years in an ashram, to the mild sense of no-excuses discipline my kids received from their karate instructor... all the way to the hysterically pathetic reverence that Star Wars fans give to a nasty little faux-guru sock puppet named “Yoda,” who never does or says a single thing that’s verifiably wise, or even helpful! At the far extreme are those westerners who reflexively despise everything about their own culture and give unlimited excuses for anything that's not.
Consider how this theme -- “us is bad; others is good” - often plays in science fiction films. Aliens have to be pretty darned vicious and ugly (e.g. Independence Day) in order to fill the villain role. And District Nine showed that even nasty appearance no longer disqualifies the other from sympathetic treatment.        
Look, I know this cultural phase is necessary, in order to help break lots of bad-old habits that go back 60 centuries. My own life-long fascination (in both science and fiction) with the other -- ranging from the expanse of human diversity to animal minds, to possible alien or artificial intelligences -- surely stems from the Otherness meme that I absorbed from an early age. I'm glad of this cultural innovation, and I try my best to help promote it.
Alas, we are prevented from even noticing that this meme is operating. Or the blatant fact that it is special, recent, and mostly unique to the neo-west. Name one another culture that ever preached to its children: “admire any other civilization but always criticize your own!  No prior people did that. Indeed, no other culture benefitedas much as we have from relentlessly seeking our own flaws and finding the positive in others. Or incorporating a goulash of cultures within itself.
We now view diversity as strength! And we got to that point by relentlessly self-criticizing 6000 year old habits of intolerance that most cultures took for granted.            All right, that’s a difficult irony to convey. Though the brilliant 1980s sci fi film Alien Nation managed to do it, combining some of the traditional, otherness-moralistic chiding with a few grains of rare praise and approval.
 That film taught the audience a more subtle lesson:
            “You people still have a long, long way to go, before you're truly decent or civilized.             "But you are getting better! You’ve come far, in fact.             "And we believe you can go farther still.”            Is that so hard to do? Mix in a little attaboy reinforcement, amid the chiding?
Apparently it is. Because outside of Alien Nation – and Star Trek, of course – I can think of no other example from Hollywood, where the intolerance-scolding message was ever sweetened with a little encouragement. A little hope.
It could easily have been done, in Avatar.  But it wasn’t.
----------
*A personal footnote: I don't hold against Cameron my own temporal misfortune - that Kevin Costner's film version of my novel The Postman was crushed in theaters by Cameron's Titanic. C'est la vie and folks can read elsewhere what I think of Costner's flick
=============
(coming soon) Continue to Part II: How James Cameron might still set things right... 
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

Novel Completion Queries, Day Six

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sat, 03/21/2015 - 10:21
Is the novel finished? NO Today’s question: Favorite Saturday morning cartoon, if you are of an age to remember when cartoons were only shown on Saturday morning (if you’re too young for that, spare a moment for those of us who suffered in such deprivation). My answer: The Bugs Bunny show (in its various incarnations) because … Continue reading Novel Completion Queries, Day Six →

In Which Mary Robinette Kowal Reads My Sexy, Sexy Tweets

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sat, 03/21/2015 - 00:21
So yesterday evening I was feeling saucy and decided to invite all of Twitter in my Lair of Sexiness™. It went a little something like this: I have retired to the bedroom, LADIES. And GENTLEMEN. And THOSE OF A CERTAIN GENDER FLUIDITY. You are ALL welcome in my LAIR. (porn music) — John Scalzi (@scalzi) March … Continue reading In Which Mary Robinette Kowal Reads My Sexy, Sexy Tweets →

Novel Completion Queries, Day Five

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 03/20/2015 - 10:04
Is the novel finished? NO Today’s question: What year of your education do you remember as being your best — “best” for whatever metric you like (most enjoyable, most academically successful, most memorable, etc, or any combination). Choose any year between kindergarten and the completion of your formal education. My answer: I’d say it was my … Continue reading Novel Completion Queries, Day Five →

