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April 2008
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A public conversation about our worlds.

  • Monday: Morgan J. Locke
  • Tuesday: Madeleine E. Robins
  • Wednesday: Maureen F. McHugh
  • Thursday: Bradley Denton
  • Friday: Steven Gould
  • Saturday: Caroline Spector
  • Sunday: Rory Harper

Brain Activity



John Berkey Passes Away

April 30th, 2008 by Steven Gould

Just read on Irene Gallo’s blog. John Bereky died yesterday.

He was incredible. He never used a computer but over and over again, with each passing year, people mistook his work as CGI. He was a major influence for both traditional and digital artists.

Lots more images here.

Posted in Art, History, Science Fiction, Steve | 3 Comments »

Eyesight to the Blind

April 29th, 2008 by Madeleine Robins

One of my annual rituals is a trip to the eye doctor for a checkup. I come from fairly long-lived stock, my blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate are low enough to cause the occasional raised eyebrow in medical professionals. But my mother developed glaucoma when she was in her 40s; my father had a cataract removed when he was in his 80s–just before he began to go blind from macular degeneration. So I take my eyes seriously.

When I was a kid I sometimes played blind, fascinated by Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, and eager to try on a soul-trying hardship (so long as I could give it up when called for dinner). You want to believe that you could not only survive, but survive with grace, heroically conquer something like loss of sight. I no longer believe in my ability to be a hero; I would doubtless cope, but not without some spectacular dark nights of the soul.

Which is just another reason to be in awe of my father. Dad will be 95 in June. His current plans include making it to 100 (“At which point I’ll be out of money and you damned kids can support me,” he says). When he was in his mid-80s he went in to have a cataract operation and found, instead, that he had quite advanced “wet” macular degeneration. The wet kind (the kind where blood vessels have been bleeding into the macula, eroding its surface) is the harder to treat, and regeneration is unlikely. Dad did not spend much of his energy repining; instead he’s been aggressive about pursuing care and treatment, and exploring his new world. This is perhaps doubly impressive because he’s been an artist and designer all his life. In fact, in the 50s he was involved in the design and creation of the Perception Research Lab at Princeton; even after the lab was shut down (new department head with other research priorities) he continued to lecture and write about perception. Thus, when his eyesight started to go, Dad was able to speak the language of the eye-doctors. Woe betide the opthalmologist who tries to condescend to my father.

And in keeping with his relentless got-lemons-make-lemonade approach to life, my father has become a writer, and most of what he writes has to do with vision. He has identified some visual phenomena that his doctors didn’t know: macular degeneration erodes your sight from the center out–hold your fists in front of your face and that approximates what happens. You retain peripheral vision, but the center is gone. But rather than that central area being black, Dad’s brain often “fills in” that space, extrapolating from the peripheral data. He’s co-writing an article with his opthalmologist; he spear-heads the annual “Lo-Vision Expo” of visual-assistance aids at the retirement community where he lives.

The guy’s a mensch.

And not surprisingly, he really cares about eyes. As I said, he’ll be 95 in June. What do you give the guy who has pretty much everything he wants or needs, and can’t see it? Eyesight.

Not for him, alas. But this year both of the girls are giving a cataract operation in Dad’s name to someone who would otherwise be blind. For $50 you can give a complete stranger the world, and the eyes to see it. Even if Dad can’t see the gift, I’m pretty certain he’ll love it.

Posted in Daily Life | 4 Comments »

Happy Birthday, Jack

April 29th, 2008 by Steven Gould

Jack Williamson died a year-and-a-half ago (November 10th, 2006 at the age of 98) but if he’d made it to today, he would be a century old.

May I propose a toast.

His niece, Betty says, “Jack would probably either have a gin and tonic or a tall buttermilk….”

Here’s some of the previous posts we did here about Jack.

And These Are Just the Novels

A Sky Thick With Stars

Laura J. Mixon on the Jack Williamson Memorial Service

Legacy

The House That Jack Built

An Undeserved Honor

<Raises glass> To Jack.

Posted in Fantasy, Horror, Personal History, Science Fiction, Steve, Writing | 2 Comments »

Simple Brains

April 27th, 2008 by Rory Harper

What are you doing on top of this mountain, Old Man?

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Becoming a less-interesting conversationalist, my son.

