Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Tuesday Fun Day

Every now and then news items and bloggers bring forth a gift. A few gifts today.

Read and enjoy:

Dogs teach chemistry
Ollie North outs Reagan regarding Iran-Contra
Even Faux News knows Dick Morris is full of crap
Rupert Murdoch vilifies papers that don't agree with him as "Jewish" then walks it back

Normally you have to dig to get nuggets like these. But today they were just lying on the beach.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Petless in Fantasyland

I've been reading Alexandra Horowitz' wonderful book Inside of a Dog. I strongly recommend it to anyone. It's a book about how dogs think and perceive the world-- vastly different from how we do,. It's not the only dog natured material I've been reading. Nova has had several episodes involving what goes on inside of the dog mind and dogs figured prominently in a recent episode of Nova Science Now: How Smart Can We Get.

My family bred collies for a few years when I was in high school. We've had dogs and cats as long as I can remember. Along with ferrets, snakes, lizards, frogs, fish, turtles (lots of turtles), mice and birds. But mostly dogs and cats.

I can tell many stories about them: How Heidi (my collie) ate all the hot dogs. Spielkes (the cat) and the adventure of the blue jays. How Snoopy (another dog)  learned to climb trees. The tale of Hulk Hogan (a turtle) and Hurricane Hugo. But I won't go into them now. They serve to illustrate that most of my life has animals in it. Usually pets. Wild animals such as snakes and turtles have a different sort of relationship.

Nor am I alone. Most writers I know at least have a cat. Some have dogs. Some have a different sort of animal.

Indeed, there's interesting evidence that dogs have been associated with us for as much as a hundred thousand years and domesticated by us for as much as twenty. Cats have been with us since agriculture.

My point here is that having animals-- specifically, having pets-- is one of the human universals, like people getting married, religions involving children and the conservation of property.

Why then is it so absent in science fiction?

As I look over SF I find an incredible paucity of pets showing up. There are more stories with horses in them than dogs or cats.

And no, I don't include talking animals or familiars. If they talk they're not really pets.

Oddly, the one writer I find that regularly had pets show up in his stories and novels is Heinlein. Jubal in Stranger has a cat. There's a ship's cat in several Heinlein novels. There are several dogs in The Star Beast. Recall the flatcats in The Rolling Stones. He even wrote an entire novel where the cat is one of the main characters: The Door Into Summer. (I'm not going to talk about The Cat Who Could Walk Through Walls. My doctor told me not to discuss the later Heinlein novels. For my health.)

As many things that Heinlein got wrong he clearly understood that people had pets and those pets were a big part of their lives.

Where are the Cats of Antares? The Dogs of Vega?

Fantasy scores somewhat better than science fiction but only just. There is the janitor's cat in Harry Potter. And Hagrid has all sort of pets. Animals tend to show up in fantasy stories but largely as an artifact that most fantasy stories are situated in a past environment of one sort or another. High fantasy based on medieval times is still medieval times, fantasy or no. There are few pets in Lord of the Rings even in the Shire. It doesn't help that a lot of times in fantasy when it shows up like a pet it's talking up a storm two chapters later. Again, animals that talk don't count.

I'm no better. None of my stories have a pet in them. The realization of the lack is what inspired this post.

It's possible that the whole space influence on SF precluded the idea of pets. Imagine a cat on the Apollo missions. Or on the ISS. If you're a space cadet learning how to save the world it's not cool to change the litter box.

Or is there a deeper problem. One of the criticisms leveled at our genre is a lack of characterization. We're accused of presenting cartoon characters. Taking this a step further, this could be a criticism that we are not presenting actual human beings in our works but caricatures suitable only for the simpler presentations to children.

While I don't subscribe to this idea I think there is a particle of truth in it. In our zeal to present our vision of a world we do often fail to make it real. We fail to people it with human beings who would make that world their own. In both world wars there were many stories where soldiers found dogs and cats and took care of them, brought them along with them into harms way. Some animals died. Some soldiers died protecting them. The colonists that came over to America came to live here, not to explore and return. They brought dogs, cats and canaries.

