Archive for June, 2004

The Sacred Fount

Wednesday, June 30th, 2004

I’ve long had an aversion to the prose of Henry James. (How I prefer his brother, “the adorable William James,” as Whitehead calls him). There is just something so smug about Henry James’ prose, creepy and self-congratulatory and fussy and self-important and filled with hideous phrases like “in fine,” and “I daresay,” and “she hung fire.”
I often think of Henry James as the polar opposite of Proust (who is my favorite author of all time). James is all about the subtle folds and crevices of consciousness, where Proust is about those aspects of our emotional life where consciousness fails to reach (like “involuntary memory”). James fetishizes a narrow, instrumental “intelligence”; Proust is all about the limitations and failures, and ultimately the irrelevance, of such an intelligence. James’ characters are always calculating, always jousting for advantage, always manipulating one another, while Proust tracks the movements of passion, for good and for ill, in generosity and in cruelty, that are beyond calculation. James and Proust are both snobs; but where James takes his snobbery complacently for granted, Proust subjects it to lacerating self-analysis. And so on.
But Nightspore has been after me for ages to read James’ little-known novel The Sacred Fount, and his recent post quoting Rebecca West’s hilarious description of the novel (she writes that James “records how a week-end visitor spends more intellectual force than Kant can have used on The Critique of Pure Reason in an unsuccessful attempt to discover whether there exists between certain of his fellow-guests a relationship not more interesting among these vacuous people that it is among sparrows”) finally persuaded me to do so.
Well, I have to admit that The Sacred Fount really is quite something. It’s James’ parody (intentional or not, I’m not quite sure) and reductio ad absurdum of his entire aesthetic and method. Significantly, the novel features James’ only first-person narrator; and this very Jamesian narrator spends the entire novel discerning subtleties that simply aren’t there, ‘reading’ his fellows entirely incorrectly, congratulating himself for his own mistaken insights, and constructing a “theory” of human behavior that finally collapses into a black hole of irrelevance and inaccuracy (or collapses like a house of cards, to use one of the novel’s own metaphors). The ultra-subtle discernment of James’ prose turns out to be nothing but projection and interpretive paranoia; the novel’s seeming exploration of intersubjectivity is unmasked as a wishful solipsistic fantasy. Thus, the narrator goes to great lengths to describe to the reader his silent unspoken sympathy and commiseration with a ravaged woman, filled with desperation, at the end of her rope, her life blasted by passion, on the verge of total breakdown, courageously and beyond her own strength struggling to hold herself together only a few moments longer… only it turns out the woman is none of these things, but rather just a witty and skittish flirt.
What’s more, you can’t even say the narrator learns anything at the end, when the full extent of his folly is revealed to him. He sort of shrugs it off, admitting a kind of defeat, but with his faith in his own intelligence and discernment largely unshaken.
The entire content of the novel, including everything that makes any of the characters potentially interesting, is withdrawn at the end, leaving nothing but a void. The Sacred Fount is so wonderfully crazy and pointless a book, so extreme an exercise in style (albeit one that makes me cringe) devoid of any meaningful content, so dazzling a display of writing without any reason to write, an act of pure expression without anything whatsoever to express, that it won me over in spite of myself.

Kelly Link

Tuesday, June 29th, 2004

KellyLinkTonight I went to a reading by the totally wonderful Kelly Link (whom I’ve written about before). It was part of the Clarion West speculative fiction series of readings this summer.
She read half of a story about zombies, and an animal shelter where dogs are put to sleep, and Canadians, and strange pajamas, and working retail at a 7-11 type store that’s open 24/7. It was melancholy, and sweet, and drily hilarious, and filled with all sorts of surprising, counter-intuitive leaps that nonetheless somehow made perfect sense.
Link is a writer so singular, and so acute, that she makes utterly irrelevant the usual distinctions between “genre” and “serious” writing, between storytelling and prose experimentation, between hard-headed actuality and fantasy or dreams.

