Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Saving humanity through science and sanity

National Defense magazine reports on the advice that science fiction writers, notably Larry Niven, are offering the Department of Homeland Security these days.
Niven said a good way to help hospitals stem financial losses is to spread rumors in Spanish within the Latino community that emergency rooms are killing patients in order to harvest their organs for transplants.

“The problem [of hospitals going broke] is hugely exaggerated by illegal aliens who aren’t going to pay for anything anyway,” Niven said.

“Do you know how politically incorrect you are?” [Jerry] Pournelle asked.

“I know it may not be possible to use this solution, but it does work,” Niven replied.
Apparently the Homeland Security establishment at this conference soon got a taste of what it's like to attend a panel at a science-fiction convention.
The 45-minute panel discussion quickly deteriorated as federal, local and state homeland security officials, and at least one congressional aid, attempted to ask questions, which were largely ignored.

Instead the writers used their time to pontificate on a variety of tangentially related topics, including their past roles advising the government, predictions in their stories that have come to pass, the demise of the paperback book market, and low-cost launch into space.

David Brin, keeping on the topic of empowering citizens with mobile phone technology, delivered a self-described “rant” on the lack of funds being spent to support citizen reservists to back up the military, homeland security officials and first responders in times of crisis.

“It is impossible for you to succeed without us!” he shouted at the assembled officials, while banging his fist on the table and at one point jumping off his chair to wave a mobile phone in their faces.
My people, my people.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Living Dead

My 2004 story "Zora and the Zombie," which is about Zombies pre-George Romero (and with a capital Z), will be reprinted later this year in The Living Dead, edited by John Joseph Adams for Night Shade Books. The table of contents includes Kelly Link's "Some Zombie Contingency Plans," Dale Bailey's "Death and Suffrage" (which inspired the Masters of Horror episode Homecoming), Joe Hill's "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead" (about a romance that blossoms in Pittsburgh during the filming of Dawn of the Dead) and Scott Edelman's recent Stoker Award nominee "Almost the Last Story by Almost the Last Man," plus stories by Sherman Alexie, Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite, Harlan Ellison, Jeffrey Ford, Neil Gaiman, Laurell K. Hamilton, Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Robert Silverberg, Dan Simmons, Michael Swanwick, etc. I'm honored.

Hard to beat this lineup

"Chronicling Mars" is the theme of this year's Eaton Science Fiction Conference, May 16-18 at the University of California, Riverside. A partial list of speakers includes Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, Ray Bradbury, David Brin, David G. Hartwell, Larry Niven, Frederik Pohl and Kim Stanley Robinson.

"Why Superman Will Always Suck"

Anthony Burch marshals the arguments at the Bam!Kapow! website.

Mark Hughes Cobb begs to differ: "Supes' vulnerability is in his LEARNED humanity. He could have stayed the cold, aloof Kryptonian, but he chose to make himself a target by caring for humanity."

Thanks to David Lowe for passing this along.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A truthful typo

I was pleased that many versions of the AP's first-day story on Olympic-torch protests in San Francisco said the "parade rout" had been changed. It's in the second sentence.

The In Vitro Meat Consortium

David Lowe passed along this fine blog entry, by New York Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin, on the scientific, economic and ethical issues of laboratory-grown meat.

Whereupon Andy Rindsberg, bless him, pointed out that the ambitions of the In Vitro Meat Consortium are to create Chicken Little, as depicted in Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (1952):
Scum-skimming wasn't hard to learn. You got up at dawn. You gulped a breakfast sliced not long ago from Chicken Little and washed it down with Coffiest. You put on your coveralls and took the cargo net up to your tier. In blazing noon from sunrise to sunset you walked your acres of shallow tanks crusted with algae. If you walked slowly, every thirty seconds or so you spotted a patch at maturity, bursting with yummy carbohydrates. You skimmed the patch with your skimmer and slung it down the well, where it would be baled, or processed into glucose to feed Chicken Little, who would be sliced and packed to feed people from Baffinland to Little America. Every hour you could drink from your canteen and take a salt tablet. Every two hours you could take five minutes. At sunset you turned in your coveralls and went to dinner -- more slices from Chicken Little -- and then you were on your own.
In that seventh sentence, note the alarming pronoun "who" -- a pronoun the In Vitro Meat Consortium presumably tries to avoid.

In support of our silent Prius

While I am no Libertarian with a capital L, I often share with students the perennial contention that the best argument for libertarianism is our nation's ridiculous mishmash of alcohol laws -- none of which, arguably, accomplishes anything but fund-raising for various governments. Students who are not yet 21, or barely past it, always nod enthusiastically.

Now I have another example: The National Federation of the Blind's campaign to mandate louder hybrid cars.

