Thursday, January 19, 2017

Some Lessons from the Obama Years

In the grand scheme of things the world hasn't actually changed that much since Barack Obama took office in January 2009.  I've never bought the idea, touted by tech journalists and people who write books about "synergy", that the world changes over night.  The world is much the same place it was before, piling up small changes while we're looking for big ones.  Nonetheless, the world of 2017 is not exactly the same as the world of 2009.

When Obama took the oath of office in January 2009, a recession threatened to destroy the world's economy, only the more tech savvy among us had smart phones, social media was mostly a way to keep up with high school friends, anything called a "tea party" usually involved actual tea, and Donald Trump was a reality TV star. 

As the Presidency of Barack Obama ends, it's worth reflecting a bit on the Obama years.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

MLK Day 2017: The Moral Arc, Philosophy, and Science Fiction

I don’t have a lot of heroes, but Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of them.

While the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. have a special significance for African Americans that I in no way mean to undermine, I also think we all have much to learn from King.  For all his personal faults and the ways his message has been diluted and distorted in recent decades, he was one of the best that this country of ours has ever produced.  This is why Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is my favorite American holiday.

I’ve written posts for MLK Day in previous years (see my posts from 2015 and 2016).  This year, amid continuing racial disparities and a contentious election season that has emboldened old fashioned bigotries, King’s famous quote about the arc of the moral universe feels especially apt.  I admit to finding some comfort in it in the last few months, most recently when the US President-elect went on Twitter to belittle John Lewis, a beloved American hero and Civil Rights icon who worked directly with King.  

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Ten Rules for Public Discourse as Internet Comments Section

Back when Donald Trump's candidacy was still funny, there was a joke going around that he was the personification of an internet comments section. But the real joke has turned out to be that all public discourse now happens at the level of an internet comments section.  Or if not all of it, far more than is healthy for us as a society or as individuals.

One consequence of our comment section discourse is that we spend so much time telling people what they think that there's no time to ask them what they think and why.  We’re so busy cultivating cynicism and trying to be edgy that we forget to be kind and compassionate.  This situation has been the source of some of my melancholic mood as of late.

Alas, if we are to live in the era of public discourse as internet comments section, we ought to know what we’re getting into.  So without further ado...

Ten Rules for Public Discourse as Internet Comments Section

1. You must never think critically about your own beliefs. Your view is automatically right because it is yours. USE ALL CAPS INSTEAD OF REASONS!!!!

2. You must never empathize with people who disagree with you.

3. You must never admit that people who disagree with you might be decent human beings. 

4.  If people tell you that your view dehumanizes them, you must never reflect on whether they have a point. Remember: your view is automatically right because it is yours (see Rule 1). How dare they question it?

5. All issues must be black-or-white, with-me-or-against-me.  There can be no coalition building with people who disagree about a few issues; there is no such thing as an in-house disagreement. You are either 100% in my house or 100% outside of it.

6. All positions must be believed with the searing zeal of the martyrs; your enthusiasm for your position must burn as hot as your hatred for any opposing view. USE ALL CAPS TO EXPRESS YOUR COMMITMENT TO YOUR VIEW AND CONTEMPT FOR OTHERS!!!!!

7. Godwin’s Law is in full force: your opponents and/or their associates must be compared to Nazis as soon as possible.  It doesn't matter whether you're talking about powerful politicians or your local PTA.  No issue is too trivial to be compared to genocide.

8. Bombastic, hastily generalized claims must be made and clung to irrespective of nuance, truth, or new evidence.

9. You get to choose your own facts! If people disagree with your facts, direct them to a conspiracy theory or partisan website as evidence. Bonus points for hour-long YouTube videos of people rambling in their basements.

10. And of course, if your view can’t be expressed in 140 characters, it is not a view worth having. Sad!

Friday, January 6, 2017

2016 Movies: The Good, the Bad, and the Mediocre

The heroes of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Like the year itself, the movies of 2016 were a mixed bag that included a few gems and a lot of flaming garbage.  I've already written a post about this year's mostly wretched summer movie season, but since most of the gems arrived toward the end of the year I thought it would be good to continue my tradition of reviewing the year's movies that I found to be good, bad, and mediocre (see my 2015 list here).

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Bound to the Past: Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters is an interesting alternate history set in a modern day America in which the Civil War never happened and slavery is still legal in four states, aka "the Hard Four."  It's also written in a sort of thriller/mystery/noir style, which makes for fun reading.

The main character is known by many names while none of them seem to be his real name, somewhat like the protagonist of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (this is no surprise as Ellison is mentioned in the book, or at least an alternate history version of Ellison).

It's hard to say much about this book without spoilers, but I will say that it involves US Marshals who search for escaped slaves in non-slave states (most of the book takes place in Indianapolis), a daring mission to an Alabama slave-holding company, and enough plans within plans that you need to pay attention to catch them all.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Weird Connections: The Race by Nina Allan

Nina Allan's The Race is an unexpectedly weird book.  If you were to pick it up and read a randomly selected page, you might think it's near-future dystopian science fiction about genetically modified greyhounds, standard literary fiction about the pain and promise of family and romantic relationships, or a fantasy-tinged science fictional tale in the style of Ursula Le Guin.

This book is all of those things; it's not so much a novel as a series of tenuously connected novellas and (at least in the edition I stumbled upon at a local bookstore) an appendix.  The first and last sections as well as most of the appendix are set in the future and/or an alternate universe.  The second and third sections are basically literary fiction set in our world, in particular Britain in recent decades, although these are connected to the other sections in ways I won't say both because I don't want to spoil anything and because I'm not entirely sure I understood all the connections.

I may change my mind as I think about it more, but for now I'm giving it high marks for the quality of the writing, somewhat lower marks for being audacious but not ground breaking, and middling marks for the feeling that everything might only come together for me on a second or third reading -- if at all.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

History of the Future: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Despite the fact that a lot of science fiction takes place in the future, few science fiction writers have much of a historical consciousness, a sense of how historical eras are both continuous with and disjointed from the eras before and after them.  Frank Herbert's Dune series has historical consciousness in an especially vast sense, but a lot of science fiction seems to basically transplant the people and ideas of the 20th and 21st centuries into some other century (this was, for instance, one of my criticisms of Peter F. Hamilton's Pandora's Star).

Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning isn't quite working on Herbert's scale, but her historical consciousness is something unique.  The fact that she's a history professor probably doesn't hurt either (and gives hope to this SF-loving philosophy professor!).