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?



“The Star Pit” – The Limits of Limitations

        Time was 1967 at Miami-Killian Senior High.  Sitting at the freak table in the cafeteria during home room, while listening to complex improvised percussions of the black guys at their table pounding out Afro-identity-rhythms with their hands, elbows and feet, I read a small digest pulp magazine called Worlds of Tomorrow.  I tried to concentrate on the story I was reading, “The Star Pit,” while the kid next to me was lecturing our table about his amazing discovery of shooting drops of heroin.  He normally shot speed but he and his buddies had a dry period and decided to experiment.  Although I wasn’t as dumb as this kid, I wasn’t beyond using chemicals to gain altitude, but what I really wanted was to be an astronaut and fly aboard a Gemini space capsule atop a Titan II rocket.

        “The Star Pit,” a novella by Samuel R. Delany, is one of my all-time favorite science fiction stories that I’ve reread every few years since 1967.  It is thrilling, inventive and most of all philosophical – and it has a theme that I never tire of contemplating.  It’s about barriers.  I like the think of an aquarium full of fish as an analogy to this story.  Some fish living in a tank swim around and accept their limited world, but there are always other fish that constantly patrol the glass looking for a way past the barriers.  As human we don’t bump into glass walls, but we’re all confined by invisible barriers.

When I first read “The Star Pit,” I did not know anything about the author.  I later learned Delany was black, gay and very young, about 23, when he wrote “The Star Pit.”  While I was in homeroom, Delany, nine years older than I, was already a big success in the science fiction world.  By then he had already published five novels, including a trilogy.  He grew up in Harlem, attended the Bronx High School of Science, married the poet Marilyn Hacker and started publishing novels by age 19.  These are all clues to understanding this beautiful story.   I could only imagine the ambitions that fueled Delany to write this story.  It is also important to understand what was happening in the world of 1965-1967, the most important being the space race and the Vietnam War, but New York in the sixties was something special too.

        If you can imagine a black, gay kid from Harlem wanting to be an astronaut with The Right Stuff, or even one of the guys who writes science fiction in 1965, you can begin to understand some of the barriers I am talking about.  It goes deeper than that.  All of Delany’s early work has reoccurring themes about being young and artistic – and especially about being original and always meeting other artists who where younger, more original and more artistic.  My guess was Delany was a prodigy who achieved much too much success too early and hit lots of walls.  I also expected he had lots of emotional trouble growing up.

        We all want success when we’re young and few achieve their dreams.  Most people settle down to accept life, swimming in the middle and never make a run at the glass anymore.  Others continue to bash their heads, or like me, who constantly linger near the barrier thinking, “Jeez, how am I going to escape?”  It’s now forty years later and I know I’m not going to be an astronaut.  Like Dirty Harry said, a man must know his limitations, but if you test them enough you begin to wonder if the barrier will give just a little bit.

        Living with confined desires changes your ambitions to adapt to the barriers.  The conventional wisdom says if a person is going to be creative, they’re going to succeed when they are young.  You might win a Nobel Prize when you’re old, but it’s for work your brain did when it was young.  Most of our limits are related to brain function, genes and the health of our bodies.  We know death is the ultimate barrier to ambition and that the odds are if we haven’t achieved success by thirty it won’t be at all, but some people refuse to ever throw in the towel despite all facts to the contrary.

        I know I’ll never get to the Moon or Mars, but it doesn’t mean I couldn’t write a sci-fi book about such adventures.  Or is that being unrealistic?  Even when you compromise you never know what the real limitations are.  Take for instance a very tiny experiment I conducted.  Scientists have discovered that the brain can still grow new neural pathways much later in life than previously thought and suggest that it’s never too late to learn new tricks.  I decided to teach myself chess as a test.  I didn’t get very far.

