Never fear! Science Fiction Will Save You!

Has it ever seemed to you like the folks over at Homeland Security think they live in a science fiction universe, where water can be made to explode and a nut with a home made shoe bomb is a credible threat? This is the reason why:

Looking to prevent the next terrorist attack, the Homeland Security Department is tapping into the wild imaginations of a group of self-described “deviant” thinkers: science-fiction writers.

“We spend our entire careers living in the future,” says author Arlan Andrews, one of a handful of writers the government brought to Washington this month to attend a Homeland Security conference on science and technology.

Those responsible for keeping the nation safe from devastating attacks realize that in addition to border agents, police and airport screeners, they “need people to think of crazy ideas,” Andrews says.

The writers make up a group called Sigma, which Andrews put together 15 years ago to advise government officials. The last time the group gathered was in the late 1990s, when members met with government scientists to discuss what a post-nuclear age might look like, says group member Greg Bear. He has written 30 sci-fi books, including the best seller Darwin’s Radio.

Now, the Homeland Security Department is calling on the group to help with the government’s latest top mission of combating terrorism.

I’m as much a fan of Science Fiction as the next geek, but these guys write futuristic war porn. Plug any one of their names into Amazon and you’ll find a bibliography of wingnuttery. These are the guys who think worldwide wars with tactical nukes are a good idea. And now the TSA and OHS want them coming up with fantasy scenarios that they think terrorists will use against us. Because we don’t have enough of those.

Terrorists will not be stealing a super secret experimental rail gun that fires sub light speed pellets of Einsteinium. They will not be hijacking the MIT Centrifuge in order to try and create a rogue black hole. Any would-be terrorist is going to use the easiest, dirtiest and most effective way to cause a Black Swan Event. That means hijacking airplanes to use as missiles (which, now that it’s been done is predictable and therefore, a worthless tactic). They’ll build homemade explosives, stuff them in a backpack and then blow themselves up on the New York Subway. Maybe. More than likely though, as we recently discovered, they’ll be so scared by an undercover FBI agent trying to get them to preform an ill-advised raid on Fort Dix, that they’ll call the police on themselves.

It’s this sort of sci-fi nonsensical thinking that has got US citizens afraid, and willing to turn over their rights, in the hopes that Jack Bauer will save them from terrorists with fantasy super weapons. Perhaps we’ve seen too many James Bond films but so long as we’re distracting ourselves looking for Dr. Evil and his sharks with laser beams, we’ll overlook the real threat, which of course is the point of all this terror theater: keep people distracted with elaborate scenarios and maybe they won’t notice that there’s nothing practical we can do to predict who the next disgruntled guy with a grudge and an IED or a cache of weapons will be.

Link via Boing Boing.

Why Does Burning Books Always Seems To Be the Solution?

Because no one was buying his remainders, a Kansas City bookseller decided to torch his back catalog:

In the 10 years Tom Wayne has operated Prospero’s Books, a used bookstore in midtown Kansas City, he has amassed thousands of books in a warehouse.Ranging from best sellers such as Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October and Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, to obscure titles such as a bound report from the Fourth Pan-American Conference held in Buenos Aires in 1910 and a textbook on beginning Polish, the books won’t sell. Wayne said even local libraries and thrift stores have told him they were full.

On Sunday, Wayne began putting them to the torch, tossing scores of books into a burning cauldron to protest what he sees as society’s diminishing support for the printed word.

I wonder why thrift stores and libraries (always in competition to see who gets to take people’s unwanted crap) didn’t want a twenty year old spy thriller about the Soviets or a hundred year old technical report in Spanish? Every day, someone comes into my office demanding twenty year old best sellers and hundred year old lists of things on display at a minor world expo, in Spanish. If only he had our number!

One of the most frustrating aspects of working in a library is the donations. Instead of gently used, current items that might be of some use to others, we typically get whatever crap was sitting on someone’s grandmother’s shelf when they shipped the old lady off to a nursing home and sold her house. It’s either a toss up as to send that box of moldy French cookbooks to the Art school Library or take them to Goodwill. Reycling them never occurs to anyone.

It’s nice that you’re concerned about the declining interest in the printed word (a concern greatly unfounded and wildly exaggerated but hay maybe if you read a book now and again, you’d know that). But for the love of Harry, don’t set your books on fire! Then no one can read them.

