Information Overload

    I often think about that movie Short Circuit with the little robot named Number Five who kept shouting, “More input, more input.” That’s how I feel about life. I wish I could process information as fast as Number Five.

    This morning I cleaned off several chaotic stacks of mail from my desk. I have hundreds of unread magazines – and for some insane reason I responded positively to several ads to subscribe to even more magazines. I also have hundreds of unread books waiting patiently on my bookshelves to get my undivided attention, as well as dozens of audio books in my iTunes library waiting to be heard.

    Each magazine represents at least a couple hours of good reading, each book wants from six to sixty hours of my time. My DVR is 94% full with many hours of great high definition video waiting for me to watch. My NetFlix DVDs just sit around, and my CDs and LPs wait quietly for years at a time to get played. In other words, I’m backlogged by thousands of hours, maybe even tens of thousands of hours. If I could only read like Number Five – as fast as pages could flip.

    So what should I do? Obviously, to stop buying books and magazines is one good solution I keep telling myself. That’s easier said than done. I’m like a squirrel hiding nuts for the winter. Whenever I see a great looking book, I buy it thinking I’ll get to it someday during my dwindling days on Earth. (I just tried to go and tear up three subscription renewal letters sitting in front of me, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.)

    What I would like, assuming I could achieve some theoretically self-control that’s never surfaced in my fifty-years of living, would be to own only one book at a time. I’d go down to the bookstore every time I finished a book and enjoy shopping for my next read. It would be fun to carefully select just the right volume to purchase; one I’d dedicate myself to for the next week or so. Ditto for magazines – instead of stacks of them around the house, I’d only have one that I’d cart from room to room until I finished. Then it would be kosher to buy another. For movies and music I’d use Netflix and Rhapsody. My house certainly would be less cluttered.

    I can really picture this. It would be “just in time information” like industries that use just in time parts for manufacturing – no warehousing of information. What I need to make this fancy daydream come true is the ultimate Ebook reader. To go with the device I’d need a service like Netflix for books and magazines. The key is to be able to get any book or magazine I wanted when I want it. Since books go out of print, and magazines are as ephemeral as whims, the impulse is to buy them to save for when I’m in just the right mood.

    The web is a great metaphor for what I need. When I want to know something I go to Google and type in a query. I don’t need to store up answers. I just need to ask when I have a question. With an Ebook I could call up a book to read when I’m in a mood for that particular book. That’s how Rhapsody music service works. I think of a song I want to hear and type in the name and play it. If I had such a company that would provide my reading material, my life would be so much more organized.

    Ignoring the theoretical future of online possibilities, is there a practical solution? Could I do all my reading on the web and replace my magazine habit? Many magazines offer all or part of their content online. I almost bought an issue of Astronomy Magazine last night because I wanted to read the article, “How Large Will Telescopes Get?” I just checked. It’s not online. I also thought about buying the latest New Yorker for the short story, “1966.” It’s not online either. However, “Gone: Mass Extinction and the Hazards of Earth’s Vanishing Biodiversity,” in the latest issue of Mother Jones that I was eyeing is online. I have two envelopes with offers near my keyboard. Both Newsweek and PC Magazine promise me a year of their product for $20 – good buys since they are weekly and twice-monthly publications. However, both of these mags provide a lot of content online.

    I could easily make a web page linking all my favorite magazines to a quick-to-scan system that would allow me to regularly browse their content. A distinct advantage of reading magazine articles on the web is I can send emails to my friends pointing out great reads. I should give this idea a try.

    Another idea is to just go to the library and read magazines there. Let professionals manage the stacks and subscriptions. I used to work in a periodicals department at a library and we had lots of regular readers. I volunteered for Friday nights and got to know a regular crowd. However, reading on the throne in the smallest room at home is kind of important to me. Reading Discover magazine first thing in the morning is devotional, in its own way.

    Now all of these solutions ignore actual content. Another way to manage information overload is to pick subjects I want to study and then ignore all the rest. Take the Iraq War. There must be millions of people worrying over that topic. I’m sure they don’t need me. I am fascinated by the One Laptop Per Child concept and how greedy industrial giants are spoiling Nicholas Negroponte’s dream machine for poor kids of the world. Going on an information diet, I could make a web site that tracked all the subjects I was really interested in and felt I had time to track. I have noticed that the people who get the most done in life are those who focus narrowly on their goals.

    A radical solution to information overload is to become a Zen monk, you know, be here now, one with the moment kind of guy, and all that rot. It does have its appeals. But I’m afraid I’ll end up like by tabby cat – content but ill informed. I could apply that Zen focus to a goal, like writing a book. Then when I stick my head into the maelstrom of data I’d only stare at the bits that would be useful to my writing project. I have to admire writers that pick a big topic, like the life of Einstein or the Jamestown colony and focus on it for years, finally producing a summation of that study.

    Well, I have several ideas to think about. I can become systematic at gathering more information, or I can become focused and narrow the selection of information I try to handle. I have come to this conclusion before. I have written this essay to myself many times in the last forty years, always coming to the same conclusion – I always decide my life should be project based and focused. However, once I clear my thoughts with writing this essay I always go back to hummingbird mode and flit from fact to fact, mindlessly gorging on information.

