28 December 2014

Space Opera, with some restrictions

When younger I was a major fan of Space Opera type science fiction. Jack Vance (died in 2014) was my favorite in this genre, but I read Asimov (of course), Niven, Clarke, Heinlein, Herbert, Fred Pohl, even somewhat lesser (IMO) lights like Poul Anderson, Fred Saberhagen (who, like Vance, also wrote "Fantasy"), Greg Bear, David Brin, and Greg Benford (the latter still writing). To name a few. I really liked, more recently, Iain Banks, who also died in 2014, at 60, of ravaging cancer. Banks also wrote middling-interest mainstream novels, and was part of a little school of Scottish writers, including Charles Stross and Ken McLeod, although, in my estimation, he was far and away the best of them. George RR Martin, Ursula Leguin, Anne McCaffrey, C. J. Cherryh... well, not so much. For the most part, this kind of fiction requires you to suspend incredulousness a bit... most call for adopting the view that FTL (Faster than Light travel) will be possible, or at least that you have to assume its possibility for purposes of the story.

I admire the kind of Science Fiction that makes no assumptions about reality that don't make physical sense (for reasons I've tried to explain on here, FTL does NOT make physical sense; search for "FTL."). Benford, for example, as tried to write in this vein, and there was some fiction in the "golden age" that stuck to those kinds of strictures. But, in truth, science fiction without galaxy spanning spaceships tends to be a little dull, especially since the genre as a whole has always been a little weak in the vivid character and compelling dramatic situation department.

But I admit there is always a nagging annoyance in the back of my mind. For reasons I've also tried to explore on the Gyromantic, if some version of the "Star Trek" or "Star Wars" universes were real, or really possible, it is highly unlikely that we, here on Planet Earth, would have remained unmolested by galactic visitors for lo these billions of years. Which every indication is that our planet has been. Unmolested, that is. There is no evidence at all, still less credible evidence, that the Earth has ever been visited by extraterrestrials. (It isn't impossible, but there is no evidence for it).

So fiction where there are dozens or hundreds of spacefaring civilizations invading, trading, colonizing, etc. all over the Galaxy is actually totally preposterous, even if it is entertaining. Let me be clear on this point. The Galaxy is big, but not Vast, in the sense of the Vastness of Borges's Great Library. There are billions of worlds. Maybe even billions of life bearing worlds. But if you had the ability to travel arbitrarily faster than light, and a desire to explore, a civilization would take no more than a few hundred thousand, at most a few million, years to visit every single star in the Galaxy. And the same would be true of every other Galaxy in the universe, which are all roughly the same age, over ten billion years old. So the notion that for some appreciable fraction of the last few hundred million years, during which the universe has, by and large, looked much the same as it does now, there have been Galaxy Spanning supercivilizations arising, warring with one another, trading with one another, exploring, searching for suitable stars for colonizing, etc.... is just not plausible. (Not to mention that if you really think about it it makes no economic or any other kind of sense to go around searching for planets to live on... if you had that kind of technology you could just use resources to construct habitats in space, as many science fiction writers, notably Banks and Niven, have explored in considerable detail).

But the reality that the universe if most likely full of life, that other worlds do in fact exist and most likely intelligent life as well, even if very far away, remains speculative (except for the other worlds part, which is now fact), but the whole picture seems more and more likely as time goes on. So there really is a fantastic reality which may eventually be the stage for the next chapters of human history, including, very possibly, the story of contact with other intelligent beings.

So that's the real challenge for science fiction: to tell stories set in a plausible universe, where strange and wonderful things that actually are, or at least could conceivably be, possible,  occur. Writers may posit new physics and strange structures to the universe to make seemingly miraculous things happen, but, to satisfy this niggling objection of mine, they need to somehow account for what is: namely we live on a world where there has been no space visitation (that we know of) for billions of years, and when we look out into the Great Dark, we see no evidence of others or their constructions. Where are they? And how might they exist and yet so far have left no sign?

I would like to try my hand at a story line that attempts to plot a course through this narrow strait, and still tell a story of wonders, including civilizations who have also arisen in this vast universe, and with whom now unknown means may be found to make contact, for better or worse.

25 December 2014

Dennett addresses fundamentalists of all stripes

Perhaps not the most Christmasy message I could come up with, but I just finished Daniel Dennett's now over 20 year old book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, and I was struck by this really quite eloquent quote, the second half of which is actually addressed to fundamentalists of whatever kind:

“We should not expect … respect to be satisfactory to those who wholeheartedly embody the memes we honor with our attentive — but not worshipful — scholarship. On the contrary, many of them will view anything other than enthusiastic conversion to their own views as a threat, even an intolerable threat. We must not underestimate the suffering such confrontations cause. To watch, to have to participate in, the contraction or evaporation of beloved features of one’s heritage is a pain only our species can experience, and surely few pains could be more terrible. But we have no reasonable alternative, and those whose vision dictates that they cannot peacefully coexist with the rest of us we will have to quarantine as best we can, minimizing the pain and damage, trying always to leave open a path to that may come to seem acceptable.

