Monthly Archives: November 2012

Ed Wood and Aliens Don’t Exactly Mix

I like science fiction, speculative fiction, that explores how technology affects our lives, and is internally consistent. Some recent favorites of mine are the movies “Moon” and “Limitless”. Both portray rich worlds and they explore how a new technology will affect our lives. In the case of Moon it shows off a suprise use of cloning technology and in Limitless it is a pill that enhances thinking. “Prometheus”, on the other hand, I found silly. The effects and characterizations were wonderful, but the story was channeling Ed Wood. The people in that story did not use their tools well.

“Lord of the Rings” is on my favorite list because Tolkien built such depth into that series. I loved it, read it many times, and spent as much time on the Appendixes in the last book as on the rest of it. Lord of the Rings demonstrates the value of a solid back story — all the characters were doing what they did for good reason and I as a reader could sense that.

Early Heinlein works fired me. “Starship Troopers” was what started me on the road to avid science fiction reading. And it continues to be personally interesting because every time I read it I come away with a different impression. When I read it as a teenager the military adventure aspects of it were exciting. I couldn’t wait to be personally “on the bounce” in my own set of power armor! I read it again when the movie version came out and I wasn’t so impressed, it now read like Sands of Iwo Jima in Space, and I’d read a lot of similar stuff through the years.

The movie, by the way, missed the point of the book entirely. They took out the power armor! The soldiers were something out of World War One! But there was a silver lining. The movie mishandling of power armor inspired me to write my own version of how it should be handled. See “The Ticket Out” in Tips for Tailoring Spacetime Fabric Vol. 1.

I read it again a couple years ago, and I liked it better again. I liked his philosophy that demonstrating responsibility to the community should be a criterion for citizenship. However, on this last reading I also noticed a whole bunch of internal inconsistencies — my Technofiction viewpoint was now strong.

Those are a few of my likes and dislikes. You can read more about what I like and don’t, and why, in my Technofiction Reviews in Tales of Technofiction on White World.

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The Immigrant Experience and Education

Introduction

Moving to a strange land and becoming useful there is one of life’s biggest routinely challenging experiences — routinely meaning that many people experience it. A person undertaking the “immigrant experience” (or “emigrant experience” from their point of view) is learning a lot that they wouldn’t learn at home. This is significant to human progress because it is one way to open the door for innovative thinking.

A related question is: Is there a way to package the lessons taught by the immigrant experience into a well understood education tool or technique that can make relevant learning a faster process? Something that can perhaps be applied without the necessity of engaging in the full immigrant experience?

That is the topic of this essay.

What makes the immigrant experience different from the stay-at-home experience?

Moving away from one’s familiar community to either learn, or be useful and make money, has been a long tradition of the human experience. One example is that Western European nobility routinely sent sons to live for a few years with other noble families in far away places. This was done for many reasons, such as strengthening alliances, but becoming worldly was a well-recognized part of the benefit package. In more modern times well-to-do Americans would routinely send both sons and daughters to boarding schools, far away colleges and exchange trips to Europe for the same reason.

Less well recognized as an education benefit, but in fact just as powerful, was emigrating for an employment opportunity. America has long been a magnet for young ambitious people from around the world seeking better paying work, and that is just one example. Wherever these people went they were acquiring worldly experience as well as a pay check.

The big benefit of moving away for a while is getting away from the “We always do things this way.”-experience of the home community. Moving away lets a person experience up close and personally that there are other right ways to do things. This leads to the benefit of believing there can be previously unthought of right ways of doing things — something we experience as progress.

Being a resident versus being a tourist

Being an immigrant is a different experience than being a tourist. A tourist comes for a short time and mostly notices what is strange and different about a place they visit. An immigrant stays for longer and gets involved in the system. As a result they learn why things are done differently. They discover the underlying logic that makes what looks strange to the tourist look quite practical to the local and the experienced immigrant.

