The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

This content shows Simple View

June 2013

Boskone: The Changing Face of Science Fiction


The Changing Face of SF — Editorial Viewpoints (Saturday February 16th, 2013)
If you want the widest possible view of the ever-evolving science fiction landscape, ask a bunch of editors to tell you what’s really happening. (And who, and why.) So we did.
Jim Frenkel (M), Ellen Asher, Shahid Mahmud, Beth Meacham, Julia Rios

Frenkel (Sr. Editor at Tor) opens by commenting that it is becoming a “multiverse of media and genre” with many areas of writing that were once separate blending (gives examples of fantasy and manga). He says that in some ways it feels like the 1960s again, with political questions coming to the forefront and linger issues of civil rights and white backlash. And that there are counter-trends to these trends as well.  With regard to what gets published, he says “we don’t print anything that we don’t already have orders for”. He labels Steampunk a fashion statement, and comments on the prevalence of urban fantasy and paranormal, etc, says that in the face of these trends there is still good hard SF out there, for example from Stross and Vinge.

[I note that Stross and Vinge are, though certainly hard science fiction, also mostly concerned with electronic / cyber / AI / computer type subjects. I would suggest that these subjects, while remaining important, have taken a back seat to bioinformatics and bioengineering in the past decade. I would love to see more hard science fiction in those areas, rather than continue to beat the cyberpunk drum from the 1980’s and 1990’s.]

Asher notes the existential crisis of science fiction caused by the fact that it is now popular. Almost all top-grossing movies and many of the top TV shows are science fiction. SF has won the culture wars and doesn’t know what to do with itself. Geek is no longer an exclusive cult, and that is creating conflicts of identity, of who is a “real” geek or fan. She also claims that the audience for hard SF is now the smallest part of the field.

Rios highlights the recent trend of online magazines becoming respected places to publish work and look for award-winning science fiction.

Meacham says that SF has been leading the field (of publishing) in getting things online and into digital formats. Comments on how even Newsweek recently has changed over to digital only. She says that at F/SF moves further into the mainstream, we should start to act like it, demands the respect of a genre that is being such a leader.

Mahmud reiterates the popularity of the blockbusters of science fiction and fantasy like Tolkein and the new Star Trek movies. “We are living in Science Fiction now.” He recalls Nimoy once saying that the cellphone is now far better than the communicator. He hopes to see more crossing of genres and even leaving behind the idea of genre entirely. Asher counters and says that maybe genre will continue to create smaller and smaller subdivisions with the ease of dissemination and clumping with people who share your view. An extreming of genre as opposed to leaving it.

Rios bemoans the amount of steampunk, alternate history, and dystopia out there. Wonders if it is the fact that we now live in a world where so much is changing so fast. Is it impossible to predict in such a world?

Many of them go around about how science fiction has always been political (Frenkel mentions Apollo 8 earthrise photo), about how SF claims to be about the future but is and should be about the present, a commentary on our times. Meacham wonders then why we don’t see more climate change dystopia, or other scientific challenges that we face.

[Overall I really enjoyed this panel, but I am curious why — especially in a session called The Changing Face of SF — no one broached the subject of diversity in the genre. By my own rough estimates, the conference was about three-fourths over 40 years old, two-thirds male (and most of the females were artists, not writers), and about 99.8% white.]

We Need More Science Teachers

One more video posted from BTR, this one an interview on science teaching in particular and why we need more science teachers.

Why Teach? – BTR Promo Videos

My teaching residency program, Boston Teacher Residency, has released a series of video interviews about the program and about urban teaching. Including my colleagues Randyl and Malcolm, as well as yours truly! Check them out below:

Randyl Wilkerson giving an introduction to BTR:

Malcolm Jamal King on being a male teacher of color and why he chose to teach:

And here’s me talking about why I chose to change careers from engineering to teaching:

Applications open for Mars One, the first human space colony | Ars Technica

Artists conception of the Block II Space Launch System (SLS). By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Want to travel to space and live on Mars? Are you willing to make that ticket one-way only? Ars Technica is reporting that  applications are open for Mars One, the first human space colony:

Mars One—the private space project that plans to be the first to send humans to Mars and leave them there—officially opened its virtual doors to would-be Mars residents, per a press release and press conference Monday. Today is the first day anyone who has ever thought it might be neat to put on a helmet and see Earth from outside its atmosphere can submit an application to be considered for the first permanent human colony on Mars. The Mars One foundation reports it has received 10,000 messages of interest about the program prior to this point. We’ll soon see how many of those translate to applications.

