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When Art Prefigures Life

Years ago, I was fiddling with the "big view" of one of my fictional universes, trying to grasp the big trends of history of that Secondary World, where all the various stories were leading to. One of the big events, which could be written only after a dozen or so novels that would lay the groundwork, was the opening of a number of worldgates to admit a flood of refugees from a timeline where the Cuban Missile Crisis went hot, desperately trying to get through before the nukes started falling -- and coming through into lands that were already nicely populated, not deserted as had been the case in previous mass migrations.

It would turn out that the resultant humanitarian crisis was not an accident, a glitch or malfunction of the worldgates. Instead, they were the result of the very deliberate manipulations of a Big Bad whose presence would be hinted and glimpsed over the course of those dozen or so novels that needed to come before it. The intent was to keep the good guys so distracted that he could get a jump on them and execute his grand plan that had been centuries in the making (nasty dark-magic villain with bolthole outside time, so he had centuries to plan).

I tried to write some of the early novels, but with the excruciatingly slow publishing process in those days, it started looking like it would be forever before I could get to the Big Climactic War, so I drifted away from that Secondary World. But now, watching everything going on, with refugee crises in multiple parts of the world, I'm getting that creepy feeling of art anticipating life just a little too well.

Not that I think that there's a Big Bad sitting out there somewhere deliberately engineering all these horrible events that are sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their homes, with resultant humanitarian issues, as part of some nefarious Grand Villainous Scheme. Life is never that tidy. It's far more likely that what we are seeing is the result of a whole lot of short-sighted actions taken by policy-makers who are focused on putting out the fire right in front of them while losing sight of the big picture, all interacting in our incredibly interconnected world.

But I do think that focusing entirely on succoring the refugees at our border risks doing more harm in the long run. Large numbers of people don't just abandon their homes and flee to a distant country unless there's something pretty nasty going on where they were. And if that situation keeps going on, not only will it mean more and more refugees, it will also mean that things are getting worse and worse for the people left behind, the people who can't flee and just have to endure the horrors.

Yet at the same time, meddling in the internal affairs of other countries is always a risky business that is likely to make things worse instead of better, and often rebounds on the meddler, however well-intentioned. So I'm not sure if there would be a net benefit from intervening in the ongoing civil wars in the various countries in Central America that many of our refugees are fleeing (our efforts to intervene in the mess in Syria have certainly been less than inspiring).

OTOH, the crises in those countries all seem to have one major commonality: the role of drug cartels in their politics and growing instability. Those cartels are, for the most part, not providing for a local market. Instead, much of what they are handling is destined for the US -- which raises the very serious question of whether our domestic drug policy is "pouring gasoline on the fire."

Before the 1920's, we did not see gangsters shooting it out over control of alcohol production and distribution. They might rob trains or blow up safes, but they weren't running huge booze operations. That only started with Prohibition and the shuttering of the legitimate businesses that had previously brewed and distilled alcoholic potables. And the beer wars ended with the repeal of Prohibition, since the gangsters couldn't compete with legal alcohol.

I've believed for a long time that the War on Drugs has been doing more harm than good, that we need to reform our drug policy and treat addiction as a medical problem rather than a criminal one. Could this finally be what gets our nation to wake up and deal with it? Or are there too many moneyed interests benefiting from this mess, who will stop at nothing to insure that it continues?
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Do You Really Want to Know?

HP Lovecraft's short story "The Call of Cthulhu" opens with a fascinating epigraph:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Lovecraft was of course referring to putting together the pieces of evidence that lead to the discovery that we share the universe with horrible cosmic entities of vast intellect and profound indifference toward human life.

However, it seems that putting together more knowledge isn't always good on a merely human scale either, and sometimes it would be best to leave those pieces apart. In particular, there is the risk that Big Data can destroy our ability to remain ignorant of information we'd rather not know. Random bits of publicly known information, all brought together by a machine, can add up to a profound breach of privacy. Or, less sinister but still damaging to our happiness, it can destroy surprises we'd prefer to wait to have revealed until a significant milestone moment.
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Confirming the Effects of Scarcity on the Mind -- and the Body

I've been ruminating on the discoveries in Mullainathan and Shafir's Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much in preparation for discussing it in depth, chapter by chapter. And then I come across an article about how the stress of poverty takes a toll on the body as well as the mind.

As I read the discussion of the concept of "allostatic load," I realized that I'd come across the idea before, but just under a different term. A friend of mine once told me about a doctor he knew who believed that the illnesses of aging were not the result of any specific damage, but of what he called "the cumulative insult of the body." That that continual grinding of all the little daily knocks wears the body down until things begin to fail.