“If you want to teach your children that they are the tools of God, you had better not teach them that they are God’s rifles, or we will have to stand firmly opposed to you: your doctrine has no glory, no special rights, no intrinsic and inalienable merit. If you insist on teaching your children falsehoods — that the Earth is flat, that ‘Man’ is not the product of evolution by natural selection — then you must expect, at the very least, that those of us who have freedom of speech will feel free to describe your teachings as the spreading of falsehoods, and will attempt to demonstrate this to your children at our earliest opportunity. Our future well-being — the well-being of all of us on this planet — depends on the education of our descendants.”
This, I think, is the crux of the matter. Traditional beliefs, cultural institutions, societal traditionswhatever —are not valueless, and must be afforded the respect we afford any human being and his or her legitimacy as such. But where they interfere with the ability of others to have their own self-determination, and to live in a society where some reasonable consensus of the common good is seen as the pilot for policy, well then, they simply must give way.

13 December 2014

Warren is our best hope

See this

I love her remark re: CitiGroup:
"I agree with you - Dodd-Frank isn't perfect. It should have broken you into pieces."

•  Warren is my hero. I respect that it's her decision whether or not she should run for president, but I think she actually could easily do so and still stay in the Senate if the "inevitable" outcome of the Primary process did in fact result in Candidate Clinton. And if she were to go that route, it would help consolidate the Democratic party around a more Progressive policy stance. And, as I've been saying since 1996, for crying out loud, it is strong Democratic principles, clearly and charismatically articulated, that win elections, not trying to be all things to all people! I am convinced the main reason the Delusional Right party does well in elections is that the Accommodationist Party is seen as weak, and people, both men and women, tend to be repelled by perceived weakness in those who would be leaders.

No rationalizations on torture

I've been harping to friends lately that the attitude of Rightists towards science, i.e. chopping off their noses to spite their faces on climate change, is, in actual fact, a mass mental illness. You know, delusion resulting in self-destructive behavior. But I think this bothers me even more. Republicans of Dwight Eisenhower's era would NEVER condone torture, or suggest that it could be overlooked. Even Obama refers to "mistakes." These were not mistakes. It was systematic, state sponsored crime, which treaty obligations of the United States, to say nothing of ordinary human decency, compel the government to prosecute.

I just cannot abide any rationalization that suggests otherwise.

We don't expect countries that have never developed a tradition of democracy to enforce laws which actually uphold the high principles of civilization that were proclaimed as universal in the aftermath of World War II. The irony that we saw to it that Germans and Japanese government officials were prosecuted, even executed, for presiding over regimes of torture, but we turn away when faced with the same history in our own country, speaks loudly of a sad, sad decline in the institutions of the first modern republic. We cannot survive as a democracy if we do not uphold our own principles. Can there be any doubt how Jefferson or Lincoln would have viewed this development? That they would have viewed the the the officials who condoned and authorized these acts, and not just those who actually carried them out, as criminals who should be in prison, not touting the virtues of torture all over the Right Wing media? 

12 December 2014

Homophobia all too robust in America

A friend recently posted on Facebook a piece showing that female professors consistently get lower evaluations than men, and that in blind tests, when an online course was taught by women but the students were told they were men, they got better evaluations than the control group of "out" women. Demonstrating quite nicely that sexism is alive and revoltingly robust in America, even among the elite. 

This shows, in a rather different way, that the same is true of homophobia. In the unlikely event that anyone had any doubt.

07 December 2014

Some Personal Comments on the Beethoven Sonatas

Charles Rosen, in his lovely book on the Beethoven piano sonatas, quotes a passage from Proust where the narrator talks about his grandmother’s good taste; in courtesy, cuisine, and playing the Beethoven sonatas. “‘Elle peut avoir beaucoup de doigts que moi, mais elle manque de gout en jouant avec tant d’emphase cet andante si simple…’” (the grandmother is quoted as saying. (“She may have more technique than I, but she lacks taste, playing such a simple andante so grandiloquently”)). This got me thinking about the sonatas, from my own perspective, as an adult amateur with a relatively rudimentary keyboard technique. Over the years, I have looked at every single one of the 32, and have evaluated them, I will readily admit, from the point of view that a was actually quite common in Beethoven’s day, and was probably the primary concern of his publishers, namely, can an amateur with limited ability possibly play this, or at least approximate it?

Of the sonatas, there are a good number that Beethoven obviously wrote with complete abandon to the creative muse, meaning he gave no thought for the poor player (in two senses of “poor;” i.e., 'unfortunate,' and 'unskilled'). The late sonatas, Opp. 101, 106, 109, 110, and 111, all fall in this category, and are scarcely approachable by the pianist of modest skill (Op. 101 being the only possible exception, and it is a very beautiful sonata that would reward the effort). Some of the most famous sonatas, Opp. 53 (“Waldstein”), 57 (“Appasionnata”), and 81a (“Les Adieux”) are also realistically beyond that level of skill. While Opp. 22, 27(No. 1), 28 and 31 (Nos. 1-3) are all by no means easy, they are perhaps somewhat more approachable. Both Op. 27, No. 2, and Op. 13 (“Pathétique”) have individual movements which, taken alone, are the two most famous of all the sonatas, but both of these sonatas have very brilliant and difficult finales, which make them a challenge, although not on the order of Op. 57, perhaps. (Op. 13’s achingly beautiful, songlike slow movement and the dreamy first movement of the “Moonlight,” Op. 27, No. 2, are often played alone by young students and amateurs of even quite modest ability).  