Paths to Uplift

Contrary Brin - Thu, 03/19/2015 - 13:50
== Increasing brain size ==
According to new research, just a bit of DNA explains human's big brains: The 5% or so DNA difference between chimps and humans is being explored, bit by bit. “One stretch of DNA looked promising because it was near a gene that's known to be involved in brain development. The researchers took the chimp version of this DNA and put it into mouse embryos. They took other mouse embryos and put in the human version…. Just before birth, mice with the human DNA had brains that were noticeably larger — about 12 percent bigger than the brains of mice with the chimp DNA.” Planet of the Mice?
Most of the genetic differences between humans and chimps are actually found in DNA that codes for regulation rather than actual proteins… when genes get turned off and on.

Indeed, it now seems so simple to insert human-style neo-cortex genes into chimpanzees that the very idea that someone, somewhere won’t do it is simply laughable. (Coincidence, last night we watched “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” - better than expected! Very well-written-directed.) 

Face it -- this experiment to alter one or two chimp genes will happen! We need to discuss this now, and not from the reflexive left or right-handed puritanical perspective, but beginning the long, pragmatic discussion over how to do it right, minimizing bad outcomes. Maximizing “good.” But above all, keeping it in the open, where mistakes can be caught. Driving it underground is a sure fire way to get exactly your simplistic, Hollywood-Crichtonian nightmares.
What I find strange is that no one sees this as a two way street. How egotistical and contemptuous to assume that chimps have been doing no evolving of their own, during the last 6 million years! Me? I want their gene for different ligament attachment points, making them twice as strong as humans. What? We do uplift and get nothing in return?
Oh, and please find for me where you saw THAT ever mentioned, before. If not, then let’s call it... the Brin Swap.


Oh, but the genetic revolution goes way, way farther than that.  You will deem this lengthy article way, Way interesting: Engineering the Perfect Baby.  Such times.
Which  prompts a question — which science fictional scenario are we on the verge of unfolding? Resurrection of past species? (Not dinosaurs but perhaps Mammoths and Neanderthals, as in Existence.)  No, that’s not what this is about. Augmentation of higher animals, as in my Uplift  Series?  Oh certainly there will be some eager beavers who will splice human hare5 genes into chimps — get ready for that fire storm! (See my article: Will We Uplift Animals to Sapience?)
But other scenarios leap to mind. Like, well, have any of you read Poul Anderson’s novel Brain Wave? Seriously. What if this spread to all mammals? Then we had better get smarter, too. An outcome both to be desired… and to keep us up at night with fretful imaginings.
== Uplifting children..and robots ==

In the French newspaper of record - Le Monde - here’s an article about "uplifting animals" - with a section quoting yours truly: Faut-il augmenter les animaux? as well as this French piece about Optimistic SF.
Neoteny - the extension of childhood for ever-longer periods - was part of how we humans developed agile and adaptable intelligence. (So I argued in a paper, twenty years ago.) Now research shows this trend to be extending even farther in the latest generation: True adulthood doesn't begin until age 25. This has many aspects, beyond offering hope for the parents of slow-maturing teens. It also sheds light on the one process that ever created "sapience," that we know of.  Yet, it is a process seldom discussed in artificial intelligence circles! …
And what about raising robots?  Robots are increasingly able to learn and adapt. Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, who writes that we have no right to impose any "values" on new AI who might be smarter than us.  He asserts the concept is ridiculous and unprecedented. ... Um... tell that to ten thousand generations of... parents
== Our Evolutionary Roots ==
For a new view of Earth's evolutionary past...the world's largest Tree of Life visualizes 50,000 species across time as a spiral, developed by researchers at Temple University. 

