30 December 2015

The Force Awakens (spoilers in article)

I wanted to like the new Star Wars movie, and I did, more or less. I enjoyed the experience, as a space romp with some elements of nostalgia. I did, however, feel like it was more or less a remake of the 1977 original, but without the novelty. The space graphics were good, but actually, far from the best I've ever seen. (For many, this is trivial, but for some of us space realism is vital). For example, I don't know if it was deliberate, but the starfields were actually terrible; almost exactly like those in the original. Real starfields, even "naked eye", have stars of varying brightness, a clearly delineated galactic plane, voids where there are few stars, here and there very bright stars, maybe some nebulosity visible as faint fuzziness; and a "milky" appearance where the more distant galaxy's billions of stars fail to resolve as points of light. The star fields in this movie were pretty much just randomly distributed points of equal brightness. You would never see that in reality, and it's boring. OK, technicality, but it's a symptom. The whole movie felt just a bit formulaic, contrived, not really engaging on a human-story level. I keep thinking "jejune." Afraid the word fits, if perhaps a little harsh.

I have to pretty much agree with this commentary, by Michael Hiltzik, from the LA Times Business section (after all, movies are business here in LA). It's not so much a movie as a giant commercial for the whole Disney Star Wars commercial enterprise.


♦ David Studhalter

25 December 2015

Some Optimistic Thoughts for Christmas

Krugman has a column about the disappointed expectations of technology over the last 40 years or so, and hopes for the future. 

I've been re-reading utopian Space Operatist Iain M. Banks (who died young a couple of years ago) (Player of Games is his best book, IMO). He's not strictly speaking writing about our future, but he is writing about a society that has emerged from our stage of technology to a much higher stage. I set aside his facile assumption that there will be hyperspace, faster than light, etc., because I believe those things probably really are impossible (if they weren't, and civilizations were even a little bit probable to arise now and then in the universe, I think it's pretty obvious that space travelers would have been to Earth many times before in the 14 billion year life of the universe, and we would know about them. There are a helluva lot of planets in any given galaxy, but a society that set about systematically exploring them, if it was capable of surviving at an advanced level of technology, and even without "Warp Drive" or whatever, could plausibly visit every single one of them in just a few million years (out of 14,000 million years to work with). 

But he does make some assumptions I think are likely TRUE. Such as that the Problem of Medicine will eventually yield to knowledge completely; medicine will become perfect, like a game whose rules are completely understood and the outcomes are completely predictable. And the temptation to enhance the evolutionary contingencies that make our bodies less than ideal and that cause us to age and die rather quickly will be irresistible. Future humans will not be immortal, but they will live a LONG, LONG time, free of disease and most forms of physical suffering. 

Such as that ultimately economies of scarcity and elites just don't make any sense. The universe is essentially full of matter and energy; there is no reason why future development of human civilization should be in any way limited by resource availability. This is admittedly a REALLY long term view, but if you think about it, unless you want to talk about the survival of life into the tens of billions of years, there will be plenty of everything, including starshine and any quantity of all the elements in any form desired, essentially forever. This also implies that if we meet up with beings comparable to ourselves, there is no need for competition; there is abundance for all. 

Such as that some sort of moral convergence on freedom of action and freedom from want is essentially inevitable. 

We live in ancient history, from the point of view of most "people" who will ever live, of this I'm reasonably sure. And we have only the barest glimpse of what the future will bring. 

The only thing that can prevent it from happening, apart from the (relatively) unlikely contingency of something like an asteroid destroying our planet before we have a chance to develop some backup sites (a contingecy people like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking take quite seriously), is STUPIDITY. Sure, we could blow it. We could wreck our planet and become extinct before we even really get going. But boy oh boy would that ever be DUMB. 
♦ David Studhalter

Find out what the number one song on your birthday was.

This is fun. 

Mine was "Till I Waltz Again with You" by Teresa Brewer. It really dates me. (1953). 