Love’s Labour’s Lost

    Libraries used to be repositories of knowledge. Writers wanted their books bought by libraries so they could be preserved for all time. Times have changed and their labors of love are being lost. Quite often when I buy a used book on I get an ex-library edition back in the mail. I recently bought Stories of Your Life and Othersby Ted Chiang, an exceedingly fine collection of science fiction/fantasy writing. Its previous owner was the Palm Springs Library in California. It’s easy to spot how many ex-library books I own because their call number labels stand out along the rows of books in my bookshelves. To me this is a literary tragedy.

    Libraries have made a paradigm shift from storehouses of culture to panderers of popular taste. Librarians use computers to track usage and if a book hasn’t been checked out for a certain period of time, neglected volumes are pulled from the collection and made to walk the plank, thus falling into the sea of oblivion. Libraries were meant to preserve books and copyright laws were meant to protect authors, but I’m not sure if that’s not more love’s labour’s lost.

    While libraries dash to digitize crumbling ancient books modern books are disappearing too. With strict copyright laws books are “protected” for the lifetime of the author plus seventy years. There are millions of books published and most are never reprinted or even make back the advance paid to their authors. The last time I saw anything on this subject; it took on average, selling 2,500 copies of a hardback novel to break even for a publisher. That’s not a huge print run. Like giant sea turtles laying piles of eggs, few ever hatch and live to find homes in the sea.

    I collect books by Lady Dorothy Mills, a writer of travel and fantasy adventure books from the 1920s and early 1930s. Her fifteen books have almost disappeared from the Earth, with just a handful for sale at any given time. Her books are still within copyright, so they can’t be reprinted on the web. Lady Dorothy Mills is a forgotten writer. It’s doubtful she gets many new readers – I feel I’m one of her last fans. If her labors of love where still on library shelves or reprinted as e-books on the web, Lady Mills might have a few more fans.

    Copyright laws exist to help writers make money, but most writers labor for love. It’s like Las Vegas, a few gamblers make a killing, some win a little, and most leave the glittering casinos with empty pockets. Copyright laws should be changed to help the writers who don’t make money. I’d suggest that any book that hasn’t been reprinted for ten years be allowed to be republished free on the web. However, if the book is ever used for profit the same lengthy copyright laws should still apply. There’s always a chance that if enough people in the digital world rediscover a book it will help resurrect interest in a novel for the people in the analog world.

    Books are owned by the writers, but they belong to their readers. Fans are what keep books alive. Once a book comes into existence it deserves every chance to live. Sure the writers deserve every dime they can get, but a book deserves every reader it can find. I’m reminded of Bob Dylan and bootleg albums. Dylan and his publishers may want to protect his catalog and reputation, but as a Dylan fan I feel it’s my right to be able to listen to any song he recorded during 1964-1966. I love Blonde on Blonde, and have bought it many times in many forms, but I love those songs so much I feel it’s my right to hear any version of them that still exists. Once an artist creates a work of art, fans have the right to explore and experience that work to the nth dimension. Artists have the right to sell access, but if they don’t offer such access for sale, it should be wide open to free access. The reality of the web reflects that and I think copyright laws should too.

    It’s my hunch that if writers can’t have money they might like readers for their love’s labour’s lost.


What Would It Be Like To Be A Kid Today?

    What would it be like to be a kid today? Is the world scarier now than when I was growing up? Are the children and grandchildren of the baby boomers any smarter than that famous generation that made such a fuss and expected the whole world to watch? The 1960s radicals wanted a revolution, the sociologists predicted a social transformation, the spiritual gurus promised a New Age, and scientists extrapolated an array of futures from doom to bloom. Youth from the past two generations have been quiet – when will there be another noisy generation that demands the whole world change for them? The Iraq War feels like 1967 Vietnam – will the 2008 election be 1968 Chicago? Global warming should make the kids of today hate us – when will they get angry? When does the new revolution start? My fellow baby boomers, we are the establishment this time around – should we trust anyone under thirty?

    I began first grade in 1957 just before Sputnik and finished high school just before Neil Armstrong took his stroll on the Moon in 1969. My generation grew up with our parents playing with atomic bombs and going apeshit paranoid over the Russkies. We grew up in three bedrooms/one bath/single carport Leave It to Beaver homes. Our parents told us to go to school, study hard and we’d live in four bedrooms/two bath/two-car garage homes of their fantasies! We replied to their dreams by turning on, tuning in and dropping out. We expected the future to be a combination of a Thomas Jefferson/Henry David Thoreau Utopia and Star Trek – but one that didn’t take a lot of work to build.

    After our tantrums we picked ourselves up, went out and became our parents, bought even bigger homes and cars than our parents imagined. It takes a big SUV to carry a fat-ass baby boomer but we bought them rationalizing that big trucks protects little kids. We didn’t just want our kids to finish high school, we wanted them to go to Harvard and become rich. And we went apeshit over any hint of hoods selling drugs anywhere near our children. No turning in for them. And we were damn sure they wouldn’t drop out.    