An example from my own experience: I spent several years as an English teacher in Korea. As I went on day trips to the second-tier tourist attractions, those visited mostly by Koreans, I noticed that the convenience stores put their aluminum soft drink cans upside down on the shelves. “How strange!” I first thought after I noticed this was a real pattern, not a freak occurrence at one or two places. Because I was an immigrant, not a tourist, I later had a chance to ask one of my English classes about what I had noticed. “Oh, that’s to keep dust off the top.” I was told. And that made a lot of sense. In the US most such cans are stored in a cooler which keeps the dust away, but in countryside Korea a different solution was needed. In sum, it was strange, but it made sense. It was another “right way” to solve a problem.

Experiencing this kind of difference is the big educational benefit of the immigrant experience.

Can this benefit be taught without being an immigrant?

Can this education benefit be taught without having to go through the immigrant experience?

At this point it is tough to do. We still send our children off to college, and those colleges have elaborate Freshman Orientation Week programs because the new students are, in effect, immigrating into the college environment and it can be a tough adaptation. In our present era of even more prosperity and “helicopter parents”, it can be even tougher adaptation than it has been previously.

But we now have a lot more understanding of our world, and a lot more cyber resource to apply to the educating issue, and we will have even more in the near future. It is possible that, if we look for and discover what are the education essentials in the immigrant experience, we may be able to teach those without having to experience the whole package.

If we can do so, then we will make another big leap in educational productivity and we will keep humans relevant to the innovating process for longer than the would be so otherwise. (If… when… humans drop the innovating ball, increasingly sophisticated cyber will take their place.)

Conclusion

As we work to make education systems even more effective, we should take into account that the immigrant experience is also a powerful educating experience. We should look for ways of moving the benefits of immigrant experience into our more conventional educating systems.

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Zardoz Revisited

As I’ve been assembling thoughts for the next episodes in the Child Champs environment of our world in 2112, a surprising thought came to mind: Zardoz, the 1974 movie by John Boorman featuring Sean Connery as he was exiting his Bond persona. It has some rich world elements in it worth exploring.

The movie itself is idiosyncratic and has not been terribly memorable over the years. But I think that is because the barbarian side and the mind-tripping sides were so hokey. The life-inside-the-dome side, as I now recall, had some interesting exploring of the TES (Total Entitlement State) environment I am now trying to envision and write about.

This inside-the-dome life featured:
o some fairly decent human-computer interfacing. I recall a human arguing with the computer about how to expend computing resources
o immmortality through cloning and conciousness transferring with memories maintained in cyber
o a crisis about what people should be doing. There was a lot of hipster-style activity, and many people were falling into deep apathy
o conflict and exile: people who lost serious disputes were punished by aging with its accompanying enfeeblement, not death, because everyone in the dome was immortal.

And that’s just what I recall from seeing it decades ago. This is worth revisiting!

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Technofiction review of Skyfall (2012)

Summary

It is wondrous how consistently amazing the opening stunts and credit rolls for Bond movies are. Each and every one of them is an innovator. If they haven’t already, Broccoli and company should make a DVD collection of the opening stunts and credit rolls. They would be a film makers delight. The story part of Skyfall is, sadly, not so innovative. There are lots of Technofiction holes.

A quick summary of the story is there’s a single bad guy, Silva, who’s got a grudge against M and wants to kill her face-to-face. He’s a bad guy with supervillainish abilities to organize covert attacks, he’s a Bond at his prime gone bad. The major Technofiction flaw is that this one guy can organize a long series of successful attacks that has the whole of MI6 on the run. Whew! Even evil empires couldn’t do that!

The fun part of the movie is that we are carried along on a classic Bond travelogue as we visit visually interesting places in Istanbul, Shanghai, Macao and the Scottish highlands.