        Like the Ratlit in “The Star Pit” who resents the Golden, those humans that can travel to other galaxies, I resent the young who can take up chess so easily while I butt my head against the 8×8 board.  I wasn’t expecting to be a grandmaster, but had the lowly ambition of just beating the computer at the easiest level.  I can’t even do that.  Even now I like to pretend I could still succeed if I would only apply myself and study hard thirty minutes a day for a couple years.  However, failing is teaching me something.  I’m learning that there are a whole host of barriers that keep me back from succeeding, even at my unambitious ambition.  Just to succeed at this tiny chess problem I suffer:

·         Limits of concentration

·         Limits of memory

·         Limits of effort

·         Limits of perception

·         Limits of logic

·         Limits of pattern recognition

·         Limits of age

·         Limits of ambition

·         Limits of language

·         Limits of knowledge

·         Limits of talent

·         Limits of skills

·         Limits of health

·         Limits of vitality

·         Limits of analysis

·         Limits of organization

·         Limits of intellect

·         Limits of overcoming limits

·         Limits of time

        That’s a lot of limits – and there are probably a lot more that I haven’t noticed since I’m so limited at observing my limits.  I can’t just say I’m bad at chess because poor chess playing is only a symptom of my real disease.  I could whine that I’m getting old, but I’m sure there are plenty of people decades older than me that can take up chess and beat the computer.

        The real research question here is whether or not I can do anything about my limitations.  Can I exercise my power of concentration and beat that limitation?  If I studied chess books and improved my skills and knowledge about the game, might I push back some barriers?  Yet, there are other barriers that keep me from doing that: energy, time, health, effort, etc.  So why?  Why don’t I just go swim in the middle of the aquarium and just watch television like the other fish?  Why, I wonder myself.

        You can read “The Star Pit” in Delany’s collection, aye, and gomorrah and other stories.  Every evening writing this blog I pound against the barrier that keeps me from expressing in words the things that I see and think.  “The Star Pit” haunts me with its frail characters fighting their hurricane force ambitions.  I have no idea if the story will succeed with you like it has succeeded with me.  It begins:

            Two glass panes with dirt between and little tunnels from cell to cell: when I was a kid I had an ant colony.           

            But once some of our four-to-six-year-olds built an ecologarium, with six-foot plastic panels and grooved aluminum bars to hold corners and top down.  They put it out on the sand.

An ancient radio presentation of “The Star Pit” can be found here on MP3.

Guaranteed Classics – Music Just For You (To Buy)

If you searched the net you can find plenty of writers riled up over The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s The Definitive 200 list of CDs they want you to own. Since I’m a list maker myself, see The Classics of Science Fiction, I like to think about preparing a good list. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has essentially prepared a list of CDs that is based on sales from recent decades, rather than compiling a list based on artistic merit that I think most readers expected it to be. Of course, we could assume that hordes of buying fans represent good taste and the list does represent the best 200 albums any music lover should own. Maybe it’s like school where they make you read books that are good for you. The trouble is they recommend music from several musical genres that doesn’t necessarily match any single music lover’s taste.

Any list of all time great albums that leaves out Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan can’t be much of a list. (Supply your own missing album to make this paragraph more meaningful.) That’s my all-time favorite album, so I’d expect it to be on the list – it wasn’t. Do I have no taste in music? When I assembled the Classics of Science Fiction list I realized I couldn’t just tell people what I thought were the best science fiction books. I had to come up with a system that represented authority of opinion.

The Rolling Stone Greatest 500 Albums of All Time list is more to my taste, but then Blonde on Blonde was #9. Increasing the number of bests also helps to hit everyone’s favorite. However, the Rolling Stone list just feels more genuine to me. There is a lot of overlap with the R&R Hall of Fame list, especially near the top. You can spot the impact of sales on both lists by looking at the RIAA of Gold & Platinum Top 100 albums or Wikipedia’s List of Best-Selling Albums Worldwide. Studying these two lists shows how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame made up their list. Every album I went “Huh!” over with great puzzlement and head scratching sold enough CDs to wallpaper Florida.