The State of Literary Culture

Sunday, June 27th, 2004

Today’s New York Times Book Review illustrates perfectly what’s wrong with mainstream Anglo-American literary culture.
Exhibit One: the review of Julian Barnes’ new book of short stories. From what I’ve read of him, Barnes is a deeply unoriginal writer, utterly devoid of interesting ideas, with a humdrum style, and whose main stock in trade is to create kneejerk responses (through a judicious use of literary allusions) in order to reassure his highbrow readers that they are indeed reading Great Literature. He professes to love Flaubert, but his writing about Flaubert is distinguished only by its utter banality. And sure enough, the NYT Book Review says that his latest volume, “in ways both modest and grand, helps sustain a reader’s faith in literature.”
Exhibit Two:the review of David Foster Wallace’s new book of stories. The reviewer is quick to criticize Wallace’s “ostentatiously elongated, curiously bureaucratic, stubbornly overdetermined prose style” (translation: his sentences are too long). Now, I am not one of Wallace’s biggest admirers; his writing, though always provocative and interesting and hilarious, fails to entirely convince me. But, still, to criticize Wallace’s prose style! To object to the length and density of his sentences! If nothing else, Wallace is certainly a powerful and innovative stylist. He is doing something to and with the English language that deserves both notice and praise. His sentences are deeply pleasurable in their ornateness and richness of detail; and their twistings and turnings at once exacerbate and mock the hyperbolic meta-self-consciousness whose contradictions, necessities, and discomforts are Wallace’s real subject as a writer. Wallace’s prose style embodies thought and pushes at its limits; the drama of this style is the drama of postmodern irony and earnestness: a play of qualifications to the point of exhaustion, but also a manic, deeply comic energy. The reviewer clearly knows all this, but still he insists that… Wallace doesn’t have a heart! Which is sort of like criticizing Orson Welles for not being Steven Spielberg.
Exhibit Three: the review of the letters of Isaiah Berlin. Here, the reviewer freely admits that there are those of us who do not regard Berlin with reverence and affection. Me, I find him far too mealy-mouthed, as well as unbearably smug about his advocacy of moderation in all things. And I’m deeply suspicious of the way that he, like so many Cold War intellectuals, countenanced all sorts of vileness on the part of the “free world” because it was being done in opposition to the vileness of Stalinism (much as, today, Christopher Hitchens approves of Bush’s barbarities, because they are ostensibly being done in opposition to the very real barbarities of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein). But this objection evidently positions me, in the view of the NYT reviewer, as a member of “that species for which ‘anti-Communist’ is the harshest term of abuse (and which cannot be persuaded by any amount of evidence that it might have been quite a good thing to be anti).” I would have hoped that the end of the Cold War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union (one evil empire down, one to go) would have meant the end of such crass Manichaeanism as is evidenced by this reviewer’s anti-anti-anti-Communism. At least Berlin himself had the excuse that he was writing during the Cold War, which pushed thinkers of all positions into dualistic boxes. But such arguments have no excuse, and no point, today (unless the point is precisely to bully the unwilling into joining Bush’s so-called “coalition”).
All in all, these articles show the Times‘ instinctive adherence to an utterly anachronistic version of “literary culture,” and suggest its inability even to recognize anything that is vital or meaningful in Anglo-American culture (literary or otherwise) today.


Sunday, June 27th, 2004

Ever since I started this blog, I have been doing my best to intentionally induce people to violate copyright laws by downloading unauthorized music files for free.
This may soon make me a felon, since the act recently introduced in the Senate by Orrin Hatch and Patrick Leahy (yes, the very one whom Dick Cheney told to “go fuck yourself”) makes the “intentional inducement of copyright infringement” an offense; the bill goes on to state that “the term ‘intentionally induces’ means intentionally aids, abets, induces, or procures; and intent may be shown by acts from which a reasonable person would find intent to induce infringement based upon all relevant information about such acts then reasonably available to the actor.”
I’m happy to aid and abet copyright violation by pointing my readers to Kazaa and Soulseek, as well as by seeking rhetorically to move my readers to treat copyright laws with contempt and to refuse to abide by them.
Since I don’t really want to go to jail, or to face a prosecution which would cost me much more money than I have to even begin to defend myself, I’m being a coward and saying this now, instead of waiting until the law is passed.

