You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Chronicles’ category.

[Whoops! Hiatus. Life in the way AGAIN. I’ll be finishing the WorldCon thing off… but other stuff will be interspersed.]

Very much the kind of panel one pays to see: smart people with very different views (and starting points) having informed, entertaining conversation.

Interesting tidbits:

  • Doctorow said Disney’s copyright in Steamboat Willie, and therefore Mickey Mouse (who is the reason copyright periods keep getting extended – basically whenever he looks like going public domain money swirls around and when it settles copyright lasts another 10-20 years), is apparently technically invalid because something was done incorrectly at the time! To make matters even more infuriating/interesting, the exact same loophole was exploited by Disney in order to rip off the estate of the guy who created Bambi – a typical example of large corporations using the law both ways.
  • Someone (can’t remember who, sorry) rebutted the standard-license-fee-no-permissions-required model of licensing (a la sheet music) by talking about how the greater ease of access meant that there was effectively little to no practical need to get licensing permission ahead of time, and people conflate something being accessible without a license and not needing to pay for one at all. But this was always the case – a trained muso would know how to transcribe a tune.
  • Doctorow discussed the resistance felt by some recording artists to the shift back to a more performance-based income stream in historical terms – as he has elsewhere – talking about how when recording first came in, musicians (who were live performers at the time) complained that they would be reduced to bureaucratic functionaries playing in a room somewhere. Now some artists are complaining that they are not spectacles and shouldn’t have to caper on demand for pay. There’s a meme hack here, however: Even in the studio, artists still have to perform to make their music, and so they simply sell “tickets” not to a live gig but to their next recording, or studio session, or whatever. I know that there’s a fundamental difference between playing a crowd and recording, but the basic economic fact is the same: you need a certain number of subscribers to make a performance worthwhile, whether it’s a couple of hours with bright lights or months in a room. It removes the speculative element of being able to make a recording and sell the finished work – which means the first works are free until you get enough supporters – but that’s almost always the case anyway.
  • French copyright law apparently gives artists perpetual, inalienable rights in a work – including some say over how it is displayed – apparently to the point that when a statue was removed from a foyer because the owners didn’t like it there, the artist sued them to make them put it back – and won! Interesting to me because the moral rights of the artist have always been the ones I’ve intuitively supported most – though never to that sort of mad extreme.

Not a lot to say about this – most of it was rehashing all the myriad ways that privacy is almost a matter now of hoping people choose not to look too hard, especially as regards any interactions with the network. (And also the dangers of getting mixed up with other people who share your markers – name, address etc.)

The key issue, which was skirted around but never squarely addressed, was that privacy is heavily linked with questions of power differentials. The discussion of how modern privacy was a bit of a joke when you had servants around all the time (though you didn’t, in fact; but certainly the more general point stood, that you just had to assume that there were people who knew stuff about you and trust them not to share it) hinged on this point: the only way to enforce aristocratic privacy was the terrible power the upper class had over their inferiors. But it didn’t actually go there, nor to the critical point that any imbalance of power is exacerbated by differences in knowledge about each other. This is true both as a simple, passive translation of knowledge to power, with oppressors having the apparatus and disposable attention-hours to apply close observation and analysis that the oppressed usually cannot afford – something already seen in East Germany’s Stasi and the accompanying informant network – but more insidiously as an active incentive for corrupt people, those seeking power over their fellows, to find their way into the apparatus of surveillance. This isn’t limited solely to surveillance of course – but because surveillance is not directly harmful in and of itself (though it becomes so merely by being known, let alone by being applied) it is easier to rationalise.

Hope this is clear – doing the last-minute rush before sleep again!

Key points:

  • Simply reducing emissions is not enough; “if you’ve dug yourself into a hole, you don’t just stop digging, you need a ladder”. I.e. we need to reduce greenhouse gas content of the atmosphere and/or reduce global temperature.
  • Waiting for the biosphere to reabsorb the carbon liberated over the past centuries is a matter of further centuries. We need to take counteraction to break the positive feedback loop we are already seeing.
  • Two proposed fixes: dumping crop waste to the ocean floor rather than letting it biodegrade and release carbon back into the stratosphere; and releasing aerosolised sulfur into the atmosphere, initially above the Arctic for testing purposes, in order to reflect solar energy back into space.