If I was going to make a list, I’d do something like what Time did for their All-Time 100 Albums. First, I would not rank albums. That should stop a lot of fights. Second, I would arrange the list going back in time, year by year, and list alphabetically what I determined through careful research were the best albums for each year. I would do what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame did and put in muliple genres – but I’d add even more genres including World, Folk, Classical, and others they left out. This would be a massive job and one I’ll probably never work on, but I wish someone else would. Like the R&R HoF listers, I’d use sales figures but I’d also use critical reviews, awards, fan polls, books on music history and the test of time to figure out what albums really were the best for each year. I’m sure there are books that have done this, and maybe even web sites.

Metacritic has done something like this for the years back to 2000, but the list I want needs to go back through the 1920s, and maybe earlier to cover the entire history of pop music and the history of albums.

Now that I have Rhapsody Music, and can listen to almost any album I desire at the touch of a mouse for $9.95 a month, I’ll take these lists and explore what all the fuss is about. Hopefully, I’ll find some albums that I’ve never listened that’ll blow me away. Just because I lived through all those years since the 1950s doesn’t mean I got to hear all the best albums. And it really is exciting to discover great artists you totally missed.

Making PC Users PC – The Green Computer

        Ever since I saw An Inconvenient Truth I’ve been pondering ways to do my part to use less carbon.  Since I work with computers the first idea I had was to stop leaving my computers on 24-hours a day.  That isn’t easy since at work I manage four servers and have two computers for programming.  The best I could do was turn off my test computer when I wasn’t using it.  However, at home I discovered I could save about 20 hours of power a day.  Between those two computers I’m saving maybe 280 hours a week.

        It’s a shame that Microsoft promotes automatic upgrades at night.  Microsoft should tell people to turn their computers off when they aren’t using them and then develop programs that analyze usage patterns and run updates during the day.  Most business just let workers leave their computers on 24×7.  What a waste.  I work at a university and they leave all the lab machines and classroom machines on 24×7 so they can run patches, updates and changes at night.  But that’s wasting 16+ hours of energy a day per machine.  Even with power saving features these machines waste a lot of energy (as do TVs and other electronics that never shut off but go into a mode designed for a quick start).

        Simple solution – don’t run computers if you aren’t using them.  What about reducing the amount of power they consume while running.  I started googling around and found this ultra low-powered PC at Tranquil PC.  Tranquil claims it uses just 15-21 watts running Windows XP Home – about the power of a compact fluorescent bulb.   However, it uses a strange chip, the VIA C7-M that might be computationally low powered too.  Googling VIA C7-M I discovered a whole wealth of knowledge about Carbon Free Computing, a phrase that seemed new to me, which means the idea isn’t that popular since I read a lot of computer mags and websites.  Evidently seekers of the green PC are also aligned with the seekers of a quiet PC and solar power advocates.

        This computer I’m typing on is over three years old and I’ve been thinking about getting a new more powerful model.  The first decision I have to make is whether I should buy a new computer at all.   One quote I can’t locate the source says 80% of the energy related to the lifetime of a PC comes from manufacturing.  If that’s true then it has all kinds of major implications.  To gain the most energy savings means using a computer for as long as possible.  Second, if we want to further reduce that 80% factor, we have to convince manufacturers of PCs to work on lowering energy spent on making computers.  Third, succeeding at this endeavor will adversely impact the computer makers economically and indirectly hurt the economy.  Which is why you don’t see the President campaigning for the U.S. to become the international leader at reducing carbon production.

        Every economic decision becomes an ethical decision.  I have always noticed that the success of our economic system is based on a lot of inefficiency.  If everyone was honest and law abiding untold thousands of policemen and related professions would be out of work.  If everyone spent their money wisely how many people in the credit card industry would be out of work?  And it’s all interrelated.  The microcomputer has created millions of jobs since the 1970s.  Computer use has vastly increased energy needs creating more jobs in the power business and that impacts mining and manufacturing.  Becoming green and reducing carbon emissions means a new kind of economy.  Environmentalists have always countered this problem by saying new jobs and industries will be created, and that overall the economy will succeed.