Physics 4: Faster Than the Speed of Light

Saturday, June 26th, 2004

Joao Magueijo’s Faster Than the Speed of Light is a hoot: something that can’t be said about very many science books. Magueijo is lucid but light (make that ‘lite’) on the details of theoretical physics and cosmology, but he’s great at conveying the flavor of how science works in practice.
Actually, the book’s title is a misnomer: Magueijo isn’t claiming that anything can go faster than the speed of light, but rather that the speed of light is itself variable under certain circumstances (like at the initial moments of the Big Bang, or in a black hole). (Hence his approach is called VSL –variable speed of light — theory). VSL was originally concocted in order to offer an alternative to Alan Guth’s inflation theory as an account of how certain features of the universe (its relative homogeneity, and its relative “flatness,” or balance between the opposing forces of expansion and gravity) came about.
VSL theory may or may not be correct; but Magueijo claims it has several advantages in comparison to inflation. On the one side, it hooks up much more interestingly to work on theories of quantum gravity (string theory and/or loop quantum gravity); on the other hand, it seems to make more in the way of potentially testable predictions than inflation, or quantum gravity theories, are able to do.
(Just a few days ago, a new study was released that seems to put VSL theory into doubt, or that at least invalidates an earlier study that seemed to provide support for VSL).
But what’s great about Magueijo’s book is that he frankly recognizes the possibility that his theory will be falsified. His argument is that scientific discovery has to take these sorts of risks; it’s the only way that new ideas, some of which turn out to be important and true, get generated in the first place.
In line with this, the meat of Magueijo’s book is not in his explanation of the details of physical theory. Rather, it’s in the picture he paints of how scientific collaboration works: how small groups, or even communities, of scientists, are needed in order to develop new ideas. Scientific creativity is rarely solitary; as Magueijo points out, even Einstein couldn’t have gotten anywhere without his friends and peers.
The flip side of this, of course, is the sort of rivalry and infighting that takes place in scientific circles; together will all the idiocies of academic bureaucracy and ossification. Magueijo’s stories of “peer review” of journal submissions being used to settle personal scores and to enforce conformity, of theoretical schools taking on a cultlike status, and of ineptitude and imbecility in academia at the administrative level all were quite similar to things I have experienced or known about in my own field. It was exhilarating to find Magueijo calling out such things, often in hilarious and profane detail, instead of relegating them to the shadows.
Magueijo on string theory and loop quantum gravity: “Since they don’t connect with experiment or observations at all, they have become fashion accessories at best, at worst a sort of feudal warfare… As with every cult, people who do not conform to the party line are ostracized and persecuted” (p.236).
And again; “Stringy people have achieved nothing with a theory that doesn’t exist. They are excruciatingly pretentious in their claims for beauty; indeed, we are all assured that we live in an elegant universe, by the grace of stringy gods” (p. 240 — so much for Brian Greene!).
Notwithstanding this, Magueijo has worked on occasion with both string and loop quantum gravity theorists. His own theories currently also lack experimental testing, but at least he’s frank about this fact (and worried about correcting it).
All in all, Magueijo’s brashness and willingness to expose dirty laundry is a welcome alternative to the official story of science that we so often get.