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I have a whole long essay for EOB in my head that I’ve been working on this week, about the subject of simplifying your inner life in order to become a more whole person. Because I’ve always been interested in knowing damn near everything, and I’ve come to the realization that I know less every year, even though I constantly struggle to learn more. It’s fractured me badly over the years, instead of leading me nearer to completeness, as I once believed it would.

Living inside the Internets as we do has made it worse, of course. I too often am unable to focus on what’s important, because it ALL feels important, and bits and bytes of data are so much more easily accessible than they’ve ever been. I am in a constant feedback loop of data acquisition.

You’re a many-layered and knowledgeable individual like that, too, and that’s why I cherish you. But it’s been a tough decade for us all, and being that smart and aware of everything in the world doesn’t seem to be such a benefit sometimes.

The essay was going to be lengthy and complex, with lots of chewy intellectual content to provoke your commentary. We could still talk about it a lot right now, and maybe even come to some great conclusions. Draw up an action plan. With diagrams and labels, and some pictures, even. Discuss the pros and cons, for there always are pros and cons. Vote on optimal courses of action, maybe.

But I think I’ll just go sit under this tree for awhile instead. We’ll get back to the complicated stuff later, when it’s necessary. If it ever is.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Let go.

Green love.

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Posted in Daily Life, Rory | 2 Comments »

Still Crazy

April 27th, 2008 by Rory Harper

One evening several years back, Caroline and the Dude made me watch ‘Still Crazy’. I’d never even heard of it. Mad props to them both. I came away a big fan of the Seventies band ‘Strange Fruit’. The back-story is that there was constant craziness in the band in the old days, culminating in the band’s breaking up and the soon-thereafter death of their lead guitarist, Brian.

Here’s a delightful little making-of-the-movie featurette.

Decades later, the remaining members are cajoled into embarking on a comeback tour to prep for a show at a big festival. At first, it doesn’t go well at all, at all. Bill Nighy, as the frontman, Ray, finally hits his stride at this gig, though:

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Two-Headed Baby struggled with this song quite a bit. I like it a lot, but never could play it properly. I think I’d like to take another whack at it sometime, though. I’ll really learn the riff this time, guys, I swear it.

One of the conflicts in the band centered around the fact that the other band members wouldn’t ever let the bass player sing. I can relate to that.

He finally does get his moment in the spotlight in this next clip. Not to mention the surprise return of Brian, who *gasp* isn’t really dead.

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This really is a helluva movie, gang. It’s funny, sad, sweet, and smart. And we’re all old enough here to appreciate its theme of dreams lost and found.

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EDIT:  Incidentally, if you’d like to see the whole movie on-line, you can start here. Then use your skillz to figure out where to go next.

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Posted in Movies, Music, Rory | 2 Comments »

Bulfinch’s Guide to Writing

April 25th, 2008 by Steven Gould

I talked to 2000 Texas school kids yesterday using remote teleconferencing from a high-tech facility in Huntsville Texas. It was pretty cool. They would un-mute their microphones and their local camera would use that action to zoom in on the individual talking. Robot cameras rule!

I talked to these kids in four different sessions (3 different talks, one repeat.)

One of them was Myths about writing…

Read More »

Posted in Dammit!, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Science Fiction, Steve, Writing | 8 Comments »

Hedwig (No, not the owl, silly)

April 20th, 2008 by Rory Harper

If you have for some insane reason chosen to not yet view ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch‘, hold still and we’ll fix you right now.

Here’s a clip of ‘The Origin of Love’ from it. It’s the most shattering explanation I’ve ever seen regarding the essential tragedy and glory of being human:

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If that made you bleed a little, here’s the deepest cut.

Tasty.

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Posted in Art, Dammit!, Disability, Movies, Music, Pop. Culture, Rory, Sex | 11 Comments »

Okay–Just Once More

April 18th, 2008 by Steven Gould

I wrote about this back in 1990. From Chapter 13 of Jumper:

“One of the problems with American public policy on terrorism is that our government insists on blurring the line between armed insurgence against military forces and installations and attacks on uninvolved civilians. Now, obviously attacking unarmed civilians who have no involvement with a particular political issue is terrorism. But an attack on an armed military force occupying one’s homeland? That’s not terrorism. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I’m just saying that if you call that terrorism then the U.S. is also involved in financing terrorists in Afghanistan and Central America. See what I mean?”

“Yeah.”

“Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that the proportion of American dead from terrorism is way out of proportion to the response it generates. We did nothing to stop the Iraq-Iran war because we perceived it in our interests that damage be done to both of those countries. Personally I think that’s inexcusable, but I’m not in the position to make government policy. Certainly both leaders were crazy with a long-standing personal grudge, but their people paid a horrible price.”

