This is the blog and homepage of Mark R. Kelly, the founder of Locus Online in 1997 (for which I won a Hugo Award in 2002 — see the icon at right) and of an index to science fiction awards in 2000 that became in 2012. I’m retired from my day job of 30 years, from 1982 to 2012, as an aerospace software engineer, supporting the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Posts here are mostly about my reading, of science fiction and of books about science, history, philosophy, and religion; and comments to articles in newspapers and comments that I link to. Movie reviews and reports and pics from travels are posted on Facebook.

More on my About page, including a photo of the Hugo Winners the year I was among them, and links to an index of my columns and other writings, and to my earliest homepage with links to some of my work.

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This is the lightest Stephen Hawking book you are likely to read. Published posthumously, it’s a set of reminiscences on 10 big questions compiled and edited from various speeches, interviews, and essays in Hawking’s personal archives, “completed in collaboration with his academic colleagues, his family and the Stephen Hawking Estate.” Thus they are not refined essays, they are occasionally redundant and repetitious, and they sometimes fail to provide direct answers to the questions in the chapter titles.

Still a few highlights:

1, Is there a God?

He discusses Aristarchus and the laws of nature. p28.6: Most people think of God as “a human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe, and how insignificant and accidental human is in it, that seems most implausible.”

The universe needs just three ingredients: matter, energy, and space. Where did they come from? Einstein’s insights led to the idea of the Big Bang. What caused that? Did God cause the universe to come into existence? No; nothing caused it; before the BB, time didn’t exist; there was no time for a Creator to have brought the universe into existence; it’s like asking for directions to the edge of the Earth. [That time began, so to speak, with the Big Bang was a key lesson in Hawking’s famous book A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME. Furthermore, his remark there about knowing “the mind of God” was just a metaphor for understanding the laws of physics. Really.]

Hawking’s view is that no one created the universe; there is no heaven, no afterlife. These things are wishful thinking. We live on in our children, perhaps.

2, How Did It All Begin?

He discusses creation myths; Aristotle; Kant, who thought time was absolute. Only in the past century have we realized that the universe changes with time. And it cannot be infinite, or the sky would not be dark. The universe had a beginning, but not a few thousand years ago. We perceived the expansion; the steady-state theory was abandoned. Soviet theories of a bouncing universe supported their ideology; but they were proven wrong. In ’65 came evidence, the background radiation. Einstein’s was a ‘classical’ theorem, and clashed with observed uncertainty, and the conclusion that there are many possible histories. The anthropic principle ‘explains’ why some universal constants are the way they are, because if they were different, we wouldn’t be here to think about it. M-theory is currently the best candidate for a unified theory. It entails 11 dimensions, but only three in space—because otherwise we would not be here. Later satellite evidence of the cosmic microwave sky showed predictions of inflation. Will the universe end? It depends on the amount of matter, which may bring about a ‘big crunch’.

3, Is There Other Intelligent Life in the Universe?

Is there intelligent life on Earth, he asks. Notes how the evolution of the universe required time to bring about heavier elements. Given the age of life on Earth, it happened in about 1/14th of the time available, p75t. It took time for RNA, DNA; humans have entered a new phase, just in the past 10,000 years, and especially the past 300. We’ve reached the limits of knowledge: no one can absorb it all, p80t. we are now entering a phase in which we can self-design, with perhaps two kinds of humans [cf a theme in Harari’s books].

Have we been visited? Author prefers idea that intelligent life is out there, and we’ve just been overlooked. With cautions about sending out messages.

4, Can We Predict the Future?

Early science dealt in determinism, until the advent of QM. Prediction is stymied by complexity and chaos. Then Planck’s quanta, particle spin, Heisenberg uncertainty. Einstein wondered about hidden variables, but was wrong. We can predict combinations of position and speed—though perhaps not in a black hole.

Short answer: no

5, What is Inside a Black Hole?

The idea of escape velocity was developed in 1783, and later the idea of collapsed stars from which nothing could escape, and the idea of a singularity. In 1963 quasars were discovered, whose energy was evidently gravitational collapse, 105t. Penrose, Wheeler. A black hole at the center of the galaxy. Hawking’s area theorem. Is information lost? Unsolved. The information paradox remains unresolved.

6, Is Time Travel Possible?

Discussion of geometry and measuring the curvature of space, its warp. Into the future, OK. Otherwise paradoxes arise. A ‘consistent solution’ would avoid the grand-father paradox. Or there might be alternative histories, an idea championed by David Deutsch. Or the Chronology Protection Conjecture: that the laws of physics conspire by prevent time travel on a mascroscopic scale, p140.