Physics 3: String Theory

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2004

I finished reading Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, which indeed is the best written and most comprehensible introduction-to-string-theory-for-the-mathematically-challenged (such as myself) that I have yet come across. But still, I found myself underwhelmed and far from convinced.
It’s partly John Horgan’s objection, which I have mentioned before: the fact that almost nothing about string theory can be empirically verified/falsified, since the theory deals with entities that remain forever out of the range of experimental investigation. (Indeed, Greene’s chapter on the possible future empirical verification of string theory is by far the lamest part of the the book. He basically says that, if more powerful atom smashers and space telescopes are built, then within a decade or two we might discover some new stuff that isn’t incompatible with string theory. In no other branch of science would this qualify as “proof”).
The physicists would probably answer Horgan that even if strings can never be actually detected (in the ways that, remember, protons and electrons and photons and even quarks can be actually detected) they are still the universe at its most basic, being what quarks and photons and electrons are made of. And this has to be the case, they would say, because the equations work. String theorist Edward Witten is quoted by both Horgan and Greene as saying that the proof of string theory is that it correctly predicts the existence of gravity.
That is to say, string theory is justified mainly on the basis that its consequences are the very “laws of nature” that we already know without it. It claims to unify general relativity (the theory of gravity) with quantum mechanics (the theory of elementary particles and the other forces in the universe aside from gravity, i.e. electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces). But the only real “proof” it offers of this unification is that the equations of relativity and quantum mechanics can be derived from the string equations (or could be, if the string theory equations were more fully worked out).
It strikes me that the lack of empirical verification that Horgan points to is really a consequence of a deeper problem, that of what Whitehead called the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness: the “error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete.” The wondrous equations of string theory are abstractions. They are artificially isolated simplifications of a concrete reality that is more complex and more complete. This, in itself, is not a problem. All science, indeed all knowledge, works by a process of abstraction. “You cannot think without abstractions,” Whitehead says; but that is why, he adds, “it is of the utmost importance to be vigilant in critically revising your modes of abstraction.”
That is to say, the problem comes when abstractions are mistaken for ultimates. In order to make the mathematics of string theory work, physicists need to postulate a whole group of “supersymmetric” subatomic particles that have never been observed (and I mean this in strong contrast to the ways in which protons and electrons and photons and neutrinos have in fact been observed). They also need to postulate six (or seven) “curled up” spatial dimensions, ones that are entirely, and necessarily, outside experience, in addition to the three spatial dimensions that are the core of our experience. This is supposed to make for an “elegant universe,” because of how well the equations fit together (though if your sense of aesthetics. or logic, includes Occam’s Razor, you are not likely to find these assumptions “elegant”).
Now, mathematical requirements have in fact led to what Tom Siegfried, in his rah-rah-science book Strange Matters, calls “prediscoveries.” Things like neutrinos, and antimatter, were predicted theoretically long before they were actually observed. The theories gave experimentalists strong hints on what to look for, and where; and their predictions were borne out. It’s also worth noting that proto-positivists like Ernst Mach regarded atoms as merely as necessary fictions; something which, I think, is refuted by the fact that we can now actually see atoms in electron scanning microscopes. It has been a losing proposition, for the past century, to bet against the actuality of scientific abstractions.
But it’s hard to see how additional, unobservable spatial dimensions, or a “multiverse” in which different “universes” had different physical parameters, could move from “prediscovery” to empirical verification in the same way that atoms and neutrinos have. And not for positivist, epistemological reasons, but for more profoundly metaphysical ones. The string theorists’ assumptions that science can not only explain how physical forces work, but positively account for them (as in the sense of explaining why physical constants have the particular values they do, which is one thing string theorists hope to accomplish) does seem to be mistaking the explanatory abstractions for the things they have been abstracted from.
Another quote from Whitehead: “Speculative Philosophy is the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.” By this criterion, string theory fails as speculative philosophy, because its mathematical abstractions fail to be ideas of sufficient generality. But if string theory also fails as empirical science, because it is too purely speculative, where does that leave us?