    My mother and father grew up in the roaring 1920s, my mother in roarless rural Mississippi, my father in sleepy tropical Miami. They went to high school in the 1930s and then got jobs expecting prosperity to be just around the corner. Instead they got Germany, Italy and Japan wanting to rule the world. My parent’s generation had schools that taught the basics with everyone dreaming Horatio Alger, Jr stories, hoping to learn enough to get a good job with a company that would last a lifetime. High tech entertainment was a radio and dreams came in black and white visions imported from Hollywood. They didn’t want much, just economic security and freedom from Fascism. I think my father was caught up in the romance of airplanes because the joined the Army-Air Corps. I don’t know if he read science fiction but he grew up during the golden age of science fiction pulps. The drug of choice and rebellion for my parent’s generation was alcohol. My mother’s first husband had been a bootlegger.

    My parent’s parents grew up before the automobile and the airplane. My father’s mother became a teacher in a one-room school house. My mother’s mother braved convention when her father shipped her off to Little Rock at the turn of the century to attend secretarial school. She went to work in the big metropolis of Memphis in 1901. I never knew my grandfathers or their dreams. My mother’s father was farmer, and my dad’s dad grew up in rural Nebraska before moving to Miami in the 1920s. I’m sure the transformation from farm life to city life that most of the country was going through was full of excitement and promise. I’m not sure if either of them had twelve years of schooling. I figure they were dazzled by the transformation of the horse into the car, and the bird into the plane but I sure wished I knew what their dreams of the future were like. I assume the drug of choice for this generation was booze, before Prohibition. I know my grandfather, like my father, died a drunk.

    So what are kids today like? What kind of official and unofficial education are they getting? If you listen to the news the school system is in crisis. When I was a teenager I expected the future to be as exciting as science fiction. What can the kids of today expect when all they hear is gloomy forecasts of global warming? I loved growing up in the 1960s because the times were so exciting, although full of turmoil. Present times are shaping up to be just as extreme and challenging.

    I’ve worked at a university for thirty years now, and I haven’t seen anything like the 1960s again. Social and political apathy has reigned over student populations since the Vietnam War. Did ending the draft, enacting civil rights laws, illuminating the injustices done to minorities, women and gays, and strengthening EPA buy off recent generations? In many ways the Iraq war is almost identical to the Vietnam War – so why aren’t today’s kids outraged? Global warming is the ethical crisis of our times but young people haven’t tried to make it their issue. Why? Do they not understand that it’s the great challenges that define a generation?

    Maybe they are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore, but they are shouting out virtual windows and we can’t hear them. When I watch MTV, the youth appear to be trying to define themselves by decadence and money. If I could show MTV to the Puritans or folks from the Great Depression and tell them this is the future of America I think it would have blown their minds and they would have given the country back to the Indians. I know my generation who smoked pot, bragged of free love, grew their crew-cut hair long and refused to go to war, scared the hell out of our parent’s generation.

    My dad called me queer because I had long hair – called me a commie pinko because I was against the war – and called me a hoodlum because I smoked pot. He called me all those names in rage and anger, but I think mostly because my actions scared him. The violence of the current generation scares me, with the school shootings, boy gangs, girl gangs, and attacks on teachers. First person shooter games just make me wonder about today’s kids like my father wondered about me. Beyond their violent lives their indifference to the future freightens me more.

    But that is the TV view of things. Up close the kids of today don’t seem much different from when I was a kid. They tend to have less hair, take fewer drugs but like booze more, seem greedier, and love tattoos and body art. The girls wear skimpier clothes with uncomfortable underwear that shows because they have cleavage in both front and rear. On the whole I’d say they are equally self-absorbed as my generation and equally focused on sexual bonding. I am always disappointed when I talk to them because they have no interest in big issues, no interest in exciting topics like space travel or scientific discoveries, and have zip to say about the future. It truly is a Be Here Now generation.

    The Slashdot crowd are different – they do think about the future and scientific discovery, but then I was a computer geek long before they were, so I identify with them. Maybe modern kids feel they should be seen and not heard. I do see a lot to envy about kids today, especially the Internet and computers, but most kids just use the technology and aren’t cutting edge techno-evangelicals.

    Back in the 1970s when my friends were deciding whether or not to have children some of them said no because they felt the world was too awful and getting worse. Has it actually gotten worse? There were bumps along the way, but this world and time doesn’t suck despite its many pitfalls – in fact I see a lot about growing up now to be jealous. I also assume that kids growing up today find the future scary, but are they pessimistic about having kids themselves? I’ve never heard one say so.

    Of course, in kidworld you don’t see all the horrors of the world; you see the world close-up, immediate, and the things that make you laugh or cry are right next too you – family, friends, pets, schools, games, books, movies, televisions, computers. My parents had lots of great memories about growing up in the depression. I grew up with an alchoholic father that dragged us around the county forcing me and my sister to attend more than a dozen schools and yet I was still happy for the most part. Last night on the news I saw a piece about the lull in fighting in Bagdad and families were out playing in the parks.

    If you study history close enough you’ll find that every generation had their end-of-the-world doomsayers and every generation will have people who will want to get off the genetic train to the future. However, I want to ask: What’s unique about this generation? Sure, Ecclesiastes tells us there is nothing new under the sun, but I don’t think that’s true. Growing up today means being plugged into a world-wide digital nervous system – and that is new! And after hundreds of generations of Chicken Littles screaming the sky is falling there’s always a chance that one generation of soothsayers are going to get it right, and maybe the sky will fall, or a small piece of it. Personally, I think we’re going to adapt and survive global warming but it will take considerably longer and be more disruptive than the world wars of the twentienth century.