7, Will we survive on Earth?

Discusses the atomic clock; the many things that threaten the Earth—limited resources, global warming, nuclear war. Some catastrophe will likely cripple the planet within 1000 years. Notes that most depictions of the future (e.g. Star Trek) are of a perfected state where things aren’t still changing, but author finds this unrealistic. We will explore the complexities of our bodies and redesign humanity.

8, Should we colonise space?

Yes, despite the difficulties and challenges. One method is ‘Breakthrough Starshot’ whereby many tiny probes are sent out into space. It could detect a planet around Alpha Centauri within a few decades.

9, Will artificial intelligence outsmart us?

“Our universe has now awoken, becoming aware of itself. I regard it a triumph that we, who are ourselves mere stardust, have come to such a detailed understanding of the universe in which we live.” P183b. If there is no significant difference in how a biological brain and a computer brain works, then computers will eventually overtake us. P195: “Intelligence is characterized as the ability to adapt to change. Human intelligence is the result of generations of natural selection of those with the ability to adapt to changed circumstances. We must not fear change. We need to make it work to our advantage.”

P196: “Our future is a race between the growing power of technology and the wisdom with which we use it.”

10, How do we shape the future?

“Einstein had the ability to look beyond the surface to reveal the underlying structure. He was undaunted by common sense, the idea that things must be the way they seemed.” Imagination, the need to understand how things work, good teachers. We are now retrogressing, “witnessing a global revolt against experts, which includes scientists.” What can we do? Today’s students will need to rely on science and technology more than ever before. The earth is becoming too small; we can move out into space. The rise of AI could be the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity. People need to be scientfically literate to handle these challenges. Be curious, unleash your imagination.

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Links and Comments: World Getting Better; Choosing What to Believe; Questions for Atheists; Mathematical Ideas; Trumpian Cruelty

Vox: 23 charts and maps that show the world is getting much, much better. From 2014, but updated this month. These data echo the theme of Steven Pinker’s recent books.

File under: human progress, despite conservative paranoia and fears


Slate: How Trump Chooses What to Believe, subtitled “He trusts dictators but not climate scientists. Here’s how he justifies it.”

Noted, among the many many condemnations of fearless leader, because of its allusion to that Thomas Gilovich book, HOW WE KNOW WHAT ISN’T SO: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life.

The essay by William Saletan explains,

To understand Trump, you have to start with a distinction drawn by psychologist Thomas Gilovich in his book, How We Know What Isn’t So. Gilovich explains that when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves whether, despite contrary evidence, we can believe it. When we don’t want to believe something, we ask whether, despite supporting evidence, we must believe it. Each of us sometimes cheats this way, alternating between the two standards. But Trump cheats constantly and spectacularly.

So: does he have to believe climate scientists? No; he can thinks of reasons. Does he want to believe denials by Russians and Iranians? Yes, so he does.


Alternet: ‘How Can You Be Moral?’: Here Are 9 Questions You Don’t Need to Ask an Atheist — And Their Answers.

Handy guide for those who ask naive questions to those who don’t share their religious convictions. How can you be moral without believing in God? The same way everyone believes killing and stealing are wrong, with having to consult a holy book to check. (If you have to check your list of commandments to know right from wrong, you’re seriously deficient.)


Aeon: Mathematics as thought, subtitled “Mathematical ideas are some of the most transformative and beautiful in history. So why do they get so little attention?”

Bookmarking this to consult, later perhaps; long. There are all sorts of philosophical issues surrounding the relationship between mathematics and reality. Math is hard; it’s slow thinking, which most people aren’t good at. I’ve always thought that a sign of truly advanced intelligence (e.g. by some alien species) would be the ability to perceive deep mathematical truths as obvious.


The Atlantic: The Cruelty Is the Point, subtitled “President Trump and his supporters find community by rejoicing in the suffering of those they hate and fear.”

The conservative mindset, enabled by Trump.

Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.

Posted in Atheism, Conservative Resistance, Human Progress, Mathematics, Psychology | Leave a comment

Links and Comments: Unread Books; Psychology and Logic; GOP Paranoia; Political Extremes

From recent weeks’ NYT.

Essay by Kevin Mims: All Those Books You’ve Bought but Haven’t Read? There’s a Word for That. The print title, October 14, was “The Importance of Unread Books” subtitled “Why a personal library should include books you’ll never get around to finishing.”