I would never expect astronauts to take their pets into space. But I would never expect those who go to live there to leave them behind.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Cry me a river, Mitt

I had a hopeful moment for Mitt the other day. I really thought he might take this moment and, like Carnegie, Gates and Buffett, move in a new direction to apply his considerable managerial talents to help save the world.

I guess not. (See here.)

I had thought the inventor of Romneycare might still exist. Sadly, it appears that there was only the Bainbot. I've begun to think of Romneycare as an aberration. He had a brief stroke. A TIA of the soul. A terrifying moment where his heart actually started to beat!

Fortunately, his handlers were able to get control of the Bainbot in time for the 2012 election.

I've met my share of CEOs. Many of them, not all, seem to have this quality that in lesser mortals might be called a sense of entitlement. A feeling that they are owed the devotion, hours and incredible sacrifice of their employees not because they pay them the smallest amount possible but because they deserve it.

A CEO suddenly facing a world that didn't think the same way must come up with a reason for it. In Romney's case it was the vast moochers of society that (my God!) had the power to vote that denied him his rightful place as CEO of Corporate America.

Come on Republicans. You can do better than the Bainbot. You can do better than the Salamander or the Mayonnaise or... what's his name.

You must do better for all our sakes.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A capsule of why I voted for Obama

Here is Obama thanking his campaign staff.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Zombie Love

Nice love song. And zombies. Here.

BREAKING NEWS! BREAKING NEWS!

World War Z trailer here. Looks good. Looks real good.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Republican Intervention


(Picture from here.)

The world didn't end on Tuesday. It's okay to get out of bed in the morning. Have some coffee. The sun's still shining. It's over there in the east window. Go check for yourself.

Back now? Okay? Well, then.

Shut up and stop whining.

Obama didn't steal the election. A bunch of non-existent welfare queens didn't vote for Obama to give them stuff (see Bill O'Reilly.) He wouldn't anyway. People voted. A lot of people voted. You've been coasting on the idea that you're the majority since 2010. You're not. You never were. It's an accident of marginal politics that let 2010 happen. Off year elections do weird things. God had nothing to do with it.

Nearly half the country voted for your guy. It was a close election. But it was an election. It wasn't a moral showdown between the forces of Good and Evil. Romney isn't Jesus and Obama isn't Satan-- he's a whole lot closer to Rockefeller than FDR. This wasn't Armageddon and the Rapture didn't occur. Go back to the window. Your neighbor is still there, right?

Right.

Your pundits lied to you. Mitt lied to you. Karl Rove lied to you. Fox News lied and lied and lied and lied and LIED to you. You ate it up. You didn't want to believe simple arithmetic and it bit you in the ass. It happens to everyone who's ever messed up a checkbook. Get over it.

You didn't listen to people who told you the truth: Nate Silver. Factcheck.org. Every scientist worth a damn. Scientific American.

Now you can go on this way blaming everybody else. Lord knows you've been doing it for a while now. But the deck is stacked against you. This is the last election you can rely on Old White Guys to bail you out. They didn't manage it this time and in four years there will be fewer of them and more on the other team.You want to go to your grave bitter? That's the path your on where there are fewer and fewer people of the right color, gender and religion.

Because this is America, baby. This is the place where minorities go to grab power and numbers until they're not hungry poor people anymore. They got some money and they're making waves. That's how it happened before and this wave is just the next one. The people that held on too tightly got dumped by the side of the road by the newcomers. You can't argue with an oncoming truck-- well, you can but it's a pretty one sided conversation.

Look up at that White House. Look at the President. He's the future. Next time you might just as easily see Hispanic. A Jew. Another black man. There might be Old White Guy there but if so it won't be just Old White Guys that put him there. He'll have spent years going out and talking to a whole lot of Not-Old White Guys.

