one-eyed among the... one-eyed
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Super Mario and the Meaning of Life

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It's turns out the true meaning of life is...beer.
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kerray
20 days ago
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Brno, CZ
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21 days ago
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nicolapcweek94
18 days ago
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Be like mario
fxer
19 days ago
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shoulda just warped there
Bend, Oregon
Maurandy10
20 days ago
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Mario wins!!!
Mastodontes
tedgould
21 days ago
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Be Mario.
Texas, USA

How "philanthropy" is a way for rich people to preserve the inequality that benefits them

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Since its publication in August, Anand Giridharadas's Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World has been tearing through the world, changing the way we think about inequality, philanthropy and elites; Giridharadas is an Aspen Institute Fellow who's long traveled in elite circles, but who concluded that the philanthropy of the super-rich isn't just an inadequate substitute for a fairer world -- it's actually part of the system that perpetuates the gross unfairness of mass inequality.

I've just started reading Giridharadas's book, and I'm enjoying it immensely. But even if you don't get around to reading it, I strongly recommend watching his one-hour talk and discussion at Google, where he opens by saying that Google's founding principles are exactly the kind of thing he's criticizing in his book and that's why he's going to keep the lecture part as brief as possible and focus on discussion with the attendees.

(via Four Short Links)

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kerray
25 days ago
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Brno, CZ
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Do my Homework

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So, anent nothing in particular, I was contemplating another of James Nicoll's essays on Tor.com the other day—this one concerning utopias in SF—and found myself trying to stare into my own cognitive blind spot.

Like all fiction genres, SF is prone to fashion trends. For example, since the late 1970s, psi powers as a trope have gone into steep decline (I'd attribute this to the death and subsequent waning influence of editor John W. Campbell, who in addition to being a bigoted right-winger was into any number of bizarre fringe beliefs). "Population time bomb"/overpopulation stories have also gone into decline, perhaps due to the gradual realization that thanks to the green revolution and demographic transition we aren't doomed as a direct consequence of overpopulation—climate change and collapsing agriculture are another matter, but we're already far past the point at which a collapse into cannibalism and barbarism was so gloatingly depicted in much 1960s and 1970s SF. And so are stories about our totalitarian Stalinist/Soviet overlords and their final triumph over the decadent free western world. These are all, if you like, examples of formerly-popular tropes which succumbed to, respectively, critiques of their scientific plausibility (psi powers), the intersection of unforeseen scientific breakthroughs with the reversal of an existing trend to mitigate a damaging outcome (food production revolution/population growth tapering off), and the inexorable historical dialectic (snark intentional).

Oddly enough, tales of what the world will be like in the tantalizingly close future year 2000 AD are also thin on the ground these days. As are tales of the first man on the moon (it's always a man in those stories, although nobody in the 1950s thought to call the hero of a two-fisted space engineering story "Armstrong"), the big East/West Third World War (but hold the front page!), and a bunch of other obsolescent futures that were contingent on milestones we've already driven past.

Some other technological marvels predicted in earlier SF have dropped out of fiction except as background scenery, for they're now the stuff of corporate press releases and funding rounds. Reusable space launchers? Check. (Elon Musk really, really wants to be the Man who Sold the Moon.) Space elevators/tether systems? Nobody would bother writing a novel like "The Fountains of Paradise" these days, they're too plonkingly obvious. It'd be like writing a novel about ITER, as opposed to a novel where ITER is the setting. Pocket supercomputer/videophone gadgets in every teenager's pocket? No, that's just too whacky: nobody would believe it! And so on. (Add sarcasm tags to taste.)

We are living through the golden age of grimdark dystopian futures, especially in Young Adult literature (and lest we forget, there's much truth to the old saying that "the golden age of SF is 12", even for those of us who write and read more adult themes). There's also a burgeoning wave of CliFi, fiction set in the aftermath of global climate change. We're now seeing Afrofuturism and other cultures taken into the mainstream of commercial SF, rather than being marginalized and systematically excluded: diversity is on the rise (and the grumpy white men don't like it).

Which leads me to my question: what are the blind spots in current SF? The topics that nobody is writing about but that folks should be writing about? (Keep reading below the cut before you think about replying!)

I can immediately think of four blind spots, right now (and this is without engaging my brain and trying to work out what topics I have, as a pale-skinned male of privilege, been trained to studiously ignore):

  1. In the 1950-1999 period, tales of the 21st century were everywhere. Where are the equivalent stories of the 22nd century, that should be being told today? (There are a few, but they are if anything prominent because of their scarcity.)

  2. The social systems based on late-stage currently-existing capitalism are hideously broken, but almost all the SF I see takes some variation on the current system as a given: in the future, apparently people will have these things called "jobs" whereby an "employer" (typically a Very Slow AI controlled by a privileged caste of "executives") acquires an exclusive right to their labour in return for vouchers which may be exchanged for food, clothing, and shinies (these vouchers are apparently called "money"). Seriously folks, can't we imagine something better?