And I'm not surprised that poor people would have more health problems, and not just because of less access to healthcare, or less access to nutritious food. Being poor is stressful. Heck, just being broke is stressful, especially if you don't have a clear path out, or what looks like good paths out turn out to be full of potholes. Constantly juggling income and obligations, dreading any possible unexpected problem that could leave us short, etc. take an enormous amount of our headspace. Worse, they leave us in a constant state of low-grade fear that trips a fight-or-flight response which was pro-survival for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but becomes profoundly dysfunctional in a modern civilization. We can't run away from these stressors, and neither can we attack them, so it just eats at us from the inside out.
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Chasing the Perfect Fake

In the anime convention circuit, there is a persistent problem with bootleg merchandise. Some things are obvious, like the cheap knockoff figurines, messenger bags, wall scrolls, etc. produced in bulk in China. Others, such as fan art, are something of a gray area, especially when they are individually handmade. But a number of the important studios are concerned enough to send people around to examine the merchandise of all vendors at major anime shows, and some vendors have even been expelled and banned from shows for having bootleg merchandise.

In the fine art world, the stakes are even higher. While a bootleg Pokemon plushie may sell for ten bucks, a forged Rembrant or Van Gogh can easily go for millions. As a result, a high-tech arms race has developed between the forgers and the specialists who detect forgeries. Catching a fake can involve spectrographic analysis of minute particles of a painting to detect synthetic pigments that weren't available during the time the supposed artist was active. Meanwhile, the forgers become ever more sophisticated in their efforts to use authentic materials and thus avoid detection.
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Democracy in Retreat?

When the Berlin Wall fell, when the Soviet Union came apart, it was hailed as the triumph of liberal democracy. At long last the Cold War had ended, and the chains were coming off.

Yet less than two decades later, it seems that democracy is on the retreat. More and more we're seeing real freedom being curtailed, whether it be freedom of speech, freedom of movement, or the freedom to earn a living without getting a permission slip from an employer.

There seem to be several factors involved. The most immediately obvious is the problem that power tends to attract the very sorts of people who shouldn't have it. The sorts of people who see high office not as a way of serving their constituents, but of helping themselves. Whether it's enriching themselves with sweet government contracts or gaining access to other, more subtle perks of power, they're quite happy to take whatever they can get their mitts on. And as long as they can talk the right charming line, the voters will happily elect them -- especially if these officials will make sure some of the gravy comes their way, in the form of pork-barrel politics.

Another one is fear-driven policy. When the Soviet Union fell and its successor states worked to reduce the level of nuclear tension, a huge burden of fear lifted. We no longer needed to fear that some sort of miscommunication between the superpowers could result in all of us being incinerated in nuclear fire. But it didn't mean that everything would henceforth be rainbows and unicorns. There was still plenty of trouble out there, from bandits to theocrats. The September 11, 2001 attacks were a sharp and very frightening reminder that the democratic West still had enemies, and in a world where more and more people have access to large amounts of energy, some of them would choose to use it to harm others, whether in the name of ideology or religion.

In response to that sense of overwhelming fear, Americans demanded that the government Do Something -- and they did. New security procedures were put in place to ensure that bad actors would no longer be able to gain access to airplanes -- except their implementation ran afoul of that first problem: power is attractive to the very people who shouldn't have any. The new agencies to protect America against terrorism soon became riddled with the sorts of people who enjoy lording it over others. Horror stories abounded of TSA personnel behaving more like thugs than public servants, of legitimate airline passengers being treated like a cross between a suspected terrorist and a cow. And in the process, real freedom shrank.

And ever since then, the resulting conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere have led to endless cycles of fear-based erosion of freedom. People in the free world fear theocrats, and take away everyone's freedom to make sure bad actors can't abuse it. Theocrats and other tyrants fear being overthrown and enact harsh measures on their own people, resulting in mass migrations of refugees, which in turn frighten the inhabitants of the people in the lands where they seek refuge. Bad actors use the refugees as cover to enter countries and do damage, which leads to fear for everyone, both refugees and locals, who no longer know who they can trust.

The third and perhaps the saddest reason for the shrinkage of real freedom is the people who want to make the world a better, kinder place, but think they can accomplish it by criminalizing thoughtlessness and bad manners. Frustrated when people game the criminal justice system by playing on people's prejudices, they end up removing due-process procedures that protect the innocent from wrongful accusations, whether malicious or simply a case of mistaken identity. Good people end up living in fear that a slip of the lip, a careless word or infelicitous turn of phrase, could destroy their careers or ruin their lives. And worse, there is a growing backlash that could actually end up being even more destructive to the rights of minorities and vulnerable individuals than the traditional system's lapses and shortcomings.

So it seems that democracy, once gained, is not necessarily easy to keep. Or as the saying goes, the tree of liberty must be periodically watered with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
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Down a Rabbit Hole of Theory?

There are points at which theoretical physics starts looking more like philosophy than an actual hard science. Quantum mechanics is the most obvious, with its arguments about the Copenhagen Interpretation vs. the Many Worlds Interpretation, a question that cannot be empirically tested. But some other areas of physics seem to be going down unproductive philosophical dead ends as well, especially when dealing with Grand Unified Theories of Everything that try to explain all the forces and particle families in the universe.

It's a bit amusing to me to come across this article right as I'm reading Neal Stephenson's Anathem, which deals with a world in which philosophers and theoretical physicists have been enclosed in cloistered establishments known as maths, which are a sort of secular, co-ed monastery system. Some of them get into some truly deep philosophical discussions about the fundamentals of physics and the nature of knowledge that have that feeling of going down a rabbit hole of thought. Which suggests that there might be something about this sort of inquiry that appeals to a certain kind of mind, to the point of excluding all else.
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New Books

I'd gotten out of the habit of book promo posts, largely because I didn't have any new publications to report. But I just got an announcement of a new book and wanted to share it.