    This is going to sound weird but as a kid I rated television as the most important part of my life. I know family is supposed to come first, but when I grew up adults still believed in the old “kids should be seen and not heard” philosophy. And unlike today where kids and parents often interact as friends my parents were very distant. Oh, they loved and provided for me and my sister, and made us behave and learn right from wrong, but they didn’t play with us. Modern kids seem to spend more time with their parents, often as buddies and it’s no wonder that so many want to keep living with their parents late into their twenties.

    The main difference between my childhood and growing up today is the amount of adult supervision kids get. My little sister and I became latch-key kids when I was nine and I loved that. But even before that, as young as first grade I got to walk to school by myself. When we moved to New Jersey when I was in third grade Becky and I got to play in the woods alone or with other kids, and we ventured far and wide. Today’s kids don’t get that kind of freedom. I don’t think our world was safer, but parents back then felt that kids should go outside and play and they didn’t need constant adult supervision. In this regards, as a kid, I’d vote for my past times. If I was a parent I’d vote for modern times as being better.

    Regarding television, I’d vote for modern times because of the hundreds of channels, the high definition big screens, and because of the numerous chances of seeing shows with naked women. When I was little we had three television stations to watch. The screens were so small, and the black and white images were so bad, that even when they showed girls in bikinis it wasn’t that arousing. I pitied my poor father who grew up with radio and the girls just had sexy voices.

    I’d also vote for growing up in modern times when I think about the television shows the kids get to watch today. Modern kids may love Nick at Nite and TVLand featuring shows from my past but 1967 Batman blows chunks compared to 2006 Heroes and Planet Earth in HD is lightyears beyond Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. The most exciting shows of the 1960s for me were the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space flights. Yet seeing the Earth from space on Discovery HD puts modern kids in a whole new visual dimension of wonder and awe. Modern television is just far more sophisticated as entertainment and many magnitudes better in education.

    I work in a College of Education, so I have a tiny idea about modern classroom life. I’ve sometimes visited our campus school to help them with their computers. My office is near a textbook depository and I flip through them sometimes. I also know a number of teachers. The news is both good and bad. The quality of education various widely from school to school, and from state to state. Growing up I saw a lot of schools in a lot of states. My guess is the quality of education is better today, but there are more problems with discipline and violence, so it may have been more fun to attend school back in my times. I’ve met a lot of people from my generation who says the worse times of their lives were when they were going to school. I think those people would hate now.

    When it comes to toys modern times beats the past hands down. Tinker Toys are nothing compared to Mindstorm Robots. Comparing a Gameboy to a plastic box with a BB is just silly. If you could take a Toys R’ Us catalog back to 1963 all the kids would have wanted to move to the future.

    You know what would really make me vote for growing up in the past? Music. AM radio from 1961-1969 just flat-out out-performs all music before and since. I know that’s probably a prejudice of my times. The kids of today do not having anything close to a Bob Dylan, much less bands like the Beatles or the Bryds. Modern pop music has zero social impact, except for some hip-hoppers and Goth song writers, they don’t even try. Modern music seems to be exclusively hedonistic – but that may my take at seeing the videos that go with it.

    I envy the kids today, living with hundreds of television channels, the Internet, iPods, Gameboys, Xboxes and cellphones. Their lives are more technologically exciting than the science fiction I used to read. John Brunner pegged the bad parts of our time in his 1969 novel Stand on Zanzibar but he missed all the fun and exciting stuff. Science fiction never imagined the video games or the World Wide Web and it especially never predicted the naked girls on HBO and the Internet – when I was in eighth grade finding an issue of National Geographic in the school library during study hall with a photo of a topless old women made me famous with all the other boys for the rest of the day. I bet my dad was envious of my generation because we had Playboy magazines – an item I couldn’t afford until after I started working as a bagboy unless we stole them – yeah, in those younger horny years all we had to make do with were the bra and panty ads in the Sears catalogs. Boys today have no idea how lucky they are. Today, any boy with access to Google can see whole vistas of feminine forms.

    I’ve been thinking and talking about this topic with my friends for a couple weeks now. I think the consensus is we had it better in our day and we wouldn’t want to trade lives with the current generation. Our biggest concerns are with the schools and education. I know my parents were impressed with the limited technology of our baby-boomer schools but feared the violence of our times. I think they felt they got a better basic education in their day, and they felt they were more moral. Besides global warming, education is probably the second direst crisis of modern times. And both are issues that the Bush administration likes to ignore.

    There was a very common phrase from the 1960s that’s mostly forgotten today – “the generation gap.” I think the most positive thing I see about the current generation is they communicate more with their parents and parents try to communicate more with them. My father died when I was nineteen and he was forty-nine. I never tried to communicate with him and he never tried to communicate with me. I was too young to understand and he was too much of a drunk and too afraid of what I might say. I know he tried a few times in odd ways. When his long-haired boy started going out on dates with girls he expressed himself by giving me his drinking money and car. Before he died he tried to apologize for his lack of communication skills.