  3. What does a world look like in which the (very approximately) 2,500-10,000 year old reign of the patriarchy has been broken for good? The commodification of women and children that followed the development of settled agricultural societies with ruling/warrior castes to police and enforce laws casts a very long shadow, even in societies that notionally endorse gender equality in law. (Consider, for example, that a restricted diet stunts growth, and that average adult stature tracks food availability by a generation or three, and ask why men are, on average, taller than women; or why rape culture exists and where it came from: or where the impetus for #MeToo is coming from ...) Even if the arc of history indeed does bend towards justice, we're still a long way from finding it (whether it be for racism, sexism, or any other entrenched, long-standing historic injustice). Which in turn leads me to ...

  4. Blind justice: "the law in its majesty forbids the millionaire and the pauper alike from sleeping under bridges". Stable societies need norms of behaviour and some way of ensuring that most people comply with them, but our current approach to legal codes is broken. One size does not fit all (if the pauper and the millionaire both face a $50 fine for the same offense, then the law is a hideously onerous burden on one of them and trivially ignored by the other—yes, I know there are jurisdictions where fines are proportional to income, but they're the exception rather than the rule and they rely on the concept of a fine as punishment). Nor is it clear that punishment by incarceration or state violence achieves anything productive, or that our judicial systems produce anything that can reasonably be termed justice (in strict Rawlsian terms). What does a future social contract look like? Hell, what does a future legal system look like? Malka Older ("Infomocracy") and Ada Palmer ("Too Like the Lightning") have been ploughing that field, with a side-order of trying to conceptualize what a new age of enlightenment might look like, but again: being able to name them just highlights how few authors are exploring these vital issues in SF. Indeed, law enforcement is a huge blind spot for many Americans, as witness this think-piece in The Atlantic (How Mars Will be Policed) which seems to assume that the current American quasi-military police caste is a universal constant.

So: four themes (the world as it might be an entire human lifetime hence: what could replace the ideology of industrial-era capitalism: how would a world without entrenched hierarchies of race, privilege, and gender look: and what the future of law, justice, and society might be) are going under-represented in SF.

And here is my subsequent question: what big themes am I (and everyone else) ignoring?

Do my homework, please. Comment thread provided below for your mutual entertainment.

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kerray
58 days ago
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Brno, CZ
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skorgu
56 days ago
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Good questions.

Curve-Fitting

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Cauchy-Lorentz: "Something alarmingly mathematical is happening, and you should probably pause to Google my name and check what field I originally worked in."
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kerray
59 days ago
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Brno, CZ
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60 days ago
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mburch42
60 days ago
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Stats!
ChrisDL
62 days ago
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the fact that the same dots both taper off and grow uncontrollably offends me.
New York
alt_text_at_your_service
62 days ago
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Cauchy-Lorentz: "Something alarmingly mathematical is happening, and you should probably pause to Google my name and check what field I originally worked in."
alt_text_bot
62 days ago
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Cauchy-Lorentz: "Something alarmingly mathematical is happening, and you should probably pause to Google my name and check what field I originally worked in."

Parasite fills cicadas with amphetamines and mind-altering drugs

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Matt Kason, a fungi researcher at West Virginia University, has discovered that cicadas whose bodies have been corrupted by the fungus Massospora keep flying around, have tons of energy and get really horny, because the fungus is doping them with meth and shrooms.

Via the Atlantic:

I asked Kasson if it’s possible to get high by eating Massospora-infected cicadas. Surprisingly, he didn’t say no. “Based on the ones we looked at, it would probably take a dozen or more,” he said. But it’s possible that earlier in the infections, before the conspicuous saltshaker stage, the fungus might pump out higher concentrations of these chemicals. Why? Kasson suspects that the drugs help the fungus control its hosts.

Infected cicadas behave strangely. Despite their horrific injuries, males become hyperactive and hypersexual. They frenetically try to mate with anything they can find, including with other males. They’ll even mimic the wing-flicking signals of females to lure males toward them. None of this does them any good—their genitals have either been devoured by the fungus or have fallen off with the rest of their butts. Instead, this behavior only benefits the fungus, allowing its spores to find new hosts.

Kasson suspects that cathinone and psilocybin are responsible for at least some of these behaviors. “If I had a limb amputated, I probably wouldn’t have a lot of pep in my step,” he said. “But these cicadas do. Something is giving them a bit more energy. The amphetamine could explain that.”

Psilocybin’s role is harder to explain. The drug might make humans hallucinate, but no one knows if cicadas would similarly trip. There is, however, a theory that magic mushrooms evolved psilocybin to reduce the appetites of insects that might compete with them for decaying wood. Perhaps by suppressing the appetites of cicadas, Massospora nudges them away from foraging and toward incessant mating.

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kerray
110 days ago
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Brno, CZ
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Happy 21st Century!

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Here's the shape of a 21st century I don't want to see. Unfortunately it looks like it's the one we're going to get, unless we're very lucky.

Shorter version is: there will be much dying: even more so than during the worst conflicts of the 20th century. But rather than conventional wars ("nation vs nation") it'll be "us vs them", where "us" and "them" will be defined by whichever dehumanized enemy your network filter bubble points you at—Orwell was ahead of the game with the Two Minute Hate, something with which all of us who use social media are now uncomfortably, intimately, familiar.