♦ David Studhalter

20 December 2015

Iain Banks's Culture novels and left wing utopianism

 I am currently reading Simone Caroti's rather "academish" critical appraisal of Iain M. Banks's science fiction.* She makes the point that he rejected the implicit libertarian right wing narrative of much of American space opera, and instead posited an advanced society (not actually a future society, because it's only approximately human), based not on the assumption that today's political economy of scarcity and elitism will just continue into the future indefinitely, but on more or less the following assumptions: 
  •   The current regime of production and exploitation of resources and people by and for elites is unsustainable and if not changed will result in the collapse of advanced civilization on Earth (a not unlikely outcome). 
  •   This is true in broad outlines everywhere. 
  •   Where cultures do achieve success and longevity, and become true spacefaring civilizations (leave aside for the moment whether quasi-magical technology is possible; Banks obviously chose to adopt that, since it makes the stories more fun)... they are necessarily economies of abundance, where scarcity is not a driving factor and people can pretty much have what they want; possession and control of resources stops being the primary motivating factor in the existence of the "people." (Who may or may not be human). 
  •   A fairly obvious and consistent kind of overarching morality is a necessary element in all that. 
  •   "Flesh sentients" ultimately aren't as good at balancing all these factors and making good decisions as AIs, so AIs end up running the place. 
None of this is surprising to anyone familiar with Banks, who was a Scottish nationalist democratic socialist, even a Marxist utopian. (Banks died in 2013 at 59 of cancer). 

Personally, both as a premise for fiction and as the essential truth of the matter, I buy into all of these except the last point. I remain unconvinced that AI, which really should be called Artificial Consciousness, since that's the key distinction, is even possible, still less than that it necessarily makes better decisions than flesh minds. Or, for that matter, that it would, as Banks assumes, necessarily have any interest at all in cooperating with icky flesh sentients (a la Fred Saberhagen's Berserker series, which was the inspiration for Star Trek's Borg), if it did. But again, my working assumption is as follows: Cybernetics is unbounded and the ability of machines to emulate intelligence will grow and develop indefinitely; if there are ever starships, they will be physically controlled by artificial "minds," but directed by flesh sentience, because I just don't believe in artificial consciousness. Call it an article of faith. I just don't buy that that inner awareness emerges from efficient computation, any more than that if a star trek transporter were somehow possible to construct, it would actually deliver you (and not a simulacrum that only appeared to be you, whether conscious or not)... to the destination. 

To anyone who's happened to read or listen to my ideas on this overall subject, I know I'm repeating myself, but these ideas are rumbling around in my head and I'm trying to pull them together into a magisterium for a science fiction universe of my own devising. 
*The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction. I don't actually recommend this book except to anyone who has a strong interest in Banks as a writer. 

18 December 2015

Fwd: Almost 250,000 signatures demanding the DNC return Bernie's voter file!

If you believe, as I do, irrespective of who you're supporting for president, that Debbie Wasserman Schulz's virtually complete shutdown of the Sanders campaign is an obviously politically motivated overreaction to what was primarily, and fundamentally, a software glitch for which the DNC's own contractors are responsible, please consider signing the petition demanding that the Sanders campaign have restored access to their own data without delay. It is apparently true that there was improper access to files that should not have been accessible in the first place, but this overreaction to a problem that was mostly caused by a third party and has already been stopped is just not justifiable.

We supporters of Bernie Sanders do not intend to stand for this.

Thank you.

♦ David Studhalter

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Carl Gibson <noreply@list.moveon.org>
Date: Fri, Dec 18, 2015 at 6:09 PM
Subject: Almost 250,000 signatures demanding the DNC return Bernie's voter file!
To: Studhalter@gyromantic.com

Dear Supporters,

Thank you SO much for signing the petition to Debbie Wasserman Schultz demanding the DNC restore the Sanders campaign's access to the voter database. We're on the verge of a quarter million signatures in under 24 hours thanks to your signing and sharing this critically-important petition.