As for the three sonatas of Op. 2, the very lengthy Grande Sonate, Op. 7, and the three of Op. 10, there are varying levels of difficulty, but none is “impossible;” here, the reality is that these sonatas, while all are fine and worthwhile, are not quite of the sublime level of the majority of Beethoven’s sonatas. They reward the effort to learn them, but not to the same degree as the later works. The same would apply to Op. 49 (both), which are the easiest of Beethoven’s canonical sonatas, but also the least musically interesting. Op. 79, which Beethoven (or the publisher) titled a “sonatina,” is, in fact, quite brilliant and unexpectedly tricky to play. Op. 78, apart from the remote key of F# major, is approachable, and intensely lyrical. Op. 54 is one of Beethoven’s least played sonatas, but it is a very worthy piece, and is not easy, but it, too, is approachable.

The two sonatas of Op. 14 are, though quite different, both quite Haydnesqe. Both also very much reward the effort to learn them, although, again, they are not quite on the sublime level of the sonatas written after 1800.

This leaves a couple of real gems for the somewhat technically challenged amateur (who, after all, will resemble the people for whom these sonatas were probably written). They can really get their teeth into the lovely “suite” sonata in A-flat (with famous funeral march), Op. 26, and the short (two-movement) E-minor sonata, Op. 90 which lies somewhere between the “middle” and “late” period (1810), and has a dramatic contrast between its E-minor first movement and the lyrical Allegretto (“nicht zu geschwind”) rondo which pairs with it. Op. 90 is as difficult as Op. 31, perhaps, or Op. 78, but it is a great sonata, and it is entirely playable.

05 December 2014

Join Bernie Sanders

I just posted this on Facebook.

If you, like me, find yourself virtually always agreeing with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in his posts here and elsewhere, why not register your support by going to Berniesanders.com and registering your e-mail and zip code. We need (Finally) to create a real, and effective Progressive grassroots movement, and Bernie is a clear leader in this effort.  Thank you. 

29 November 2014

Shale Oil Fracking is insane

This piece in the WaMo Political Animal blog does a good job of illustrating why shale oil fracking may seem like good short term geopolitics, but in reality, it's flat out INSANE. Ensuring that our world will become uninhabitable in the lifetime of its youngest citizens has to fit that definition. 


25 November 2014

The Failure to Indict Darren Wilson

Look, I don't pretend to know all the details of this case, but I do know from thirty years working in the legal field that there are ALWAYS discrepancies in what witnesses say, so that's not in itself a reason not to prosecute so clear a case of apparent manslaughter (at least) as this one.

In an empassioned but thoughtful piece on the Washington Monthly Political Animal blog today, Martin Longman does a great job of running down why the "thrown case" decision by the Grand Jury in St. Louis County not to prosecute this case of murder-by-cop constitutes a "Grave Injustice."


Justice isn't a superfluous option in a free society. Without it, the foundations of anything remotely resembling a democratic form of government inexorably crumble and fail.

22 November 2014

Stenger on the place of Humanity in the Cosmos

Since Copernicus, humanity's conception of its place in the universe has steadily diminished from the biblical teaching that we are the center of the universe to one in which we are but a minuscule speck in space and time. Once we had telescopes with which to peer into the sky, our view of the universe grew from originally that of a single star system and its planets to a galaxy of 100 billion stars and on to a visible universe of 100 billion galaxies. And that was not the end of it. As we have seen, since the 1980s we have found good reasons to think that our visible universe is but a drop of water in an ocean of galaxies lying beyond our light horizon, perhaps 100 orders of magnitude larger, that all resulted from the same Big Bang. Furthermore, this universe may be just one of countless others just as big [in the Multiverse].
  While a god might still preside over all this, it becomes incredible to believe that he, she, or it put his, her, or its favorite creatures on this tiny planet and left the rest of this vast multiverse inaccessible to them.
   --Victor Stenger (d. 2014), God and the Folly of Faith, 2012

17 November 2014

Fear not death, but the Transporter, well, yeah, fear that.

The following, from John Dryden’s 17th century translation of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, is as succinct and cogent an explanation as you could want as to why we should not fear death — (as opposed to the pain of dying). It also happens to function as a really good explanation  (especially the second stanza) for why, even if such a thing were invented, I would not get into the Star Trek transporter for all the wealth in the world.

So when our mortal frame shall be disjoined
the lifeless lump uncoupled from the mind,
From sense of grief and pain we shall be free;
We shall not feel, because we will not be.

Nay, though our atoms should revolve by chance,
and matter leap into the former dance;
though time our life and motion could restore,
And make our bodies what they were before,
What gain to us would all this bustle bring?
The new-made man would be another thing.