He cites Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan:

Taleb argues that a personal library “should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”

The writer prefers “tsundoku, a Japanese word for a stack of books that you have purchased but not yet read”, but also considers those books, like reference works, that one consults but never truly finishes.

In my own case, I have given into exigencies of life and circumstance to cull my collection of books, several times over the years — and I’ve always regretted it. It always turns out there is some book I discover an interest in looking at, a book I had but sold off. At least these days — unlike a couple decades ago — it is relatively easy to find and re-acquire virtually any book, via the internet. As I’ve done several times for books I once had…

Ivory Tower essay, published Sept. 30: Unpublished and Untenured, a Philosopher Inspired a Cult Following.

Whose book is Thinking and Being, summarizing ideas culled over decades.

…In other words, the distinction between psychology and logic collapses. Logic is not a set of rules for how to think; it is how we think, just not in a way that can be captured in conventional scientific terms. Thinking emerges as a unique and peculiar activity, something that is part of the natural world, but which cannot be understood in the manner of other events in the natural world. Indeed, Kimhi sees his book, in large part, as lamenting “the different ways in which philosophers have failed to acknowledge — or even denied — the uniqueness of thinking.”

I’m not sure I’d go this far, but an essential facet of my learning and thinking in the past decade or so is how the human mind perceives reality on its own terms, and not necessarily through logic or any perception of actual reality.


Published Oct 9th: Paul Krugman: The Paranoid Style in G.O.P. Politics, subtitled “Republicans are an authoritarian regime in waiting”.

It’s impossible to keep up with all the blisteringly obvious condemnations of everything our despicable president says and does every day — and the observations of his fans, who cheer his every travesty — but this Krugman column strikes a deeper chord that perhaps helps understand it.

(We’re living in history. Not in a good way.)

What’s going on here? At one level, this isn’t new. Conspiracy theorizing has been a part of American politics from the beginning. Richard Hofstadter published his famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” back in 1964 and cited examples running back to the 18th century. Segregationists fighting civil rights routinely blamed “outside agitators” — especially northern Jews — for African-American protests.


In contrast, fellow NYT columnist David Brooks keeps searching for answers, in a pop-psychology way. From Oct. 16th: The Rich White Civil War, subtitled “A smarter look at America’s divide.”

He considers the two extremes of a research report about voters, on a scale of seven; the extremes are “Progressive Activists” on the left and “Devoted Conservatives” on the right, 8% and 6% of the population respectively.

Devoted Conservatives subscribe to a Hobbesian narrative. It’s a dangerous world. Life is nasty, brutish and short. We need strict values and strong authority to keep us safe.

Progressive Activists, on the other hand, subscribe to a darkened Rousseauian worldview. People may be inherently good, but the hierarchical structures of society are awful. The structures of inequality and oppression have to be dismantled.

These narratives are familiar from works by Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker; Pinker’s view of history is that progress, in terms of the reduction of violence and the expansion of health and happiness, is the result of progressives, not conservatives. At this point in the American narrative, therefore, we would be in a (temporary) period of regression, driven by a demagogue who taps into the fears that always reside in a portion of the population, amplified by changes in society that is increasingly multicultural.

Brooks notes,

Roughly two-thirds of Americans, across four political types, fall into what the authors call “the exhausted majority.” Sixty-one percent say people they agree with need to listen and compromise more. Eighty percent say political correctness is a problem, and 82 percent say the same about hate speech.
Unfortunately, people in the exhausted majority have no narrative. They have no coherent philosophic worldview to organize their thinking and compel action. When they get one I suspect it will look totally unlike the two dominant narratives today. These narratives are threat narratives. But the people who make positive change usually focus on gifts, not deficits. They tell stories about the assets we have and how we can use them together.

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Links and Comments: Psychology and Economics; SF and Fantasy

Several items from Sunday’s NYT.

First a review of a new book by Steven Johnson, FARSIGHTED: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most; the review is by Adam Grant: How Do We Make the Long-Term Decisions That Matter?.

The reviewer notes the popularity of the science of decision-making, in books by Thaler, Kahneman, and Gladwell; but this book isn’t about snap decisions, but about long-range ones, the ones that shape our futures. A couple interesting points:

What are the habits of people who excel at long-term thinking? One of Johnson’s thought-provoking points is that they read novels, which are ideal exercises in mental time travel and empathy. I think he’s right.