The Mars One project was started by Bas Lansdorp, a Dutch entrepreneur, with the goal of setting up a small human-inhabited outpost on Mars. The tentative schedule has supplies landing on the red planet in 2016 and the settlers in 2023.

Whoa. If you need a sign that commercial spaceflight is on the verge of a huge new era, look no further than this ambitious declaration.

The major hurdle is getting the mass up there. Climbing out of Earth’s gravity well takes up lots of energy, and that translates to high costs per kilogram of payload. Moreover, currently available launch systems simply do not have the capacity to launch enough at one time for large-scale missions to be practical. However,  With NASA’s Space Launch System (70 MT to LEO) and private heavy-lift launch vehicles like Space X’s Falcon Heavy (53 MT to LEO) coming online soon, long-range / long-duration missions (as well as space settlement) get much closer to being reality.

Ideally, we would want to reduce the material we launch from Earth as much as possible. Taking advantage of in-space resources, such as commercial asteroid mining, will be the key to establishing a long term space economy. That will require essential infrastructure, such as energy generation and orbital processing and construction facilities, to be put into place first. The Mars One project clearly doesn’t plan to wait around for such infrastructure though. In this case, the mission seems focused on a proof-of-concept to inspire blaze the trail.

With all of these private plans to forge ahead out into the black, it worries me that the policy side of the discourse seems to be severely lacking. Mired and gridlocked even with the basic problems of today, it does not seem as though our Congress is prepared, knowledgeable, or open-minded enough to even consider the basic questions at stake. As of now, there are few if any laws or legal precedents governing human and corporate conduct in space. Even more basic, no one seems to know who even has the right or authority to make such laws. It would be a shame, even dangerous for the future of the species, to allow unregulated expansion into the solar system.

  • Who has authority and jurisdiction over space?
  • How does one claim property in space? Can a private corporation simply land and claim a whole moon for example?
  • How will laws be enforced, assuming they exist?
  • Do international rules and identities apply in space?
  • How will the immense resources of space and the solar system be distributed, taxed, and/or appropriated?
  • Do people, especially workers, have rights in space?
  • Can corporations and private citizens declare war on each other for resources?

Space could be the next Wild West, only orders of magnitude more lawless and destructive to natural systems. If we are not careful, the bold dreams of colonizing the solar system and expanding humanity into the stars could quickly become tainted by exploitation, corruption, and greed. The action is happening already, whether we are ready for it or not — and we must engage with the issue now, at the outset.

Nuclear Power at a Crossroads

By Felix König (Eigenes Werk (own work) – Samsung S750) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Building a sustainable energy future is going to take a lot of compromise. Among the sources of energy which I think are often mischaracterized by both proponents and opponents are nuclear power plants.

On one hand, many on the so-called environmental left do have a point in that nuclear power plants can be unstable and lead to dangerous leaks. The recent trouble with the San Onofre plant in California, the news that the nuclear waste units at Hanford are leaking (and actually may be too dangerous to even clean up), as well as the terrible fallout from the Fukushima disaster certainly lend credence to this thinking. Further, it should be no secret that the mining of uranium involves exploitation and environmental destruction of the poor countries in which most of the world’s fissile ore is found.

On the other hand though, I think that many on the environmental left fail to consider the huge positive impact that nuclear power could have on global warming and climate change. Nuclear fission does not produce any direct carbon emissions (the “smoke” rising from the cooling towers is actually steam, water vapor). The positive impact of near-zero airborne pollutants is huge.  For example, a recent paper published by the ACS1 highlights the advantages in clear terms:

Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen state that nuclear power has the potential to help control both global climate change and illness and death associated with air pollution. That potential exists, they say, despite serious questions about safety, disposal of radioactive waste and diversion of nuclear material for weapons. Concerned that the Fukushima accident in Japan could overshadow the benefits of nuclear energy, they performed an analysis of nuclear power’s benefits in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution deaths.

The study concluded that nuclear power already has had a major beneficial impact, based upon calculations of prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions for the period 1971-2009. Nuclear power could prevent from 420,000 to 7 million additional deaths by mid-century, and prevent emission of 80-240 billion tons of the greenhouse gases linked to global warming, the study found. “By contrast, we assess that large-scale expansion of unconstrained natural gas use would not mitigate the climate problem and would cause far more deaths than the expansion of nuclear power,” it notes.

The positive effects of near-zero emissions has a huge impact, both historically speaking and looking forward. Lifecycle greenhouse-gas emissions for nuclear are far lower than the energy sources we typically use (orders of magnitude lower, in the case of coal and even natural gas), and are actually comparable with photovoltaics2. Another notable advantage to nuclear power include the amount of power produced for near-zero emissions, on the order of 3000 MW (compared to 50 MW for a typical solar farm and about 350 MW for a typical wind farm). This value is generally higher than for even carbon-based natural gas (1000 MW) and coal (2500 MW) power plants as well3.