Extreme adaptation: Scientists studying squid have found the first example of an animal editing its own genetic makeup on-the-fly to modify most of its proteins, enabling adjustments to its immediate surroundings. "It was astonishing to find that 60 percent of the squid RNA transcripts were edited. The fruit fly, for the sake of comparison, is thought to edit only 3% of its makeup.”  And… "We would like to understand better how prevalent this phenomenon is in the animal world. How is it regulated? How is it exploited to confer adaptability?"
Swansong biospheres: refuges for life and novel microbial biospheres on terrestrial planets near the end oftheir habitable lifetimes. Take a look at this article by Jack T. O'Malley-James et al. The future biosphere on Earth (as with its past) will be made up predominantly of unicellular micro-organisms. Unicellular life was probably present for at least 2.5 Gyr before multicellular life appeared and will likely be the only form of life capable of surviving on the planet in the far future, when the ageing Sun causes environmental conditions to become more hostile to more complex forms of life. Therefore, it is statistically more likely that habitable Earth-like exoplanets we discover will be at a stage in their habitable lifetime more conducive to supporting unicellular, rather than multicellular life.   
You might enjoy Evolve: The game of Unnatural Selection: A card game from New Horizon Games where you "build your own animal," based on evolutionary principles, then mutate your creature to survive in diverse ecological settings and challenges. Evolve your path to success!
== Where we were ==
Archaeologists reveal how past civilizations, though technologically less potent, still affected the environment. “What the scientists found was that while evidence showed a spike in trace element levels around 1480 – when the Incas began to expand their empire and use bismuth deposits to make a new type of bronze alloy – the period following the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire in 1533 saw a huge jump in the levels of chromium, molybdenum, antimony and lead that was not surpassed until the industrial revolution.” 
The Stoned Age? This professor compiled evidence from around the world that Neolithic people were taking drugs derived from cacti in 8,600BC and that they were cultivating opium poppies by around 6000BC.

Across that long era, the drug related death rate must have been phenomenal, because humans are vastly better than other mammals at "saying no to addictions." That kind of trait can only come from... death.
Finally...Have we found alien microbes? A fascinating article about a whole new realm of microbes. These strains must be grown on a cathode, not in a petri dish. And they indicate an immense and largely alien ecosystem here on Earth. The National Science Foundation calls it the “dark energy biosphere” and is funding studies of this parallel microbial universe, in which some bacteria can use electrons directly, instead of taking them from glucose… or deposit electrons by converting magnesium dioxide, instead of dumping them into Oxygen.
This discovery may be related to an earlier bacterial talent that I told you about…  the ability to connect into sausage-link cables thousands of cells long. “As yet there is no indication whether Rowe’s electric bacteria form these kinds of cables… but (a researcher) speculates that the cables are like drinking straws, allowing bacteria buried deep in sediment to breathe from the top of the pile by pushing electrons up through the tube, from one cell to the next.”  . . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

Novel Completion Queries, Day Four

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 03/19/2015 - 09:31
Is the novel finished? NO Today’s question: Cheese or beer. You must choose one. When you choose one, you are never allowed to have the other again. Which do you choose? (Note: no “cheese made from beer” or “beer made from cheese” loopholes allowed.) Explain your answer if you wish. Yes, it’s a hard choice. It’s … Continue reading Novel Completion Queries, Day Four →

Novel Completion Queries, Day Three

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 03/18/2015 - 08:31
Is the novel finished? NO Today’s question: Assuming the ethical considerations could somehow be squared away, would you want a monkey for a pet? That’s a monkey, not an ape (don’t have apes as pets. It’s a bad idea.) My answer: Having a questionably domesticated animal with opposable thumbs in one’s house seems fraught with … Continue reading Novel Completion Queries, Day Three →

Novel Completion Queries, Day Two

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 03/17/2015 - 10:51
Is the novel finished? NO Today’s question: Name a favorite song in a genre that you don’t typically listen to. My answer: “My Friend (So Long)” by DC Talk, in the Contemporary Christian genre: Because it’s a pretty sassy song in which (as I understand it) the band addresses the accusations that they sold out … Continue reading Novel Completion Queries, Day Two →