People will be die in large numbers, but it will happen out of sight. It'll be "soft genocide" or "malign neglect", and the victims will be the climate change refugees who are kept out of sight by virtual walls. On land there may be fences and minefields and debatable ground dominated by gangs, and at sea there may be drone-patrolled waters where refugees can be encouraged to sink and drown out of sight of the denizens of their destination countries. This much we already see. But the exterminatory policies will continue at home in the destination zones as well, and that's the new innovation that is gradually coming online. There will be no death camps in this shiny new extermination system. Rather, death by starvation and exposure will be inflicted by the operation of deliberately broken social security systems (see also universal credit), deportation of anyone who can be portrayed as an un-citizen (the Windrush scandal is an early prototype of this mechanism), and removal of the right to use money (via electronic fund transfers, once cash is phased out) from those deemed undesirable by an extrapolation of today's Hostile Environment Policy and its equivalents.

You don't need to build concentration camps with barbed wire fences and guards if you can turn your entire society into a machine-mediated panopticon with automated penalties for non-compliance.

The Nazis had to leave their offices in order to round people up and brutalize or murder them. They had to travel to the Wannsee Conference to hammer out how to implement Generalplan Ost. Tomorrow's genocides will be decentralized and algorithmically tweaked, quite possibly executed without human intervention.

Why?

The people who buy into the idea of eugenics and racial supremacy—the alt-right and their fellow travellers—will sooner or later have to come to terms with the inevitability of anthropogenic climate change. Right now climate denialism is a touchstone of the American right, but the evidence is almost impossible to argue against right now and it's increasingly obvious that many of the people who espouse disbelief are faking it—virtue signalling on the hard right. Sooner or later they'll flip. When they do so, they will inevitably come to the sincere, deeply held belief that culling the bottom 50% to 90% of the planetary population will give them a shot at survival in the post-greenhouse world. (That's the "bottom 50-90%" as defined by white supremacists and neo-Nazis.) They'll justify their cull using the values we're seeing field-tested today racism, religious and anti-religious bigotry, nationalism, sexism, xenophobia, white supremacism. These are values with tested, proven appeal to [petty authoritarians](https://theauthoritarians.org who feel that their way of life is under threat.

Of course there will, as time goes on, be fewer and fewer members of the murdering class, as climate insecurity causes periodic crop collapses, automation reduces the need for human labour is required to keep things running, and capital accumulation outstrips labour value accumulmation (leading to increased wealth concentration and societal stratification and rigidity).

Who are the murderers? I'll give you a clue: they're the current ruling class and their descendants. A while ago Bruce Sterling described the 21st century as "old people, living in cities, who are afraid of the sky". I'm calling it "wealthy white people, living in cities, who are afraid of the rising seas (and the refugees they'll bring)".

As for what this soft genocide will look, right here at home in Brexitland ...

Forget barbed wire, concentration camps, gas chambers and gallows, and Hugo Boss uniforms. That's the 20th century pattern of centralized, industrialized genocide. In the 21st century deep-learning mediated AI era, we have the tools to inflict agile, decentralized genocide as a cloud service on our victims.

Think in terms of old age homes where robots curate the isolated elderlies (no low-paid immigrant workers needed) and fail to identify their terminal medical conditions until they're too advanced to treat. People fed by vertical farms where solar/battery powered robots attend to the individual plants (thank you, Elon Musk's younger brother), food delivered by self-driving vehicles from lights-out warehouses, an end to high street shopping and restaurants and a phasing out of cash money.

Think in terms of a great and terrible simplification of our society that cleans out all the niches the underclass (which by then will include the struggling middle class) survive within.

Think in terms of policing by ubiquitous surveillance and social scoring and behavior monitoring. Think in terms of punishment by "community service"—picking up litter on starvation wages (and I mean, wages calculated to induce death through slow starvation), where if you fail to comply your ability to purchase the essentials of life using e-cash will simply stop working. Prisons where extensively drug-resistant TB runs rife as a discipline on the community service peons (as in: if you receive the sanction of an actual prison sentence, they won't need to execute you: 50% will be dead within 6 months).

There's no state censor in this regime. Just a filter bubble imposed through your social media and email contacts that downranks anything remotely subversive and gently punishes you if you express an unconvenient opinion or show signs of noticing what's missing—the way you don't see people with dark skins or foreign accents any more, for example. The corporate social media will of course comply with state requirements for a safe and secure internet—if they want to stay in business, that is.

We're getting a glimpse of the way this future is shaped, thanks to Trump and Brexit and, to a lesser extent, China today. Trump has discovered that in times of insecurity, the spectacle of cruelty provides a shared common focus for his supporters. This is nothing new: the Romans were there millennia ago with their festivities at the Coliseum.

What's new is the speed and specificity with which the cruelty can be applied, and the ability to redirect it in a matter of hours—increasing the sense of insecurity, which in turn drives social conservativism and support for violent self-defense.

There is a feedback loop in play. It may already be established globally. And it's going to kill billions of us.

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kerray
181 days ago
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Brno, CZ
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