And his conclusion:

Since you’ll never have enough information to make the best choice, all you can do is make the best of the choice you’ve made.

Yet maybe that’s the point. As a species, we’re wired to be nearsighted. Flipping to farsighted requires peering into a crystal ball. Your vision will always be blurry. But there’s no better corrective lens than a clear diagnosis of just how myopic you are. If you want to improve at predicting the future, start by recognizing how unpredictable it is.


In the Sunday Review section, a “Gray Matter” essay by David Gal, asking Why Is Behavioral Economics So Popular?.

Mentioning Michael Lewis and David Kahneman and Richard Thaler.

What is behavioral economics, and why has it become so popular? The field has been described by Richard Thaler, one of its founders, as “economics done with strong injections of good psychology.” Proponents view it as a way to make economics more accurate by incorporating more realistic assumptions about how humans behave.

Yet this triumph has come at a cost. In order to appeal to other economists, behavioral economists are too often concerned with describing how human behavior deviates from the assumptions of standard economic models, rather than with understanding why people behave the way they do.

And yet these themes of psychology, not only about behavioral economics, are a recurrent theme in many, many recent books, whether about the current state of American politics, or how to understand ancient wisdom in light of recent scientific discoveries. (To describe my recent reading.)


On another theme. The Book Review’s “By the Book” page this week features Andre Dubus III. A standard question in these Q&As is about which genres one enjoys, or avoids. Dubus:

I’m not proud of writing this, but I do avoid nearly all forms of fantasy. That’s not to imply that there are not great works out there in that form, only that I tend to lose interest just as soon as magic of any kind enters a story, for this strikes me as escapist, as a denial of the mortal hand we’ve all been dealt, and I prefer to read those works that confront our reality and limitations and thwarted longings head on.

I am increasingly sympathetic to this attitude; I’m impatient with fantasy because it indulges human illusions, whereas the best of science fiction tries to see around them and understand the real universe as it is, or might be.

And so I notice that the monthly SF/Fantasy book review page, lately by Amal El-Mohtar, is titled The Best New Fantasy Novels, and is all about fantasy novels. None of which I’m inclined to read.

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Trump and Kavanaugh, Conservatives and Tribal Politics

It’s not so much about fundamental disagreements between conservatives and liberals, reactionaries and progressives, (let alone the simplistic take about good vs. evil), as about social reaction to change… the changing demographic of the United States, and the inevitable expansion of the US into global society and politics. You can fight it, but it won’t stop happening. And the ones who most resent this kind of change are, by definition, conservatives.

There’s speculation about how this could happen, how those who view Trump as despicable on so many counts need to ‘understand’ those who support him. That’s not going to happen.

Paul Krugman in Tuesday’s NYT: The Angry White Male Caucus, subtitle “Trumpism is all about the fear of losing traditional privilege.”

When Matt Damon did his Brett Kavanaugh imitation on “Saturday Night Live,” you could tell that he nailed it before he said a word. It was all about the face — that sneering, rage-filled scowl. Kavanaugh didn’t sound like a judge at his Senate hearing last week, let alone a potential Supreme Court justice; he didn’t even manage to look like one.


A brilliant post by Adam-Troy Castro, on Facebook:

Another anguished post from a Trump supporter: “Why do liberals think Trump supporters are stupid?”

The serious answer.

Very long post, ending with:

That you have witnessed all the thousand and one other manifestations of corruption and low moral character and outright animalistic rudeness and contempt for you, the working American voter, and you still show up grinning and wearing your MAGA hats and threatening to beat up anybody who says otherwise.

What you don’t get, Trump supporters in 2018, is that succumbing to frustration and thinking of you as stupid may be wrong and unhelpful, but it’s also…hear me…charitable.

Because if you’re NOT stupid, we must turn to other explanations, and most of them are *less* flattering.

And here’s Thomas L. Friedman in Wednesday’s NYT: The American Civil War, Part II: The nation is deeply divided, with each side seeing the other as “the enemy.”

Bottom line:

It would be easy to blame both sides equally for this shift, noted Ornstein, but it is just not true. After the end of the Cold War, he said, “tribal politics were introduced by Newt Gingrich when he came to Congress 40 years ago,” and then perfected by Mitch McConnell during the Barack Obama presidency, when McConnell declared his intention to use his G.O.P. Senate caucus to make Obama fail as a strategy for getting Republicans back in power.