    I think the biggest difference between growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and today would be difference in the relationship I would have with my father. I’m pretty sure we would have talked more if we both grew up in modern times. Who knows maybe he would have taken better care of himself – quit smoking, drank less, and exercised – things they didn’t nag about in his day. I don’t think the generation gap would have been as wide today – and I’d like to think the chasm between us would have been narrow enough so we could have heard each other.

The Many Definitions of Science Fiction

    Science fiction has always been hard to define. To the general public it has been typecast as space opera and anything to do with the future but that is not my definition of science fiction. I consider Star Wars one-hundred percent fantasy with not a single drop of science fiction in it. Just because a story is set in the future, with space ships, bug-eyed monsters and robots, doesn’t make it science fiction, at least in my skewed view of the world. Maybe we can call it sci-fi, but I’m not even happy about that. Of sure, science fiction is the accepted label commonly used to categorize books, movies, comics, games and television shows as a genre, but that’s like saying all art forms with human nudity is porn. And I’ll admit that most science fiction is a kind of porn compared to the works I want to label science fiction.

    To me science fiction is art that conveys a revolutionary speculative idea that should fit into reality according to the laws of science. Any story about traveling faster-than-light after the speed of light was established and before Einstein’s famous work can be science fiction and any story about traveling faster-than-light after Einstein is fantasy. Before anyone complains, I do know there is scientific speculation that could justify hypothetical means of FTL travel, but it involves things like converting the mass of Jupiter into energy, so I’m still going to call FTL fantasy.

    Sometimes it’s a tight call – for instance, “Bears Discover Fire.” Not likely, but a fascinating speculation. H. G. Wells got to most of the best science fictional ideas at a time in history where they might still be considered scientific. Time travel was a brillaint piece of speculation. Timescape by Gregory Benford is the last time travel story I’d call legit science fiction. Time travel is definitely in the realm of fantasy now. When Wells wrote War of the Worlds the phrase science fiction didn’t exist, but he pretty much defined the term as I like to see it. Aliens and life on other planets and around other stars was not new in his time, and I’m not even sure if Wells’ book was the first to suggest invading aliens, but WoftW has gained worldwide acceptance as a science fiction classic. H. G. Wells made the concept of science fiction famous, even when it wasn’t labelled.

    In the 1920s E. E. “Doc” Smith established the concept of interstellar travel but in a totally unscientific way, but it fired up the minds of the public about the idea of traveling to the stars. Robert A. Heinlein’s 1941 story “Universe” about a starship that took generations to reach its destination was rim of reality science fiction – the fact that Heinlein had his characters set in a time where they have forgotten their mission is mega sense-of-wonder story telling and science fiction squared. However, there aren’t that many original science fiction ideas and thus not that many true science fiction novels. Heinlein went on to write science fantasy when it came to space travel.

    I think Heinlein knew this because after Starship Troopers he figured that writing science fiction about space travel was a dead end, so he wrote Stranger in a Strange Land and took science fiction into a new dimension. I’ve read Stranger many times and both love and hate it. The kernal of a story about a human raised by aliens and then returned to Earth to be reeducated as human is very fine. The story of creating a new religion in modern times is also good speculative exploration. In fact, SIASL is full of good ideas, but it’s also full of bad science fiction. It devolves into a fantasy about wishful I Dream of Jeannie type powers that appeal to adolescent minds, and ultimately was an old man’s fantasy about wife-swapping and swinging.

    By my definition of science fiction there aren’t that many science fiction books and movies. Gattaca was a magnificent story speculating about the impact of genetic manipulation. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was a disturbing story speculating about the worst mechanical qualities of being human – which is the opposite of the film based on the book, because Blade Runner was about the possibility of human qualities showing up in machines that looked like humans.

    The book I’m reading now, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson is about the colonization of Mars, a very old and tired storyline, but one that Robinson makes into cutting edge science fiction. Although it was published in 1992, I think it represents the bar for speculating about what humans can do with Mars. It’s a big book, with lots of characters and ideas, and to surpass it would probably take even a bigger book, bigger even than the entire Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars trilogy, which means that’s a lot to attempt. Other than that, books about Mars are going to be adventure fantasy stories with a few science fictional ideas thrown in here and there.

    The first guy to use a space elevator in fiction can claim he’s writing science fiction, after that it’s no longer speculative science fiction but a baroque embellishment. Robinson has a space elevator, but it’s not why his Mars book is science fiction. Red Mars is science fiction because it’s a complex ecological speculation about humans coming to Mars. It’s human ecology/psychology meets Mars ecology done with finesse and characterization.

    Being a science fiction writer is hard. Coming up with new ideas that are real speculation is light-years beyond hard. Most so called science fiction writers are content to live with writing action stories set in old speculation. For god’s sake, just how many military science fiction stories are needed? Starship Troopers was original and had some very good science fiction in it, as well as a lot of fantasy action. The Forever War was a standout novel of science fiction. By the time the great film Aliens rolled around, the genre was clearly adventure fiction – although high quality. Battlestar Gallactica is fantasy soap opera. And I’m not being critical. Good story telling is good story telling – but the phrase science fiction in my book should be reserved for those stories and films that wow us with a new and novel idea. The very act of calling a work of art science fiction should be praise in itself.


