Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

Archive for April, 2007

This Year’s Hugo Nominees

Posted by hyperpat on April 30, 2007

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been assiduously reading all the current crop of Best Novel nominees. Eventually I’ll probably get around to writing individual reviews of all of them, but for now my overall take:

‘Hard’ SF dominates. Vinge’s Rainbow’s End, Stross’s Glasshouse, Watt’s Blindsight aren’t just hard SF, they do fair to being a crash course in modern day physics. Now each of these books have their own pluses and minuses, but none of these are something you can hand to someone who isn’t already steeped in SF and science and expect to get anything other than a very confused “Huh?” This may not be good for the general health of SF. Somewhere along the line there needs to be new, good books written that are accessible by the average man in the street, books that neither insult his intelligence with obvious nonsense nor require Ph.D. to decode what’s happening. If at some point the SF community doesn’t reach out to people who aren’t already members of this tiny cult, it will eventually dry up and die away. This is not to say these books aren’t good. Blindsight especially is very intriguing, with a very insightful look at whether self-awareness is really useful or desirable in a living entity – but it does take quite a bit to get into this book, as the concepts and characters are very different from the norm, and at least early in this book there is little explanation.

So how about the other two nominees?

Novik’s Her Majesty’s Dragon is fantasy combined with an old-time sailing story; Horatio Hornblower with dragons. It’s a unique (I think) idea, and her execution is good. And it doesn’t require a science degree to understand it – in fact having such a degree will probably spoil this one a bit, as the basic concept of flying dragons of the size she posits violates several basic scientific tenants, from the square-cube rule to the energy requirements needed to produce the appropriate amount of aerodynamic lift. This one is just a fun read.

Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim is not hard SF, even though 12 dimensional manifolds and light-speed variations figure prominently. It is rather an alien contact story, aliens who bear a strong resemblance to giant grasshoppers, as seen mainly through the eyes of a 14th century priest. Neither the theological nor emotional sides of such a contact are slighted here, and this one will probably end up making you cry and think at the same time. The science here is also somewhat unique, deep mathematics right alongside of historical research. This was expanded from a novella published way back in 1986 (which was nominated in that category for the 1987 Hugo) – and as an indication of how strong the story arc is, I still remembered that original story. For my money, this is clearly the best of this year’s crop, understandable, engaging, with real people and a lot of important things to say.  This is the type of book you can give to that average man in the street.

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Posted in Book Reviews, Books, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF | 4 Comments »

International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day

Posted by hyperpat on April 23, 2007

For those of you wondering, this day got its name from a post by Howard V. Hendrix, current VP of the SFWA. Basically he complained that authors posting free stuff on the web were scabs, undercutting the market for authors actually trying to sell their work. John Scalzi, Jo Walton, and several other authors have not only derided this view of things, they declared today as the day for posting even more free things to read. Mr. Scalzi has posted the first half of a novel he wrote way back when (and never finished) – you can read his post about this and find the link to the novel here.

In the spirit of the day, I’ll direct you to some of my poetry, which is available here.

In today’s publishing world, getting the word out to the reading public is critical to the success of a work. There are an incredible number of new works being published every year, both online and the more traditional route. Most of these will sink without a trace without some form of publicity, and posting things on the web is at least one way to generate interest. In the future, everything might be published electronically, and the dead-tree format will be no more. If that happens, I’ll cry a bit, as I really like being able to curl up with a good book and see them ranked in my bookshelves, but I think such a change will also open up the publishing world to where more writers can get people to read their musings, even more so than has already happened with the advent of the web, and that’s not a bad thing.

