Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Dude: In Space, Nobody Can Hear You Yawn

Young Americans (18-25) are apathetic about space, according to a survey reported on Going to the Moon and Mars doesn't hike their pulse much.

I can think of some reasons. Here are some.

The Moon Race happened during the 60s, and that was a real decade, not like some we've had since. It was a time of change, ferment, revolution, and ... now I'm making you yawn if you weren't around then, because you've heard it all before, but you didn't get to live it.

The Moon Race was an excellent bit of theater, with a suspenseful build-up. Going to the Moon in a series of ever more ambitious test flights kept people's interest. There was episodic, conspicuous, even dramatic, progress. By contrast, watching ISS getting built was like watching paint dry. Grey paint.

Sure, the cancellation of Apollo flights was a let-down, but frankly, I thought watching Schweickart rapturously somersaulting the length of Skylab, in his shirtsleeves, and in slow-motion, was a lot more exciting than watching the Apollo astronauts, with their ungainly bounces on the Moon. And we had the Shuttle coming up, with promises of $200/lb to Earth orbit, a flight every two weeks. Space would open up fast, surely. L5 started in the mid-70s, based on what was proven (real enough) and what was promised (a pack of lies and wishful thinking, as it turned out.)

Somewhere along the way, space travel became routine enough to stop attracting much notice, but not routine enough to allow for dramatic progress. It's a bad space program that gets its maximum news exposure from disasters, not accomplishments. We expected accelerating technological progress, but if anything, things slowed down. The future isn't what it used to be.

The universe itself let us down. (Or rather, SF had raised our expectations too high.) When I was a kid, Venus seemed like it might have steamy oceans beneath its cloudy veil, and while Mars was a desert planet, there was still hope that it had seen better days and would reveal a long history of life, maybe civilization. Well, we now know the truth: if Mars had life, it didn't make much of a mark. Venus is certainly dead, and probably always has been.

Not only is there less grist for imagination now, but the spectacle value of space seems mostly confined to pictures from robotic missions. When I was following space programs in the 60s and 70s, they were the most thrillingly futuristic thing going. Now we have SF special effects in an arms race for greater photorealism. You can make excitingly futuristic things seem to happen far more easily than you can make any corresponding future happen. And in that medium, not even limited by what's physically possible.

Is space a yawn, now? I don't really blame the young for thinking so.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Notable, Misquotable, Whatever: I like it

Wikipedia features sometimes-endless debates over whether a given person, place, thing, or figment of someone's fevered imagination is "notable". If it's not notable, it's out. If someone differs strongly enough with that verdict, it's in again. In. Out. In. Out.

I just discovered the delightfully unpolished-yet-stylish prose of James D. Nicoll. Who is he? He is an SF critic on a usenet group. He is a survivor of many strange attempts on his life by mercurial reality. And now he is facing an attempted assassination of his potential immortality in a medium only slightly less evanescent than the one in which he chose to make his mark: He is, by his own account, scheduled to be sent down the Wikipedia memory hole for not being enough of a somebody. However, his Wikipedia entry is still up there anyway, last I checked.

His claims to notability might be slim, but our sense of the word "notable" must become more mutable to take account of new digital media, with its proliferation of means for taking note. If he is not noteworthy, why did someone retrieve a particular slew of his reviews (of SF novels covering the turn of the century) from oblivion, and assemble them on a website? Perhaps that is a weak argument. But perhaps Nicoll should still be considered notable as someone who said something so quotable that it got misattributed, and not just once, but several times. If someone that quotable isn't notable, who is?

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle [sic] their pockets for new vocabulary.

I almost corrected "riffle [sic]" to "rifle", but it occurred to me: if the original quote was in a medium without proofreaders, isn't leaving the misspelling/typo more authentic, much as we might now quote Shakespeare as having "spaek" something or other? Not that Nicoll and Shakspere are peers or anything.... for one thing, Nicoll is a lot funnier.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Novels and novelty; whither libraries?

I'm still having trouble getting used to the idea that entire, recent, good novels can be found on the Web. For example, Peter Watts' Blindsight. Available under the Creative Commons license. There is even an effort called Librivox with the mission of "acoustical liberation of books in the public domain" -- free audiobooks, read into the public domain by volunteers.

