Thursday, May 26, 2011

Quick thoughts on religion

While I'm on the topic of religion via the previous post, I thought I'd discuss why I'm not an atheist. It certainly seems to make me a bit of an oddity in most of the circles I move in these days.

There was definitely a time during my mid-twenties when I was headed that way. Not just towards atheism, but the snobby practice of that mode of thought, in which rejecting the concept of god serves as the foundation of intellectual stature and as credentials as a good progressive.

At the time it seemed justified. Most of the believers in my early life weren't exactly examples of enlightened behavior. Particularly when it came to practicing what they preached. Then there was the historical fact that religion has a blood-soaked history.

A village of ethnic Albanian Muslim Kosovars located in the mountains between Macedonia and Kosovo. It was 'cleansed' by the Serbs in 1998.

Oddly enough, it was briefly seeing the aftermath of that same dark side in Kosovo in late 1999 and early 2000 that jolted me off course and stopped me from becoming an atheist.

I had an epiphany while riding in a Humvee gun turret late at night and watching a stream of refugees several miles long crossing back over the mountains from Macedonia into Kosovo.

Most of them appeared to be in their forties, fifties, or sixties. They were on foot in subzero temperatures, and carrying their possessions and goods that they had bought in Macedonia in flimsy plastic shopping bags. They had at least ten miles behind them, and many more to go.

And that's when it hit me. If religion carries such a heavy cost in wars and periodic bouts of misery, and yet it's still such a durable and almost universal phenomenon among human cultures, it must provide some critical utility to our species.

Much mud in Kosovo

Or put differently: Religion would not have as lasted as long as it has in this survival-of-the-fittest world of ours if it did not do something profoundly useful. It would not be so widespread--with all but a handful of very recent cultures embracing beliefs from the animistic to monotheistic--if it did not play an important role in getting human beings through life.

When I say almost universal, I mean that religious beliefs are a central part of nearly every past and present culture that anthropologists have documented. Only a handful of very recent states like Revolutionary France and communist nations have attempted to create wholly atheistic cultures. Those societies either abandoned the attempt after tremendous amounts of bloodshed directed at their own citizens, or imploded.

Left to right: Albanian kids, Turkish EOD sergeant, and Macedonian kids at a car wash in Skopje, Macedonia

So whether there is a divinity or not, religion appears to have a tremendous utility in keeping society and cultures going. That, and believers certainly seem to be much better at reproducing than non-believers. Making them, ironically enough, much better suited to existence in a world of Darwinian natural selection.

At any rate, this realization and it's sharp contradiction of my existing views was a good kick in the intellectual pants. It was a reminder of how much I don't know about the world, and also of how much we as a species have yet to learn. In part because we are finite creatures bound up existing only in once place and only at one time. But also in part because this science thing is still rather new in the scope of human history, let alone in geologic or cosmologic terms. In many ways, we're really just getting started with it.

My final motive for not embracing atheism has been the unfortunate sense of scorn for believers that I've sensed from many atheists. Unfortunately, for a clear majority among those I've me living both in Western Europe and in the States, atheism serves as a strong in-group/out-group exclusion mechanism. It helps to separate who "we" are from who the "they" are in a way that's just as black-and-white as the delineating beliefs of the extremists they deride.

In my view, it's this same hostility that's helped poison the current political atmosphere in the US. Since the 1960s, it's done much to alienate the New Left and current day progressives from the working class and a significant portion of the middle class. Something that would have been unthinkable fifty years ago, when an alliance between the more tolerant Liberals of the WWII generation and the blue collar majority of America formed the foundation of politics and the social contract here in the US.

At least that's my take on the matter.

Hence my description of myself as a either cheerful agnostic or a long-lapsed Buddhist (practiced during the 1990s and it still colors my worldview.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Yet another hell yeah moment

Former Writers of the Future winner Eric J Stone has won one of science fiction's major prizes this year, taking home a Nebula for his novelette That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made. He's also up for a Hugo at this year's Worldcon in Reno.

