Filed under: Art, Augmented Reality, Carl Sagan, Connections, movies, NYT, Religion, Science, Science Fiction, Society, Space, Writing stuff | Tags: art, blogging, Carl Sagan, con artist, Galaxy Quest, jim downey, literature, Maria Konnikova, movies, New York Times, religion, science, Science Fiction, space, writing
You should read this: Born to Be Conned. Seriously, it’s a very good examination of the human tendency to construct narratives to explain the world around us, and how that trait can easily be manipulated and used against us. Here’s a good passage, explaining why we’re susceptible to grifters of every sort:
Stories are one of the most powerful forces of persuasion available to us, especially stories that fit in with our view of what the world should be like. Facts can be contested. Stories are far trickier. I can dismiss someone’s logic, but dismissing how I feel is harder.
And the stories the grifter tells aren’t real-world narratives — reality-as-is is dispiriting and boring. They are tales that seem true, but are actually a manipulation of reality. The best confidence artist makes us feel not as if we’re being taken for a ride but as if we are genuinely wonderful human beings who are acting the way wonderful human beings act and getting what we deserve. We like to feel that we are exceptional, and exceptional individuals are not chumps.
The piece also reminds me a lot of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, because of this insight:
Before humans learned how to make tools, how to farm or how to write, they were telling stories with a deeper purpose. The man who caught the beast wasn’t just strong. The spirit of the hunt was smiling. The rivers were plentiful because the river king was benevolent. In society after society, religious belief, in one form or another, has arisen spontaneously. Anything that cannot immediately be explained must be explained all the same, and the explanation often lies in something bigger than oneself.
I don’t mean to pick on religion here, just to point out that this is a very human trait. In fact, I have often wondered whether it is a defining human characteristic, something which could easily set us apart from other intelligent species. It’s fairly easy to imagine how intelligent, sophisticated, technologically-advanced civilizations could be constructed by species which don’t have this human gift for storytelling. You can, after all, have curiosity and scientific inquiry, art and poetry, even narrative and historiography, without having something like literary fiction.* I think that it might be interesting to write a science fiction story/series based on the premise that humans become the storytellers of the galaxy, because of our unique ability to create explanation narratives unrelated to reality.
How very meta.
Filed under: Brave New World, Civil Rights, Connections, Constitution, Flu, Government, Harry Potter, Pandemic, Predictions, Religion, Science Fiction, Society, Terrorism | Tags: Bend the Arc Jewish Action, blogging, civil liberties, Communion of Dreams, Constitution, Darnell Sidwell, excerpt, fire-flu, flu, influenza, jim downey, pandemic, predictions, religion, Science Fiction, society, St. Cybi's Well, Stonehenge, terrorism, writing, Yahoo News
I wrote the following for Chapter 12 of St Cybi’s Well some months back. It’s set near the visitor’s center at Stonehenge, and occurs just as the pandemic influenza* is getting started in the UK, when people aren’t quite sure yet what is happening. The main character, Darnell Sidwell, sees a group of protesting people, and finds out that they’re members of the ‘British Defense League’, my fictional version of this group.
Before he got to the front of the protest, he looked over the fence, saw something of a party going on. People drinking, dancing to music from a portable sound system, standing around smoking. A couple of young men were standing beside the fence, watching the crowd flow by, passing a bottle back and forth.
One of the men saw him looking at them. “Wotcha lookin’ at?”
Darnell walked over to them. He stopped a couple of paces before the fence. “Nothing, really. You?”
“Oh, a Yank, are ya?” The man seemed to relax a bit. His friend, who had been looking down the road, turned to look at Darnell as well. “Jus’ watchin’ this lot go by. Havin’ a bit of a laugh. You got any cigs?”
“No, sorry, I don’t smoke. Yeah, I’m a Yank.”
The friend spoke. “Your lot got the right idea, I say.”
“‘Bout the illegals.” He turned to his mate. “We should do that.”
“Yeah, kick ‘em all out,” agreed the friend. “All the Pakis and Blackies. They the ones what got this flu goin’. ‘Cause they’s dirty.”
“Uncivilized,” added his friend, taking a long pull on the bottle, then handing it over to the other.
“Flu?” asked Darnell, feigning ignorance.
“Yeah, the flu. What’s got ever’one comin’ here.” He gestured towards Stonehenge. “All the nutters lookin’ like Druids or Harry Potter. Ain’ you heard of it?”
“Um, no, I was just coming over to visit Stonehenge. Isn’t it always like this?”
“Nah. There’s a flu goin’ ‘round. Bad one,” said the man.