The Big Idea: Brian Upton

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 03/17/2015 - 09:28
It’s fair to say that Brain Upton knows about a bit about video games: He’s the co-founder of games studio Redstorm Entertainment, was the lead designer of several games there, and currently works at Sony. It’s also fair to say that Upton has thought about what game design means more than most people ever will. … Continue reading The Big Idea: Brian Upton →

New Books and ARCs, 3/16/15

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 03/16/2015 - 16:16
Some really nice names and titles in this stack. See something that catches your eye? Let me know in the comments.

Geoengineering and Climate Change

Contrary Brin - Mon, 03/16/2015 - 13:13

A  National Academy of Sciences panel said that, with proper governance and other safeguards,  we should commence more research on geoengineering — technologies that might let himanity deliberately intervene in nature to counter climate change.  With the planet facing potentially severe impacts from global warming in coming decades, drastically reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases was by far the best way to mitigate the effects of a warming planet. But society would be foolish not to at least carefully commence small scale experiments looking into other means of reducing the net harm.

Geoengineering options generally fall into two categories: capturing and storing some of the carbon dioxide that has already been emitted, so that the atmosphere traps less heat, or reflecting more sunlight away from the earth so there is less heat to start with.

Opponents of geoengineering have long argued that even conducting research on the subject presents a moral hazard that could distract society from the necessary task of reducing the emissions that are causing warming in the first place.

I have long held that this reflex reveals  a monomaniacal insanity, almost 1% as bad as the insanity of the climate denialist cult.  (Yes, that insane.)   Such zero-sum, "don't-negotiate" thinking will doom us all, whether it comes (mostly) from the right or else (in this case) from the left.  We need to remember that a war has many fronts.  This one -- against wastrel stupidity and short-sightedness -- has many fronts.

(PS... the one geoengineering method with the best promise of simply emulating what nature does, herself, to remove CO2 in all-natural ways, is ocean fertilization.  Preliminary results have been all-good and with zero substantial ore verifiably measurable bad outcomes. It is inherently stoppable -- unlike some of the scary proposals to inject aerosals into the upper atmosphere.  Moreover, ocean fertilization offers a possible side benefit of richer fisheries. Experiments in this method are self-limiting and hence should continue, or be encouraged -- under very close supervision.)

== Burden of Proof ==
American scientists and general public have widely differing views about certain scientific issues, as per a recent survey. Climate change and genetically altered food are the two subjects in which prominent differences can be observed.Cause and effect tend to be murky in elastic, multivariable and non-linear systems.  The Denialist Cult uses this relentlessly to show that the observed correlations between theory and observation are still rough and hence "there's doubt"... leading thereupon to the howler... that we should do nothing till the correlations become perfect.I have learned not to go sumo with them over correlations graphs. It is far more effective to show that they are being profoundly and stunningly illogical, demanding "more research" while their side has sabotaged climate investigators at every turn, canceling satellites, slashing atmospherics budgets and ordering NASA and NOAA not to look Earthward. At intervals, the Bush Administration, various GOP-controlled Congressional committees, and most recently the State of Florida have banned discussion of these topics and even forbidden mention of "climate" or "rising seas"... a special irony in Florida, which is already suffering from rising seas.

Those actions -- and countless more -- show they want the obscurity and doubt. It is not a flaw, but a feature. Hence the War on Science.

But here is where you can and must corner them.It is in the matter of Burden of Proof that you'll find the weak point in the incantations that they rely on, concocted at Heritage and AEI and Fox, at the behest of coal barons and petro-sheiks. Dig this well, and learn how to hammer it home:When a scientific field has competitively settled on a Standard Model, that SM is not always right!  But it is usually right -- to the limits of last year's instrumentation. 