A standard utilitarian outlook will demand the follow-on question: Are the benefits worth the risks? However, I think this is the wrong question, because it assumes a static, linear type of world. The fact is, an overwhelming majority of the scientific community, and most reasonably-minded people, agree that we need a huge reduction in the amount of greenhouse gases that we currently emit. That said, no one really wants to destroy the environment, exploit poor countries, and create unstable systems. I think better questions might be:

  • How can we reduce the negative impacts of nuclear fission energy through technological and sociopolitical means?
  • Can we require energy companies to make a greater investment in safety technology for reactors?
  • Can we form coherent and sensible strategy for the storage and containment of nuclear waste?
  • Can we regulate the atrocious behavior of multinational energy corporations as it pertains to exploited countries, forcing them to comply with stricter (and therefore more expensive) controls?
  • What feedback-loop impact do the answers to the above have on the original constraints?
  • What percentage of our total energy portfolio should be sourced from fission?

I think that last question also gets at another perspective often missing from the debate — that solutions are seldom either-or. I suspect that neither “no nuclear power” nor “all nuclear power” will ever be a reasonable sustainable solution to our energy problems. As the present generation of reactors reaches design age and the construction of new reactors become mired in political hurdles, these decisions and tradeoffs need to start getting made in a clearheaded and reasonable way soon.

In the near to mid-term, I think nuclear absolutely will have to be on the table as part of the portfolio that gets us to a long term solution. Despite it’s temporary advantages, in the long run we will have to come to terms with the constraint that nuclear fission, just like hydrocarbon energy, relies on a finite resource: uranium and plutonium ore, which are extracted from the ground just like oil and gas. In this sense nuclear fission’s key role may be simply as a bridge to get us by until research and development of photovoltaics, solar/geo thermal, space power, and especially nuclear fusion allow for these much more sustainable energy sources to overcome their present technological hurdles, and eventually take over.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. The full paper is by Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen (NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University Earth Institute), Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power.
  2. See slide 18 of Edenhofer, O., The IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources: and Climate Change Mitigation“, UN Climate Change Conference June 2011.
  3. I like to link sources, but these didn’t come from one place. Since the variability of power output is very high, depending on the size of the plant, I had to make an eyeballed average of looking up several examples.

Obama administration defends collecting phone records – The Boston Globe

via Obama administration defends collecting phone records – Nation – The Boston Globe:

The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration, the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk, regardless of whether the people are suspected of any wrongdoing.

The fact that this type of activity is going on and is perfectly legal should be no surprise to anyone  of course. But it is the hypocrisy of the Democratic administration — one that ran on the promise of restoring integrity, transparency, and justice to the federal government — that really disappoints. Combine these latest revelations with the explosion of drone strikes under the Obama administration, the wiretapping of the press, the expansion of NCLB standardized testing in education under the Race to the Top program, the massive privatization of health care reform before it was passed, and the utter failure of the administration to bring justice to banks and corporations after raping the U.S. economy (yet again), and I basically now fail to see the difference between the two major parties on much of anything.

As the NYT editorial board has put it, “The administration has now lost all credibility. Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it.”

That said, at least the Democrats aren’t offering chilling statements like this (back in the Globe article):

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he had no problem with the court order and the practice, declaring, ‘‘If we don’t do it, we’re crazy.’’

‘‘If you’re not getting a call from a terrorist organization, you’ve got nothing to worry about,’’ he said.

Maybe I am just being my usual idealistic self again, but it seems to be that I’d rather take the “crazy” option that Graham seems to offer in his (false) dichotomy. Isn’t that the point of the Bill of Rights? That we are willing to trade security for liberty? Unless I am sorely mistaken, everything about a just democracy is supposed to be about this trade-off.

We intentionally make law enforcement less efficient and effective by curtailing their powers of search, seizure, arrest, and surveillance, because we believe that the individual liberty and less-centralized power is worth it. That means that we accept increased risk of crime in exchange for certain freedoms. We could always have prevented another crime or tragedy, and that is the argument that those in power will always make.

In the same vein, we intentionally make government less efficient than it could be, in order to ensure that the deliberative process and the scrutiny of the public have time to examine the workings of government as they progress. We could always make things more expedient and results-driven, and that is the argument those in power will always make. But the most efficient form of government is a dictatorship.