Magazines v. Web v. Newspapers v. Television

    Yesterday I sat down and read through the latest issue of Time Magazine. I am an information junky, but I don’t read magazines as much as I used too, not since the web. Reading the web is an exciting way to take in data – I can start with Slashdot and follow a link to MSN to an article entitled “Sci-Fi from Page to Screen,” read it, and from there start googling the concept for more information. It could lead to an hour of diversion and maybe even a couple hours of blog writing. The casual way to read a magazine is to start with the cover, flip and read until you reach the back cover. With magazines and newspapers you read by picking and choosing what you like, but they are self contained because they don’t have hyperlinks. Television is a horse of a different color altogether. If you discount channel surfing, picking a show and watching it from start to finish, means being a captive audience. If you count channel surfing, then television is more like web surfing, but not quite the same because a couple hundred channels is nothing to the billions of web pages.

    What surprised me yesterday while reading Time was the quality of the experience. I seldom sit and read a whole magazine anymore. I read the letters to the editor, the small and large pieces. Towards the end I started skimming more, but I tried to take in the magazine as a whole. It felt like I got a small snapshot of what was going on in the world this week. If the web didn’t exist magazines would be my web. The world through a magazine eye felt distinctly different than the world I see from surfing the web or watching the television news or reading The New York Times.

    The cover story intrigued me, “Why We Should Teach the Bible in Public School” by David Van Biema. So did another story that was the cover story in the Europe, Asia and South Pacific editions, “The Truth About Talibanistan” by Aryn Baker. I’m an atheist but I find the study of the Bible fascinating. I’ve often wondered why it isn’t taught in school. Of course the way I would teach it by linking it to anthropology, history, language, psychology, sociology, grammar, etc., is very different from the way it is being taught. While reading the article I was itchy to click and research. Then reading the article about the Taliban I was reminded of seeing a documentary on Frontline about the same topic, “The Return of the Taliban.” They didn’t tell the same story, but that’s not the issue I want to get into.

    Seeing the Frontline story on HDTV had far greater impact than reading the article in Time, but the magazine article had more to think about. This brings back the old issue of television journalism versus print journalism. Right after reading that issue of Time, I went and watched “Arctic Passage” on NOVA on HDTV about the mysterious and tragic Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage in 1845. While watching that show I was struct by how much richer the experience of learning was through the 56-inch HDTV than reading and seeing photos in a magazine or book.

    The magazine was about ideas in my head. I read many exciting bits of information that made me think and want to write and research. The show about Franklin was rich and educational in the best way and I was satisfied with the subject when it finished. I have read about the Franklin expedition before, and the NOVA site has more reading material, but the show left a sense of completeness. Given its fifty plus minutes, the documentary makers summed up the issue in a very satisfying way. I then selected from my PVR, “Monster of the Milky Way,” another NOVA documentary.

    The impact was fantastic. I read a lot of astronomy magazines and websites, but the 56″ astronomical photos and videos they showed were stunning. The animations were gorgeous and awe inspiring and totally filled me with a sense of wonder. The trouble is NOVA only comes on once a week with maybe 20-25 new shows a year. What if every topic I wanted to study had a 55 minute NOVA quality documentary to present the information – would that be the best way I should take in information? I don’t know. Maybe? It certainly feels more real than reading.

    Newspapers, magazines and the web are great for taking in mass quantities of informational tidbits. The web excels at ready access to information, but I’ve got to wonder if NOVA made a documentary about “Sci-Fi from Page to Screen” it would blow away the reading experience of the piece. What if the web was surfing a vast library of high definition videos and our computers had 24-inch 1980×1200 high definition screens? What value does the written word have over the spoken word with visuals?

    I buy courses from The Teaching Company and I always agonize over whether to get the DVD option, the audio edition and whether or not I need the print supplement. Their DVDs aren’t hi-def, and just contain photos to supplement the lectures, but often those photos have great impact.

    Do I prefer the NOVA shows because hi-definition television is as close to reality as any media can get? When I attend lectures I hate PowerPoint presentations and videos. I want the speaker to say something interesting and be engaging. I just finished a very rewarding book, Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers. I have to admit that if that book were presented as a long mini-series on PBS it would probably be my favorite way to study Twain. Photos and videos just have too much impact to ignore. Maybe that’s why YouTube is so successful on the web. But would I learn as much about Mark Twain, or remember as much?

    Where does that leave me as a writer? Should I add photos to my blog? Should I go into video blogging? Should we all become documentary makers? Blogs tend to be of lower quality writing than professional magazine writing, and video blogging is a far cry from PBS documentaries. However, what if communication between people becomes more visual in nature? Cell phones with cameras are getting popular. People email me digital photos all the time. How soon will it be before I start getting personal videos? I already get joke videos. What if the video we got were high definition?

    The question I started to write about today is: What’s the best media or method for getting a feel for what’s going on in the world each day? Television is like having extra eyes that rove the planet. Blogs are like getting to read people’s diaries. Newspapers and magazines are like getting letters from well traveled friends who are great writers. Communication speeds are so fast now that news delays range from hours to weeks. In the nineteenth century it took weeks or months and sometimes years to hear about things going on around the world. Of course reading non-fiction books is like getting the news centuries late, and with cosmology the news is a billion years old.