Posted in Books, poetry, Politics, Writing | 2 Comments »

Vegas on the Cheap

Posted by hyperpat on April 23, 2007

I made the cut for the $250,000 Bowling Shootout! This means I only need to beat another 502 bowlers to win this thing 🙂 I’ll be leaving on the evening of May 1 to go to Vegas (expenses paid!), with the tournament being held on the 2nd and 3rd, in four rounds. The final round, with the two amateur finalists going up against Pete Weber and Chris Barnes, is supposed to be televised on ESPN on May 20th. In preparation for this, I’ve ordered up a new ball, a Total Inferno, and will have it drilled aggressively for the greatest hook potential. Hopefully this new weapon will give me enough power to actually reach those finals, as I expect that lane conditions for this tournament will be extremely tough, with heavy, long oil.

But if nothing else, I get a free vacation to Sin City. Of course, I do have to pay to bring my wife along, but that’s still cheap.

Posted in Bowling, Daily Happenings | 2 Comments »

The Real Web

Posted by hyperpat on April 20, 2007

My brother, who normally resides in South Carolina, has been visiting here for the last four days, courtesy of a seminar/work assignment that his wife had to do in southern California. As with the large separation we don’t get to have really extended conversations too often, these last few days have been pretty much filled with just such, on anything from family history to world politics. Which is great. It also gave my eldest son a chance to meet his uncle, which had never happened previously (which says a lot about how frequently we’ve managed to get together).

But the older I get, the more I value such family things. Back when I was a stripling and serving in the Air Force, it didn’t bother me that I was neither talking to nor visiting my father, as that relationship was very strained. But when I did finally re-contact my family, and found out that my father had died in the interim, it was a pretty large blow. There are many times today when I wish I’d been able to talk more to my father, and learn what he’d done and what he felt was important, when I was old enough to really grasp such things. Too much of my father’s life is a black hole, and that leaves something of a hole in my own life.

I suppose you can never really know everything about someone else. But life is a web of interconnections and happenstances, and when the web has gaping holes in it, it is less secure, less complete. A hermit’s life is hardly worth living.

Posted in Daily Happenings, General, Philosophy | 1 Comment »

Mobile Phone-Phobic Bees

Posted by hyperpat on April 16, 2007

A new theory has surfaced to explain the bee die-off I wrote about earlier. It would seem there is at least some evidence that bees do not like mobile phones, and won’t return to a hive that has one near it. So far, though, I would class this as a hypothesis that needs a lot more direct research before indicting this modern ‘necessity’. But it is very worrying that this problem has spread to Europe.

I’m reminded of one of the better sf disaster novels, John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass, where a bio-weapon got out of hand and ended up destroying most of the world’s grain crops. While the current bee crisis has certainly not reached the level of disaster of that book, it is certainly pointing out that we simply do not know enough about all the interactions of the world ecology, and the fragility of the world food supply to the effects of unforeseen consequences of technology, mutations, chemicals, or habitat and/or climate modification.

If this problem continues to spread, it would appear that it would be something that needs attention now, although so far it has not grabbed very much press coverage, as opposed to the constant shrieking about global warming, which, while also needing attention, is a much longer-term problem.

Posted in Books, Science & Engineering, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF | Leave a Comment »

Fire Up Your Neurons

Posted by hyperpat on April 13, 2007

I’ve been tagged with the Thinking Blogger Award, kind courtesy of Fencer, whose own blog certainly qualifies for this award. This particular meme was started by Ilker Yoldas, and it’s rules are:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think.
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme.
3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote.

Please, remember to tag blogs with real merits, i.e. relevant content, and above all – blogs that really get you thinking!

I had to scratch my head a little to figure out who else to pass this award onto, but my choices are:

Whatever by John Scalzi. Now Scalzi is a professional writer, and this blog is one of the top rated ones on the net. But if you haven’t seen it yet, do so now. Scalzi writes on a very wide variety of topics, has a very easy, conversational style, and his stated opinions on everything from the current status of the sf publishing market to why bacon taped on cats is a fun thing are always coherent and thought provoking.

Asking the Wrong Questions by Abigail Nussbaum. Her site offers insightful dissections of books, movies and TV shows.