They did this even though that meant scuttling Obama’s health care plan, which was based on Republican ideas, and even though that meant scuttling long-held G.O.P. principles — like fiscal discipline, a strong Atlantic alliance, distrust of Russian intentions and a balanced approach to immigration — to attract Trump’s base.

That was cheating. What McConnell did broke something very big. Now Democrats will surely be tempted to do the same when they get the power to do so, and that is how a great system of government, built on constitutional checks and balances, strong institutions and basic norms of decency, unravels.

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Mouse in the House

Last night I woke up around 1am to the sound of our two cats scrambling in the front corner of the bedroom after something, with accompanying odd noises. Something behind a row of books in a low bookcase there, apparently. I turned on the light, started pulling the books out onto the carpet; something ran under the end of the curtain. I saw–a snake? a tail? The cats were curious, not aggressive. (Like Le Guin’s Pard in NO TIME TO SPARE, our indoor cats don’t seem to have a killer instinct.) I went to turn on the ceiling light. Something, now obviously a rodent and no snake, sped across the room and into the bathroom. The cats trotted after. It went into the tiny toilet room, I didn’t see exactly where. On inspiration, I pulled Potsticker out of the room and closed the toilet room door. I would deal with it later.

(I immediately understood how a rodent could have gotten into our bedroom. There’s a small balcony at the front of the room, with a sliding glass door and screen, and the screen has a tear in it at the lower corner, from our previous cat. I’d blocked the tear to have the door open for ventilation, sufficiently so that cats couldn’t go out, but not enough so that a rodent might not sneak in. Thing is, this is a *third floor* bedroom and balcony. Presumably rodents can climb stucco walls that high..? Now I won’t open that sliding door again until we fix the screen.)

This morning, after a leisurely breakfast, a shower and getting dressed, I opened the toilet room door. And saw nothing. I’d closed the main bathroom door, I had a box primed with a cheese lure, and a broom, and had thought to sweep the rodent into the box and quickly shut the lids and take it outside. But nothing was there, not behind the toilet, not behind the rolls of extra t.p.; the window screen was intact. How could it have gotten out?

I closed the main bathroom door and left the cheese box. Checked an hour later. Still nothing. Checked the toilet room again. And saw it — saw the end of a tail extruding from the bottom of the toilet bowl plunger, now on its side on the floor. I saved the cheese, got the box, quickly picked up the plunger, and plunged it into the box to seal whatever was inside, then walked the plunger and box a couple hundred feet down the street to the base of the undeveloped hillside around the corner, and released it… Had to shake the plunger a bit. I think it was a rat. It galumphed up the hillside.

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Thomas L. Friedman on Anonymous

Brilliant take by Thomas L. Friedman: ‘Anonymous’ Is Hiding in Plain Sight: The G.O.P. crowd who accepted the devil’s bargain is huge.

That’s the anonymous-G.O.P. credo today: We know Trump is a jerk, but you’ve gotta love the good stuff — you’ve got to admit that his tax cuts, deregulation, destruction of Obamacare and military buildup have fueled so much growth, defense spending and record stock market highs that we’re wealthier and more secure as a country, even if Trump is nuts. So our consciences are clear.

This view is not without foundation. Economic growth and employment have clearly been on a tear since Trump took office. I’m glad about that.

But what if Trump is actually heating up our economy by burning all the furniture in the house? It’s going to be nice and toasty for us — at least for a while — but where will our kids sleep?

Is the current economy “a sugar high that not only will be unsustainable but will leave our economy far more vulnerable in the long term?”

I am coming to think that the so-called Faustian bargain Republicans and conservatives have made with Trump –- to accept that such a despicable person should lead the country, in return for control of the Supreme Court to (try to) make abortion illegal and favor Christian interests –- simply means that those long-terms goals are just as ideological vacuous and despicable as Trump himself is. If you can only win by lying and cheating, you don’t have a case, and you don’t deserve to win.

Reality, eventually, will prevail.

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Play and Stranger Danger

From Sunday’s New York Times Book Review:

Does Our Cultural Obsession With Safety Spell the Downfall of Democracy?, by Thomas Chatterton Williams, reviews two books, including THE CODDLING OF THE AMERICAN MIND: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (the latter being the author of one of my favorite books, The Righteous Mind).

The book,

which expands on a widely circulated 2015 article in The Atlantic, identifies what the authors refer to as “the three Great Untruths” of the current moment: “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”; “always trust your feelings”; “life is a battle between good people and evil people.”

An excerpt from their book is in the Sunday Review section of the Times: How to Play Our Way to a Better Democracy.