While the Standard Model in any field normally improves incrementally, under relentless competitive pressure by young upstart scientists, outsiders are free to try to topple the whole SM... but thos outsiders and upstarts bear the burden of proof. The professionals are obliged to take note of such proof... but they are not obliged to prove the SM over and over and over again to politically propelled critics. They get plenty of challenges already, from their own grad students.

Yes, some of you will twist what I just said into sounding like elitism and appealing to authority.  Bull. If that is your reflex then you simply do not understand what I just said.  You do not understand science -- the most vibrantly competitive and productive and honest field of endeavor our species ever invented. Ingrates shrug off all the ways they have benefited from these traits of science, and that's fine. It's a free country and -- unlike all the priesthoods of the past -- scientists don't demand worship. But if you cannot grasp your burden of proof, when decrying some field's Standard Model -- well-tested and credited by women and men who are verifiably vastly smarter than you are, then all you are being is a yammer-puss.

Put it in stark terms. A society that ignores a major scientific model, backed by 97% of the smart men and women who turned the old, joke of a 4 hour weather forecast into a 10 DAY miracle is clearly a very stupid society.
Followup in the news: As illustrated by the recent Ebola outbreak, global air travel has made it far easier for disease to spread. But climate change, which is shuffling habitable zones for pathogen-carrying animals, is poised to make future outbreaks of infectious diseases such as Ebola, H1N1 and TB worse, and more frequent.  

One more of a myriad things for which members -- and especially the promoters -- of the Denialist Cult will be held accountable, beyond "just" the inundation of coastal lands and cities. 

When the tort suits are settled, around 2080, no one named Koch or Murdoch will own even a dime.
== Technology Snippets ==
Exciting things at UCSD, which has been named the manager and analysis center for the XPRIZE Tricorder Challenge.  “Of course, the tricorder in Star Trek was originally fantasy, a wonderful bit of science fiction,” but the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE is a 3.5-year global competition that will award $10 million to teams that develop a consumer-friendly device capable of diagnosing a set of 15 conditions and capturing metrics for health.
Back in the 1980s I worked on a system that would do both 3D TV and 3D manufacturing using intersecting laser beams, rather than the fake-cludged methods used today -- writing 2D images on a screen, to be interpolated by glasses or perspective… or making 3D objects by writing successive, rising or descending layers of 2D solids on a platform. Now, at last, we are seeing some alternative ideas. In one case, high intensity converging light causes plasma emission from spots on mid air.
Here at the NIAC conference I've just seen another implementation of the "moving 2D table" approach, a rapidly rising and falling table gets written-on by a laser, producing a sort of 3D effect. 
Such visionary leadership from the New York Times of 1985!  “The limitations come from what people actually do with computers, as opposed to what the marketers expect them to do. On the whole, people don't want to lug a computer with them to the beach or on a train to while away hours they would rather spend reading the sports or business section of the newspaper. Somehow, the microcomputer industry has assumed that everyone would love to have a keyboard grafted on as an extension of their fingers. It just is not so.”  Where are Clarke’s Three Laws when you need em?

. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)

Novel Completion Queries, Day One

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 03/16/2015 - 08:21
Is the novel finished? NO Today’s question: Talk about your first serious crush. It can be someone you knew, or a celebrity crush. If someone you knew, do you still know that person? My answer: It was Karin Woo, back in 7th grade. I was obnoxious to her, she would shove me into my locker, … Continue reading Novel Completion Queries, Day One →

Security Certificate Alerts on Whatever — Don’t Panic!