“I wasn’t aware that there was a personal grudge.”

Read More »

Posted in History, Politics, reading, Religion, Steve | 13 Comments »

Pessimism — Part Three

April 16th, 2008 by Rory Harper

Here’s a great new video for all of us pessimists:

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It’s the full stream of the History Channel’s recent ‘Life After People’ production. It explores what will happen to the planet after we all check out one shiny morning. It’s 88 minutes long, and I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m lovin’ it so far. Great eye candy of stuff falling apart. David Brin is an early speaker in it.

Here’s the official web site, with short clips about the different ways we’re gonna go extinct and other bonus sections and links.

Have fun!

Just remember that I and Rachael and Jesse will be surviving all of these unfortunate events while enjoying apocalyptic music like this at the rave with all the hot Icelandic babes.

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EDIT: Wow. Looks like there’s some synchronicity happening. National Geographic broadcast a show with an identical premise just last month. Here’s the official web site for Aftermath: Population Zero. Again, it has some vids with cool eye candy of big structures falling over and such.

Posted in Daily Life, Environment, History, Movies, Rory, Science | 10 Comments »

April is the Greenest Month

April 15th, 2008 by Madeleine Robins

If you drive east from San Francisco (going over the Bay Bridge first, of course) to pick up I-5 heading down to Los Angeles, you crest a hill and are suddenly in the midst of a wind farm. Up on the crest of the next hill, on either side of the freeway, are dozens of tall, elegant windmills, supplying power to Northern California. Not all the power we need, but lots. It’s one more nibble at the great mountainous problem of global warming. PG&E does a lot of advertising, supporting use of compact fluorescent bulbs (if everyone in California replaced one incandescent lightbulb with a CFL, PG&E says that would be the same as taking 40,000 cars off the road for a year) and their Climate Smart program. I always feel guilty that I can’t replace an incandescent lightbulb with a CFL, because we’re already using CFLs everywhere we can–but this says more about my propensity for guilt than anything else.

We’ve just signed up for the Climate Smart program, which is one of those carbon footprint offset deals: they calculate how much energy your household uses in a month, and assess a monthly fee–maybe $5 or so–to offset the greenhouse gas emissions from that energy use. It’s a small thing, maybe the cost of a couple of cups of coffee in a month, and allows me to feel a little better about the size of the household footprint on the earth. We recycle, we compost, but I always feel like it isn’t enough, and I’m frankly too lazy to do much else (well, and we just bought a whole slew of new energy-efficient appliances, but that’s a one-time thing). PG&E keeps saying that there’s no one solution to global warming (which sounds realistic to me), but that these small things make a difference. In that hope, I will keep collecting newspaper and plastic bottles and using CFLs, however small a gesture it may seem.

Posted in Daily Life, Environment, Mad | 5 Comments »

A Minimal Level of Fame (beta version)

April 15th, 2008 by Steven Gould

I went to our doctor today. (Noble Girl has an ongoing sinus infection.) I’ve known our doctor socially for a long time before she became our doctor so when I showed up with Noble Girl she said, “Speak of the Devil!”

Seems that, for the second time in a little over a month, she’s been cleaning the iguana cage and, on putting fresh newspaper in the bottom, has found my face looking up at her.

Read More »

Posted in Daily Life, Noble Girl, Personal History, Steve | 2 Comments »

Green Frazzlement

April 14th, 2008 by Morgan J. Locke

Folks, work has been intense, and I’m spent. My Real Post will come RSN. Meanwhile, here’s a fun toy to play with. Let’s hear it for the web, which brings us remarkable tools like this one, built by Climate Counts, which enables us to hold corporations accountable! They have rated numerous corporations on their commitment to climate protection. It enables you to compare companies, and shop at the ones that have a greener record.

Could developments such as this be…cause for optimism???

Posted in Environment, Morgan | 2 Comments »

Pessimism – Part Two

April 14th, 2008 by Rory Harper

Is the glass half-full or half-empty?

It’s half-empty.

And there seems to be a crack hidden in its base that’s sucking the remaining liquid from it as I watch.

You’re a smart, reality-based person, or you wouldn’t be reading this. So you have the same problem that I do – which is that all the research indicates that pessimists have a firmer grasp on so-called reality than do optimists. It really is as bad as we think it is, and it’s going to get exponentially worse. That’s the fact, Jack.