“People dyin’,” said the other. “Gov’s tryin’ to hide it, but word’s out.”
“Me aunt’s a nurse o’er London. She tol’ me mum.” He gestured behind him, towards the party going on. “Others heard ‘bout it too. Then some heard th’ nutters were coimin’ here, thought that we’d have a chance to make th’ telly.”
The first man tilted up the bottle, drained it. “Say, got anythin’ t’ drink in your bag, there?”
“Just water.” Darnell smiled. “It’s a bit early for me.”
“Yeah, well,” said the second man, “ain’ for me. Drink’ll keep the sickness out. Alcohol kills it. Ever’one knows that.”
“Sounds like good advice,” said Darnell, turning to walk away.
“Hey, Yank,” called one of the men.
“Yeah?” asked Darnell, pausing.
The two men exchanged glances. The first one said “You seem OK. Word to th’ wise: don’t stick around too long.”
From the news yesterday:
Yahoo News asked Trump whether his push for increased surveillance of American Muslims could include warrantless searches. He suggested he would consider a series of drastic measures.
“We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule,” Trump said. “And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”
Yahoo News asked Trump whether this level of tracking might require registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion. He wouldn’t rule it out.
“We’re going to have to — we’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely,” Trump said when presented with the idea. “We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”
Following that news item, Bend the Arc Jewish Action issued the following statement:
“Registering everyone of a certain religion to a list? We’ve seen that. It doesn’t end well.
“There is no way American Jews will ever find it acceptable for anyone – anyone – to be registered, singled out, profiled, discriminated against, or in any way mistreated by the government on the basis of their religion in this country. Mr. Trump’s suggestion is as terrifying as it is abhorrent.
“This runs counter to everything we believe in as Americans and Jews and we will not stand idly by as fear and bigotry are used to dominate our politics.”
St Cybi’s Well is set in an alternate time-line to our own, where the United States has become a ‘Constitutional Theocracy’ in part as a response to the 9-11 attacks. It’s fiction.
At least, I intended for it to be fiction …
*What is referred to as the ‘fire-flu’ in Communion of Dreams, set 40 years later.
Filed under: Art, Astronomy, Augmented Reality, Connections, Light pollution, Man Conquers Space, Religion, Science, Science Fiction, Space, Wales | Tags: art, astronomy, augmented reality, blogging, excerpt, jim downey, light pollution, Pennant Melangell, science, Science Fiction, space, St. Cybi's Well, Tanat, Wales, writing
It’s been a couple of months. Let’s have a bit from the current chapter I’m working on.
It was full dark before he passed through Llangynog again, and headed up the Tanat valley. It was just past the first quarter Moon, and the sky was clear and brilliant. One of the things he always loved about visiting Wales was that the light pollution was minimal and he could see the stars almost as well as when he was on a shuttle run. About halfway up the valley to Pennant Melangell he stopped the Rover, shut it off and got out.
He stood there, leaning back against the cold metal and glass, and looked up, letting his eyes adjust. Slowly, more stars emerged, and he was able to trace the passage of several satellites in low orbit. There were plenty that he couldn’t see from the ground, ‘darks’ which were in the service of different intelligence agencies and military forces, but he knew they were there, watching, listening, perhaps even waiting to hunt on command.
And it struck him just how much this echoed something Megan had told him less than three weeks previously: “Look at it with new eyes,” she had said. “Try and see it as the believers see it.”
Was this the same thing?
He could pull out his hand-held, call up the appropriate app, and hold the camera pointed at the sky, and it would show him the satellites his eyes couldn’t see. But to do so would necessarily block his direct vision, his direct experience of the real sky above.
He stuck his hands in the pockets of his jacket to protect them from the cold, and relaxed a little as he leaned against the vehicle. For now, he’d just take in the whole of the now-visible Milky Way as it arced high above.
This image will give you an idea of how dark the skies can be in Mid-Wales:
Filed under: Government, Politics, Religion, Science Fiction, Society, Wales, Writing stuff | Tags: blogging, Communion of Dreams, Dafydd ap Gwilym, Darnell Sidwell, excerpt, jim downey, Science Fiction, St David's Cathedral, St. Cybi's Well, Strata Florida, travel, Wales, writing
It’s been a month. Let’s have another excerpt from the current chapter of St Cybi’s Well I am working on, this time set at this site. A somewhat-related personal experience from a decade ago which … inspired … the larger scene from which this is drawn.
“Yes.” The old man took a deep breath, let it out in a sigh. “Think of the reliquary at St David’s. What did you feel there?”
Darnell thought back. It had only been a few days, and yet so much had happened that it seemed to be an age ago. “Solace.”