    Slowly high definition televsion is coming to news programs. Watching The Today Show or The Tonight Show in high-def on a large screen has a very real immediate feel. The disadvantage of television over magazines is details. For me, seeing details in print are more memorable than hearing them. I can study them and reread easily. It’s much easier to quote a magazine than to quote a television show. And I tend to think print is more philosophical than the visual media. But most of my book reading is through audio books, mainly because I have more time for them that way, and the fact that I think I experience novels better though audio than though my eyes. That’s because I listen to books at a conversational speed, but speed read them with my eyes, often skimming words. But to study them for a test I’d need to see the printed page.

    What I’d really like is to combine high-definition television with computers and the Internet. The PBS sites are doing something like what I’m thinking about. You can get a transcript of their shows for study and quoting, you can link to videos to show friends, it stays on the web for reference and it has hyperlinks for more surfing, but I need to see the videos in high definition on my computer screen. When will that happen?

    Imagine a Wikipedia entry for every topic no matter how tiny, and each entry had links to all the media related to that topic. So for the Franklin expedition there would be links to all the documentaries, the primary research, secondary research, articles, essays, photos, diaries, etc. Also imagine this Wikipedia’s front page with news streaming in about what’s going on in the world in current time. I picture a map of the world with a visual interface that helps spot new and interesting events. Other tools could track with keywords and photos. Let’s say the idea of teaching the Bible in school becomes newsworthy in this interface and catches my eye. Wouldn’t it be fun to follow a link that takes you to cameras in the classroom? What if one teacher calls up a documentary about translating the Bible in different times and places, and I could fall out of real time to watch it?

    A lot could happen in our future when it comes to information.




Science, Scientists and Science Fiction

    I grew up reading science fiction and assumed adulthood would bring a career in science. It didn’t happen that way. In the last week I’ve bumbled across several current websites where people my age did grow up to become scientists and are discussing their formative reading. Jason Pontin, the editor in chief of Technology Review wrote recently On Science Fiction: How it influences the imagination of technologiest, “To this day, my tastes and choices as an editor and journalist are bluntly science fictional: I look for technologies that are in themselves ingenious and that have the potential to change our established ways of doing things. Best of all, I like technologies that expand our sense of what it might mean to be human.” That’s quiet an interesting bias, and I don’t think he’s alone.

    Over in the March, 2007 issue of IEEE Spectrum they have a story, The Books That Make A Difference, that quotes Vinton Cert, Donald Christiansen, David Mindell, James Isaak, Samuel C. Florman, Vernor Vinge, Danny Hillis, Barrett Hazeltine, Nick Tredenick, Steven W. Squyres, Jaron Lanier, Henry Petroski, Jon Rubinstein and Owen K. Garriott discusing the books that influenced them. Most of the books are science fiction, or books that science fiction fans often love. Danny Hillis chose my favorite SF book, Have Space Suit-Will Travel and explained that the hero of the book saves the world, gets the girl and gets admitted to MIT. He claims he decided to go to MIT because of this.  I read this book many times.  I wanted to go to MIT too, but I never had the right academic stuff.

    There is no way to know, but would these men have become scientists without science fiction? Is science itself not inspiring enough? Maybe science fiction is fairy tales that appeal to logical and mathematical minded children who would have always grown up to be scientists. Or do we just live in a dazzling science fictional age – where the influence of science fiction is so widespread as to be mundane.

    If I could have read about my present life of programming computers during the day and writing blogs at night maybe it would have been an exciting story to my thirteen year old self. If I could show my kid self a photo of my desk right now with its hi-rez wide-screen LCD monitor, color printer/copier/scanner all-in-one machine the size of a small breadbox, the CD player and iPod, I think he would have been wowed! I grew up with manual typewriters, LPs and slide-rules. I know my 56″ HDTV would have been something he expected as standard in all households, but would I have imagined that one day I’d be discussing on a world-wide network the value of the books I was reading back then. It’s funny, but when I was a kid reading science fiction I never pictured growing up and being old reading science fiction. I thought I would be living it.

    Wherever I go on the net I always find people who grew up reading science fiction. What’s weird is when I was reading science fiction in the years before Star Trek I found damn few other people that read it.  How’d there get to be so many SF fans now?  Star Trek, and then Star Wars programmed millions of kids into science fiction fans. I used to go to SF conventions and we’d lament the influence of SF media fans.  How come the same boom didn’t create a boom in scientists?

    Over at ScienceBlogs I found “The Biggest Geek and the SF List” where computer scientist Marck C. Chu-Carroll throws in his comments to a group of blogging scientists discussing the top 50 science fiction books of the last fifty years. The funny thing is most of their books are on my Classics of Science Fictionlist, so there is sort of a consensus about classic science fiction. As one writer pointed out, there are few recent books showing up on everyone’s list. I’m wondering if the SF of the 1940-1990 era didn’t affect a whole generation of scientists.  MarkCC has some good comments about how these books have stood the test of time.