        Will the world become green?  I don’t know.  I tend to think we will all continue on the same path because people don’t change until they are made to change.  This means our society will continue until it collapses and a new system will form out of the chaos.  To picture this just watch the news about Iraq – even there some kind of new order will eventually emerge.  Students of history know that civilizations come and go.  Personally, I’d rather make the hard choices now and remodel our current civilization so it survives.  However, I’m probably fooling myself.  I can’t even make myself lose weight when I know I’m approaching a health crisis.  Statistics show only one person in twenty, or five percent can lose weight and keep it off.  Does that mean only one person in twenty can make themselves into green people?

        Dieting makes a good analogy to going green.  To succeed we’d all need to watch our calories and carbon for the rest of our lives.  This will require discipline, attention to detail and dedication.  Which brings us back to the question:  Which is better for the environment – keeping my current PC or buying a new Green PC?  The same question applies to cars.  Which helps the Earth more, keeping my 6-cylinder Toyota Tundra or buying a Toyota Prius?  I don’t know.  If 80% of the carbon cost of a PC comes from manufacturing and the figure is similar for a car, then whatever we buy needs to be used efficiently for a long time.  The three year replacement cycle for cars and computers is carbon wasteful.

        Recently PC Magazine ran an article about building a green PC.  The whole focus was to reduce the amount of watts used.  The end results were nowhere near the efficiency of the Tranquil PC mentioned above.  And I have read elsewhere complaints about Microsoft causing increase energy use by pushing its new Vista operating system.  Most reviewers say Vista needs a discrete video card, a feature that often consumes more watts than the motherboard or CPU.  This brings up the idea of whether Linux, Windows or Macintosh operating systems are the best for the environment. 

To be fair, we have to consider use.  A gamer with a high powered rig using 650 watts will hate the Tranquil PC using 15 watts.  We can’t just say gaming is bad for the environment, so give it up.  Like the idea of carbon management and carbon credits, we have to give every individual the chance to save energy in their own way so they can spend it in whatever way they like.  For example, gamers could walk or ride bicycles for transportation so they can spend their energy credits on high-powered games.

For such energy/carbon credit systems to work we’d have to know what our energy allowance is.  I don’t know if anyone knows the answer yet.  Dieting only works when you know your daily calorie target and so we need to know how much energy we use now and how much less we need to use to save the world.  Each person on Earth causes X number of carbon molecules to be released in the atmosphere.  We could count up the total, divide by six billion and have the answer.  Then we decide what our diet should be and know how many carbon units we can use each day.  The trouble is that won’t work because people in Africa create far less carbon than someone living in the U.S.

While the Chinese are speeding along towards using energy like Americans, Americans should be working to use energy like the Chinese used to.  That’s not happening.

Cynical minded people will just say buy whatever kind of computer you want because nothing you do will matter.  Henry David Thoreau sat in his cabin by Walden Pond and saw progress barrelling down the track and knew it was going to crash into Concord.  Walden was the book he wrote warning the people of the time about the future.  No one stepped out of the way of progress.  Thoreau observed that we all have choices we can make in how we eat, where we live, how we dress, the work that we choose, and explained that these choices meant something.  Our times require that we all become Thoreaus, but I tend to doubt this will happen.

I think I’ll hang onto my present computer for awhile and continue to run Windows XP.  I’m going to study the Green PC and maybe build one in the future.  When I do, I think I’ll design it so it will last as long as possible and allow me to swap out parts, or even recycle parts from my present computer.  I’d also like to explore other energy saving ideas.  Is it better to play MP3 music through the computer or CDs through my stereo system?  Can I digitize all my paper using habits?  Are printers really needed?  Besides being green, these are interesting intellectual challenges.