This is exciting, both on a personal front as well as for what it hopefully means for the near-term direction of the genre.

Personally, it's awesome because Eric's triumph is the latest in a string of successes for the Writers of the Future 26 circle and its mentors--Eric being one of the latter. It comes hard on the heels my fellow WTOF 26ers Jason Fischer and Tom Croshill recently landing book contracts for anthologies of their short stories, as well as Brad Torgresen winning a reader's choice Anlab award from Analog Magazine for his novella Outbound. That and the Kindle version of Steven Savile's Da Vinci Code-style thriller Silver rocketing up to #4 on Amazon.UK's overall bestseller list.

So these are heady days for both peers and mentors at the moment.

At the same time, the successes of both Leviathan and Brad's Outbound appear to be a confirmation of what I've droned on and on about in my People who Used to Read Science Fiction articles. Namely that there remains a large, under-served collection of former and potential genre fans who crave optimistic, ideologically moderate works of original literary science fiction. These are many of the same people who used to make up the backbone of our fan base before literary SF started going south in both sales and cynicism during the 1990s.

It's also good to see that these two works feature protagonists of moderate religious beliefs. Science fiction unfortunately has followed the trend of 'high' literature in presenting a picture of faith in which believers are depicted as hypocrites or extremists.

In my travels around the world, from East Asia all the way to the turbulent Balkans in the late 1990s, the vast majority of human beings whom I met were religious believers of moderate persuasion. The same holds true here at home in the US. For me, not only has the presentation of religion in science fiction been fairly non-representative of its day-to-day practice, but I suspect that this largely hostile mode of depiction has been a factor in alienating so many former readers.

For due disclosure purposes, I should mention that I am not particularly religious. I'm probably best described as a cheerful agnostic or long-lapsed Buddhist in my outlook. Most of my religious experiences in life have come from moments of immersion in natural world--as readers might have guessed from the photos on this blog. My intellectual senses of wonder, awe, and dread are stoked primarily by the explanations of science and the many narratives of human history. The fusion point between those two broad areas--the meeting between the human and natural worlds--is where I sense transcendence in lower, primal orders giving rise to new levels of complexity and higher modes of being.

So, here's hoping that we see more moderate religious believers in genre writing. It's not only more representative of the human community, but it also may play an important part in allowing us to recapture our fan base.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Beautiful eruption footage

Seriously, this Yellowston novella has got me enraptured with all things volcano. Or, well, more so than usual

That and "Grimsvotn." Now that's the kind of name you'd expect for a mountain where hideous dark lords or eldritch horrors go to forge world-dominating/world-ending artifacts of unimaginable terror.

Volcanic Eruption in Grimsvotn, Iceland May 21 2011 from Jon Gustafsson on Vimeo.

Meanwhile, all is sunny, spring-like, and calm here in the Pacific Northwest

USGS photo, public domain

Monday, May 23, 2011

Why Did Consciousness Evolve, and How Can We Modify It, Pt. II | Discover Magazine

A sweeping article on how different sensory modalities have created evolutionary pressures and niches that have shaped the long-term nuerobiological development of our consciousness. Fun, if you are like me and into this kind of thing :)

Why Did Consciousness Evolve, and How Can We Modify It, Pt. II: The Supremacy of Vision | Science Not Fiction | Discover Magazine

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Roman Legion in China | Historic Mysteries

There's actually some long-standing document and archeological evidence for this, but the recent DNA analysis makes it all the more likely. If it's true, it would solve an interesting two-thousand year old historical mystery about a Roman legion that went missing in action in what is now Turkey around 50 BC.