    It would be an ultra-cool science study to analyze all the people who read the SF classics and determine if those books did influence the readers in any significant way. I don’t know how they could do such a study but if can get so canny at suggesting what I like from my buying habits, I think an analysis of common traits of the people who fondly remember the same books should come up with some interesting tidbits.

    Then they should find a control group, say kids growing up in India or Tibet, and see how not reading classic Sci-Fi might have affected the group. India has lots of scientists – were they influence by science fiction? Another interesting experiment would be to isolate schools from the rest of our massive pop culture and only teach them about certain types of books. It would be the ultimate test of the old GIGO principle (Garbage In – Garbage Out). I certainly remember a lot of my teachers asking why I read such trashy books.

    Does anyone ever really know why they make the decisions that they do? Countless factors come into play for such decisions so can we consciously know how we were programmed? Or it might be simple – you become a rocket scientist because you discovered Estes Rockets when you were a kid or read a book on Robert H. Goddard or read Rocket Ship Galileo.  Or you become a robotics engineer because Mindstorm Legos or you read Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot

      Or maybe, you read Rocket Ship Galileo then looked up Robert H. Goddard and then discovered Estes Rockets.  Which is what I did.  To be honest though, I followed every launch of the Mercury program before reading Rocket Ship Galileo.  To dig deeper I must ask why I followed the NASA space program so closely in elementary school?  Deep in the primordial recesses of my mind are memories of the 1950s, before NASA, of watching old black and white Sci-Fi movies, The Twilight Zone and numerous cartoons and kid shows dealing with rocket travel.  I can not unearth the first time I encountered the concept of rocket travel.

      Another weird thought that just popped into my mind – maybe I didn’t become a scientist because my favorite Sci-Fi writer was Heinlein and grew up to become an opinionated dirty old man instead.


What Happened to Fun and Educational Programming?

    Back in the seventies I became addicted to computer magazines. In the early sevenities I had studied computers, working with keypunch machines, greenbar paper and mainframes like the IBM 360, but then the microcomputer revolution burst on the scene and I fell in love Atari, Apple, Commodore, TI, Sinclair, Radio Shack and all the other little computers. I haunted the newsstands for issues of Byte, Compute! (in all it’s various incarnations), Dr. Dobbs, InfoWorld, On Computing, A+, A.N.A.L.O.G., Popular Computing, ST-Log and my favorite Creative Computing. I was so addicted to computer magazines I’d read magazines devoted to computers I didn’t even own. A common feature to all of them was the type-in program, which encouraged readers to learn to program. At the start of this revolution it was assumed that everyone would eventually have to learn to program and most secondary schools and colleges started introducing computer literacy classes. Then the revolution was networked.

    So what happened? I think most people learned that they hated to program. It’s a tedious activity that I took to. I made a career of programming. I’ve heard that interest in programming has fallen off so much that Bill Gates has to beg Congress to be allowed to hire foreign programming students. The big brouhaha is the claim that American kids aren’t smart enough, don’t know math and science, and would rather play video games than write them. That may be true, but I’m guessing there might be other reasons.

    First, there is little incentive to custom program when there are so many free programs around. How fun can a 200 line type-in game be compared to some million line monster that was produced like a Hollywood movie? The open source crowd has made a virtue out of volunteer programming, so that tends to remove the greed incentive. It’s a strange era we live in where the richest man in the world is a geek who climbed to the top of his pile of money by programming and the young people of today revolt against Gate’s model of success by advocating a commie paradigm of programming. That’s like refusing to join a gold rush and taking up alchemy. When I was young I foolishly protested the draft and the Vietnam War, but who’d have imagined later generations would grow up to protest against making money.

    There are other reasons why programming isn’t as popular as beer-can collecting or poetry writing. Home computers used to come with a programming interpreter built in, but now-a-days you have to have an IDE that takes the dedication of a Ph.D. student to learn, and to give away your masterpiece you have to convince your friends to install some massive runtime. Programming is no longer little. If kids put as much work into learning to play the guitar or singing as it would take to program they could be rock stars – that’s why there’s American Idol and not American Hacker on TV.

    The real reason why kids don’t want to program, study math or science, or become engineers is because those careers have no sex appeal. Even lowly desk jockies in The Office, appear to lead more exciting lives than someone who sits in front of a screen all day typing in keywoods. When hot women are interviewed on reality shows about the men they’d like to meet you seldom hear one wishing to hook up with a programmer. Not only is programming a male profession, but it appears to be for omega males. It’s lucky I snagged a wife before I discovered microcomputers.

    With the video game industry becoming bigger than the movie industry it’s a wonder that video game programmers aren’t as glamorous as movie directors or screenwriters.  (Even I can’t picture them being compared to actors.)  Since programs are now written by teams, why aren’t there programming cards like baseball cards, so kids could collect the Microsoft players, or the Apple players or the Linux players – hell the kids on Slashdot certainly argue over their favorite teams as much as any kid ever argued over football teams.  Unfortunately, programming is about as exciting as plumbing so its doubtful we can ever make it into a skill that kids dream of making it big in.  Sure there are millions of us who love to program and we can make more money than plumbers but the profession is just not going make kids want to study in school.  I wonder how many kids would want to be rock stars or movie actors if it required calculus?