Details

We get to see neat places and they are visually interesting, but what happens in these places is pretty conventional, and pretty silly when viewed from an internal consistency point of view. Here are the examples:

o The first villain Bond pursues, not Silva, does an assassination in Shanghai. The setting is really neat: A completely empty, completely glass-walled floor of a skyscraper. The silly parts are: First, that the assassin shoots his way into this near empty building, he doesn’t sneak or talk his way by the single night watchman. Second, the guy he assassinates is in the building adjacent, in a fancy suite, setting down to admire some expensive artwork he’s presumably about to buy. Innovative, but way too dramatic. It would make sense if this target was high profile and his killers wanted to make the point to his buddies around him that they were vulnerable, anywhere and anytime. But if that was the case, this guy should have been making a boardroom presentation or bidding at an exclusive art auction, not sitting among only servants staring at a single painting. So, neat visually, but poor story.

o After that Silva rips up MI6 security both cyberly and physically. He also slips through London tube, Whitehall, and Scottish physical security with equal ease. Most impressive… too impressive. This is one guy, a rogue guy, who has dozens of nameless thugs around him, but that’s it. It’s a classic bad guy inconsistency: How did he marshall all these resources without some kind of management team? Once again, the inconsistency is he’s doing what evil empires can’t.

o The worst inconsistency is when Bond and M flee to Skyfall, an isolated mansion in the Scottish highlands. The motivation for doing this is, “If we can’t beat this guy with all our tech and resources, we’ll beat him mano a mano in a bare knuckles standup fight.” Oh my! This guy who has been double dealing all through the movie is going to show up with just knuckles? Nope, doesn’t happen, and my belief suspension is shattered by all the silliness of what happens in that last act. I won’t go into details.

In sum, this movie is a ski slope. It’s wondrous and exciting at the start, then downhill through all the rest.

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The Challenge

In Child Champs I took on the challenge of writing an interesting story about living one hundred years from now. This was a big challenge because I see humanity as “winning” — this will not be some sort of post-apocalypse world. It will be a rich world, and rich worlds are complex, which makes them a lot harder to write about than the “life is cheap, barbarians are everywhere” story background which has been much more common for stories about the future for decades. When I was growing up it was post-nuclear war apocalypse, now it’s a post-climate change or post-resource exhaustion apocalypse. Child Champs is much more in the style of Fred Pohl in the Heechee series and Isaac Asimov in the Foundation and I Robot series. These, too, are rich world scenarios.

The foundation premises in Child Champs are:

o that human population will peak in the 2050’s then decline slowly. This will happen because humanity will become 90% urban, and prosperous city folk don’t have as many kids as poor country folk.

o that productivity — efficiency in making and using stuff — is going to continue its steady increase. This is important because it means we won’t run out of resources. In our future, as is true now, efficiency and effectiveness are the ultimate “green” — they do a lot more to save our planet than windmills and recycling bins.

o that our lives will have a lot more computer, nanotechnology and bioengineering mixed in — there’s not only an app for that, there’s a gene and a nanodevice as well.

In sum, this is a rich world, a very rich world, and a very probable one.

Then I put my thinking cap on: Given these premises as a starting point, what’s living in this world going to be like? What are humans going to be doing?

As I say as part of my Technofiction introduction on White World, “Technology is the variable. Human thinking is the constant.” The humans inhabiting this rich world are going to be thinking very much like people do today. They are going to have hopes and fears, they are going to have ambitions and frustrations, they are going to take much in their world for granted. (“Driverless cars… Of course, why do you ask about those?”) But the tools available for expressing those very human emotions are going to be different, so the people of that future world will act differently and think about different things.

One thing that will remain near and dear to the heart, and be considered very important, will be having and raising children. That’s why I picked it as theme for this story.

 

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The Mystery of the Rise and Fall of Boom Communities

Introduction

History records the rise and fall of countless human communities. From the ancient Mesopotamia and the city of Ur, through the modern Rust Belt in the US Midwest, communities have boomed and become shining beacons, and then busted back into obscurity.