Physics 2: Incompatibility

Monday, June 21st, 2004

OK, here’s something (only one of many, alas, but a particularly important one) that I don’t understand:
The big problem in theoretical physics is the incompatibility between quantum mechanics and general relativity. Both theories seem essentially correct (they have been verified time and time again, to an incredible degree of accuracy); but they are logically incompatible. Most of the time, this incompatibility simply doesn’t matter (quantum mechanics works for the microworld, and general relativity for the cosmic macroworld of immense masses).
But when you have both enormous mass AND a subatomic scale of size (basically, in the center of a black hole, and also at the initial instant of the Big Bang), and where you therefore need both theories, the mathematics doesn’t work and the equations turn to nonsense (give infinite results). You can’t say that either theory has been falsified, exactly; since we cannot access the center of a black hole, or the initial nanosecond of the Big Bang, we haven’t actually found any experimental results that either theory has gotten wrong or failed to predict. Indeed, we never actually encounter any of the situations where either of the theories fails.
But theoretical physicists just don’t like the fact that there’s a point where the theories come into conflict.
I’ll leave aside the physicists’ entirely ungrounded metaphysical (or aesthetic) assumption that there must be a single theory in which everything fits together. It could well be that things are incompatible, but they exist anyway, and that’s the end of it.
What I’m interested in now, however, is the REASON for the incompatibility between the two theories. It’s a reason that has been inherited by the theories’ current descendants: string theory (the extension of quantum mechanics) and loop quantum gravity (the extension of general relativity).
Brian Greene, in his book about string theory, The Elegant Universe, explains the incompatibility as follows:
“The notion of a smooth spatial geometry, the central principle of general relativity, is destroyed by the violent fluctuations of the quantum world on small distance scales” (p129). On the large scale, the universe follows a Riemannian geometry as Einstein stipulated. But on the quantum microscale, the smooth space that Riemannian (as well as Euclidian) geometry requires simply cannot exist, given the violent quantum fluctuations of even supposedly empty space. So general relativity needs to be modified to fit the picture of quantum uncertainty — which is what string theory does.
However, Lee Smolin, in his book on loop quantum gravity, Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, gives a rather different explanation. He says that the problem with quantum mechanics, as well as with its successor string theory, is that “it does not respect the fundamental lesson of general relativity that spacetime is an evolving series of relationships” (p149). Again, string theory, like quantum mechanics, “replicates the basic mistake of Newtonian physics in treating space and time as a fixed and unchanging background against which things move and interact… the right thing to do is to treat the whole system of relationships that make up space and time as a single dynamical entity, without fixing any of it. This is how general relativity and loop quantum gracity work” (p159). For Smolin, general relativity shows us that space and time have no original existence; they are generated out of relational processes between events. Events do not ‘take place’ in space and time; rather it is only the relations among events that generates space and time in the first place. (This strikes me as a provocatively Whiteheadian way of looking at things, though Smolin never mentions Whitehead).
Another way to rephrase all of this is to say that string theory approaches the incompatibility between quantum mechanics and general relativity from the side of quantum mechanics; while loop quantum gravity approaches the incompatibility from the side of general relativity. Each approach starts by assuming the problem resides in classical assumptions of the other theory. For Greene, general relativity fails to include the radicality of quantum weirdness; for Smolin, quantum mechanics fails to include the radicality of relativity’s relational notion of space and time.
I should also note that Smolin’s and Greene’s positions are not really symmetrical. String theory has much more widespread acceptance than loop quantum gravity. As a result, Smolin’s book spends a great deal of time on string theory, trying to reconcile it with loop quantum gravity theory; whereas Greene’s book doesn’t even condescend to mention loop quantum gravity, apparently considering it too wrong, or too insignificant, to merit even the slightest notice.
In summary: even before we get to the mathematics, there seems to be a fundamental metaphysical disagreement between the two camps. Though Greene and Smolin characterize general relativity so differently, they don’t even seem to be talking about the same theory. For Greene, relativity wrongly assumes a stable geometry; for Smolin, it is quantum mechanics and string theory that wrongly assume the existence of space and time as an absolute background, rather than deriving them from quantum-level events.
So, I have no sense of how to adjudicate this disagreement. I do have the sense that the metaphysics needs to be paid attention to, rather than just the mathematical complexities of the theories (which I obviously cannot ever hope to make a judgment about).
Addendum: I also wonder how all this might be related to other considerations about the derivativeness of space and time. Manuel DeLanda, in his book which tries to give a Deleuzian basis to physical theory, mostly talks about thermodynamics and complexity theory (especially citing Ilya Prigogine) in order to show how “metrical” space and time are derived from “intensive” space and time. This would seem to be a rather different project from that of deriving metrical space and time from the quanta of events/relationships, as Smolin proposes (though for Smolin, like De Landa and unlike Greene, thermodynamic considerations are a very big part of the picture).
PS: though Smolin says that both space and time must be quantized (have discrete smallest possible values, rather than being infinitely divisible), he mostly talks about quantum space, and says next to nothing about quantum time. What difference would a focus on quantum temporality make to any of these theories?