The key word is play, and the culprit is over-protective parents and the ginning up of fear of strangers by right-wing sites.

Young mammals play, and in doing so they expend energy, get injured and expose themselves to predators. Why don’t they just stay safe? Because mammals enter the world with unfinished nervous systems, and they require play — lots of it — to finish the job. The young human brain “expects” the child to engage in thousands of hours of play, including thousands of falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals, status competitions, and even (within limits) acts of exclusion, in order to develop its full capacities.

Another trend that reduced outdoor free play is the grossly exaggerated fear of “stranger danger.” The spread of cable TV gave us more programming focused on rare but horrific cases of child abduction. Those fears, combined with the long, slow decline of trust in neighbors and fellow citizens, gave rise to a belief by the 1990s that persists today: Children who are not in sight of a responsible adult are at risk of abduction, so parents who allow unsupervised outdoor play are bad parents. The authorities should be notified.

This ties in to availability bias, the way TV news, for example, makes us think that isolated examples of child abduction (or terrorist rampages) are to be greatly feared, no matter how rare they actually are.


My own background is curious in this regard; I should document this separately. I grew up with parents who themselves grew up in small Illinois towns, what I think of as Bradbury-esque Green Towns, small enough for everyone to know one another, at least by reputation. (I did in fact live in one of these towns, Cambridge Illinois, for three or four months over one semester and summer.) In my earliest life we lived in a remote desert town, Apple Valley, where I took a school bus to the elementary school at least 5 miles away, and where at home we had virtually no neighbors, let alone neighbors with kids I might have played with. I was an isolated child, and learned how to entertain myself on my own – not with books, at that young age, as far as I can recall, but with toy cars and playing in the desert sands. My father’s career took us to the suburbs of Los Angeles when I was 6 or 7, and once settled there, in Reseda, I would walk to elementary school, about half a mile, and then walk straight home again. The option of going over to other kids’ houses after school to play simply never appeared, not even to those of my best friends at school – Milton Lewis and Gary Wein – because they lived in other directions from my walking straight home. This is the kind of thing you don’t realize until decades later. I’m certain, after all this time, that this was a legacy of my parents’ fears, especially my mother’s, about their children being loose in the big city, where life wasn’t as safe as living in the small towns they grew up in. And so I would always come straight home from school.

(Of course, these days young children aren’t allowed to walk back and forth to school; they are driven by parents. And this is part of the point of the book mentioned above.)

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Ursula K. Le Guin, NO TIME TO SPARE: Thinking About What Matters (2017)

This book is a collection of the best blog posts Le Guin did on her site at, from 2010 until her death in early 2018. It was published in December 2017, and won the Hugo Award in August 2018 as Best Related Work (i.e., a nonfiction book about science fiction or fantasy) of 2017. One has to acknowledge that the award was something of a sympathy vote, for while it’s a charming book with many wise thoughts, very little of it is about science fiction or fantasy specifically. The title echoes her reflection on her age, and about a questionnaire that asked what she did in her ‘spare time’. As a full-time writer, she’s constantly busy with “daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking… None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it… I’m going to be eight-one next week. I have no time to spare.”

Still, Le Guin is one of science fiction’s greatest writers, and she applied her talent not just to science fiction and fantasy, and it’s well worth spending time sampling her wisdom in this book.

The introduction is by Karen Joy Fowler – note p xiv – xv, “In another essay, in another book, Le Guin has said that so-called realism centers the human. Only the literature of the fantastic deals with the nonhuman as of equal interest and important. In this and so many other ways, fantasy is the more subversive, the more comprehensive, the more intriguing literature.” [[ I’ll have to track down that essay. I agree with this to a point – but think it is science fiction that deals with the nonhuman as of equal interest, and fantasy that more often indulges in human interests and priorities in an indulgent way. ]]

