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Science, Fiction, and points in between

Tuesday 30 April 2002

The Future

§ Francis Fukuyama, author of the controversial The End of History a decade ago, is back with a book focusing on the risks of biotechnology, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). San Francisco Chronicle published a Q & A with Fukuyama.

It's actually directly related to "The End of History," because I was asked on the 10th anniversary of my original 1989 article (which spawned the book) to write a retrospective on what I thought had changed. And the basic answer was: You can't really have an end of history unless you have an end of science, and we were clearly not at the end of science but on the cusp of this major explosion of new knowledge in the life sciences. Biotechnology is the only thing on the horizon that it seems to me can really get history started again.
The book's central thesis concerns the danger of meddling with human nature, says Nicholas Wade in The New York Times...
By messing with the human genome in order to enhance intelligence or physique or other desirable qualities, biotechnology may cause us "to lose our humanity — that is, some essential quality that has always underpinned our sense of who we are and where we are going," [Fukuyama] writes.
Steve Kettmann's review in SF Chronicle says it "could be the most important book of the year" -- even with its references to Mr. Spock. Science writer Steven Johnson, reviewing it for Washington Post, is compelled by the author's premises but skeptical of his conclusions.
Because Fukuyama's original argument in The End of History was predicated on the existence of a stable human nature, whose drive for "recognition" led to the eventual resolution of liberal democracies, the Prozac peddlers and germ-line experimenters are messing not just with nature but also with the trajectory of human history. In large part, the lesson of Our Posthuman Future is that these developments must be reined in, not through market forces or charitable institutions or a private sector values campaign, but rather by good old-fashioned government regulators.

§ Wired magazine's May issue gets various experts to make cash wagers over several "long bets" for the indefinite future, including the spread of print-on-demand books (as opposed to e-books), computers passing the Turing Test, and the dominance of weblogs over traditional journalism.

Wired, May 2002
Long Bets

§ This article about the potential of virtual reality, inspired by the recent Supreme Court decision striking down a law to criminalize "virtual" child pornography, begins by recalling Ender Wiggin.

New York Times, April 21, 2002

§ Grammar checking software has stopped evolving, because of Microsoft.

New York Times, April 15, 2002


§ A new website,, etches the text of literary classics, like Hamlet or Alice in Wonderland, on your computer screen in an oval arc...

New York Times, April 15, 2002

Friday 12 April 2002

Books and Reading

§ So Oprah Winfrey, having run out of multi-generational sagas of women who struggle in their lives but make good in the end — or similar such books — has suspended her book club. Do we care?

Her opinion in matters of literary taste is amateurish to say the least, but it carries considerable weight solely because she is a household name.

... In our fast-food nation, we tend to think that the intellectual life, like everything else, can be had pre-chewed and in bulk just for the asking.

But that attitude is a grievous insult to the people who spend their lives earning the respect of their literary peers and versing themselves in the arduous ways of their trade.
— Norah Vincent, Los Angeles Times, April 11, 2002

Chris Lehmann, senior editor at Washington Post Book World, recounts the history of book clubs.

Oprah's outfit brought the history of American book clubs to its logical, if unfortunate, conclusion.

...[M]ost clubs are now the means by which publishing conglomerates can direct content to groups of niche-marketed readers: mystery and sci-fi buffs, natural history enthusiasts, art fanciers, etc. General interest clubs still exist, but in attenuated form.
Slate, April 10, 2002

§ Do readers remember authors' names? Like Charles Frazier, or Jean M. Auel?

[W]hat happens to authors who take a long time between books? Do they disappear from readers' heedfulness, fade like the whispers of vaguely recollected names?

...[Auel's] new novel, "The Shelters of Stone," will be the fifth in her Earth's Children series about prehistoric life that began with "The Clan of the Cave Bear" in 1980 and was last visited in "The Plains of Passage" in 1990, a lifetime ago in book publishing.

...What publishers like best is not the once-in-a-while novelist, no matter how good, but the writer who produces a new hardcover novel each year while simultaneously bringing out the paperback of last year's book.
— Martin Arnold, New York Times, April 11, 2002

§ Book Magazine has conducted a poll of the 100 best characters in fiction since 1900. Only the top 10 are on the website; the full list is in the March/April issue. #1 is Jay Gatsby, and Sherlock Holmes is #6.


Views from Space

§ Here's a nifty webpage that let's you specify target (Earth; Jupiter; the solar system) and viewpoint (Cassini spacecraft; Voyager 1 spacecraft; above; below) and it generates the image. There are some sample scenes the compare well with actual photographs.

§ This article on "how starships will change society" includes speculation from Geoffrey A. Landis.

Geoffrey A. Landis of NASA’s Glenn Research Center predicts that the first star trek aboard a laser-powered sail ship could begin within 50 years as new methods of space travel put interstellar flight within the grasp of our grandchildren. ... Landis envisions ships with vast sails, propelled by laser light to about 10 percent the speed of light. Such a craft could make the 4.3-light-year trip to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system, in about 43 years, though slowing down would be a problem. Stopping could take up to 100 years.
MSNBC/ March 19

December Aether Vibrations

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