Physics 1

Saturday, June 19th, 2004

I’m reading some books on the latest developments in physics — something I do every once in a while. I’m interested in learning about the latest developments in string theory, brane theory, etc — the latest accounts of the “ultimate” structure of the universe; and I’m interested in how the strange anomalies that astronomers continue to make — about the age and size of the universe, the degree of its expansion, and so on — can be explained (most recently, in terms of “dark matter,” “dark energy,” and other such strange concepts). I’m interested, too, or perhaps above all, in the philosophical implications of all this.
There are several points that need to be mentioned, as I begin.
First: although the explanations that pop science books give is never of the same depth as the understandings of the scientists themselves, this is especially true with theoretical physics and cosmology. Because things like quantum mechanics, together with more recent developments like string theory, cannot be understood in “layman’s” or intuitive terms. Things like the uncertainty principle, wave/particle duality, and quantum superposition are so profoundly counter-intuitive — although everything we know tells us that they are true and real — that they are not graspable at all in words, images, or logical concepts. To put it differently, they are only comprehensible as very high level mathematical abstractions. Since I — like the overwhelming majority of human beings — do not understand the math, I am simply not capable of understanding quantum mechanics.
Which means that, to a large extent, I am incapable of judging what’s told to me in the books I’m reading on theoretical physics. I accept what I’m told about quantum mechanics, because quantum effects are really experienced in the physical world, just as much as “classical” physical effects (which I can comprehend) are really experienced. But even if I have an idea about how quantum computation might work, I still can’t grasp what a quantum superposition (the cat in the box being both alive and dead) actually means.
In particular, when scientists disagree (as major physicists currently do, on many matters) my only grounds for deciding between them are aesthetic or metaphysical ones. I am not able to follow the reasoning on the basis of which the scientists themselves argue out their positions; nor can I understand the criteria which could lead one to concede the argument to the other.
(For what it’s worth, the scientists and mathematicians who do understand these matters, do so only at this highly abstract mathematical level; they remain as incapable of grasping it intuitively as anyone else. It’s often said that great physicists, like Einstein, somehow have an intuitive grasp of the math and of the concepts they come up with. But Einstein himself is as good an example as any of the fact that it is humanly impossible to “translate” such mathematical/theoretical intuition back into other, more commonplace terms or frames of reference. Einstein had as much trouble as anyone else in grasping the real implications of relativity and (even more) of quantum mechanics.)
That’s the first problem. The second one, perhaps equally serious, is that physicists themselves seem to be reaching the point where mathematical consistency and elegance seem to have become more important than empirical verification. This is a point that was made particularly strongly by John Horgan in his 1996 book The End of Science. Horgan says, basically, that theoretical physics has gone into the deep end, or “jumped the shark”: it has reached a point where it has become concerned with “speculations [that] cannot be empirically verified” (p65). There is no way that we can ever actually know whether or not the universe is made of 9-dimensional strings, or attached to multidimensional membranes, or whether or not what we call the universe is only one of many, created in innumerable “Big Bangs.” String theory and its kin are no longer making verifiable or falsifiable predictions, the way general relativity and quantum mechanics both did. Instead, the claims for such theories are that, if we solve all their equations, then the theories and facts we already know about the universe come out right.
In other words: there will never be any empirical evidence either in favor of, or against, the existence of six tiny folded-up dimensions in addition to the three spatial dimensions we experience on a regular basis. The claim is rather that, if we start from the postulate of those extra dimensions, then we can derive the laws of quantum mechanics and relativity (as we already know them without any recourse to the extra dimensions). This is supposed to be a good thing, because it saves physics from the embarrassment that, as they are currently formulated without string theory, quantum mechanics and general relativity logically contradict one another — even though they both work, in the sense that they both have been verified, and have measurable consequences in overwhelming numbers of circumstances.
String theory claims to resolve the contradiction; and physicists therefore claim that it describes the ultimate nature of reality. But this is both logically dubious (because it leaves open the possibility that some entirely different theory, making entirely different claims, which nobody has thought of yet, might also resolve the contradiction and mathematically generate the same observed results with regard to gravity and subatomic particles), and metaphysically shaky (since what it claims as “ultimate reality” not only cannot ever be observed, but has no pragmatic consequences whatsoever).
Horgan therefore suggests that what the string and brane theorists are doing is aesthetics, metaphysics, or theology, rather than science.
My feeling about this is that two out of three ain’t bad (I have little use for theology). But if theoretical physicists are really engaging in metaphysics and aesthetics, then we need to think about the philosophical assumptions embedded in, and the philosophical consequences of their arguments: something that they themselves are not very good at doing, since they tend to be ignorant of the history of philosophy (the occasional reference to Leibniz or Spinoza notwithstanding), and to assume that their mathematics gives them a philosophical authority, when they talk about such things as space, time, and why things are the way they are. They often tend to be quite philosophically naive.
So even though I don’t understand most of what the physicists are saying, I think it’s important for us to try to think through these issues, rather than accept their assertions at face value — since, in certain contexts, the physicists may well not understand the presuppositions and implications of what they are saying, either.