Greg Benford is a very smart guy, and I was impressed by his presentation and the ingenuity and efficiency of the two key ameliorative techniques he presented. Many of my reservations were addressed. (Doesn’t dumping crop waste sequester elements other than carbon? Turns out that the particular waste types he’s proposing dumping, particularly corn stalks, don’t have much else in their composition. Doesn’t transporting the waste create more emissions? Not if you use river transport, which efficiently lets gravity do most of the work. Won’t there be effects on seabed biospheres? They’re studying it but it looks like there is little long-term harm. Doesn’t pumping sulfur into the atmosphere increase the risk of toxic/acid rain? Yes, and over decades the pH of the ocean will change, but there are other measures to counteract that… and the breathing space we get will enable us to concentrate on finding other tech to fix the core problem.)

However there are still a hell of a lot of questions there was no time to ask. How much will stratospheric sulfur precipitate, and what effect will that have on ice melt rates? (Is it like salt, which accelerates melting? That would be my assumption.) Are the metal frames which held the bales of sequestered crop waste in the study necessary every time? If not, does their absence change anything?

He was also far, far too acquiescent in the existing economic models that are precisely to blame for the problem. He kept talking about what is “affordable”; one of the key jobs for scientists, in my view, is to debunk the economic models that hold that minerals in the ground and – particularly – trees in a forest have no economic value until they are ripped out and injected into the human production chain. It’s the same mentality that makes a heart attack a hundred-thousand dollar boost to the economy – all that surgery, medication and equipment, isn’t it awesome how much money has to be found! The way to get the infrastructure we need to fix the problem is to ensure that the costs of inaction are accurately included. It isn’t that long ago that economists were seriously, unironically writing that they couldn’t see how a global temperature rise of even several degrees would have any major effect on industry, other than maybe increasing aircon bills in factories a bit, and agriculture would just have to shift specialities to the new climatic realities for their regions, but that wasn’t a big deal, people change crops all the time. Trying to muster resources to deal with the new realities in such a twisted framework is unnecessarily hard work, if it’s possible at all.

I’m also sick of the internal jockeying for who gets to be the heroes in this. Yes, engineering solutions will be indispensible to dealing with the problem. So will political and economic reform to reduce energy waste and excess emissions; there is no way around that either. As I think I mentioned in a post yesterday, greenies are usually pretty OK with technology having some part in dealing with the problem, though they do exhibit a certain wariness about further large-scale interventions. But given the history of humanity’s dealings with the environment, that’s kind of understandable, and unless confronted with absolute intransigence, I regard that as proper scientific scepticism. I’ve yet to see the equivalent of the claims I’ve seen here, that it’s “an engineering problem” (with overtones of that being the only significant part of the problem). I’m not saying that kind of crap never happens – I’m not exactly a central figure in these debates so I’m sure I’ve missed that sort of stuff – but either way it’s not like we can afford to be neglecting any avenue of attack on a problem of this scale and complexity. That means we need mutual encouragement and support, and joint action against the human systems that caused and sustain the problem, not territorial pissing contests. (Excuse the fused metaphor but I think the blend is not inappropriate… aside from the urinary element.)

Full title: Fortress of solitude or our last best hope? The role of libraries in fostering YA spec fic

An interesting discussion, particularly for SF fans – it was reported that young adults are requesting exclusively speculative fiction in a place like Sunshine, and in some cases are using it to upgrade their reading level by some years. My grave doubts about the quality of YA speculative reading were not exactly allayed by the news that science fiction was only a fraction of the market and fantasy & particularly paranormal romance (Twilight) were the bulk of the reading, though; what does it say about the state of manhood in the West that the dominant metaphor for male-female relationships is features men who are lifeless, monstrous parasites with violent appetites?

The big takeaway was finding the balance between the shift to a more communal quality to library spaces generally, and the opportunities that creates to facilitate the socialisation of the quiet reading-focused kids with each other and into their wider peer groups, and protecting the possibility of just sitting and reading, of the private and solitary time that fosters reflection and individual growth.

My own question, which I didn’t get the chance to ask, was how games integrate into this; to my mind, a good game (especially a good co-operative game) is a chance to combine thoughtful engagement with social interplay. If you’ll pardon the pun. There will be more on this, but I need to get the stuff from the Con out of my head quickly and get to sleep for tomorrow.

OK, got to get to bed for tomorrow’s sessions, but the thing that struck me from this session was that there are a lot of false divisions that need to be overcome.

There was one bloke – didn’t catch his name, but he was coming from the science end, and talked about the influence of science fiction on encouraging people into careers in the sciences – who basically slagged off “greenies” and accused them of being incredibly selfish people who thought hugging trees would make everything OK and who ignored science. I have never once met someone who seriously advocated hugging a tree, and I know rather a lot of greenies, all of whom got interested in the topic precisely because of the science. I know there are people out there who match the stereotype, but it’s completely irrelevant and kind of destructive. I suspect it comes from the opposition to things like genetic engineering of food crops; but everyone I know who opposes it does so on historically-informed scientific grounds, by which I mean that they are conscious of how radical human intervention in complex systems can completely derail them – has done so in the past, for instance the ways the Green Revolution of the 70s has directly contributed to degradation of crop soil – and so they are not gung-ho optimistic about how right it’ll all be.