Earlier this year, we at Tama Ryokan had a guest who was in Japan to study the architecture of libraries -- a curious choice of country, given that there are fewer libraries per 100,000 people in Japan than in most developed nations. I suggested to him that the primary reason we had libraries was that we used paper books, an information technology that might not have another twenty years left it in it before it goes the way of the buggy whip. Public investment in a building for the sole purpose of storing and lending out books was not likely to be seen as a good use of public funds. He was not impressed with my argument. Then again, I didn't expect him to be.

Monday, December 25, 2006

My Metal Head Hertz

Maybe because of what I ate for Metal Lunch.

It's Christmas Day (or December 25th in Japan, if that counts, and I'm not sure it does). I've been randomly browsing all day. The above seemed like a very good place to stop.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Great Wealth Transfer

How the richer are getting richer, as Paul Krugman explains it.

I remain sympathetic to the argument that what we've got here is a combination of trends, only one of which is governmental. (If only because singular events are usually the result of multiple, independent factors, where our bias is to seek out a single cause.)

Take jobs. (Just don't take mine!) Krugman is a free-trader, so he has to know that China, among other developing nations, was going to start soaking up manufacturing jobs. Indeed, he argued in an essay, "In Praise of Cheap Labor: Bad Jobs at Bad Wages are Better than No Jobs at All", that to try to protect against that phenomenon would be counterproductive and miserly. Boy, did he get a lot of hate mail for that one.

Then there's the argument by Brad DeLong et al. that IT, among other things, has given us more of a winner-take-all economy. Perhaps there are fewer rainbows, fewer pots of gold at their endpoints. But there is beaucoup booty for those who get to those pots of gold first -- whether by way of talent, luck or unsustainably intense effort (with the biggest pots going to those who manage a trifecta). Perhaps the employees of Goldman Sachs would agree -- salaries, bonuses and benefits will amount to an average of $622,00 per employee this year. Meanwhile, the 120 workers on contract to clean Goldman Sachs offices in London are mulling a strike, with their workloads having been increased recenty by staff cutbacks. Well, that shows up what Krugman is talking about rather starkly, doesn't it? (The cleaners in the new York offices probably don't even belong to a union.)

The income disparities at the highest end are probably best explained by a market failure in executive compensation. One of the better explanations I've heard for this blames the rise of CEO head-hunting, which arguably marketized executive recruiting far beyond any precedent. That's paradoxical. The question is: should it have been marketized? Time was, most top executives arrived at their positions through internal promotions -- so when you got up there at the top, you actually knew something about your company. As Robert Townsend put it, it's better to hire from within even if your best internal candidate only looks like half of what you need -- "He'll grow the other half." Someone coming in from outside might fumble around for a year and half, and still not know which end is up. "Vision" in the sense of "seeing how your company really works" is not the kind of expertise that can be easily commodified. By liquefying the market for CEO bodies, executive recruiting actually made in-house wisdom scarcer, and also made the game of winning as a CEO considerably more of a crap shoot. What happens when you make something scarcer? The price goes up. And what happens when you make a job more like gambling? Less blame on the gambler when things go wrong -- thus a failure of market signals.

Krugman argues from the government side, and lays the blame on Reagan and Bush. Well, that's probably part of the picture. But I don't think it's the whole story.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Why we're not leaving Iraq

Because if we do, the Saudis will likely weigh in on the side of the Sunni insurgency. Juan Cole analyzes this, which he describes as "no surprise," except for the part about their saying it so openly now. I assume it's no surprise to the White House, either.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Conspiracy to Keep Us Confused about Income Inequality

Paul Krugman is stirring up a ruckus with a piece in Rolling Stone entitled "How the Super-rich are Screwing America". That article is not on-line, but perhaps the substance of the argument might be summed up well enough in a 2003 article in the Nation. When Krugman really wants to push a point, he'll keep writing the same piece to the point of exhaustion.

I don't really have a problem per se with the rich getting richer. What worries me is that they might use their added wealth to buy the democracy they think they deserve. They may well feel they deserve it -- after all, the well-off pay most of the taxes. Paul Krugman thinks this is already happening -- that it has been happening for over a generation. And that people need to be woken up about it. Krugman's arch-nemesis (and transgalactic-scale idiot) Donald Luskin of NRO, loves the tag-line, "The Conspiracy to Keep You Poor and Stupid", but Krugman seems out to co-opt that thesis for progressive politics.