Science Fiction Museum

Friday, June 18th, 2004

SF Museum Today was the opening day for Seattle’s new Science Fiction Museum, Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen’s latest toy. The museum is actually in a corner of the Experience Music Project building designed by Frank Gehry. (They took out a virtual reality ride, called “Journey to the Heart of Funk,” or some such, to make room for it. What, George Clinton wasn’t science fictional enough for them?).
I missed the opening ceremony, but I got to see the exhibits, such as they are. Basically it’s a series of dimly lit rooms, with items Paul Allen must have thought it was cool to collect, such as first editions of famous SF novels, uniforms worn on the starship Enterprise, and so on, together with a bunch of high tech displays (a touch screen allows you to choose among various imagined planets, from Solaris to whatever the planet in Dune was called; information about the chosen planet is given in that generic, slight-upper-class-British-accent voice that is typically used for nature documentaries).
Vaguely “spacy” music is played in the background.
The downstairs exhibit area is arranged like a spaceport, you have ticket areas, waiting areas, and a door (which never opens, of course) to the spaceship on which you would embark. The gift shop, which of course you encounter on the way out, is sadly understocked.
Of course, there are enough simultaneous sources of light and sound that you feel a certain effect of sensory overload; though the main result isn’t anything psychedelic, just that it becomes harder to notice how sparse and uninteresting the exhibits actually are.
Photos inside the museum are not allowed; I didn’t try to take any, though I probably could have gotten away with it.
To be less snide just for a minute: what makes the Experience Music Project worthwhile is not the silly exhibits, but the spinoff activities that the museum sponsors: such as educational stuff for kids, and the annual Pop Conference, at which I have had a great experience for three years running. It remains to be seen what the Science Fiction Museum will do in a similar vein, but if they offer anything similar it will be quite worthwhile (it would be great if they could sponsor something, emulating the Pop Conference, that was neither a fan convention nor an academic conference, but that nonetheless brought together creators and people who think seriously about the genre).
I didn’t really need to go the first day the Museum was open; but since I will be leaving Seattle for good, Real Soon Now, I thought I should take the opportunity.

Cory Doctorow

Wednesday, June 16th, 2004

This evening it was my pleasure to introduce a reading by Cory Doctorow, science fiction writer and activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Cory is in Seattle to visit Microsoft, and try to convince them to scrap Digital Rights Management. He read a segment from a recently-written, and not-yet-published, short story, and answered questions, which were mostly about his work for the EFF. It was a pleasure to hear Cory’s wry, yet impassioned, take on digital culture.