Archive for November, 2010

The Future of Reading

Our daughter came home from college this Thanksgiving weekend, and gave us the heads-up that she would like an e-reader for Christmas. She did not want an iPad (too big, and a lot of money considering she only wants it to e-read), and was leaning toward the Kindle, but wanted to look at B&N’s Nook as well. We went to one of our local malls, where both were available to play with, and we went to the Apple store as well, because…well, why not. As a result of her research, she is now leaning toward the Nook.

The entire subject of e-readers fueled a discussion. We hear that e-readers are a big gift item this Christmas. I heard a discussion on NPR Friday about how reading a Kindle is more like reading a book, brainwave-wise, while reading an LED screen (PCs, iPads, Nooks) cause entirely different parts of the brain to light up and tire us out more. Will this change the very functioning of our brains? Who knows! This morning’s L.A. Times carried a column (a paper blog!) in which the columnist raved about his and his wife’s respective Kindles. He was concerned, however, that e-readers were ringing the death knell for the local bookstore.

This bothers me as well. Wandering through a bookstore counts as a favorite activity, although the opportunities for such wandering are rare these days, and stores disappear and the big chains cut back their selections. Many of my favorite science fiction and fantasy writers are missing from my local B & N or Borders, and I end up buying many of my books from a mail order and online bookseller, Mark Ziesing. Mark and Cindy have been in the mail order order business for decades. They easily made the transition to online (www.Ziesings.com), but I fear e-books will do folks like them in.

Hey, what about book signings? What happens to them?

My daughter points out that e-books save trees. This is a good thing, I agree, especially if said book is some kind of trashy celeb bio I feel I must read. Celeb bios are almost never literature, except for Julia Child’s My Life in France, and Bob Dylan’s ChroniclesVolume One. (Still waiting for volume two, Bob!) She also notes that e-books are nice for plane travel; you can put a whole bunch of them on a single device, which is good for weather delays and the like. I counter that, unlike a conventional book, e-books will have to be turned off during takeoff and landing. One other negative about e-books is that you can’t pass them around. My husband is currently enjoying the Keith Richards autobiography on his iPad. I can’t sneak a look at it when he puts it down, because he takes it with him when he leaves the house, nor can I just read it when he’s done.

Ambience is lost when we lose the physical book. One of my favorite dreamscape scenarios is finding myself in a giant phenomenal library, with room after room of floor-to-ceiling books, and ladders that go up into the vanishing heights. There is no one at the front desk, no one to tell me I can’t climb the ladders, can’t get the books for myself. There are big long tables of dark, glossy wood, and massive crystal chandeliers for me to read by. There is that smell, that lovely, musty smell that books have, and probably enough dust to make me cough a little.

Looks like I need to replace that with a different scenario, perhaps with a room all in white and stainless steel. A picture window looking out over the lights of the city. A glass of white wine, or maybe a cup of coffee. Next to it, a black, shiny tablet, containing everything that’s ever been published in the history of the world.

All right. I guess that sounds nice. I know the dust wasn’t good for me anyway.

I don’t know what the future of reading is, but here is my best guess: Mass-market paperbacks will begin to go away as electronic readers become as cheap as digital calculators. These are the books the pages of which turn brown after only a few years. They can indeed be done away with. Specialty publication, in the form of quality paperback and hardcover, will continue. Physical books will become more expensive, eventually to be considered a luxury item. There will be book signings for these items, and booksellers–a few, anyway–will make a living off of selling them. People–some of us, anyway–will continue to read for entertainment and information, in spite of all the other distractions, troubles, and drudgery of staying alive.

Check that: We will continue to read because of the distractions, troubles, and drudgery of life.

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Is It Better to Burn at the Stake?

I’m still in the middle of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream. I’m far enough along that one of the central questions–maybe the central question–of the book is clear. The question is this: if Galileo had chosen to be martyred rather than to recant his pro-Copernican astronomical observations, would our society today be more pro-science, and less anti-intellectual and superstitious? Is Galileo’s recantation a turning point of history?

It is tough to see how that would work, how Galileo’s being burned at the stake would change the course of history. His astronomical observations were a matter of fact, of direct observation. As high resolution telescopes spread across the land, anyone and everyone could replicate Galileo’s observations of the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus. The Church’s forces could not win this argument, not in the long term.

They could, however, beat him down in the short term. They could shut him away, and forbid him from publishing, even if they could not change the truth. and the short term was what they cared about. They cared about discouraging others from shaking up the approved cosmology. Galileo’s enemies didn’t give a toss about the solar system, but they cared about protecting their position.

Challenge of authority is what martyrdom is about, and when the martyr finds the sacrifice necessary, it is to make that point, that they recognize a higher authority. Joan of Arc, Nathan Hale, John Brown–they confronted authority over ideas of religion, political sovereignty, and social justice. These are concepts, less tangible than Venus or Jupiter, and they could not trust time or reality to make the truth as they saw it plain.