So — Would you rather be delusionally happy, or would you rather be right? Yeah, me too.

I don’t know how I got to be such a pessimist. Oh, sure – George Bush. As with the rest of us. But my world darkened long before his evil shadow spread beyond Texas.

Perhaps it started the day I realized that I’d probably never be an astronaut, which was my secret ambition when I was 12. Worse, being an astronaut became less cool than it should have been. NASA screwed the pooch when they didn’t make Chuck Yeager an astronaut. Dammit, he should have been the King of the Astronauts. If Yeager couldn’t be the poster boy for space exploration, the world was a dismal place.

I also stayed in a marriage that made Satan laugh, for about twenty years longer than I should have. If I’d been smarter, I’d have just stolen some eggs and created Rachael in a castle tower hidden in the Carpathians.

Pessimists generally blame themselves when things go badly. If I’d been a better, smarter, more disciplined person, the world as we know it would be much improved. If only I could have persevered and built my time machine and gone back and strangled all those bastards in their cradles! You know the ones I’m talking about, the ones who’ve wrecked it for everybody else. It would have kept me busy and happy and productive for a dozen years. And my allergies would trouble me much less today, too.

The weight gain might have been inevitable, though I suspect I could have avoided it if I was a better person. It was a mistake to move to College Station, because it’s completely full of Thems, and has almost no Uses. And what’s with all that white hair? Especially in my ears?

Here are the two cognitive mistakes that I constantly make, which trigger my worst bouts of pessimism:

  1. I can’t tell the difference between events that I can affect in some way, versus those that will crush me no matter what I do. It all feels the same, and this completely immobilizes me on occasion, because there’s ALL THAT BAD STUFF that’s unmanageable.

  1. I focus on the wrong time periods. I experience negative emotional and cognitive internals because I frequently dwell upon the mistakes I’ve made in the past, and fear what’s going to happen in both the near future and the much farther-along End of It All.

Swirl these two bad mental habits together, and it’s tough to even keep looking at the glass. Stephen Petranek’s sorrowful TED presentation makes for a perfect example of the combination punches that can be created with this mix. I just want to crawl off and hide in a culvert somewhere, hoping to avoid the worst. Of course, it’ll rain then, and the culvert will quickly become more than half full.

So, I’m going to try to make some changes. I’m going to focus on issues where I have some chance of at least optimizing my outcomes in an uncontrollable environment. And I’m going to try to stay in the present mostly, and then plan for the intermediate future, right beyond all the terrifying near-term future events that I’ll struggle to survive.

: Read More »

Posted in Daily Life, Environment, Personal History, Politics, Pop. Culture, Rachael is Awesome, Religion, Rory | 9 Comments »

Pessimism — Part One

April 13th, 2008 by Rory Harper

Instead of a music vid this week, I’d like to recommend to you this half-hour long presentation by a gentleman named Stephen Petranek. It’s called ‘Ten Ways the World Could End’:

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It’s from the TED Conference in 2002. This is the secret meeting that the Really Smart Cool People have every year. Up until recently, the proceedings weren’t available to folks who aren’t completely cool and smart. However, last year they started putting stuff on-line. I’m not sure why. Maybe they wanted everybody to know how cool and smart they are.

Massive props to The Dude for turning us on to TED months ago, in an email that that he sent to the secret Brainiac listserv that we maintain, where he told us all about it so we could become cooler and smarter. As if that were possible.

There are over 200 videos up on the TED site, and every one that I’ve viewed so far has been absolutely fascinating.

They’re not all as long as tonight’s featured flick, but you could waste at least a couple of days watching these things and probably enjoy them all. Except it wouldn’t be a waste, as you would become progressively cooler and smarter with each one.

More later tonight, on my personal plans regarding that whole End of the World thing.

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Posted in Daily Life, Dammit!, Environment, Geniuses, Rory, Science, Technology, The Dude | 4 Comments »

This Is So Cool.

April 12th, 2008 by Steven Gould

This was one of the (many) very nice things the Williamson lectureship did for me this last couple of days.

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The projectile head up in the corner is a bronze casting of an actual Clovis point. Having only gone to the lectureship once before, I was unaware of this really cool door prize. I still have impostor syndrome but I also had a really good time.

I’m thinkin’ if the Bronze Jayhawk comes for me, I’ll do for him with my Bronze Clovis point.

Posted in Personal History, Steve | 2 Comments »

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