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 03/15/2015 - 12:48
Every once in a while I get an email or other notification from someone about their browser (usually Chrome but occasionally Firefox) warning them that Whatever is insecure and asking them if they really want to continue onto the site. In the interest of quelling concerns and also not having to write this up every … Continue reading Security Certificate Alerts on Whatever — Don’t Panic! →

Bart Blauser, RIP

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 03/15/2015 - 09:46
I’d like to take a moment here to note the passing of Bart Blauser, who was Krissy’s uncle, earlier this month, and whose life we celebrated yesterday at a memorial service with family and friends. Pretty simply, Bart was a fine example of “salt of the earth”: A good and decent man who loved his family and … Continue reading Bart Blauser, RIP →

Best Dad Ever

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sat, 03/14/2015 - 20:21
So this happened tonight: T-shirt, pajama pants and bathrobe. Ladies and gentlemen, I have gone Full Dad. — John Scalzi (@scalzi) March 15, 2015 @scalzi double bonus points if Athena has friends over. — Lynne M Thomas (@lynnemthomas) March 15, 2015 In fact she does! RT @lynnemthomas: @scalzi double bonus points if Athena has friends … Continue reading Best Dad Ever →

Armed with Cameras...

Contrary Brin - Sat, 03/14/2015 - 12:45
What does it mean for the world to flow with light?

Let's start this example of sousveillance in action… a professor and his students showcase where the FDA buried information about drug company misconduct

Now, the standard response to something like this is to build and then build some more upon our callouses of cynicism. Oh no, we see more villainy, proving that all institutions are corrupt!  Instead of yes! We just caught some villainy! Proving that we can -- with grinding but relentless hard work -- improve our institutions, the way our parents and grandparents did!

Light is penetrating previously dark corners. But the real lesson here is not the cynical one pushed by both left and right -- and by Hollywood -- that institutions are inherently hopeless. They have functions. Every episode of revealed skullduggery -- from the SAE frat-jerks to Ferguson's racist fine-factory -- is not cause for despair, but rather evidence that supervision and light are the only tools we have, to ensure that they function better. Every act of asserted accountability proves they haven't wrecked democracy.  Not yet.

This is no fairy tale.  Justice and happy endings aren't guaranteed.  Martin Luther King Jr. did not promise the path would be linear, but an "arc" that will sweep toward justice only if most (not all) of us pull on it, like gravity.  

Want an example?

== It will take a lot of these... ==

"A Louisiana man was paid $50 to deliver a summons in a brutality case to a police officer, as he left a courthouse. Hours later, the man was arrested and charged with assaulting the officer; the claim was that he had attacked the officer on the courthouse steps, slapping him with the summons and in effect striking him hard enough to move him back several feet. Charges were supported by two ADAs at the scene. For two years, prosecution against the man proceeded.

"Unfortunately for these particular, conniving officers, the ADAs, and the DA, the man had asked his wife and nephew to film him delivering the summons so he could prove he had done so. Eventually, the case came to the jurisdiction of the Louisiana State AG's office - where all charges were promptly dropped. The man is currently pursuing a civil-rights lawsuit against the law enforcement officials involved."

We are at a cusp when authority figures with bad habits will soon see those bad habits exposed, not by happenstance, but systematically and regularly, by technologically enhanced citizen power. 
Let's be clear about one thing; we can't do it alone. Professionals must be our allies against thugs. 

I've often pointed out that good cops deserve not just respect but also some allowance for the tension and adrenaline that comes with an extraordinarily difficult job. A sliding scale must allow for the fact that good cops will have an occasional really bad day. Those days should be judged by their rarity, and whether the resulting harm was fairly small.

On the other hand, it is illogical and self-defeating for them to show “solidarity” with thugs on the force. Good public servants already face a choice -- to find this new sousveillance trend  daunting? To reflexively close ranks and show solidarity with uniformed hoolums... or else realize, deep down, that they are different from the badged ruffians, and share no common interests them.

With the advent -- and now widespread adoption -- of cop lapel-cameras, after Obama Administration and court rulings that citizens have a blanket right to record their interactions with police, the road ahead is clear. Especially as ghetto youths will now, more and more, be doing what I predicted in both Earth and The Transparent Society -- stepping out of the car with their own lapel cams beaming -- real-time -- a record into the cloud.