Galileo had to know his truth would prevail. He may or may not have said, “Nevertheless, it moves,” but in fact, it–the Earth–does. The problem is that Galileo’s enemies are still with us. Some are in positions of power, and to them, control of “message” is more important than what is right before them. Religious doctrine assists Galileo’s enemies and their descendants. All of this has nothing whatsoever to do with spiritual connection with the First Cause of the Universe, and everything to do with adherence to rules, even when those rules no longer serve any purpose, and have become a hindrance.

An additional problem is that science is different now. In Robinson’s novel, Galileo is brought forward in time, and is exposed to the science of multiple dimensions, quantum mechanics, and so forth, which require observational techniques way beyond the common and simple act of picking up a telescope and pointing it to the sky. This difficulty aids those who would deny physical reality.

What is the difference between a martyr and a victim? Some, like suicide bombers, seek martyrdom. Others we might label martyrs, like Martin Luther King, Jr., do not seek to die, although they may see it as a possible outcome. Still others have no idea how much trouble they are getting themselves into. I believe Galileo fell into this category. He simply did not believe his enemies would want so badly to silence him, that they, or anyone, could see physical reality itself as a threat to their power.

He could not have believed his death would advance the cause of truth, and neither do I.

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Truth, Lies, and Us

A story on Good Morning America caught my eye.  At the University of Central Florida, Professor Richard Quinn discovered that one third–200 of 600 of his students–had received advance copies of an exam. He gave his students an ultimatum: all would have to retake the exam, and those who cheated needed to come forward and confess. Those who confessed would be offered a way to make it right. Those guilty parties who did not confess…well, their names would be given to academic affairs who might then take disciplinary action.

In the video, the professor is extremely upset, and clearly feels betrayed by the cheaters. Students interviewed agreed with him…except for one, Konstantin Ravvin, who thought it was much ado about nothing. He is quoted as saying, “This is college. Everyone cheats, everyone cheats in life in general.”

Well, I guess we know which group Konstantin falls into!

Most of us feel cheating is wrong, whether on an exam, or in a marriage, and most of us don’t like lying, whether by politicians, our spouses, our children, or our car repair person. At the same time, most of us would confess to lying, some of the time, anyway. Those who won’t confess are lying. Most of us have rules about when its okay to lie. No, those horizontal stripes don’t make you look fat. Yes, I love this unflattering and cheap-looking sweater you gave me for Christmas. Some lies we forgive fairly easily, because we have told similar lies ourselves…maybe calling in sick to work, or saying the dog ate our homework, or that the check really is in the mail. Sometimes we expect at best a creative rendition of the truth, as when someone is trying to sell us something.

I think we understand why people (including ourselves) lie, and that is why we don’t always get in too big a huff about it. We do get upset at cheating situation above, because it is unfair to the two-thirds who didn’t cheat. If a spouse cheats–well, let’s face it, we’re going to be plenty upset whether he/she is lying about it or not. And again, even the most honest of us feel the need to at least fudge the truth now and again.

We don’t want to get caught. We want to be elected. We don’t want to be shamed. We don’t want to suffer consequences. We don’t want to be yelled at. We don’t want to give our money to the government. We want to avoid conflict and other unpleasant situations. We want the benefits, without having to pay the price. It’s no mystery why people lie. The mystery is this: with lying so rampant, why do we ever believe each other?

People routinely believe TV political ads, internet solicitations, lying family members, and weight loss ads. Okay, we don’t all believe all of it all the time, but I’ll certainly admit to being tripped up on occasion. Why? What draws me in?

In the case of someone close to me lying, I value the connection, and do not want to believe that I am not valued enough to rate the truth. It is easier to believe what is said than to believe the alternative–that the connection with me is not equally valued, that I am someone to be brushed off with a lie.  In the case of political ads, I want to believe that there is a clear choice, and that there is a right and a wrong candidate. I long for the certainty of right action. In the case of the weight-loss pitch, I want to believe that there are clear steps I can take to improve my life, that there is an easy answer. In the case of internet solicitations, I really could use that $10,000 Bill Gates is going to send me for forwarding an email to all my friends.

We believe lies for the same reasons we tell them: To preserve our connection to those close to us-to not offend them. To get money or to avoid losing money. To avoid shame or achieve success. To achieve certainty–that we know the truth, that we are nobody’s fool.

I am afraid that when it comes to lying, we are all each other’s fools.

There’s a bright side, which is that, a lot of the time, we do deal truthfully and honorably with each other. And when we are taken in, well, maybe we aren’t fools. Maybe we’re the sort of people who tell the truth whenever possible, and so believe others are telling the truth to us. We see the upside of truth-telling, and the downside of lying.

When we lie, we create a barrier between ourselves and the person we are lying to. Now, if this is someone we will never see again, maybe we don’t care. If this is our boss, maybe we should. If this is our child or our spouse, we most certainly should care. Most of the time, when we lie to others, we justify to ourselves that it was okay, even necessary, to lie. In our justifications, we lie to ourselves. Once we start lying to ourselves, we start to go a little crazy.

But those horizontal stripes don’t make you look fat. Really. Trust me on that.