Another example was the tension between human rights and the pressing need for sweeping changes in human systems; reconciling the need to re-engineer our lifestyles with people’s freedoms is a toughie. But in fact the tension isn’t an opposition; human rights violations will only increase as environmental change takes place and competition over resources grows, while ignoring human rights while creating change will only lead to conflict that will slow change at best and (if it grows violent) lead to tremendous destruction.

Another union of contrasts is the solution: science and literature. As pointed out in the session, both require imagination, exploration and publication; and they offer a chance to show how the world might work in sustainable ways. I actually think we need to go beyond that, to try to imagine new forms of heroism and new kinds of solution. Too often heroism is defined as the quality of a particular individual or small group of individuals, whereas what we require here is co-operation on a truly epic scale, of the kind that won World Wars. And the solution here is not only new technologies, but the wisdom to accept voluntary austerities and restraints before they become scarcity and constraint; in other words, not the single stroke that saves the world, but the steadfast, ongoing will to hold ourselves within limits set by reason rather than blindly bloating out to the boundaries of a capacity we know extends well into self-destruction.

It’s possible. It just needs to be imagined loudly enough.

An interesting session, despite being a shambles, with one of the panellists recruited as she was walking in to be an audience member – apparently the original panellist’s flight had been delayed. But they all rallied to the cause, giving some good reading recommendations for those interested and doing some useful analysis of why mothering and mothers are portrayed so ambivalently when they are portrayed at all in SF.

One thing occurred to me, which is that mothering (or parenting) is a slow, nurturing job, one that unfolds over many moments whose connection is not always immediately obvious – the example or explanation you give a child one day may resurface in quite startling fashion, sometimes quite transformed, months or years down the track, and only that close, deep attention to another person for their own sake can equip you to understand or even notice their epigenetic and epicultural (epimemetic?) transformation of the influences upon them. Not the stuff of traditional SF – or traditional anything really. But if done right, utterly fascinating; and maybe some of the forms SF seems to suit well, the longer narratives like novel series and episodic TV, are better suited to that kind of slow-motion bloom. Don’s daughter Sally in Mad Men is one example of this kind of literal character development, come to think of it, and Betty’s relationship to her motherhood has been consistently fascinating; having only seen up to the end of Season Three, I’m suddenly very anxious to see how more we get to see of of this in Season Four.

This blog is not really intended as a record of my life so much as an archive of ideas (or at least those which both seem publication-worthy, and stick around until I get to posting them), but going to a WorldCon is supposed to stuff your brain to busting with ideas, so let’s try the chronicling thing.

My first two sessions today were the opening ceremony and the “How to enjoy this con” session and I was kind of ambivalent about them. On the one hand, there was plenty of enthusiasm and general warmth, and it was nice to see an acknowledgment of country right up front. But the intro video was a (tongue-in-cheek, and even occasionally funny, but still) riff on the “only one man can save us” action movie trope… which is kind of tired, and reasserts a narrow, unwelcoming idea of SF.

Further, when the guests were introduced, one guest in a wheelchair was stuck down in the darkness in front of the stage instead of coming on stage – despite the fact that there was a door on stage, suggesting she could have entered from backstage. (The theatre generally seemed pretty unfriendly to wheelchairs and scooters… it was stairs all the way down from the rear entrance, so you had a choice of sitting right at the front or right at the back.)

Now, it may not be the fault of the con organisers – that door may have led to offstage space which was just as inaccessible to wheels as the rest of the theatre. And people may not have realised that the problem would arise (though again, not clear how she got down to the front of the space if so). But some sort of public statement that the limitations were the venue’s would have been a good idea – it would have served to simultaneously highlight the injustice, define the community as one which noticed and did not acquiesce in it, and given the MCEC a nudge to fix it.

The session on how to enjoy the con was also illuminating. I’ve been thinking of it as kind of a party for the brain… turns out for a lot of people it’s just a flat-out party. Which is fine, and one of the things I like about geek culture is that the two are linked, rather than apparently irreconcilable as in mainstream culture. But, yeah. It was a leetle surprising how many stories were OMG I was so drunk, OMG guess who hooked up, and how few were about SF. Though I learned that Ursula Le Guin was a key figure responsible for the 70s renaissance of Aussie SF – one more reason to love that extraordinary woman, insofar as you can love someone you’ve only met through her books.

Entries by month