Paul Krugman has some intelligent critics on this point. Brad Delong wonders whether the wealth and income disparities that have emerged in America are perhaps far too large to be explained by anything the government has done or could do. Note, however, that he doesn't question that the changes are large. More to the point, he definitely does not accuse Krugman of lying, as Fox News' Cavuto did last week.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Amory Lovins, bananas at 7,000 feet

A voice crying in the wilderness since 1970 or so, Amory Lovins and his energy policy entrepreneurialism now gets more attention at the Pentagon than at DOE, by his account. He's a techno-optimist, almost a libertarian, but more than anything else, an environmentalist. Witty, too -- even if turns of phrase like "global weirding" distract more than they illuminate. Watch him on Charlie Rose.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Why The Industrial Revolution?

The National Bureau of Economic Research is a jewel-like minaret thrust above the ivory tower of academic economics. Where else would someone get paid to write a paper showing that famous painters produce their most noteworthy work either when they are quite young or toward the ends of their careers, but not so much in between? I like to peruse the abstracts of recent NBER publications just to get an idea of the sort of weird ideas economists are thinking about these days.

One not-so-new paper caught my eye recently, entitled "Was an Industrial Revolution Inevitable? Economic Growth Over the Very Long Run". I loved the typo at the NBER site that turned the last line of the abstract into a punchline:

the simulated economy indicates that the single most important factor in the transition to modern growth has been the increase in the fraction of output pain to compensate inventors for the fruits of their labor.

Yes, the output pain. I know it well. There should be a t-shirt that says, "I Subverted the Dominant Paradigm in Silicon Valley, but all I got was this lousy case of tendinitis." OK, I got pain, but I also got paid.

The paper itself is quite chockablock with mathematical modeling, quantifications of the seemingly unquantifiable. After satisfying himself that an Industrial Revolution was inevitable, the author Charls Jones asks, was The Industrial Revolution inevitable? His model gets it a little wrong in timing, and there seems to be an inevitable non sequitur in his attribution of root causes -- how could advances in property rights in the twentieth century explain the Industrial Revolution arising a century earlier? Well, he's looking at the 25,000 year perspective, maybe his model is a little cross-eyed when it gets down to the fine details of timing.

Maybe he basically has it right, but in my own theory of the genesis of the Industrial Revolution, at least one shock to the system didn't retard it but rather advanced it. Once conditions were right -- demographic, technological, economic, legal, and institutional -- there was still one more thing required: the idea that inventors were really worth something. And since those conditions had been achieved before (in China, for example) without industrial revolution take-off, it's clear that something else has to work on people's minds to get them to accept the idea that invention, for all its disruptive effects, is still a net public good. Charles Jones says that, aside from the network effects of a high enough (and I suppose, dense enough) population were established, the other major change required is to start investing a lot in invention. So we agree there. But I don't think his model explains why people started feeling that way about invention. People who didn't give a tinker's damn about invention for thousands of years suddenly started giving a damn about the tinker -- paying him real money, in fact.

My theory is that the Little Ice Age played a big role. Climate change in Europe, in Britain particularly, where conditions were ripest, reduced the quality of life for everyone, but most importantly the rich and powerful. The weather doesn't play favorites. The rich and powerful are endowed with many things, but they catch colds and sneeze in nasty weather, and get sick on bad food, and starve when there's no food, just like the rest of us. Invent something that keeps the poor warmer and well-fed, you won't get rewarded much. Invent something that keeps the rich warmer and well-fed, you've really got something. And if it trickles down the poor in the long run, so much the better, especially if it enables an industrial proletariat to keep the process feeding into itself.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Horror, the Horror

I'm sure everyone has seen some film version of Donovan's Brain, Curt Siodmak's classic about the disembodied brain of an evil genius, controlling people telepathically. (Orson Welles did it as a radio show in the 40s, and the story started life as a novel -- the idea has amazing cross-media vitality.) Here's something interesting Siodmak wrote once about cycles in the popularity of horror films:
The popularity of horror films and current historical trends are interrelated. Horror stories and horror movies are safety valves for human anxieties. During World War Two there was a renaissance of the Frankenstein, Wolf Man and The Invisible Man stories. That trend lasted until the war's end. Though the cloud of the horrors of war permeated our everyday lives, motion pictures of heroic soldiers mowing down hordes of enemies only increased anxieties, since everybody knew that one machine gun couldn't liquidate five thousand Nazis and that fathers and sons were in the battleline facing death. But abstract horror movies--the Monster kidnapping the fair lady, the Wolf Man anxiously watching the moon which could change him into a murderous beast--were highly successful thrillers. Their horrors were detached from reality. When the audience left the theatre they knew they had seen a fantasy.