Moreover, the good side of the light-wave is evident. It's getting easier to catch bad guys and to get convictions, separating perpetrators and proving what they did, while assisting the innocent to say "I didn't do it, go way now, oh public servant, and bother the guys who did."

== Cop Cams and Accountability ==
A trend? Things are changing in Tijuana -- where the police department is issuing body cameras to cops on the street -- with the aim of turning off corruption and bribes. Sure you cynics, there will be ways around it. Yeah, sure, only the stupid half will get caught this way...at the start. But eliminating the corrupt / stupid cops is a bad idea...how? And this is only the beginning. 

Now another piece to the puzzle. The largest organization of public defenders in the United States is building a “cop accountability” database, aimed at helping defense attorneys question the credibility of police officers in court.  The contents of the Legal Aid database have been harvested from a variety of sources, e.g. civil lawsuits filed against the city, criminal trials in which a police witness was deemed not credible by a judge, and news reports about police wrongdoing. Information also comes from grievances that New Yorkers have filed against individual officers with the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
I cannot reiterate often enough the thing to keep in mind -- that this must not become a "zero tolerance" situation, in which a good officer must pay harsh penalties for a flash of temper or a lapse in procedure that was an exception and that wrought no major, lasting harm. 

There must be a scaled allowance for the fact that we all are descended directly from cavemen.  We need these folks! Their job is hard and often ambiguous and tense. A sliding scale of leeway must be part of it, before a cop's credibility sinks and his comrades decide that he's a bad apple, making things harder on them all. But they, too, must embrace this sliding scale, or they will have foresworn our trust.

== Accountability ain't easy ==

Did you think this was settled? It will be a fight for years.

Texas bill would make recording police illegal: Citizens with cameras would not be permitted to record police activity within 100 feet of an officer on duty. The offense would be a misdemeanor. This bill would contradict the precedent set in 2011 by an appeals court, which found that citizens are allowed to record police.
Forgive me for getting political, but are you surprised by the red-gray hue of this troglodytism? After Florida and Georgia fought hard against this new and vital civil right?

Seriously, some of you are smart enough to start awakening to our national tragedy. The hijacking and betrayal of American conservatism.

== The left is not guilt free ==

An Aside:  Should we rid our police forces of thugs?  Sure, and light will help. But we need the same thing regarding school teachers

In fact, this is one area where liberalism has been just plain wrong for decades, giving an unnecessary (and rather lonely) legitimate talking point to the Right. 

Sure, teachers must be protected from capricious bullying! There must be leeway and process. A burden of proof -- that parents and administrators and teacher peers and quality standards can all play a role in satisfying.

But the firing of bad teachers is a duty that we owe our kids. It should not take years and years. Especially when everyone -- parents, peers, administrators, standards and students(!) agree that an awful maniac or dope or lazy bum simply has to go.

Sure, I can accept your instincts to protect the teaching profession. Now squint and envision those cops closing ranks to protect the worst bad apples on the force. You are doing the same damned thing!  And you are doing it wrong if you actually believe the present state of affairs is wholesome.

== Equipping the Neighborhood Watch ==
Back to street transparency... Dropcam Keeps an eye on the neighborhood: Utterly illustrating The Transparent Society,  here’s how, very soon, we will all be cam equipped members of the Neighborhood Watch. The Internet-connected video surveillance camera, Dropcam -- acquired last year by Google’s Nest Labs -- is able to constantly stream video over your home Wi-Fi, and store data to the cloud. You can access the video via your web browser or through mobile apps. 

Writes Brian Chen writes, "Everyday people can use Internet -connected cameras to hold one another accountable or to keep an eye out for each other.” 
If you hate this world, fine, agitate to ban the cams… and then only Big Brother and the other elites will still have them.  Stop shouting at a tsunami to “stop!”
Surf, instead.
And finally...
list of Think Tanks by region/topic. VERY interesting to the few of you who will find it interesting. ;-)

. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ (site feed URL: http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/atom.xml)
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