The mystery is “Why?” Why does every boom seem to carry in it the seeds of its own return to mediocrity? The people who create these booms are clever in the most practical sense. They are clever enough to create the boom in the first place, but they can’t seem to pass on the magic. They can’t seem to consistently teach their children or other successors how to be “boomers” like they were. What spoils the magic?

If life were different

Consider how different history would be if teaching booming was well understood. If that was the case today we’d be reading about the centuries of consistent glories that have sprung from Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and the Yellow River valley because these are places where the booming started and they’d never loose their lead. They would be the New York City’s, London’s and Shanghai’s of today as they had been since the early BCE’s. But this isn’t our history so the conclusion must be: Booming is not easy to teach.

Theories of declines and falls

I’m far from the first to notice this phenomenon and its been an interesting one for history writers for a long time. One of the more enduringly famous is Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. From the Wiki article: “According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions in large part due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens. They had become weak, outsourcing their duties to defend their Empire to barbarian mercenaries, who then became so numerous and ingrained that they were able to take over the Empire. Romans, he believed, had become effeminate, unwilling to live a tougher, “manly” military lifestyle.”

Just recently I read a 13 Oct 12 NY Times book review, The Self-Destruction of the 1 Percent by Chrystia Freeland, which reviews the book “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty,” by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. The article describes in fair detail how the Golden Age of Venice in the early 1300’s came and went. The thesis is that the plutocrats of Venice cut off their own continued growth by over-controlling the disruptive economy that was at the heart of their growing prosperous in the first place — after growing prosperous for a few decades, the “winners” of the day made up a list of winners, gave that list legal teeth, and that brought on an era of stability which ended the era of growth.

Roger’s Observations

First off, let me note that rises and declines come in many time and size scales. The Roman rise and decline took ten centuries, the Venetian rise and decline took one. Apple Inc.’s first rise took ten years, as did many other high tech leading companies of the 1980’s-2000’s. Cleveland, my favorite example, boomed from its founding in 1814 through the 1950’s. In 1920 it was America’s fifth largest city.

That noted, let’s break a memorable boom into three phases: boom, peak and post-peak. I will talk about communities. These are human organizations of any size from family up to cultural region.

Anatomy of a boom

In the beginning, a soon-to-be-memorable booming community is just one of many. It has lots of competitors and not much notable about it in its earliest days. Rome was just one of many competing tribes in Italy, Cleveland just one of many thriving cities west of the Appalachians in frontier America, Apple just one of many hopeful startups in Silicon Valley in the 1970’s.

As these communities are competing there is a lot of overall growth but there is weeding out happening, too, some communities are growing steadily, others are faltering. And there is consolidation happening, the winners are picking up people and resources from the falterers. This happens because the winners seem to be able to use those resources better than the falterers can. In the high tech environment people move from faltering companies to winning companies because the winners can afford them and the falterers can’t anymore.

As they continue their strings of success the winners become more noticeable. They become standards in their area of endeavor and a lot more surrounding people pay attention to them. Those noticing start asking, “What is your secret?”

Anatomy of a peak

While a community is booming a lot of tough choices are being made made. They are tough because they are expensive, and scary, and involve doing things differently than they were done before. This is the lifeblood of being a booming community, and making these choices well is what distinguishes the memorable boom community from its lost-in-the-noise competitors. Not all the choices made are right, but more of the important ones are chosen well than competitors do.

At the peak something changes. As the peak is reached the number of good tough choices made by the memorable community declines compared to competitors and its own recent past.

My theory is that the root of this transformation from above average to average is that what community members think about, what they think is important, changes. A new generation of decision makers emerges and that new generation doesn’t like supporting constant tough choices. When what the community thinks is important changes, the leadership will change as well. Historians tend to attributed such changes to the leaders, but my feeling is that leaders are much closer to their community’s feelings than that — they make choices that are compatible with what the numerous but less visible decision makers in the community want.