  • She notes that she was inspired to start a blog by reading the blogs of Jose Saramago.
  • P3, dealing with a Harvard survey asking what she does in her ‘spare time’. Writing is what she does; she doesn’t have spare time. She skips some questions with inadequate choices for answers.
  • P8, about old age, rejecting that saying about ‘you’re only as old as you feel’, and being frank about the challenges of getting older
  • P12, more about getting old, and respect, and the young
  • P18, about he she doesn’t drive and neither she nor husband can walk down 10 steep blocks to the market any more; they have to plan weekly shopping
  • P23, Choosing a Cat, at the Humane Society in Portland, picking one out, taking him home, naming him Pard
  • P29, Chosen by a Cat, after four months, how Pard eats, tears around the house, getting into things, eating beetles
  • P35, about cursing in fiction, so unimaginative with only two words these days
  • P39, readers’ questions, she likes only specific ones, like about sparrowhawks; what stories mean is up to the reader
  • P44, kids’ letters, mostly about Catwings, and with charming misspellings
  • P48, about how she never got the proverb about having one’s cake and eating it too; perhaps a confusion over the meaning of ‘have’ which can mean eat. Words matter.
  • P53, about Iliad and Odyssey, the ur-stories about story and the journey
  • P59, about the Sartre Prize for nonacceptance of an award; how she’d won the Nebula for “The Diary of the Rose” but refused it over the SFWA/Lem kerfuffle. [[ This is news: it’s long been known that she withdrew that story from the final ballot, but not that she did so despite the fact that it had actually won; by withdrawing it, she let Asimov win for “The Bicentennial Man” ]]
  • P63, About the great American novel, and how such a notion is parochial and unnecessary; but how her own favorite is The Grapes of Wrath, how the ending made such an impact on her when she read it young
  • P69, what a great novel by a woman? Again, doesn’t take idea seriously.
  • P74, The Narrative Gift as a Moral Conundrum, discusses two books, The Help, a page-turner but troublesome in many ways, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Sacks, much better. Yet both compulsively readable.
  • “It Doesn’t Have to Be the Way It Is” p80: about imaginative literature, and how it’s different than childish imaginings; it’s not ‘anything goes’ and it’s not ‘it ought to be this way’; it’s ‘it doesn’t have to be the way it is.’ P83t:
    • “As for the charge of escapism, what does *escape* mean? Escape from real life, responsibility, order, duty, piety, is what the charge implies. But nobody, except the most criminally irresponsible or pitifully incompetent, escapes to jail. The direction of escape is toward freedom. So what is “escapism” an accusation of?”
  • And this on the relation of fantasy and science, p84.3:
    • “There really is nothing to fear in fantasy unless you are afraid of the freedom of uncertainty. This is why it’s hard for me to imagine that anyone who likes science can dislike fantasy. Both are based so profoundly on the admission of uncertainty, the welcoming acceptance of unanswered questions. “
    • (Well—it’s easy to see the distinction; science is about what’s real, in a practical way; fantasy is almost by definition about what isn’t real. But that’s not her issue here.)
    • But the passage goes on: “Of course the scientist seeks to ask how things are the way they are, not to imagine how they might be otherwise. But are the two operations opposed, or related? We can’t question reality directly, only by questioning our conventions, our belief, our orthodoxy, our construction of reality. All Galileo said, all Darwin said, was, ‘It doesn’t have to be the way we thought it was.’ “
    • (This is more to the point. The hostility to fantasy, therefore, might come from those, the religious, who are certain in their opinions about the world and resent having them challenged; thus the religious reaction against the Harry Potter books, which supposedly encouraged belief in magic and witchcraft.)
  • P85, Utopiyin, Utopiyang. About dystopias, and the relationship between male and female, yang and yin. Ends with thoughts about the idea of growth as the continuing good, p87b:
    • “My guess is that the kind of thinking we are, at last, beginning to do about how to change the goals of human domination and unlimited growth to those of human adaptability and long-term survival is a shift from yang to yin, and so involves acceptance of impermanence and imperfection, a patience with uncertainty and the makeshift, a friendship with water, darkness, and the earth.”
  • More about Pard: how the cat likes to make some kinds of trouble; how it disappears at times.
  • P101, about the importance of solidarity, and how male group solidarity shapes the world, perhaps, and how it’s much different than the kind of ‘sisterhood’ that characterized early feminism.
  • P107, how the sharp uniforms of earlier eras have given way to the baggy camos of the modern one.
  • P111, written in 2011 (during the last recession): More about the notion that growth is a positive economic goal. It’s plausible, as in a person’s growth; but the person stops growing at some point.
    • 3: “In taking uncontrolled, unlimited, unceasing growth as the only recipe for economic health, we’ve dismissed the ideas of optimum size and keeping the organism in balance.”
    • 6: “Capitalist growth, probably for at least a century and certainly from the turn of the millennium on, has been growth in the wrong sense. Not only endless but uncontrolled—random. Growth as in tumor. Growth as in cancer.”
    • (Long my thought. We may have avoided the pitfalls of the ‘population bomb’ forecast in the 1960s, but, mathematically, the race can’t continue to grow *forever*, or we’ll overload the planet.)
    • 114e: “So what is our new metaphor to be? It might be the difference between life and death to find the right one.”
  • P115, how politicians lie, but how “something has changed,” how Americans sacrificed during World War II and no one can imagine them doing it today; how life was never ‘simple’ for people in earlier times; how we seem to have given up on the long-term view.
  • P120, about the cult of the ‘inner child’ who possesses some essential innocence lost in adulthood; and about a quote attributed to Le Guin that she didn’t remember. Quotes from Wordsworth, about how life is a “sleep and a forgetting” between two poles of eternal being that a soul enters life from.
  • P128, “Modest Proposal” (i.e. a mock serious piece, after Swift) about how even eating vegetables is taking their lives.
  • P130, asking why is ‘belief’ in itself desirable? And why asking about ‘belief’ in evolution, say, is the wrong question. One doesn’t ‘believe’ evolution; one accepts it. P133t:
    • “The whole undertaking of science is to deal, as well as it can, with reality. The reality of actual things and events in time is subject to doubt, to hypothesis, to proof and disproof, to acceptance and rejection—not to belief or disbelief.”
  • P136: About anger, including private anger, including anger at writers she doesn’t respect be so respected by others: Hemingway, Joyce, Roth; because if they are the greatest, “there’s no way I can ever be very good or very highly considered as a writer…”
    • (Of course the solution here is that writers are valued for different reasons, and by different people; there is no singular canon that everyone agrees upon. And surely Le Guin know this; she’s just venting.)
  • More about Pard: bringing mice into the house. The cat knows how to capture, but doesn’t have the instinct to kill.
  • P159: Appreciations of works by Philip Glass, the short opera Galileo Galilei, and John Luther Adams, Become Ocean. (Of the Glass, there are brief excerpts on YouTube.)
  • P166, about her assistant Delores, who handled her mail, until she died; how other writers deal with such assistants.
  • P173, about breakfasts in Vienna, with or without eggs, and what it meant when she declined the egg; and about eating soft-boiled eggs, and egg cups.
  • P179, about a ‘cathedral’ in Portland that is actually a huge warehouse food bank.
  • P184: about their Christmas tree. How cutting down the live tree is a kind of “ritual sacrifice”…
  • P188, about how children learn new ideas, about how a small lie about “horsies” being upstairs can be taken literally; about Santa Claus, about pretend vs real, about how ‘loss of belief’ involves how children believe in falsehoods, and how “Belief has no value in itself that I can see.”
  • P197, Staying at a ranch in Napa and capturing a rattlesnake.
  • P201, About staying in Bend, Oregon, a town with new developments and curved streets that are easily confusing; and about a lynx that had been kept as a pet, declawed, and then abandoned, now at the High Desert Museum.
  • P210, finally, “Notes from a Week at a Ranch in the Oregon High Desert” – poetic descriptions of wildlife, sunrises, landscapes, over several days.