CJWriter by Chris Levinson. He’s a relatively new author hailing from Australia, and his blog covers topics from global warming to some intriguing movies.

Sci-Fi Science Blunders of Infamy by Travers Naran. Makes you look at that Hollywood hokum with a fresh eye for just how much they get wrong.

A Modest Construct by Heliologue – odd words, music, prose sketches, reviews, and software critiques.

All hail the power of thought!

Posted in General, memes | 1 Comment »

World Building

Posted by hyperpat on April 12, 2007

My last post on the ‘wizard effect’ was written with a little bit of tongue-in-cheek, but it was meant to illustrate something that I see happening all the time in poor and even average level fantasy books: a failure to consider all the ramifications of whatever magical thing is present in the story. And fantasy novels are notoriously weak in the area of economics. It is not enough to draw up a pretty map, select your wayfarers for your quest, and define your battles. There needs to also be some serious world-building done, and at least part of that world-building should be figuring out how the average yeoman manages to make a living, just what industries and trades exist and how they all interact. Now many writers may figure that all this effort is not really required, that the traditional middle-ages economic scenario can be pretty much assumed, and to some extent this is correct, as long as whatever story is being written really does fit into this kind of background and there are no plot actions that will disturb the status quo. Sometimes determining just what will disturb that status is not all that obvious, as my little fable illustrates.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s Wizard of Earthsea set is one of the better fantasies out there, and one of the reasons for it is that she did consider some of the ‘unintended consequence’ effects that can ensue from use of magical powers. One of her prime themes within this work was the need for balance, which she often illustrated with a look at what the average person was doing. The background of her world was obviously detailed, though she rarely did any direct exposition of that background.

This same rule applies to science fiction. Often it is the little things in some imagined future or deep-space world that will give the whole that ‘real world’ feel that is so necessary to the ‘suspension of disbelief’ that works in these genres require. Heinlein was a master at this. In his Space Cadet (1948), wading through the waters of Venus (hot and wet was the common scientific opinion of this planet at that time) was not a very nice swim, as Heinlein recognized that with no moon, there would be no significant tides to churn upper and lower water layers, allowing them to become very stagnant. A tiny point, but it adds significantly to the ‘feel’ of this world as a real place. Although the three days he and his wife spent manually calculating (no computers back then!) a Hohmann transfer orbit to verify the veracity of a single sentence in that book is probably carrying this a little too far.

Frank Herbert’s Dune, one of the true classics of the field, also benefited mightily from having taken the time and effort to create a complete background. Many readers have remarked on the incredible interplay between so many different elements present in this book: government and politics, both the underpinnings of religion and its effect on different types of cultures, ecology, genetic manipulation, ancient ‘history’ with its effects on attitudes about things like computers and robots, military strategy, and most significantly how vital commerce is held in thrall to the mental-enhancing effects of ‘spice’, as without it transportation of goods, services, and personnel would take much longer and be more expensive.

Thinking globally about every aspect of an envisioned imaginary world is not easy or trivial and it is very time consuming. Since it does take so much effort, once a writer has created his world, there is a very strong temptation to set the next story in the same world, which leads to the multiple book ‘series’ phenomenon so common today. There’s nothing wrong with this per se; readers, having grown used to a particular world/universe, feel more comfortable revisiting it – its now familiar, a worn and comfy couch. But it can lead to a stultifying round of re-treads, effectively telling the same story over and over, with nothing new and exciting. There’s also a temptation to directly delineate all those nifty details about your world that you’ve thought up, which is a bad idea, as then all this ‘background’ material will tend to drown out the story that you’re trying to tell.

The more I think about these aspects of these genres, the more it becomes obvious just how difficult it can be to write really good stories within their confines. Perhaps that’s why there is so much of this material that is not very good and is eminently forgettable. But when it is done right, the end result justifies all the effort, as these fields can tell stories that illuminate aspects of the human condition that either can’t be shown in ‘normal’ literature or at least are very difficult to portray. Those critics that look down their noses at these fields as ‘entertainment only’, insignificant literature, are not only missing the boat, they are depriving themselves of what can be a mind altering experience.