We certainly shouldn’t leave glaring holes in our intelligence, nor should we neglect to provide for pragmatic defense of the nation — but surely it is not so difficult to swallow that we are not ever going to actually be safe? How many trillions do we want to spend for that extra sliver of the illusion of safety in a dark and dangerous world, instead of investing it in the things we know make the world less dark and dangerous?

Though I am loath to say I agree with Ron Paul on much of anything, it is awfully hard to contest the basic premise of his point in a recent controversial OpEd about the extreme and uncontested measures taken by law enforcement following the Boston Marathon bombings:

Three people were killed in Boston and that is tragic. But what of the fact that over 40 persons are killed in the United States each day, and sometimes ten persons can be killed in one city on any given weekend? These cities are not locked-down by paramilitary police riding in tanks and pointing automatic weapons at innocent citizens.

Sure, Tsarnaev has allegedly done some terrible things and if he is proven guilty in a fair trial in a civil court of law, then he certainly deserves justice. But have we really questioned why his act was terrorism — which supposedly justifies such a response — and not simply murder, which would be a civilian investigation?

No one shut down Boston with tanks to capture Whitey Bulger, and how many people is he supposed to have killed? Nineteen charges of homicide, and he actually apparently claims to have personally killed forty people in addition to a host of other illegal activity that has terrorized (in the classic sense) whole swaths of this city for decades. Has anyone heard of any serious protests against a civil trial for him, or objecting to his having been read Miranda Rights? Will cemeteries deny his body burial when he dies? Not likely.

Apparently fear of terrorism is enough for the people of America to ignore, and often even advocate for, the disintegration of the very ideals they claim to hold most dear. The fact that Obama is a Democrat, and not a Republican like his predecessor, serves only to veil the underlying erosion of basic liberties on his watch.

Hauben’s “Above the Standard” is Timely, Poignant, and Beautiful

The title piece involves hundreds of #2 pencils, each hammered into it's designated place.
The title piece involves hundreds of #2 pencils, each hammered into it’s designated place. No metaphors there, certainly.

I rarely think of contemporary fine art as engaging or inspiring, let alone speaking to something real and relevant in society. Too much post-modernism perhaps. But Ari Hauben‘s solo art show ABOVE THE STANDARD recently set me straight on the gritty power of art in today’s modern world. From his site:

ABOVE THE STANDARD (an education in the art of Mr. Hauben) is a solo art show created by Ari Hauben, an artist and Boston Public School art teacher, which responds to the detrimental effects of the increasingly standardized and mechanized worlds of education and society.

Hauben investigates this theme through installations and artwork created from the very things we usually associate with standard education: desks, tests, grades, etc. In addition this examination will lead the public through different styles of Hauben’s multimedia works which cover a broad spectrum of topics, styles, and materials that reflect his creative response to working “above the standards” and the positive outcome that can occur when operating outside these confines in all aspects of society.

Much of the floor is made of the infamous Scantron answer sheets, placing visitors literally "above the standard".
Much of the floor is made of the Scantron bubble sheets, placing visitors literally “above the standard”.

For example, Hauben’s show includes mixed media paintings on canvas made of the infamous Scantron multiple-choice answer sheets, and installations that depict children either being molded into conformity or playfully casting it aside. In many parts of the gallery, visitors are literally “above the standard” while walking on multiple choice bubble sheets.

(For some reason, Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” kept playing in my head…)

In addition to the artwork that criticizes the increasing standardization of education, Hauben’s show includes a blend of street and pop art works depicting inspirational figures such as Sally Ride, made on intricate mathematical equations and complex scientific texts. In this way he also shows the beautiful power of education to uplift and explore, if we let it.

The show is especially personal to Hauben, as in addition to working as a practicing artist, he is also a Boston Public art teacher at a high school for students with learning disabilities. As an urban public school teacher myself, I’m not sure how he finds the time, but I am inspired by his example!

The gallery hosting ABOVE THE STANDARD is in a converted space at 50 Melcher St in Fort Point. Walk east from South Station on Spring St, across the bridge into Southie. Take the first right after the bridge onto Melcher St. The gallery is on the left hand side, just before you reach A Street.

The show was originally to close on June 1, but Hauben has extended it through June 15th. Thursday and Friday 5-10pm, Saturday 12-6pm, Sunday 12-5pm.

For those interested in the politics that are ravaging our public schools, or just seeing some great and relevant art, I definitely recommend stopping by.

If you go, be sure to add the name of your favorite teacher to the giant chalkboard wall:

Visitors are greeted with a giant chalkboard wall, on which they are invited to write the name of their favorite teacher.
Visitors are greeted with a giant chalkboard wall, on which they are invited to write the name of their favorite teacher.

Love it.