Season 3 of Home Improvement Was Already Out

So, librarians at the Sacramento Public Library are circulating a petition to have a Vote of No Confidence for their managers, because their shelves contain 10 copies of Jackass 2 and 6 of the Paris Hilton biography. But, as John Blyburg points out, all those copies are either checked out, on order or missing, meaning that they don’t have enough copies of Jackass 2 and the Paris Hilton biography to meet patron demand.

Quality control is one thing but Democracy, as we are told, is untidy. Sometimes, instead of hunkering down with War and Peace and The Ten Commandments, people would rather read or watch something, well, fun. And as any librarian will tell you, dictating fun is not our job. Dictating is not our job. We just provide people with the information they want. If they want lousy info, (or books or movies), well, we just smile, hand it to them and then make fun of them after they leave.

Link via

Loosing Shakespeare

I’ve been reading The Book of Lost Books on my lunch breaks and it’s fascinating stuff. Take for example, the lost Shakespeare play, Cardenio.

Cardenio was known to have been performed at least on one occasion in 1613, by the King’s Men, the London troupe that Shakespeare wrote most of his plays for. The text was attributed to both William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, a playwright of equal fame during the time. Not much was known about the story of Cardinio, other than that it was thought to be a loose adaptation of an episode from Don Quixote, the first English translation of which had reached London in 1612.

In 1727, Lewis Theobald, a well known Shakespearean scholar and editor, claimed to have obtained three Restoration-era manuscripts of an unnamed play by Shakespeare, which he edited (with improvements) and released under the title Double Falshood. This had hardly settled the matter of the missing Shakespeare by any means, as Theobald refused to show anyone the three manuscripts that he claimed as his source and they were later thought destroyed in a fire in 1806.

What’s more fascinating than this is that we have as many of Shakespeare’s plays as we do. Given the fragility of paper and our generally moist climate, and the habit of religious fanatics for burning everything that disagrees with their narrow minded fairy tales, it’s amazing any literature has survived this long.

The old claims of bias against non western literature is silly in the face of all this. It’s not that academics or librarians have discarded non-European literature, it’s that so little of any literature has survived. It’s only by chance that some of Europe’s literary heritage managed to be preserved at all and we should appreciate what we have, not fret over why this or that piece was lost.

Yo Ho, Haul Together, Hoist The Colors High…

People just don’t trust pirates. I suppose this is a given, in that they are, after all, pirates. They’ll cut your throat if it gives them the upper hand and rifle through your pockets before you’ve even hit the ground but still, they have an honor about them, and their resilience and tenacity, not to mention their resourcefulness, is never to be underestimated.

Which is all my way of saying that a lot of reviewers don’t know what they’re talking about when they say Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End isn’t as good as the previous films. In a lot of ways it’s better. complaints about the murkiness of the plot are unfounded– certainly, the details can get complicated but it’s only a challenge for those who can’t stomach a little moral ambiguity and don’t get that pirates will change allegiance at the drop of a hat, any hat, and sometimes just for fun.

I have to admit, I was suspicious going in to the theater. Having so recently been burned by Spider man 3 in all its god awfulness, I was hesitant, expecting that perhaps the filmmakers had decided to just cash in and coast on the popularity of the previous films. So I was presently surprised to discover a really fun and satisfying movie. No it’s no Godfather, obviously, but not every movie has to aspire to be the greatest ever. Some should, now and again, but an action adventure movie about Pirates isn’t that movie and to expect it to try and be something it is not is setting oneself up for disappointment (which, by the way is one of the themes of the pirates movies so there are still some greater themes to be had even if none named Corleone is involved). So, no, it wasn’t the Godfather. But even more importantly, it wasn’t the Godfather 3.

Some reviewers have criticised Orlando Bloom’s performance, saying that it was wooden and two dimensional which is plainly unfair. He has the burden of being the Good Guy who has to make tough decisions, which doesn’t exactly leave a lot of wiggle room for camping it up or soul searching. He’s our Errol Flynn, after all. But he does manage to breathe life and depth and genuine emotion into a character that could so easily be just a cardboard cutout. And his ultimate fate adds a few shades of gray to his character that go beyond the stereotypical hero anyway.

Johnny Depp as Captain Jack is, let’s face it, the real reason anyone is going to see this movie. Here is a character for the ages. Morally ambiguous, the rouge with a heart of gold– he’s everything we want Han Solo to be– a scoundrel who stays a scoundrel while also being a hero. And the scenes with him in Davey Jones Locker are just fantastic, a touch of Terry Gilliam that adds so much while seeming to do nothing but fart around. His affectations and antics should by the third movie, be getting on everyone’s nerves but instead, he’s such a lovable scoundrel that you can’t help but enjoy every moment.

