Every year the LASFS votes the Forry Award for lifetime achievement in the field of science fiction and fantasy. This is a collection of the works of some of those so honored.
Some time ago, I realized that the cosmic microwave background at 2.7K meant the universe was too warm to allow superfluid helium to form “in the wild”. Superfluid helium shows up at temperatures below 2.17K, so the universe needs to expand and cool of a bit more before the science fiction stories involving superfluid helium life forms become even theoretically possible. Maybe alien civilizations have decided to wait until superfluidity and superconductivity are common outside of cryogenics labs?
“While it is possible for a civilization to cool down parts of itself to any low temperature,” the authors write, that, too, requires work. So it wouldn’t make sense for a civilization looking to maximize its computational capacity to waste energy on the process. As Sandberg and Cirkovic elaborate in a blog post, it’s more likely that such artificial life would be in a protected sleep mode today, ready to wake up in colder futures.
If such aliens exist, they’re in luck. The universe appears to be cooling down on its own. Over the next trillions of years, as it continues to expand and the formation of new stars slows, the background radiation will reduce to practically zero. Under those conditions, Sandberg and Cirkovic explain, this kind of artificial life would get “tremendously more done.” Tremendous isn’t an understatement, either. The researchers calculate that by employing such a strategy, they could achieve up to 1030 times more than if done today.
I got to thinking about economics in a Fantasy world, particularly my RPG world, after someone posed the question of why there would be beggars in a Dungeons and Dragons game.
The basic answer is because that’s the best way they have of making a living.
But why would that be anyone’s best choice?
Anyone with a crippling injury can be healed by magic. But if magic is rare and expensive, many people won’t be.
In a world where 90% or more of all tasks have to be done by muscle power, someone who lacks muscle power won’t be able to do useful work. Technology isn’t around to ease burdens, and while magic can take the place of technology, how prevalent is durable magic in the world?
This may be the beginning of a series.
Further Reading and Resources on Situational Awareness
Podcast: Situation Awareness With Patrick Van Horne: We talked with Patrick Van Horne about how situational awareness skills can be used beyond the battlefield.
Left of Bang by Patrick Van Horne and Jason A. Riley. Patrick has spent his career researching and teaching situational awareness to Marines through the Marine Combat Profiling system that he helped create. This book, coupled with the articles at his site cp-journal.com and a personal interview with him went a long way in helping answer my questions.
www.cp-journal.com. This is Patrick’s company website. He has tons of free content that provides insanely useful information on developing your situational awareness. If you’re looking for something more structured, he also offers online courses.
“Toward a Theory of Situation Awareness” by Dr. Mica Endsley. Dr. Mica Endsley is the Chief Scientist at the U.S. Air Force. While Dr. Endsley’s paper is pretty technical, she does a fantastic job explaining the minutia and nuances of situational awareness that helped clarify a few things for me. I highly recommend you check it out.
The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker
Source: David Friedman (Son of Milton Friedman)
A discussion of legal systems very different from the U.S. legal system. This is of interest to me as a politics geek, and also as a Dungeons and Dragons player.
To give you a quick idea of what’s there, here is the table of contents:
1. Imperial Chinese Law
2. Romani Law
3. The Amish
4. Jewish Law
5. Islamic Law
6. When God is the Legislator.
7. Pirate Law
8. Prisoners’ Law
9. Student Law [Not yet in]
10. Embedded and Polylegal Systems
11. Saga-Period Iceland
12. Somali Law
13. Early Irish Law
14. Comanche, Kiowa and Cheyenne: The Plains Indians
15. Feud Law
16. England in the Eighteenth Century
17. Athenian Law: The Work of a Mad Economist
18. Enforcing Rules
19. The Problem of Error
20. Making Law
21. Guarding the Guardians
22. Ideas We Can Use
Rub your hands with flour. The flour absorbs moisture and the dough flakes right off.
Apparently it’s a well-known baker’s trick. To some bakers.
WhedonCon is a new convention; 2017 was its second year. This is a convention celebrating the works of Joss Whedon: Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Serenity, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and others. As a result, I spent the past weekend doing what I call “Convention Weight Training”. This is a fitness program that involves moving lots of heavy objects to and from a hotel, and moving them around in the hotel as I need to get at supplies and equipment.
For the second year in a row, I handled supplies for the Green Room. I bought the snacks and munchies, the beverages, and provided a lunch set-up around mid day. Everyone was quite happy with the provisions in the Green Room, and I used just over 80% of my budget. (Thanks in part to Kneady Bakery, which donated three shopping bags filled with baked goods to the convention.) Hospitality uses a lot of ice, and after the hotel staff showed me where the heavy-duty ice machine lived, I filled up my 150-quart ice chest with ice both Friday and Saturday nights. I had a cart I could use to move the chest through the hotel, but lifting it off the cart when it was full was something that had to be done by hand.