Posted in Books, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 1 Comment »

Don’t Support Your Local Wizard

Posted by hyperpat on April 10, 2007

The average fantasy novel typically has wizards running around, doing various things to either help or impede the protagonist. Often, especially with wizards who hail from the dark side, the motivations of the wizards themselves are not all that clear or comprehensible, but that’s a small item compared to the large hole of just what do wizards do when there isn’t some great battle or quest or dragon to fight?

Consider the typical one-horse town of middle ages technology that seems to permeate this sub-genre. It has some surrounding farms that provide the edibles, some tradesmen (smith, barkeep, miller, butcher, tinker, midwife/veterinarian), and an economy run as much on barter as on money. Things stay pretty much in balance: people normally get enough to eat, they raise their families, discuss the weather (not an item of trivial conversation), and in general go from day to day with little change or desire for change. Now into this mix let’s introduce a low-level wizard. He can’t do the great spells that change the landscape forever, but he can do little things: something that improves the crop yield for Farmer Smith, a little spell to make the beer and wine at the local tavern always taste great, heal minor ailments, provide love potions that work (most of the time, anyway). What effect will doing these things have?

Farmer Smith suddenly has an unfair advantage over the other local farmers. His lands now bring in twice the crop per acre as everyone else. This translates to greater wealth for Farmer Smith, which he uses to buy up more land, producing even more. This is a positive feedback cycle, and eventually Smith will be the proud owner of all the farmland around the town, and the rest of the farmers aren’t going to be too happy, as by now they’re just sharecroppers on land they used to own.

Barkeep Simon feels happy about the great drinks he serves, and all his patrons agree that getting that spell laid was the best thing he could have done. The tavern’s reputation spreads far and wide, and people that used to go the Henry’s tavern in the next town over now come to Simon’s. Henry, naturally, is not too happy about this loss of business, and starts plotting ways to ruin Simon’s great taste (but just as filling!). So he goes to the wizard, and in return for his first born child (why wizards want such things in payment is a mystery), the wizard agrees to cast a spell on Simon’s patrons that will make them gain five pounds for every tankard of beer they drink at Simon’s. Very shortly the patron’s are so heavy they’re unable to walk from their home to Simon’s (or anywhere else), and Simon’s business collapses.

All these heavy people naturally start developing other health problems associated with being so overweight, and they all contract with the wizard to help cure them of clogged arteries, varicose veins, and the occasional broken bone contracted from trying to sit in chairs that suddenly collapse under them. Of course, this means that all their wealth ends up in the wizards hands, and it would seem that the wizard and Farmer Smith now effectively own the whole town. Then, too, with a wizard on hand to cure everything, the local vet is also out of business, and he leaves in a huff for a town far away, one without a wizard, where the farmers appreciate his skill.

Now the local king gets word that Farmer Smith is very wealthy, and decides he wants a piece of this action, so he enacts a burdensome tax that only applies to very wealthy farmers. Farmer Smith, faced with the prospect of sudden confiscation of a good chunk of his holdings, goes to the wizard to get a spell to make the king’s tax collectors forget how to get to the town. This seems to work – no tax collectors show up. But the king, after a little while, realizes that something has gone wrong, so he goes to his wizard (all kings have signed long-term contracts with at least one wizard!) to find out what’s going on. When the wizard reports, after duly scrying out the landscape, that the king’s tax collectors are spell-befogged, the king decides that this means war, and directs his wizard to unleash all his powers against our little one-horse town wizard. The king’s wizard is naturally far more powerful and knows all kinds of spells that our little wizard has no defense against, and very shortly he is no more, disappearing in a cloud of atomized smoke. Unfortunately, the spell that disintegrated our wizard also does the same thing to all the buildings and inhabitants of our little one-horse town.