A Roman Legion in China | Historic Mysteries

This is also one of those reasons that I am such a fan of World History. This school of scholarship focuses on long-duration systems or geological settings like the Silk Roads or the Atlantic Ocean Basin, rather than just single cultures or nation states. Doing so not only reveals new historical dynamics, but also highlights just how interconnected the world is.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Paralyzed student uses robotic exoskeleton to walk at college graduation

Paralyzed student uses robotic exoskeleton to walk at college graduation (video) -- Engadget


Announcement: Debut Collection by Jason Fischer

This is one of those "hell yeah!" moments. The talented Jason Fischer of the Writers of the Future 26 cohort is now the first of us to land a book contract. And he is totally deserving of it. Aside from the excellent World War Z, Jason's Gravesend novella is the only zombie apocalypse work that I've enjoyed to date. So it's #$%!ing awesome that he's now got an anthology of both existing and yet to be seen Grave Yard zombie stories lined up for hardcover, ebook and trade paperback from an honest to goodness print house.

Cheers, mate!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

I'm a sucker for the analytics of the human brain and the mind

286 Miles per hour for nerve signals traveling in a high priority motor-reflex neuron in the spine--the fastest in the human body apparently.

100,000 miles worth of nerve fibers in the brain sheathed insulating myelin, which boost transmission speeds. The slowest is apparently 1 mph.

1000 times more neural connections than stars in our galaxies.

Truly, we carry a miniature universe within our skulls

Numbers: The Nervous System, From 268-MPH Signals to Trillions of Synapses | Mind & Brain | DISCOVER Magazine

Also, as the author points out, the genes that play a role in the development and operation of our nervous system account for less than 10% of our genomes. That drives home the point that our DNA is much more a general development plan than a blueprint.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Cataclysmic beauty and geologic inundations

Public domain image by Chris Ralph via Wikipedia

The Yellowstone volcanic hotspot first punched through the North American continent on the Nevada - Oregon border. There it triggered a cluster of caldera-forming "supervolcano" eruptions, which played out over a two-million year period. One of those caldera events entombed a forest of ginko and cryptomeria, which eventually mineralized into stunning black opals.

A surprising aspects of this process is that it wasn't just pebble-sized quantities of wood that mineralized into gemstone, but occasionally whole branches and trunks or even the skulls of snakes and other small animals.

So why a blog post on the supervolcanoes and gemstone trees?

At present I'm grinding away on finishing my first novella as part of a package of works that I will be publishing on Amazon and other digital book sites this year. Ashfall, coming in at around 150 pages, is a near-future techno thriller set in the aftermath of a Yellowstone super eruption that has buried much of the United States under destructive silicate ash and triggered a multi-year, global volcanic winter. Researching for this story has been by turns both horrifying and fascinating.

In a post last year, I discussed how a small supervolcano in Italy may have depopulated much of Neanderthal Europe and opened the way for modern Homo sapiens to expand northward. That and how an earlier Indonesian supervolcano dropped the world into a thousand year volcanic winter, which likely killed nearly 70% of humanity at a time when our numbers were already low. That same eruption buried much of the Indian subcontinent under three meters (nine feet) of ash, which is frightening considering not only the sheer amount of abrasive glass particle ash, but the distance of over a thousand miles that that airborne ash traveled.

Writing the current novella--as well as an earlier short story version of it that drew nice personalized rejections from editors--has been a challenge. In part, because of trying to portray a sense of optimism and human resilience in characters who are faced with what would be a vast, historic catastrophe. Also in trying to answer the question of how we could hope to survive such an event as a functioning technological civilization.

After all, it has been painfully clear in recent years that even catastrophes on a far lesser scale can challenge the world's most advanced post-industrial societies.

Ishinomaki, Japan. Public domain image, US Navy.

Writing about these kinds of massive events is also tricky because anticipating some of the more interesting and subtly destructive effects requires discovering how long-duration geological process can suddenly manifest human-scale effects. For the coast of Northern Japan, one of those effects is a consequence of the continental drift.

As pressure builds between colliding continental and oceanic plates, the coastline is pushed upwards over a span of centuries. Then it sinks in just minutes as that tension is released during a subduction zone earthquake and the ocean plate slides beneath the continent. In the case of Ishinomaki, Japan, that subsidence was four feet, and this coastal city now experiences daily flooding during high tides.