The day the war ended, the bottom of the horror movie industry fell out. Even Germany, having shed the Nazi spirit, liked only "Schnuitzen," insipid love stories, all sugar and spice. Horror pictures couldn't even be given away. In the United States the musicals and comedies had their heydays. Then, with Truman's cold war policy, with Russian and American atom bombs and other apocalyptic weapons against which there was no defense, horror pictures returned in quantity. They peaked in the early 1950s with the election of Eisenhower and with the cold war abated for a time. Then, they again faded away. But with the Kennedy, Johnson and later administrations and renewed world tensions, the horror movie cycle returned. Again the world's accelerating insecurity tried to find release in horror films and horror novels. As the danger for humanity increased even more with sophisticated weaponry, so the theme of horror pictures grew in magnitude. Disaster pictures like The Towering Inferno and Earthquake tried to top each other; the mental horror films like Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen presented stories of devilish possession as though the world were ruled by Satan and humans had no power.

And here's something I found while trying to find out how many more horror films are being made now than before the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq:

Top grossers
More guts and more gore mean more money at the box office

By Bonnie Britton

March 19, 2006
Moviegoers -- especially the younger ones -- are flocking to horror flicks these days like gulls to Tippi Hedren in "The Birds."

But you won't find too many flicks like those tame Alfred Hitchcock classics or movies starring Dracula, Frankenstein and the Werewolf.

Many newer horror films, including "Saw II" and "Hostel," come splattered with blood and guts. Flicks that revel in dead teenagers, rollercoaster crashes, serial killers, creepy things in the woods/town/building and finger-lickin' cannibals are becoming common fare at multiplexes.


Lionsgate's bloody and brutal "Saw II" took in $87 million domestically in 2005 ($131.4 million worldwide), making it the top-grossing horror film of the year. That's more than the Academy Awards best-picture winner "Crash" took in, which ended its domestic run with $53.4 million.

The article quotes, um, authorities on the subject:

Purdue University Professor of Communication Glenn Sparks, who studies the effects of mass media, offers a reason why people enjoy scary movies: "The feeling of fear generates a lot of physiological response."

Sparks said studies have found that watching horror movies causes the skin to release moisture and increases a person's heart and respiration rates.

Well, duh.

"People come out of these films oftentimes feeling a sense of euphoria," he said.

Yes, but why? Could it be that sense of relief -- "It wasn't real, we're all OK?" There's not much more depth in the analysis of studio execs. Or maybe they know the truth, but don't want to bum people out?

Marc Weinstock, executive vice president of marketing for Screen Gems/TriStar, calls horror movies a "communal experience. When you have 300 people all being scared at the same time, there's a lot of energy in the room."

Yes, but that wouldn't explain why there's money to be made in direct-to-video horror flicks, typical viewings of which result in one, two, or maybe as many as three people all being scared at the same time in the same room. Maybe when Weinstock talks about "energy in the room", he's really thinking about all the cash in the till back at the box office.

For a sense of what all the splatter is about, maybe we have to go back to Curt Siodmak, who spent about 90 of his 98 years writing, a lot of it in the horror genre, most of it forgettable (or in some cases unforgettably bad) but some of it truly timeless:

Horror stories and movies of anxiety are here to stay until the world's tensions diminish. To a writer's mind, global catastrophe might accelerate the world's quest for a solution to its problems. All this sounds rather grim. It is. Many great minds work on plans of how to rearrange the world we live in without fright and fears. The blueprint of the continuation is being worked on. Does mankind have the will to carry it out? When the monsters die for good, the world might have died with them. Or we might have found a way to live together with a sense of social justice and ecological stability.

I'm all for that, so long as it doesn't result in a food chain where my neighbor has a right to eat my brain if I forget to compost my lawn trimmings. Film treatment coming next week.