And that’s why you shouldn’t support your local wizard.

Posted in Science fiction and fantasy, Writing | 3 Comments »

The Future of Futuristic SF

Posted by hyperpat on April 9, 2007

There’s been a fair amount of blather lately about the general health of the fantasy/science fiction market, which by just about everyone’s account is not doing all that well, and sf worse off than fantasy. Publishers are deliberately trying to present such books as something other than sf, or at least are doing covers for them that don’t scream SF! Don’t Touch! to the prospective buyer. Circulation figures for Asimov’s and Analog are down, as are overall sales of sf books. Why?

At least part of the reason can be traced to my last post on the SF info dump. New ‘hard’ sf is tackling concepts, gadgets, and environments that are well beyond the average reader’s comprehension and comfort space, and these concepts are complex enough that short, simple explanations just won’t do. The writers are left with a choice of trying to educate the reader, normally to the detriment of the story, or self-limiting their audience to those who already have some idea about these things, which is a very small (and probably shrinking) set of people. I certainly would not hand anyone not already steeped in sf some of this year’s Hugo nominees: Vinge’s Rainbow’s End, Stross’s Glasshouse, or Watt’s Blindsight, regardless of how well they are written, or what neat ideas they contain, as they would be nearly incomprehensible to the average man in the street.

Beyond the ‘hard’ sf realm, there is also a paucity of books for younger readers. While David Gerrold and John Varley have added a few works to this area, the days of the Heinlein and Asimov juveniles are long gone, and it is difficult to find books that are captivating to young minds that are not outdated.

Which leaves us with only a very few modern entries that still have that ‘gee-whiz’ factor without blowing the reader’s mind. John Scalzi’s efforts of the last few years certainly qualify in this regard, with his Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, and The Androids Dream, but he seems to be something of an exception, as he deliberately is trying for something that is accessible, part of what he calls the ‘New Comprehensible’. Fantasy is another part of this group, not surprisingly,  as in general fantasy doesn’t have the same problem, and can present settings and story arcs that have large elements of familiarity (or at least don’t require a Ph.D. to figure out).  And then there are the series related works, the Star Trek/Star Wars/Game-Inspired stuff, which are ok are far as they go, but leave little room for true innovation or possible great literature.

Perhaps science has reached the point where Mr. Average Joe simply can’t assimilate not only its current state but projections of what it will mean and the effects it will have in the future, though at least some of the blame for this state of affairs can be laid (at least in the US) to an education system that is doing a poor job of getting kids excited about the possibilities inherent in current scientific and technological research. Clearly, if sf is to survive as a viable genre of literature, there needs to work done by the authors to make it more interesting without being too complex, the marketing of this stuff needs to try and grab readers who would never normally touch the stuff (and it looks like they are making at least some attempts in this area), and our schools could do a better job of introducing young people to the wonders of the field. But most importantly, we, the science fiction fans, need to spread the word to our non-sf fellows, finding works that will interest and captivate them, while not being beyond their capabilities to understand or believe in, till they can graduate to the cutting edge of today.

Posted in Books, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 6 Comments »

The SF Info-Dump

Posted by hyperpat on April 6, 2007

SF writers have had a problem since about day one of the genre. As the story must, in some way, involve science for the story to actually qualify as science fiction, and the average reader’s knowledge of said science cannot be assumed to be anything more than minimal, somewhere along the line the writer must explain whatever scientific theory, gadget, or fact that the story uses. This requirement is unique to the genre, and can make it far more difficult to write than conventional stories, as somehow interest in the story must be maintained while all this information is imparted.

Over the years, several methods have been used to accomplish this task, some of which are clearly better than others, and some of which are suited only for certain types of situations, stories, and scientific levels.