So, the day after I finished loading stuff out, I’m still quite tired.
One thing I didn’t do very much of was attend the convention. I made it to one panel, and caught the tail end of one where the subject was the monsters we are all capable of becoming. Comparing Trump with Hitler was apparently considered not the least bit controversial. (I chose not to call anyone on their non-inclusiveness at that point.)
A lot of the programming was kind of “how to do it” lectures and demonstrations — writing, make-up, special effects, and so on. There was a panel speculating about what the second season of Firefly would have been like, and a couple of panels dedicated to everyday heroes. There were also meet-and-greet sessions, autograph sessions, and photo opportunity sessions. If I were passionate about any of those, I’d probably not be working the Green Room.
All in all, I did have fun. I guess I fall into the class of “convention-running fans” — the sort who’s more interested in running a convention than in the subject matter of any given con. I guess I like the challenge of putting together a spread for as little as possible.
Anyway, back to ranting about politics.
By combining images from telescopes around the world, researchers are getting the resolving power of a telescope 10,000 km across.
Thomas Sowell is sitting in my chair. He’d driven in to Stanford University from his home 50 miles away, and since he’s 86 years old, the least I could do was to let him choose between the two seats in my office. So he parks behind my desk on the lovely chair that swivels, and I face him, hunched and immobile, on the other side—a fitting way to interview one of America’s great sages.
This feels like the perfect time to ask Mr. Sowell to ruminate on the things that have mattered most to him. He’d announced, at the end of 2016, that he would give up the newspaper column he’d written for Creators Syndicate for more than 25 years, a retirement that suggested the end of an era. Before that Mr. Sowell, an economist and conservative, had written columns for another news service, Scripps-Howard, but had quit after an editor changed a line about carbon monoxide emissions to read as one about “carbon dioxide.” This caused an indignant Mr. Sowell to terminate his contract—perhaps the original source of his fearsome reputation among editors. (When I, as an editor for this page, was handed a Thomas Sowell piece to work on back in 2001, my boss whispered to me: “Careful, it’s Sowell. Don’t change anything.”)
Thomas Sowell was born into poverty in North Carolina, in 1930. At age 9, he moved with his mother to Harlem, in New York, to live with relatives who promised a better life for the boy. There he visited a library for the first time, and though he’s not entirely sure, he thinks the first books he borrowed from this “wondrous” institution were “The Story of Doctor Dolittle” and “Alice in Wonderland.”
A family friend called Eddie—a boy roughly Mr. Sowell’s age—had taken it upon himself to help the callow little Southerner navigate his new metropolitan minefields. “I was assigned to a junior high school in a really very bad part of Harlem, and Eddie told me, ‘You don’t have to go there. You can ask to be sent to a different school.’ That’s what he’d done. And then I followed him to Stuyvesant”—a selective high school for smart kids. “He led me. If you take Eddie out of my life, there’s virtually no way I could have followed the same path that I did.”
Having dodged a calamitous education solely on the advice of a worldly child, it isn’t surprising that Mr. Sowell—who went on to earn degrees from Harvard, Columbia and the University of Chicago before teaching at some of the country’s finest universities—has had a lifelong distaste for the “ideologues” who have come to run America’s schools.
The nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, and the possibility of promoting charter schools nationwide, so energized Mr. Sowell that he “briefly came out of retirement to write two columns in support—because I thought that this is a moment that might not come again in our lifetime, and I mean even the younger people’s lifetime. If we lose it now, we may have lost it forever.”
Mr. Sowell has what he calls “my reservations” about Donald Trump, but he gives the president credit for being “the first Republican who’s made any serious attempt to get the black vote by addressing problems that affect most blacks who are trying to do the right thing—such as education, which is such low-hanging fruit.” Republicans have “no reason whatever to be worried about teachers unions, because the teachers unions aren’t going to vote for them anyway,” he says. “They’re spending millions of dollars trying to get Democrats elected.”
But the good that can be done is obvious to Mr. Sowell. “The most successful schools for educating black kids have been a few charter schools,” he says. “There are literally tens of thousands of kids on waiting lists for charter schools in New York alone. You needed somebody who was going to fight to break through these caps that have been put on the number of charter schools.”
Mr. Sowell has stopped swiveling in my chair, and he looks straight at me to make his next point. “You see, in order to get these reforms, you would have to go against the dogmas not only of educators, but of the American intelligentsia in general,” he says. “The teachers unions complain that charter schools really have skimmed off the cream. Of course that’s nonsense, because people are chosen by lottery. In another sense, there’s a point there, because these are the parents who care about what’s going to happen to their kids. These people are just desperate to get into the charter schools. They don’t want to be raising a bunch of little thugs.”