Our goal is to reach 500,000 signatures before tomorrow night's Democratic debate to send a strong message to the DNC that we won't tolerate their sabotage of the Sanders campaign. Please share this link with all of your friends to help us reach our goal:


If the DNC refuses to reverse their decision to cut the Sanders campaign off from their own data this weekend, we'll deliver all of the signatures to the DNC offices on Monday morning.

Thanks for everything you've done so far!

Solidarity forever,

Carl Gibson

This message was sent to David Studhalter by Carl Gibson through MoveOn's public petition website. MoveOn Political Action licensed and paid for this service, but does not endorse contents of this message. To unsubscribe or report this email as inappropriate, click here: http://petitions.moveon.org/unsub.html?i=32323-14160954-h6aO7Q

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14 December 2015

Star Wars

The L. A. Times is republishing its reviews of all the Star Wars films to date, and the verdict is not surprising. Most enthusiastic was Charles Champlin back in 1977 for the original film, now rather sillily retitled "Episode IV -- A New Hope." (As Star Wars geeks all know, it was always Episode IV; that epithet appears on the very first screen). Champlin also liked "Strikes Back" (1980) (as did most reviewers in those days), and even, unlike almost everyone, liked the ewoks in "Return of the Jedi" (1983) (which I never noticed before was intentionally titled to bring to mind Tolkien (Return of the King)). 

Kenneth Turan, along with most of the rest of the known universe, was unimpressed by the three "prequel" films, "Phantom Menace," "Attack of the Clones," and "Revenge of the Sith". (1999-2005) (I only managed to see one of these, and it was awful. Oh wait, I might have seen the second one, too. I honestly can't remember). 

But most of the buzz about Episode VII, "The Force Awakens," the first film under the new Disney franchise, with the original cast as old folks and John Williams composing a new score, and J. J. Abrams, who did a great job reinventing the Star Trek franchise, as director... is positive. 

At its best, space opera is great fun. At its worst, well, frankly, the worst thing you can say about the prequel movies, which have some pretty great graphics, etc., is that they're boring. The invention is just not that special. I have a feeling this new one will overcome that.  

♦ David Studhalter

07 December 2015

Obama's speech and the terrorist threat

It appears that Obama's speech is being widely panned as not enough, etc. Which is unfortunate. Obviously, there are some things that need to be done, primarily in the area of making assault weapons and explosives much harder to get a hold of, and vetting travelers and restricting immigration waivers from the "War Zone" (which I am enough of a realpolitiker to advocate should include Western Asia from Turkey to the Caucasus to Yemen east to India and the Easternmost of the "Stans", and west across Northern Africa from Egypt to Kenya across to Nigeria to Morocco). But it remains a FACT that terrorism is far less significant than the flu, auto accidents, or ordinary murder as a threat to the populace of the United States (64 deaths, total, since Sep. 12, 2001). It's terrible; it needs to be addressed, but we should NOT overreact. I believe had it not been for 9/11 there would not have been a second Bush/Cheney term, and, callous as it may seem, the Bush presidency was far more damaging to the USA than 9/11 itself.

I worry that, although in reality terrorism, awful as it is, simply is NOT an existential threat to the US, it will end up highjacking our whole political climate, AGAIN, and remove the focus from critical issues like income inequality, oligarchic control and and power of money in politics, infrastructure investment, universal health care, and, the real biggie, the REAL existential threat, conversion to a renewable energy future so we have a livable planet as the century progresses.

04 December 2015

Importance of Paris and Insanity of Climate Change Denial

It's no secret that I consider Paul Krugman to be essential reading for just about anyone, but I try to avoid touting his columns too often. However, today's column about the importance of the Paris talks and the absolute, potentially devastating destructiveness of Republican anti-science ideology on this issue is truly, truly, a must-read. 

Thank you.