I suspect that most jurisdictions already have laws on the books designed to prevent the negligent running over of blind people -- or, for that matter, sighted people. If laws were enough to prevent such incidents, presumably such incidents already would have been eliminated from the American scene. And if those laws didn't do the job, what good will further laws do?

We bought our Prius in late July 2007, and it took us only about a week to realize that at the slowest speeds -- in parking lots and on our residential street, for example -- pedestrians just couldn't hear the thing, so we had to watch out for them. But we always watch out for pedestrians anyway, even when we're driving the (comparatively) noisy Subaru. Aren't all Prius drivers doing this, and if not, aren't there ways to penalize the careless drivers, rather than the vehicle owners as a class? Don't we need to do everything we can to encourage hybrid cars and trucks, rather than discourage them?

On a recent round-trip drive to New York City in my Prius, I averaged better than 50 miles per gallon. If every four-door automobile in the United States got that mileage, wouldn't we be a lot better off -- even if every one were silent, not on the highway but at golf-cart speeds? Isn't the need to use less and less petroleum, rather than more and more, a larger concern that the fear of a fleet of silent Priuses re-enacting Death Race 2000?

Finally, given the constant noise pollution that blights the life of every urban American, blind or sighted, shouldn't we welcome silent cars?

Right the first time

On April 6, during a speech in San Francisco, Barack Obama said:
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania, and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years, and nothing's replaced them. And it's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
After the predictable criticisms from his opponents, Obama now says, according to the BBC, that he "didn't say it as well as I should have," that he meant to say "when you're bitter you turn to what you can count on":
So people -- they vote about guns, or they take comfort from their faith and their family and their community. ... The truth is that these traditions that are passed on from generation to generation, those are important. That's what sustains us.
In fact, this is less a paraphrase than an about-face. What he's saying now is true. But what he said April 6 is true, too. Many of the traditions that sustain us in times of trouble, alas, are anti-trade, anti-immigant, anti-outsider, anti-any-religion-but-mine -- indeed, well-nigh anti-everything. They are the traditions of North Korean dictators and Saudi monarchs, of Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh. They are traditions to be overcome, not embraced, and our leaders should be honest in telling us so.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Local artist Mark Stutzman

The Young Frankenstein billboards I saw all over the New York City area on my recent visit, like the website of the Broadway show, displayed the work of an artist from western Maryland: Mark Stutzman of Oakland. He's also the cover artist for Stephen King's Duma Key and Everything's Eventual, among many other commissions. Here's the website of Stutzman, his wife and daughter, artists all; click "Gallery Mark Stutzman" and then the links below to see many examples of his fine work. My favorite may be the haunting Everything's Eventual cover, which illustrates King's ferocious story "Lunch at the Gotham Cafe."

An unfortunate transition

I can't find it online, but the Cumberland Times-News ran a feature March 28 on the chaplains at Frostburg State University, including my friends Ed Hendricks (Catholic) and Larry Neumark (Methodist). (Larry's retiring in May after 29 years.) The article's by Mike Sawyers, the paper's best writer, but his editors did him no service with this transition, in which Ron Yost, the Baptist chaplain, is talking about the growing need for his ministry.
Yost said that attendance at the weekly Wednesday 7:30 p.m. meeting for students grew rapidly from two to 24.

"There is promiscuity available. There are alcohol parties and binge drinking. We offer them an anchor, a safe place."
Oh, I get it now; the Baptist student union is offering alternatives to promiscuity, binge drinking, etc., not the things themselves. So that's all right, then.

Bird lovers are restive

Like many residents of the western Maryland mountains, we have occasional black bears in our neighborhood. One night this past fall, a bear got into our backyard by prying up the bottom of our chain-link fence and shinnying beneath. It helped itself to all the birdseed it could find before moving on -- fortunately, well before we woke up and let out the dogs. We stopped putting out birdseed for a couple of weeks after that.

Now, according to The Associated Press, the state Department of Natural Resources proposes to fine folks $250 for leaving out birdseed, garbage, or any other potential bear snacks once the state has warned them not to.

I suspect the DNR's intention is not actually to limit bear-human conflicts, but simply to raise money to supplement its dwindling revenue from hunting licenses. In any case, if it expects to eliminate the backyard feeder from western Maryland, it'll have a fight on its hands from the likes of Sydney and me. We love bears, but we love birds, too.

Obama and Faulkner

In his March 18 speech in Philadelphia, Barack Obama said:
As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past."
Everyone quotes this, though almost everyone, including Obama, quotes it wrong. As John B. Padgett points out on his William Faulkner on the Web site, it's from Act I, Scene III of Requiem for a Nun:
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
Still a fine speech, though.