Two examples from the business world: At some point in the growth of many high tech companies there is a change in top management from “visionaries” to “managers”. This often happens as they grow from small to medium sized. In my book Surfing the High Tech Wave I write about how this happened at Novell nine years after its startup in 1989. The change at Novell precipitated an “organizational phase shift” which changed Novell’s direction of development. The second example is a common business truism that when a company grows to the point that it can move into its own building, as in, one built for it, the company culture will change and that change can be towards complacency — managers must be on their toes as the move happens. Both of these can be times when a peak is reached for the company and its boom times end.

So the peak is reached when many members of the community decide that the constant tough choices that it took to make the boom happen, and are necessary to sustain it, are no longer worth the effort.

This change of thinking is the “seed” that brings on the end of the boom and begins the post-peak era.

Anatomy of post-peak

Historians bemoan them but post-peak times are actually fairly comfortable times for most community members. At first there is a sense of relief from the constant change and uncertainty that are part and parcel of boom times and that is followed by comfortable complacency. Rules and regulations are enacted and life becomes much more predictable — people know their places. The article about Venice mentioned above talks at length about this happening in Venetian society; I witnessed it personally as I was growing up in Cleveland. In Cleveland in the 1960’s “being fair” became a much more important part of day-to-day business decision making than making things work better than they had before.

When the peak comes lots of people support this change to greater harmony, but the ambitious ones don’t. They chafe. And, if they can’t change the way things are done back to supporting tough booming choices, they will leave, looking for better opportunities. (Coming back to supporting boom sometimes happens. Apple is a company that came back when Jobs came back, New York and London are cities that have consistently come back to supporting boom.) A famous historic example of looking elsewhere to support a boom is Italian Christopher Columbus finding investors for his crazy idea in Spain rather than Italy.

In most cases the people who stay in the post-peak community don’t mind that glory is passing them by. Their day-to-day lives are comfortable ones. And so, the glory moves on. It goes to some other community that is still competing and still willing to support the tough choices that come with booming change. This seems to be very much the human way.

Conclusion

Booming is exciting and rewarding. But its not easy and the rewards are not necessarily those that the community values the most. Famous booms happen when a community supports tough choices and those choices turn out to be consistently good ones.

But boom times are both scary and full of change. When a decision making generation takes over that doesn’t like all the tough choices and changes, a peak happens. The way things are done changes to a more predictable style, and this style becomes a comfortable one for a lot of community members.

If the community doesn’t reverse itself, and support the tough choices again, then the ambitious will move on and take their ambition to some other community successfully supporting boom, and the community they leave will comfortably move into the obscurity of being average again.

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The SciFi Inspiration

I started writing science fiction back in the 1980’s for a very practical reason: I couldn’t find enough new science fiction that I wanted to read. So, I took the “If you want something done right…” attitude and started hammering away on the keyboard. I hit stride on this endeavor in the 2000’s. That’s when I fleshed out the Technofiction concept that became the heart of my writing. The basic concept of Technofiction is that science fiction story telling should be about how science and technology change how we humans live. Stuff makes a difference. Today we aren’t living in caves and carrying clubs because what we now know and what we now have make a difference.

I have loved science and history since I was a teenager in the 60’s, and I loved 70’s-style Dungeons and Dragons — a style where interactive story telling was much more important than consulting lists of capabilities. (I was one of the first one hundred people to play D&D, and an interesting story there.) The mix of these two over the years made me more sensitive to internal consistency in stories.

My friends and I would be working through a D&D story one of us had created and someone would say, “Yes, but what about…” and be pointing out a plot hole or world inconsistency which we would then address before we moved on. I say “we” with good reason, these stories were interactive so the DM (Dungeon Master) and the players were on the same side in getting these issues worked out.

With hours and hours of practice my scenarios got very consistent, and I got quite flexible in presenting them. These are traits that have carried into my story telling and story experiencing these days — these are the heart of my Technofiction reviews of books and movies I have in the Tales of Technofiction section on White World.

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