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Update on SF Definitions

A couple of weeks ago I summarized several interesting panel discussions I saw at the World SF Convention in San Jose in mid-August. One panel was about definitions of SF, not so much good or bad definitions as different types of definitions. It was actually a lecture, not a panel, by a Texas academic named Paul Saka, and it ended with his preferred kind of definition, that as prototype, or exemplar, describing average or best examples. He quoted (on his last slide of his presentation) a long paragraph by Frederik Pohl from the 1978 SFWA-SFRA anthology SCIENCE FICTION: CONTEMPORARY MYTHOLOGY, edited by Warrick, Greenberg, and Olander…a copy of which I’ve now tracked down, so I can provide his Pohl quote in full:

Does the story tell me something worth knowing, that I had not known before, about the relationship between man and technology? Does it enlighten me on some area of science where I had been in the dark? Does it open a new horizon for my thinking? Does it lead me to think new kinds of thoughts, that I would not otherwise perhaps have thought at all? Does it suggest possibilities about the alternative possible future courses my world can take? Does it illuminate events and trends of today, by showing me where they may lead tomorrow? Does it give me a fresh and objective point of view on my own world and culture, perhaps by letting me see it through the eyes of a different kind of creature entirely, from a planet light-years away?

Of course, as Saka stipulated, this is a description of *good* science fiction. It doesn’t identify how we know that a bad, routine, formula story that does none of the things Pohl cites is still science fiction. There are surely many more examples of the latter than of Pohl’s exemplars.

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