If a Republican could manage to enact school choice, Mr. Sowell says, “he would have some hope of beginning the process of peeling away black votes from the Democrats. It doesn’t have to be a majority of the black vote. If there’s a narrow race for Congress, and you can reduce the black support for the Democrats from 90% to 80%, that could be the difference.”
How has America changed over Mr. Sowell’s lifetime? “Oh my God,” he responds, “that is truly a depressing subject.” He laments the “huge degeneration” and what he sees as the spread of “the grievance culture to low-income whites—and even to places like Great Britain.”
An idea has taken root “that you’re entitled to certain things, that you don’t necessarily have to earn them,” he says. “There’s a belief that something’s wrong if you don’t have what other people have—that it’s because you’re ‘disadvantaged.’ A teenage dropout mother is told she has a disadvantage. But if you’re going to call the negative consequences of chosen behavior ‘disadvantage,’ the word is corrupt beyond repair and useful only for propaganda purposes.”
Has there been any change for the better? “Oh, yes, yes, yes,” he says. “In fact, for blacks who have education and who have not succumbed to a new lifestyle—the grievances, and the coarseness represented by rap music—it’s gotten tremendously better. What’s disheartening, though, is that when you study ethnic groups around the world, the ones that are lagging behind are those where their leaders always tell the same story: that it’s other people holding you back, and that therefore you need to stand against those other people and resist their culture. But that culture may be the key to success.”
Here Mr. Sowell pivots to 18th-century Scotland and the philosopher David Hume: “Hume urged Scots to learn the English language,” he says. “He didn’t do that because his job was that of an ethnic leader. He did it because he was an intellectual.” Yet it helped bring progress to his homeland. “One of the most miraculous advances of a people occurred in Scotland from the 18th century into the 19th,” Mr. Sowell says. “A wholly disproportionate share of the leading British thinkers was Scottish. I mean Adam Smith in economics, Hume in philosophy, Sir Walter Scott in literature, James Watt in engineering. You can run through the whole list. A people who were really far behind in one century had suddenly come out of nowhere and were on the forefront of human progress.”
Could black Americans one day be like the Scots? “They can be,” says Mr. Sowell, “and for those who haven’t gotten into this corrosive new culture, they’re already doing that. But it’s going to be very hard. Both the media and academia promote the idea that people fall behind because others are holding them back.”
I ask Mr. Sowell to talk about some of the public figures he’s admired: “Oh, Milton Friedman, certainly. He was one of the few people I know who had both genius and common sense.” (Friedman, who died in 2006, was Mr. Sowell’s colleague at the Hoover Institution, where I also work.)
Growing up, Mr. Sowell admired Joe DiMaggio, Joe Louis and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Later, he says, he “realized what tremendous damage FDR had done. But I think two out of three is not bad!”
I press him on the sportsmen, wondering how they came to be the idols of a cerebral economist. He talks with visible awe of DiMaggio. “There’s a famous moment in the World Series—1947—between the Yankees and the Dodgers. The Dodgers are leading. Joe DiMaggio comes up with runners on the base, and he hits a blast, 415 feet to left field. The Dodgers outfielder catches right up against the 415-foot sign. If that had been a home run, that would have put the Yankees ahead.
“DiMaggio by this time is rounding second base. He gives a little kick of the dust and goes on back in. That was the biggest outburst there had been from DiMaggio in his career. It wasn’t that violent a kick, just enough to barely raise a little dust. I still remember that self-control all these years later.”
And Joe Louis? “He was a gentleman, who carried himself in a certain way that inspired respect. I’m not a big fan of the role model thing, but it has its effect.”
Mr. Sowell recalls a time when he was “quite young, maybe 5 years old, down in North Carolina.” One day, a kid told him that he had “some big secret down in his basement that he wanted to show me. I said, ‘What’s down there?’ and he said, ‘Just go down in the basement, you’ll see.’ He had me go down first—which I shouldn’t have done, but I did, and he ran back upstairs, closed the door, and locked me in that pitch-black basement.”
The furious young Tom pushed and kicked at the door, and forced it open. “I think I was angrier than I ever had been—that I’d ever been before or since. He was standing there and I came at him and just hit him as hard as I could. The punch must have landed just right, because he went down and out. He was prone on the ground, limp as a dishrag. and I was going to hit him again. I could have killed him. But something stopped me, a thought in my head.
“ ‘Joe Louis wouldn’t do that,’ I said to myself.”