1. The ‘classic’ info-dump. In this method the story gets interrupted by a mini-lesson in whatever science is relevant. Whether this is handled in third-person omniscient mode, where the info might just have well have come straight out of a science textbook, or delivered via ‘dialogue’ between the story’s characters, this method has the severe disadvantage of being essentially a lecture to the reader. As the reader is looking for entertainment rather than a science lesson, most readers encountering this will be disappointed and unhappy with the story. Many stories from the twenties to the forties used this method, and reading them today is a sometimes painful experience, as in general this is just bad writing. Especially if these info-dumps start off with something like: “Hey, Jack, I know that you’re already aware of most of this, but just to make sure you understand how this little gizmo works…” followed by three pages of semi-scientific gobbledy-gook. Unfortunately, this method still gets used today, sometimes by writers who should know better. It does have the advantage of allowing a very direct explanation for whatever piece of science you are using, and if it is limited to very short expositions it can work. However, much of today’s ‘hard’ SF is dealing with very esoteric theories, environments, concepts, and hardware; being able to explain these items in very short info-lets is probably impossible.

2. Drive the exposition from a direct need-to-know by the point-of-view character. This is the method that Heinlein practically pioneered and perfected, as shown in his Have Space-Suit, Will Travel – when his main character has just gotten a space-suit and needed to repair it, it was fairly easy to insert engineering details about how such suits are constructed and why they are built that way, without losing connection with either the story flow or reader interaction. This method is excellent for those items that have concrete relevance to the story’s action. It does not work so well if what is being described is more theory than practical application of that theory.

3. Create futuristic ‘Headlines’ that describe the theory, invention, or relevant history. These must be brief, and preferably part of other ‘headlines’ that have relevance to the story. This has the advantage of being part of a story ‘interruption’ that nevertheless moves the story forward by providing proper background and that is more acceptable to the reader than pure exposition. Some of John Brunner’s novels used this method to very good effect.

4. Don’t explain it at all. This has the obvious disadvantage that it may leave the reader totally at sea, but if the function of whatever gizmo is being used is derivable from context, it may be all that’s needed. Imagine a cave-man reading the following:

“He rolled out of bed and propped open his eyes. Shuffling into the kitchen, he turned on the coffee pot and went to grab the newspaper. Returning, the fresh coffee aroma started to clear his head, and his first sip went a long way towards making the day look bearable.”

The cave-man would know nothing about electricity, coffee pots, or even what coffee was – but he could tell from this that the pot was a device for making a drinkable item that had invigorating effects, and that the coffee pot works pretty quickly. And this may be all the information the reader needs to know about this device.

A sub-class of this method is to present the futuristic item as a commonplace of the day, not worthy of comment. Obsessing over the ‘gee-whizness’ of some gadget will, in general, take away from the focus on your story and characters. Once again, this is something Heinlein did well, such as his one-liner in Space Cadet about using a microwave oven (written in 1948 before such items became a reality).

Context can be much wider than just the direct sentence(s) describing the item of interest. Especially for setting up a social environment, it’s frequently better if how the world got to its current condition is not explained directly (at least not immediately), but the reader can see how this society operates from what is happening now. Things like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Orwell’s 1984, Heinlein’s Friday all benefit from having the story delineate the current society, rather than have some long treatise on the ‘history’ of how the world got this way. Sometimes this involves just what effect a gadget has on society’s customs and mores – just think what today’s society would be like if the automobile had never been invented, for instance.

There is another sub-class of this, that of those items that have a long history of being used within the field, things like FTL drives, telepathy, time machines, etc. Unless your story really depends on the details of these things, they can often be taken as ‘givens’, mere background for your story setting. Of course, once again, a reader with little exposure to these customary artifacts may not be able to take all of this in stride, so using these devices this way may limit your audience – but then again, explaining all of these when they are not the prime movers of your story will definitely bore a veteran reader of the field.