So suck it up. We need a real opposition party-- not some strange mix of God and Guns but someone with real thought and ideas to make us think. To force us to compromise. To make us defend and change our ideas. You haven't been doing your job so we've been forced to do it for you. Frankly, it's been rough.

Feel any better?

Give it time. It'll get better.

Ready to do some hard looking in the mirror?

Good. Okay then.

Let's get back to work.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Monday, November 5, 2012

What's good for Romney

There's no question in my mind that a Romney loss tomorrow would be good for the country. I'm an unapologetic liberal and Romney has espoused a dozen points of view that I disagree with. That's my point of view on the election. It is most emphatically not my point of view on Romney the human being.

It's very easy to cynically discard all of the very human things Romney has done in his life: going to evangelize in France, help a co-worker look for their missing child. Though to do so is a mistake. 

I take these stories at face value. Romney has a kind streak. 

Like Carnegie and Gates, Romney makes a distinction between his business life and his personal life. It's a sort of "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" mentality I've seen before. "It's just business" is common statement of self-absolution. Sort of like Michael Palin in Brazil when he is about to torture Jonathan Pryce: "This is a professional relationship." I don't hold with this corporate persona taking the responsibility for human actions but I understand it. I believe Romney truly believes he did the right thing at Bain was the right thing as far as he could.

The question then becomes why, unlike Carnegie and Gates, did Romney decide to enter politics? 

Ezra Klein has an opinion on why Romney wants to be president here. According to Klein it's Romney's excellent managerial ability that makes him feel he can make a contribution.

Klein is probably right.

But that just begs the question of why politics?

Here I think we have to look at Romney's father, George,  who ran for President in the sixties. George was governor of Michigan and did a good job-- he was reelected with increasing margins. He failed at running for president. Failed pretty decisively since it was Nixon that got the nomination. Afterwards, George worked in charitable organizations. And did a good job.

Does this start to sound familiar?

I don't know a lot about Mormonism. I have nothing more against it than any other religion. The relationship between the Mormon church and women has been interest. (See here.) The church is pretty committed to the traditional roles of men and women. This makes the role of father and son extremely important. 

I don't know Mister Romney in any personal way. However, I do watch him politically and what I see is a man who truly wants to contribute and whose vector of contribution has been directed away from his natural bent.

I see Romney much more closely aligned with Bill Gates and Andrew Carnegie. Strong businessmen who made far more than they could ever spend and who decided to use their money to "do real and permanent good in this world." But Mitt Romney was torqued by his father towards politics to accomplish this-- something for which he is woefully unsuited. 

I hope Romney is not elected for my own selfish political goals. However, I also hope he is not elected for his own sake. I think Romney will find the limitations of success and continual criticism debilitating. He will be unable to reach the goals he sets for himself and on many days will achieve little, nothing or lose ground.

It will make him profoundly unhappy.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Limbic Theater

First, a little bit of news. I have an upcoming novella in Asimov's: Sudden, Broken and Unexpected. Also a story in the next issue of F&SF: Breathe. News is here.

Now back to the rumors behind the news.

My blog does a double duty. It shows up in my personal blog here. But every week or two I put up an entry that is crossposted over to the Bookview Cafe Blog. If you read my personal blog you'll discover I'm a Raging Liberal. However, I try to keep politics out of the entries that end up over at BVC. They're mostly about science and science fiction.

But politics is ever good material and this election is no different. So I thought I'd break that wall a little bit.

Decode DC has a good episode on the neuroscience behind political advertising. I heartily recommend you go over there and listen to it. The gist is this: one method tends to lay out evidence and data and leave the voter to decide what to do. The other appeals to emotions and tries to get the voter scared to do anything other than what they want the voter to do. I'm sure everybody is aware of these two approaches. I'm sure readers in Ohio are sick to death of both.

But I think this is important.