Kiera Knightly, the other main reason to see the film, is solid. Elizabeth Swann has progressed so far from where she began in the first film that it’s hard to keep in mind that it’s the same actress and the same character. And it’s really a far more nuanced character than many people give her credit. here’s a pirate who wants to be a damsel but has to go save the boys from themselves. That she succeeds is only part of the tragedy of her character.

One of the most impressive elements of all three of the Pirate’s movies is the internal mythology. It’s built up gradually, with just enough revealed to show you a view of a larger world without the tedious exposition that usually drags down a fantasy film. We don’t need overly long prologues or opening crawl to set the scene. The film makers and the script writers are confident that the audience will be able to pick up the threads of the back story that are dropped in context of the story without needing more information. And when we do need that Little bit of exposition, we have Mr. Gibbs, the story teller, who lays out the legends in the time honored nautical tradition.

This nautical Tall Tale aspect is the key to the success of these stories as they pull in elements of world mythology that will seem familiar but still are changed enough to suit the unique world of the story. It’s perhaps this worldliness of the Pirate Mythology that is puzzling to some critics. We have a tendency to think of the Caribbean Pirates as American, but Pirate lore is world-spanning (as exemplified by the Nine brethren, who are all based on historical pirates from all parts of the world). This is a movie about the world and what stories we tell ourselves about freedom and ht elives we choose that make living in it bearable.

Wiki Gathering

Over at Salon, they have an interview with David Weinberger, whose new book, Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, is making quite a stir. Towards the end of the interview (all of which is great) he has a revolutionary idea:

So should you believe what’s in Wikipedia? Jimmie Wales, its founder, would say no, not without checking. But I don’t think that’s going to be the final answer. Because we don’t have time to do more work. Today we work to believe what’s in the encyclopedia, tomorrow we have to work to believe what’s in the newspaper, what the sports score is, whether the recipe we just found online will in fact kill us. So we will evolve trust mechanisms that will give us the shortcuts we need.

We’ve already evolved tons of them, but these will occur at the metadata level. So, for example, there’s no reason that the International Astronomical Union couldn’t go through Wikipedia, find the articles about astronomy, and find the versions of those articlesthat it thinks are right. Can’t find one? Fix it up and make it right and point to that one. And it would build its own astronomical Wikipedia that is nothing but a metadata level. And if you’re a school kid and you want to know the truth about Jupiter, you go to the IAU Wikipedia, which only contains the pages that they certify. So there’s the authority again, but it’s pointing at other stuff.

We get so caught up in the arguments over whether or not Wikipedia or the Britanica is a resource worthy of our praise and use, that we forget to actually use it. Wikipedia, like any encyclopedia, is a basic level resource. It’s there to collect facts in one place so you don’t spend years trying to figure out what day Bonnie and Clyde were killed. It’s right there. Maybe some of the details are obscure but for your basic fact checking, everything you need is there. Why not, in the case of more complicated ideas, do what Weinberger suggested and make a topic-centered critical version of Wikipedia?

This is clearly the next step. Take what Wikipedia has done and expand it into a hybrid; an authoritative wiki. we don’t need just one that replaces the crusty old Britannica– we need dozens, one elaborate cooperative wiki, built and maintained by professionals in a given field to help the public and themselves keep abreast of what’s going on in that field. Wikipedia will always be there if you want a recap of the latest Doctor Who episode but when you want to know why Pluto is no longer a planet, wouldn’t it be great to have an IAU Wiki with an article by Neil deGrasse Tyson? Or perhaps an article by Stephen Hawking explaining the latest information on the Big Bang? Now, imagine that we have dozens of these authoritative wikis on every subject and field imaginable. We’d be the smartest monkeys in the universe.

Features, Bugs Whatever- Just Give Us Your Money

Fortune Magazine:

Free software is great, and corporate America [And real people] loves it. It’s often high-quality stuff that can be downloaded free off the Internet and then copied at will. It’s versatile – it can be customized to perform almost any large-scale computing task – and it’s blessedly crash-resistant.A broad community of developers,from individuals to large companies like IBM, is constantly working

toimprove it and introduce new features. No wonder the business world has embraced it so enthusiastically: More than half the companies in the Fortune 500 are thought to be using the free operating system Linux in their data centers. But now there’s a shadow hanging over Linux and other free software, and it’s being cast by Microsoft (Charts, Fortune 500).The Redmond behemoth asserts that one reason free software is of such high quality is that it violates more than 200 of Microsoft’s patents. And as a mature company facing unfavorable market trends and fearsomecompetitors like Google (Charts, Fortune 500), Microsoft is pulling no punches: It wants royalties. If the company gets its way, free software won’t be free anymore. [emphasis added]

Anyone who has used Microsoft for any great length of time knows that this is an absurd claim. Open Source software works better than Microsoft, across the board, not because the developers are hacking Microsoft’s patents but because they’re taking Microsoft’s half baked ideas and making them work.