5. Provide partial and/or very abbreviated explanations. This method frequently assumes that the reader knows a fair amount of conventional science, and that he can pick up on things like references to the Lorentz contraction effect, Bose-Einstein condensates, quantum ‘entanglement’, or other such items which are pretty well known to science students and rocket scientists, but frequently are little known outside those circles (and yes, there are some rocket scientists who read this stuff – which just means that what science you do put in had better be accurate). This seems to be the method of choice for several recent ‘hard’ SF novels I’ve read., and while this is generally OK for the veteran reader of SF, it probably precludes these types of books from gaining a wide audience. But when you’re trying to present a whole host of scientific data points (say, your story line depends on the gravitational and magnetic properties of super-Jupiter sub-dwarfs, nano-tech, computer uploads of the human conciousness, genetic and mental engineering far beyond today’s capabilities, and super-cold organic chemistry, to name just a few items in one recent book I’ve read, it may be the only viable choice).

Right now there seems to be a pretty sharp divide between what are typically known as ‘hard’ SF works and those that deal more with the softer, social aspects. Far too much of the ‘hard’ variety is either inaccessible to the average non-sf, non-science trained reader, or becomes mind-bogglingly difficult to understand, even with extended explanations that make the reader stop cold while he tries to assimilate the information. While the ‘softer’ stuff is just that, and sometimes it doesn’t satisfy that yearning for the ‘sense of wonder’ that marvelous ideas and gadgets can engender. But if SF doesn’t wish to go the way of the dodo bird, it needs to get far more proficient in presenting its ideas such that Mr. Average Joe can still comprehend and enjoy the story.

Posted in Books, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 7 Comments »

Little Guys Make a Difference

Posted by hyperpat on April 3, 2007

People like to think that they represent the apex of living things on this planet. But in some ways we’re totally outclassed by some pretty tiny life forms, namely insects. In terms of sheer numbers, we don’t even come close. And insects have been around a lot longer than people; many species are basically unchanged from what they were like sixty million years ago – a pretty good marker for just how successful they have been and how well integrated into their ecological niche they are. Clifford Simak, way back in the forties in the novel City, asked what would happen if you could jump start one variety of insect, the ant, out of its evolutionary fixed point – with the result that our Earth was eventually taken over by an ant civilization, a somewhat frightening example of just how much potential insects have. But as annoying and pestiferous as some insects are, they are also very essential to us, as without them large portions of the ecology would collapse. And some of them are very important to us economically, most especially bees.

Now while your first thought about bees might be honey or sting, bees are the workhorses of flowering plant pollination. While some pollination occurs via wind, ants, arachnids, and larger animal transport, the great majority of this function is accomplished by bees. And without this pollination, most of our fresh fruit and many other staple crops would cease to exist.  And lately, it seems that bees are in trouble.  A mysterious disease has apparently started attacking the colonies throughout much of the United States, in some areas causing the die off of 90% of the local colonies. The cause, so far, is unknown, with suggestions ranging from an imported disease from Australia to the dreaded ‘global warming’ (though so far there hasn’t been much credence given to the latter possibility). As of yet, the ‘killer’ Africanized hybrid bee doesn’t seem to be affected, but without knowing the cause for the current die off, there’s no guarantee that they won’t succumb also.

At least part of the current problem is too great a reliance on a single species of bee by many farmers. Knowledge of other ecological disasters would indicate that, like most things, we should not be placing all our eggs in one basket.  And once again, a strong look should be made at just what chemicals, pesticides, and imported foreign species we’re adding to the environment, as clearly we don’t know enough yet to manually manage an ecology (and can’t even properly computer simulate it); we simply don’t know what unintended effects a single change to an environment will have. Obviously more research (and dollars to fund said research) is needed. But regardless of how quickly we can come up with an answer to the current problem, it’s already so far advanced that you can expect higher fruit prices this summer.
So be nice to our little invertebrate friends, or you just might find your dinner table awfully bare.