The Change Chronicles by Paula Friedman

In the Sixty's predawn of the Women’s Liberation Movement, young Nora Seikh, full of self-doubts after an abusive relationship and a failed subsequent attempt at love, searches amid Berkeley’s budding antiwar movement for new ways to live and love, even while she struggles to find new paths to peace.
Reporting antiwar news for the Berkeley Barb, she meets a flamboyant activist and, after a brief affair, is left pregnant and alone. She flings herself into the nonviolent vigil and demonstrations at the gates of Port Chicago, West Coast shipping point for weapons to the Vietnam War. There, she comes to share the demonstrators’ mutual caring and to quietly love Ted, a vigil leader. On the night Ted races forward to stop a weapons truck that will not halt, she must confront her old self-doubts and fears, and risk all—life and freedom and even the child she bears—to reach him. Taking this step, she comes to see her own, and others’, deepest need is to give love.

Months later, Nora gives birth. No longer so self-doubting, still she cannot—in those years of the “baby-scoop era”—break through the overweening concept “a child needs a home with two parents,” and gives up her baby in adoption, “for his sake.” Then Nora must go on, trying to balance sorrows and hope—and to continue the struggle for a better world.

(Yes, this is a mainstream book, but the publisher also published short stories of mine in two of their anthologies, so I feel a certain desire to help them after they've helped me).

Visions V: Milky Way by Carrol Fix, editor

Visions V stories take place somewhere—anywhere—in the Milky Way Galaxy. Planets, stars, and aliens, with no limitations, form the subject and action taking place outside our Solar System and within the Milky Way.

Humankind has forded the immense stream of space between stars and reached our nearest solar neighbors. What will we discover on hospitable planets circling those new stars? Will we find almost familiar moons, asteroids, planetary rings? Or, could there be never before seen astronomical formations? The sky is no longer the limit for our soaring imaginations, because somewhere out there is a potential haven for the remnants of our beleaguered civilization.
Global catastrophe is a constant threat for our war-torn and dysfunctional human race. No one can foresee the future, but we have lived on the brink of extinction since the invention of the atomic bomb and, more recently, germ warfare and genetic manipulation.
Astrophysicist Professor Stephen Hawking has said, "I believe that the long term future of the human race must be space and that it represents an important life insurance for our future survival, as it could prevent the disappearance of humanity by colonizing other planets."
The vast Milky Way Galaxy may allow the seeds of our future to be widely distributed, past the danger of a final extinction.
Visions V: Milky Way brings together a collection of fascinating and entertaining stories by award-winning science fiction authors.

“Ships in the Night” by Jay Werkheiser
“End Around” by E. J. Shumak
“Unwanted Gifts” by S. M. Kraftchak
“Greatcloak” by Jonathan Shipley
“Claim Jumpers” by Doug C. Souza
“The Device” by Tara Campbell
“Where the Last Tramz Stops” by Sam Bellotto Jr.
“Eighteen Winters” by D. A. Couturier
“Yellow Star” by John Moralee
“The Shadow of a Dead God” by Leigh Kimmel
“Black Hearts and Blue Skins” by Timothy Paul
“Welcome to Your Dream House” by Steve Bates
“Pan Ad Aster” by Bruce C. Davis
“Rachel’s Fall” by Teresa Howard
“When Unknown Gods Leave” by Margaret Karmazin
“First Sunrise” by Marie Michaels
“Dropworld” by Fredrick Obermeyer
“Bright Horizon” by Thomas Olbert
“The Mirror Dialogues” by Richard Zwicker
“The Drive” by W. A. Fix

Visions VII: Universe by Carrol Fix, editor

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
~ William Shakespeare

Our Vision is limitless!
The Visions Series tells the story of how humanity must ultimately venture outward from our tiny home and explore the Universe.
Visions VII: Universe, the final volume, opens the doors to incredible possibilities for the race called Human. We venture into realms where the impossible becomes fact.
Visions: Leaving Earth, the first volume, describes our first faltering steps to rise from Earth’s surface and build homes in space. Visions II: Moons of Saturn confirms humankind’s success in leaving Earth and building homes in the other planetary systems circling our sun-father Sol. Visions III: Inside the Kuiper Belt proclaims domination of all that dwells within the solar system—from our Sun to the outermost reaches of the Kuiper Belt and into the Oort Cloud. Visions IV: Space Between Stars astounds us with the infinite possibilities of adventure and danger far from any suns or planets— in the cold, dark regions of deepest space, where dark matter and nebulas of celestial gases abide. Visions V: Milky Way leads us to explore our own galaxy. Although vast and unreachable with current technology, the Milky Way is but a tiny point in the Universe. We must first learn about our own home galaxy before we can explore further outward to other galaxies. Visions VI: Galaxies follows human progress into other galaxies. Humankind survives to spread across the Universe, making distant galaxies and planets into a home for a race destined to seek horizons ever more far away.

(Contains my short story "Technoserf").