Here’s a better idea: Microsoft subsidizes Linux and Mozilla, ensuring that they get their name associated with products that work. They won’t make any more money off the top, but they’ll at least build up good will among users, who for once, will see Microsoft’s name on a piece of software that functions as advertised. I know, I might as well have suggested that Microsoft subsidize research into creating flying monkeys.

One Less Dinosaur

I come not to praise Jerry Falwell, but to bury him, quickly, before he starts to stink up the place:

The Rev Jerry Falwell, whose evangelical convictions and organisational abilities, including as a founder in1979 of the Moral Majority movement, did much to place religious conservatives in a role of great influence in American politics, died on Tuesday in Lynchburg, Virginia, of apparent heart failure at the age of 73.He was a figure of immense controversy over the last 40 years, outspoken to the point that his apologies appeared almost as regularly as his thundering denunciations. To him the three great scourges afflicting his country were “atheism, secularism and humanism,” and nothing would deter him from defeating his evil trinity.

Most notoriously, he laid the blame for the terrorist attacks of September11 2001, at the feet of his domestic opponents. “I really believe,” he said at the time, “that the pagans, the abortionists and the lesbians …and all those who have tried to secularise America helped this happen.”His subsequent recantation attracted less attention.

Few people have been as outspoken in their intolerance and hatred– all in the name of religion– as Jerry Falwell. He never met a racist he didn’t like, a bigot he couldn’t find common ground with (so long as they were rich, white and as arrogant as he was– sorry Dr. Farrakhan) or a decent human being he couldn’t tar and feather as enemies incarnate to his withered and archaic ideals. With him gone, there is one less roadblock to making this a just and humanistic society.

I’d like to say that I’m not pleased by the news of this spiteful old coot’s passing but part of me is. I can admit that. I never wish anyone harm but neither do I shy away from the fact that some people far outlive the age into which they were born, lingering on well past their prime to embarrass their descendants with creaking paroxysms of outmoded bigotry. In Falwell’s case, they are sometimes born well past the age they would have been happier in. Alas, Jerry was just too medieval for these wild and woolly modern times. But now he’s gone home to the void and we can be just a little more at peace.

Some of old Jerry’s more memorable quotes from the Huffington Post.

Boing Boing has more.

The Trilogy Curse

I was almost certain that Spider-Man 3 would be suck-proof. I was a chump.

Too many characters, all of them crying and some of the most unmotivated emotional turnarounds I’ve ever seen in a movie. It was Spider Man and his Schizoid Friends, Bi-Polar Boy and Insecure Girl.

Venom was completely unnecessary. He was on screen for maybe ten minutes and added nothing to the story. But then, that basically describes venom in the comics as well, so it should have been expected.

Gwen Stacy was completely underused as a character. She is supposed to have been Spider Man’s first great love. Instead, she’s the other woman for about five minutes, then disappears only to show up a Harry’s funeral because… she somehow knew Harry? Really? How? When?

Sandman was good. I wish there had simply been more for him to do, and there would have been, if they hadn’t decided to shoehorn Venom into the movie.

Also, half the time, Spider-Man is running around with his mask off. He wears a mask for a reason but I guess the Studio decided that seeing Toby Maguire being Emo was more important than story or continuity.

The movie would have been fine without Venom or Gwen Stacy. Focus on the Harry, Peter, MJ love triangle with the Sandman subplot (and maybe add in the Vulture, as played by Ben Kingsly as a flying criminal mastermind manipulating Sandman and also having a hand in the death of Peter’s uncle). Save Gwen Stacy as the sub plot for the next film, with Bruce Campbell as Mysterio. Number 5 can be about the wedding of MJ and Peter, as interrupted by the Lizard and Shocker. Save Venom for number 6 or better yet, number not at all.

But on the bright side, there really is no way Pirates of the Caribbean 3 will suck, right? Update: 5/28: yes, I was right. Much better!