(Below is a link to the GMA segment on the cheating at UCF)

http://abcnews.go.com/Business/widespread-cheating-scandal-prompts-florida-professor-issues-ultimatum/story?id=11737137&page=2

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Goals, Focus, and Digressions

When I began this blog a couple months ago, I was conscious of the need to be consistent. My goal was to post three to five times a week. In order to keep to that schedule (which I have not) I would have to do something that is difficult for me: I would have to learn to let go.

I tend to get stuck when I write. I come up with an idea. I dive into the idea. Somewhere around paragraph three, I get stuck. I got stuck in the previous post, High Frontier Revisited, and it took me over a week to finish.

I lost focus. Perhaps I knew when I began what my point was, but a little way in, I seemed to be saying not much of anything. Part of my goal with writing a blog is to order my own thoughts; perhaps I should be content to learn my thoughts on a topic have not yet reached an ordered state. Perhaps I should not be hesitate to foist my lack of ordered thought upon the world. Lord knows there are many many writers out there who have not fully thought through the implications of what they are saying.

But I don’t want to be one of them. I want too badly for what I post to be absolutely the finest, most smartest, bestest piece of gosh-darn writing ever. I want it to win hearts and minds; I want it to change lives.

Okay that’s going too far, but I also recognize it’s at the heart of my urge to write. It also is absurd, and it takes only a moment’s reflection to realize that I don’t want my writing to have that kind of power, because that kind of power is evil. What I really want is for readers to consider what I say, and respond honestly.

Do I really want people to tell me what they think? I guess it depends on the kind of day I’m having.

I am attempting to do this blog in a kind of public anonymity. I am shocked to have received comments. To those who have commented, thank you. You are special. To date, I have not invited my family or friends to read this. Eventually, I will. In the meantime, you are reading this, and they have not.

Here are the reasons I began this blog:

  1. Gives me an online presence, essential for a 21st century writer
  2. Is an achievable task, something I can keep up with at least, um, once or twice a week
  3. Is a terrific exercise in writing-to-let-go as opposed to doing 27 drafts of everything before anyone sees it
  4. Helps me organize my thoughts–so I know what I believe and what I want

It has done this for me so far.

The novelty of blogging has worn off, but that is not a bad thing. Rather, it is the point at which I decide what I want to do next, the point at which I begin to discover what value an activity really has for me. I must continue the activity to earn that discovery.

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High Frontier Revisted

I’m currently working on a novel set in an L5 habitat. As part of my research, I reread The High Frontier, a book by Gerard K. O’Neill, promoting and illustrating the plausibility and desirability of large-scale human habitats in space. These are cylindrical habitats up to four miles in diameter, and twenty miles in length, in high orbit above Earth, later out in the asteroid belt. The book was first published back in 1977. A second edition came out in 1989. The third edition, the one I am now reading, came out in 2000.

I’m reading the book for the nuts and bolts aspect…how big should the habitat be? Particularly, how big does it have to be to simulate gravity by spinning? What is the ideal configuration of such a habitat? A cylinder? A ring? I’m getting some answers.

What stands out, though, what really strikes me, is O’Neill’s attempt to flesh out the space habitat for us, to make it human, to help us imagine what it would be like to live in such a place. He does a bit of fictionalizing, inventing a couple, Edward and Jenny, who have emigrated to the high frontier. They write a letter to their friends, Brian and Nancy, who are considering emigration themselves.

They write a letter. As in, correspondence on paper. In the letter, they mention they have “free telephone and videophone time to Earth.” Later in the book, he expresses confidence that “…the earliest space communities will be equipped with electronic mail transmission systems.”

It serves as a reminder of just how much has changed in the last quarter century, changes almost no one saw coming. It’s a tough challenge for any writer who wants to set something in the future to unstick oneself from the “givens” of today–both the technological and the social. From the lofty mountaintop of 2010, I am tempted to giggle, except for the reminder that 1) almost no one anticipated what technological advances would take off, and which would stall, and 2) Dr. O’Neill’s orbital worlds still awe me.

The vistas offered by O’Neill’s magnificent worlds are awesome, even as the ambience he describes feels a bit like a planned, gated community. He seems fascinated by low-gravity ballet, but we don’t see any raves or rock concerts. He imagines a carefully controlled, factory-like agriculture to support the habitat. He also imagines we won’t import pests, plant diseases, or vermin, but that doesn’t seem like a real place to me. What about a bedbug infestation?

There are no laptops, cell phones, electronic games, or any of the basic digitization we take for granted. He does propose some pretty cool recreational stuff, low gravity parasailing, as well as the SF standby of zero-gravity sex. I’m sure that will be quite popular.

He says it is not his intention to build a utopia, but his proposal is utopian in spirit. The problems of Earth are left behind. We start over in a pristine environment built to suit our needs. Much of the book is given over to arguing for the building of these structures now as a safety valve for our overcrowded, polluted Earth.

I can carp at details, at the notion that any colony we build can be any better than what we have built so far, here on Earth, but I respond to this utopian vision, the very human longing to get away from what has kept us down, to strike out into new territory, a new region where we can at last be free. I’m a sucker for a fresh start, for redemption, for a do-over.

We may get there, to that High Frontier, or we may not. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy it for the fiction it remains today.

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