“Solace,” repeated Eleazer. “Gentle reassurance, succor for the spirit in time of turmoil.”
“Yes,” agreed Darnell.
“Comfort, but not a cure.” Eleazer looked him full in the face. “Was it enough?”
Darnell saw the reliquary in his mind, found himself standing there before it again, feeling what he felt. “No.”
“Solace is what the holy men offer. It is what they always offer. Just as the leaders, the kings and princes and politicians, offer power. That’s what they understand, how they try and shape the world.” Eleazer gestured towards the memorial to Dafydd ap Gwilym. “But the poets … ah, the poets, the artists, the musicians … they offer something else, don’t they?”
Eleazer nodded. “Yes. They offer dreams. Dreams of a better world.”
Filed under: Government, Religion, Science, Society, tech, Terrorism, University of Missouri | Tags: a fine line, atheist, blogging, Cherenkov radiation, jim downey, nuclear power, physics, religion, science, St Pat's Day, technology, University of Missouri, Wikipedia
I had reason to look up this item the other day, and was surprised that I hadn’t ever posted it to the blog. So, in honor of St Pat’s Day (well, OK, not really, but there is a connection…), here’s a little something from my old archives from a few years ago.
So I wander into this nuclear reactor . . .
This morning’s news that the NRC has declined to force nuclear power plants to take additional precautions to prevent the breach of a nuclear reactor’s core by attack with a jetliner comes as little surprise, given the Bush administration’s attitudes about actual security issues.
But, as always when I hear such news reports, I was taken back to a sunny spring morning some 30 years ago, when me and a couple of college buddies wandered into a nuclear reactor.
It was the weekend of St. Pats day, and we were at the University of Missouri – Rolla to party with a friend of ours who was an engineering student there. I think it was Friday morning, and our friend had some classes he had to attend, so myself and my two friends decided to just explore the campus a bit (we all attended schools elsewhere).
I had considered Rolla for school myself a few years previously, when I had been thinking of going into physics (a dream derailed by poor higher-math skills). So when we came across the research reactor building, I wanted to have a look.
We just wandered in. No, seriously. We just wandered into the building, through a couple of sets of doors, and soon found ourselves standing at a railing, looking down at the glowing blue core of the nuclear reactor. In this day and age it is hard to imagine such a thing – and even at the time it seemed more than a little odd.
A few minutes after we came in, a nice fellow who fit the stereotype image of a science professor came over to us. Short, grey, bearded, balding, wearing a white lab smock over his shirt and jeans. He sort of looked us over, asked what we were up to . . . and then gave us an impromptu tour of the place (after tagging us with personal dosimeters).
It was fascinating, to me at least. The reactor core at this facility sits at the bottom of a large swimming pool, about 20 feet down. That provides all the necessary protection from the radiation generated from operation of the fission reactor (which doesn’t produce much power, and doesn’t use the sort of fuel used in nuclear weapons). Herr Doktor explained all this to us non-scientists, and also explained the eerie blue glow coming off the reactor (which was then in operation).
It was a color like I’ve never seen before or since – a soft electric blue that was both intriguing and repulsive. I knew what it was, having been interested in physics: Cherenkov radiation, caused when the radioactive particles generated by the fission reactions are faster than the speed of light in the water. But it’s the sort of thing that lasts in the memory, embedded there in a way not unlike a religious experience – hard to describe, or explain, or convince others of, yet extremely vivid for the one who experienced it.
Now, I’m not religious. I’m an atheist, in fact. I understand what that blue glow is – yet, whenever someone claims that they have had a religious experience, I can tie it to that same feeling I had on first seeing that other-worldly blue glow.
Well, anyway, I had to share that personal experience, and add a bit of perspective on the changes we’ve seen in terms of security over the last 30 years.
Filed under: Connections, Faith healing, Religion, Science Fiction, Wales, Writing stuff | Tags: blogging, Darnell Sidwell, excerpt, jim downey, Kirsty Hall, Science Fiction, St Anne's Well, St. Cybi's Well, The Virtuous Well, Wales, writing
“This is my well. Of course I know what the well may provide.”
She nodded. “My well.”
“You’re … Anne? St Anne?”
“No,” she said. “I’m Annis. This is my well. My place.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Finish the cup.”
He looked down into the mug he was holding. “I …”
“Finish the cup. It will help.” Her voice was still light and pleasant, but now there was a commanding power behind her words. “It will help.”
Darnell closed his eyes, downed the cup.
When he opened his eyes again, the woman was no where to be seen.
It’s a fun place, one I would like to visit.