The human brain isn't a nice clear processor. It's a kludged up mess of things that are brilliantly effective, things that worked once and don't work so great now, and things that that are maliciously inept now but are too physiologically expensive to dump. Historically, the brain has been categorized into two rough divisions: the neocortex and the allocortex.

The neocortex is the modern mammalian donation to our group heritage. When you see a picture of a human brain and all those folds: that's neocortex. It's what makes mammals smart. Other branches of vertebrates (notably birds) or invertebrate classes (such as cuttlefish) can also be smart. But they are not using a neocortex because they have none. They're using something else-- and that's a discussion for another time.

Under the neocortex is the allocortex. It's contains all the equipment that we started with when we started the long path towards mammals. It's not the same as our ancestors. Evolution works on everything available. But there is a lot of common embryology between mammals, birds and reptiles in the allocortex.

Deep in the allocortex is the limbic system.The limbic system is what allows us to feel emotion, mitigate behavior, operate the endocrine system. What we tend to value as human accomplishment-- programming computers, writing fiction-- is enabled by the neocortex. What we program computers to do and write fiction about derives a lot from the limbic system. Larry Niven was talking about this in Protector: Intelligence is a tool that is not always used intelligently.

The limbic system is in reptiles. It's what allows us to feel lust and anger. It's what gets involved in violence and pornography. Where we might have changed it, or it changed us, is transforming mating urge into love and violence into defense. The limbic system is what gets stirred into war but it won't successfully complete a revolution.

Within the neocortex is the frontal lobe and within the frontal cortex is the prefrontal cortex. This is where complex behavior and understanding originates. It's intimately involved in what is called executive function. Deciding right from wrong. Good from bad. Consequences from current actions. It also has a huge connection to the limbic system.

Back in the bad old days of psychosurgery we had lobotomies. We have a cultural idea of lobotomies but let's think about the actual surgery. Initially, this involved actual removal of some of the actual brain. This was adjusted into a prefrontal leucotomy: destroying tissue in the frontal lobes by injecting alcohol. Ultimately this was refined into the standard prefrontal lobotomy where the connection was severed between the prefrontal cortex and the thalamus.

The thalamus is part of the limbic system.

My old neurophysiology teacher, James E. Breazile, suggested it might operate this way. The pre-frontal cortex operates on what is significant. The limbic system determines that significance. (Apologies to Dr. Breazile if I didn't get it right.)

Humans modify everything they touch, even themselves. We modify our fears, hates and lusts into other things. Hold them back. Attempt to use them intelligently.

Until we get to politics.

It's important to understand that nearly all advertising in general is an attempt to engage that limbic system. To get it to wake up and bug the neocortex to buy that car, that soda, that candy. It's an attempt to create magical thinking where desire or ideology is what is measured rather than actual evidence. The neocortex is perfectly able to determine what the right thing is but it must be supplied with the concept of "right." This is why truly intelligent people (in the neocortical sense) can go right off the rails when something they believe in is under discussion. They're not crazy. They're not suddenly stupid. But their limbic system has defined the "right" thing and their neocortex accommodates. This is part of being a human being. Every one of us had seen it and every one has done it.

This is what I find so exciting and hopeful about science. Science is administered by human beings-- human beings riddled with the same inconsistencies and difficulties I've been describing. But it is an attempt to structure an evidence based culture where these idiosyncrasies and failures can be scrutinized in the hope that the community as a whole can overcome the inevitable failures of individuals.

In politics what's important about any candidate is what they want to do and will do when in office. That is the only possible useful criteria in the intelligent determination of what a candidate's policy will be. All of the other material such as his color, height, background, education, previous experience must be used as an attempt to determine those policies. Nothing else matters.

Yet the political system attempts to use limbic system involvement to overcome intelligent determination. Is the candidate the right color? Social class? Does he use the correct key words? Does he attend the requisite public functions? The truth of a candidates proclamation is less important than the nature of the proclamation. It's dispiriting this sort of thing is so successful.

What we need is evidence based politics. But we won't get it until we start responding as citizens to actual evidence.