On a non-literary note, that same earthquake-driven subsidence is something practical for us to think about in here in the Pacific Northwest. Our last subduction zone event was just over three hundred ten years ago, and not only are there ghost forests of dead trees (pictures half way down the post) on our coasts that were abruptly dropped into the ocean thousands of years ago, but many beaches in Northern California are now close to twice as wide as they were at the beginning of the 1900s.

The uplift is taking place, and one day those stretches of strand will go down below the waves again in an episode of spectacular geologic violence.

One measured in just a handful of minutes.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Warmly recommended

"Outbound" is the kind of sweeping science fiction with a thread of hard-fought optimism that used to regularly connect with readers before the genre turned lagely dark and cynical during the 1990s. So it comes as no surprise then that Brad's novelette has drawn popular praise and recently won a readers-choice Anlab award after having first appeared in Analog magazine last year. "Outbound" shares an emotional resonance with works like Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, in which a bright but wounded individual fights through dire circumstances and comes to terms with issues of family and faith--all set against a backdrop of epic future conflict. Available here on Amazon for $0.99 in Kindle Format.

Aside from "Outbound's" intrinsic merits, it's also a real treat to recommend this story because Brad is both a fellow Writers of the Future 26 winner and an author who shares similar views with regards to dragging literary science fiction out from the morass of cynicism and polarized ideology that it has been mired in for two decades now. While I'm preparing to publish a set of works designed to help reconnect the genre with its alienated fan base, Brad is already out front on this path. He has several novelettes in Analog Magazine as well as a forthcoming anthology story collaboration with veteran military science fiction author, Mike Resnick.

Even with his recent successes in traditional publishing, Brad is also experimenting with direct digital publishing by putting up new original genre works on Amazon and other online venues. Among these is his futuristic noir detective novelette "Blood and Mirrors". This gritty mini novel features a synthetic human police detective faced with a case that threatens to drag her back into the hellish sex trade that she was created for.

At $0.99, it's a steal.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Crisis in Higher Education

Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education | The Nation

I'm normally not a fan of The Nation magazine, as it sits far to the left of my political views. However this article does a good job of laying out the state of higher education in the United States after nearly three decades of steady spending cuts for state universities.

It certainly reflects the desperate dilemma of humanities grad students that I witnessed the past year when going back to school. That and the near absence of American students in the physics and mathematics departments of American universities.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Fifty years ago this week

Public domain image, NASA

Fifty years ago this week, my homeland took its first step into space by putting a man into Low Earth Orbit. It's a moment that I'm proud of, both as a citizen of the United States and as a member of the larger human community.

Much of that pride comes not only from the sheer difficulty of mastering manned spaceflight, but also from the contribution to human welfare made by the American space program. From the satellites that track hurricanes and typhoons, to electrical insulation that has greatly improved fire safety, to diagnostic technology used in medicine, the spin-offs from space flight have saved lives and helped to improve the quality of human life around the world.

As I discussed last month upon the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's pioneering flight into space, our future as a species lies beyond the gravity well of our native planet. That, and in learning the skills needed to traverse or even live the vacuum of space, we will master the methods and tools that will let us survive some of the worst Black Swan catastrophes that our universe and homeworld will eventually throw at us here on Earth.

Public domain image, US Navy

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Spring comes to the Gorge

Sun! At last, sun!

Yellow balsam flowers in the sun

Someone decides that she needs to be the center of attention.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Osama bin Laden is killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan - The Washington Post

Osama bin Laden is killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan - The Washington Post

I have to admit, I'm a somewhat surprised by the emotional impact of this news. On one hand, it sounds like Osama bin Laden has been out of al-Qaeda's command and control loop for most of this past decade--a passive player whose influence waned as he focused primarily on staying alive as a symbol. So killing him may not have much of a major impact on a group that has already found itself under severe pressure and with greatly diminished capabilities for several years now.

On the other hand, seeing that headline on my iGoogle page hit me with a hard sense of closure. Whatever the strategic consequences are large or small, it does feel momentous, and it does feel like the end of an era.