Posted in Books, Science & Engineering, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF | 2 Comments »

The Value of Blogging

Posted by hyperpat on April 2, 2007

The blogosphere continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Some estimates put the current number of US hosted blogs at 60 million. This is a significant portion of the population, even if you remove from consideration the number of foreign bloggers, ‘spam’ blogs, inactive, and duplicated blogs – the number would probably still be something like 30 million. Some questions come to mind about this phenomenon:

1. What do all these people have to say? What subjects are hot?

2. Why has this medium grown so fast?

3. What value does it have versus things like print media? Will it eventually push things like newspapers to oblivion?

There may not be definitive answers to the above, but some things are fairly clear. People are writing about whatever strikes their fancy, from butterflies to canned soup, but some of the most popular topics are, not surprisingly, politics, wars, economics, and religion. A good chunk of these postings may not add much to the world’s understanding of causes and fixes for problems, and some of this material is poorly researched and validated, but at the very least some of these posts rival any information obtainable from more traditional sources, and also provide a good snapshot of current mass opinion on a host of issues that politicians had better be paying attention to. But there is also one subject area that is somewhat unique to blogosphere, namely computer-related material, reviews of this or that software, hosting facilities, how to get things done in the computer world. The depth of this material ranges from stuff for neophytes to some very sophisticated analysis of stuff that only propeller-heads are likely to understand. Certainly there are magazines and such devoted to this type of thing, but all too often reviews of software in these media are commissioned for pay, and are neither totally unbiased nor have they received testing on the incredible variety of computer platforms that exist today, so these blog posts serve a very useful purpose.

Which leads to at least a partial answer to why blogging has grown so quickly: it is filling a very real need for unbiased information that is relevant to its audience. But there are several other reasons which are possibly even more important. The first of these is the sense of community that the blogosphere engenders. Americans from the fifties to the nineties seem to be growing more and more isolated from each other (quick, now, when was the last time you had a substantive conversation with your neighbor?), grew inward to concerns about only their own families, and seemed to lose connection with their wider community. This seems to have left a feeling of there being something lacking in everyone’s daily living, and blogging has provided a means for filling at least one part of that hole, a way to connect to many other people in a non-threatening manner. To some degree, the blogosphere has become the new town-hall meeting or the gathering in the old hardware store. The other part of this is the feeling of empowerment; people who have felt that their opinions and their voice were not being heard can now get these words out there for the whole world to see, and the feedback that they can get is a validation that what they are saying is being heard and matters.

Now many established professional writers and journalists have denigrated the value of blogs, stating that they simply cannot match the accuracy of the work that they do, and can in fact lead to some very dangerous and unsupportable allegations and misstatements of fact (and there have even been a few lawsuits challenging just what can and can’t be said on a blog). It’s certainly true that getting all your news from reading blogs is probably not a good idea; that what you see in one place should be checked via some other source of information. But it’s also true that the sheer number of people involved in this means that subjects will be tackled that traditional print and TV media simply don’t have time or space for, and that benefits everyone. I doubt that blogs will ever completely do away with traditional media; there will probably always be a place for people who are dedicated to the full-time work of determining and reporting the facts, but neither should bloggers be dismissed as not having the chops to present issues that need to be addressed in a timely and well-written manner.

Which brings me to my final point. At least part of the allure of blogging is the dream that many people have of being a professional writer. Blogging lets people put their attempts at writing out there for all the world to see, without having to wait years to see it in print or submit their work to sometimes crotchety editors who insist on proper grammar and well-organized material. Of course this leads to some blogs that are almost unreadable and of little or no value. But the great majority of the ones I see, anyway, show a proper respect for the written word, and frequently do present their material in both a logical and persuasive manner. Such work shows me that that there are far more people out there than those who do get published who can write well enough that they could be published. The limitation is just how many things the publishing industry can produce and sell. It’s quite noticeable that since the advent of print-on-demand and cheap vanity publishers that the number of published books has risen steeply. Much of what is published today may not be world-class literature, and it’s certainly true that many self-published books could have used the services of a good editor, but at the same time I can’t help but think that the more things get recorded via the written word, the more our culture benefits.

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