Tag Archives: speculation

What is John Locke doing in Fallout: New Vegas?

31 Jan

Disclaimer: I don’t know anything much about gaming.  The University of Alabama had this thing called PixelCon last weekend that involved LARPing and Mario-inspired artwork and Wii, and I was so confused I was afraid to walk down that side of the street.  But Kate the Lostie began playing Minecraft this Christmas, and I ended up watching the Yogscast on youtube (“The Shadow of Israphel” series, by the way, is my new LOST).

And that’s an interesting parenthetical comment because while watching Simon, Lewis, and Hannah’s play-through of Fallout: New Vegas, I spotted this NPC:

I can only surmise that this is an alternate universe in which Flocke did get off the Island and bring about the apocalypse.  For real, just compare–

Please Internet, don’t fail me now.  Can anyone tell me whether I’m crazy, or is this some sort of mysterious Lostie easter egg?

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Author Response: Faith, Science, and The Proximian

4 Aug

After I raised some objections in a review to what I see as an incongruous blending of biblical literalism in his science fiction novel The Proximian, I wanted to make sure author Dennis Phillips had a hearing too.  He felt strongly enough to leave a very generous comment on my review, and I felt strongly enough to re-publish my review of atheist Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation. But not everyone scrolls down to read the comments, so here’s Mr. Phillips’s response to an admittedly critical reception of The Proximian from the Scattering:

Thank you, Isabela for taking time to review my work, and thank you for your kind comments. You mentioned in an email to me that you are an athiest. As such, I understand that you would be biased with regard to any blending of religion in science.

You seem to believe there is some disconnect between faith and science. I do not. You seem to believe that if someone is true to science, that they cannot be religious, which is why you wrote “I find it difficult to believe that an astrophysicist like Carl Sage could accept Creationism.” Yet many like him have and do. I can no more prove the existence of God, than you can disprove it. In the end, a belief in God, like a belief in the theory of evolution, must be a matter of faith.

Many thanks again and best wishes for a successful future,

Dennis Phillips, author, The Proximian

And here’s my comment in reply:

I’d hate to get into a theological argument in a comment thread, but one thing you said in particular stuck out to me as rather off– “A belief in God, like a belief in the theory of evolution, must be a matter of faith.”

Absolutely not!

Tim Minchin said it best: “Science adjusts its views based on what’s been observed. Faith is denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.”

In regard to the “absence of evidence” vs. “evidence of absence” argument, here’s briefly what I have to say:

Observation and experimentation is the basis of science, and these pillars allow not only for dialogue but the opportunity for other scientists and researchers to disprove a hypothesis–and so get closer to the truth (knowing something is wrong is just as valuable as knowing which answer is right). The fact that one cannot, as you mentioned, disprove the existence of God only serves to highlight the very real disconnect between faith and science: that’s completely the opposite of the scientific ethos.

Sam Harris’s short “Letter to a Christian Nation” would be a great resource for anyone wishing to better understand atheism.

– Isabela Morales

Well, the debate isn’t going to be solved in the comment thread of a second-tier science fiction review blog, but I hope that gives readers a more rounded-out view of author Dennis Phillips’s philosophy and reasons for including some Genesis apocrypha in his novel.  The stakes, as he let me know, are high:

One of us is wrong. We can’t both be right. And if I’m wrong, when I die, I’ve lost nothing; but if you’re wrong, then some day, when you die, you’ve lost everything.

Damn.

Now Reading: The Proximian, by Dennis Phillips

1 Aug

The classic definition of science fiction put by the good doctor Arthur C. Clarke goes something like this, as author Dennis Phillips comments on his website:

I remember reading one of Clarke’s introductions in which he was discussing the role of science in science fiction.  His thinking was that science fiction is about taking science—some scientific idea or concept—and projecting that into the future and asking the question, what if?

Much of what passes for science fiction nowadays, Clarke thought, was not really science fiction at all, but was more like a western in which, instead of being on horseback and shooting bows and arrows and six-shooters, the combatants flew spaceships firing lasers and photon torpedoes.  That concept clicked with me.

Well that rules out Firefly, doesn’t it?

I’m no purist when it comes to categories and classification of genres (let’s leave that to Linnaeus, shall we?), but when an author promises hard science fiction and provides sketches of his planet’s biosphere online, no less, it’s hard not to take that book out for a spin.  That book, today, is Dennis Phillips The Proximian.

From the book description:

On June 20, 2036, at Daedalus Air Force Base on the far side of the moon, the 500 foot radio telescope there has intercepted an alien signal of intelligent origin. It is Morse Code for the international distress call, SOS.

As the story opens, Carl Sage is exposed to that signal on his sixth birthday. This signal changes something inside his young brain, enabling him to communicate telepathically through dreams with the beings who created it. It also transforms him into the boy genius who will one day design the ship that will carry him and a crew of eighty colonists light years across space to save a dying race on the planet Proximus.

Having arrived 4,000 years earlier to escape the destruction of their own world, the Proximian people discover the red dwarf sun, Proxima Centauri (one of three suns there), is poison to them. They have built entire cities under ground to escape its menacing effect. Although they carry the cure, a horrifying danger awaits the arrival of the men of earth.

the Scattering will let you know how well The Proximian put the “science” in “science fiction.”  Of course, with a Contact-like premise and a boy hero named Carl Sage, I’d think that would be obvious.

Verdict? Dream War, by Stephen Prosapio

29 Jul

The author begins his eerie tale with fact—a quote from Newsweek, in fact.

Because the CIA is secret; it is also insular; because it is elitist, it is also unaccountable.

–Newsweek, October 10, 1994

And with that in mind, readers enter into a story that—like dreams themselves—proves both frightening, otherworldly, and entirely realistic.  Part of Dream War’s appeal is the seamless manner in which Prosapio weaves history, myth, and dreamscapes into a whole that raises that classic science fiction question: Is it possible?

With a likeable, fully-fleshed hero (using the subconscious dreamscapes of a person as a tool for characterization, by the way, is brilliant) it’s impossible not to root for facing off against a bone-chilling villain from the depths of one’s nightmares (literally), Dream War takes a wild concept and keeps it grounded in the dramatis personae.  Add to that Prosapio’s strong writing and total control of the narrative and we have a spooky, imaginative novel that takes a universally-fascinating concept and turns it into a delirious adventure.  And despite a similar incarnation on the silver screen, Dream War is completely original.

Reading Time: One to two weeks.

Recommendation: Do read if you’ve ever wondered that there might be more to dreams than the random firings of synapses.  Don’t read just before bed.

Dream War is available as an ebook on Amazon for $2.99

Verdict? View, by Ed Morawksi

21 Jul

Junk science?  the Scattering thinks not, after reading the fast-paced adventure View, Air Force veteran Ed Morawksi’s novel of psychic-turned-military-spy.  Weaving in technical details, historical romance, and the twisting conspiracy expected of any top secret government project, View is an exciting science fiction drama with likeable and all-too-realistic characters in the midst of a head-spinning story.

Morawski’s style makes the novel engaging and entertaining from the start, giving us the hilariously insubordinate ex-sergeant Max Leszek as a guide through the various dimensions of both the United States government remote viewing project and the fabric of human consciousness.

Reading time: Hard to say, if only because View is extremely hard to put down.  One week or less, depending on how long you can extend your lunch break to keep the pages turning.

Recommendation: Accessible to a general, generally non-scifi audience.  This speculative novel reads like a classic adventure story with a unique spin on what Morawski calls “a tale of paranormal romance.”

View: A Tale of Paranormal Romance is available as an Amazon ebook for $5.00 as well as on plant pulp for $15.99.

This Document is Classified SECRET (review: View)

21 Jul

With this federal warning begins View, Ed Morawki’s fast-paced novel written with such scrupulous detail that it thoroughly convinced this reader, at least, that remote viewing is not only possible—but possibly happening right now, in the aether all around us.

A novel about psychic espionage in the United States military is, understandably, going to require some suspension of disbelief.  But before I get into the details of Ed Morawski’s clairvoyance-oriented novel View, let’s examine the facts:

1. In the heat of the Cold War, the U.S. Federal Government received some chilling information—the Soviet Union was harnessing Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP) in its vendetta against us Americans.

2. We decided to investigate with our own team of telepaths, establishing a set of strict protocols intended to turn this supposed junk science into an empirical military tool, and accordingly turn stigmatized “psychics” into more reputable “remote viewers.”  The project?  Code Name: Stargate.  (Giggle-worthy, maybe, but then—what can you expect from the 1970s?)  And in fact, one professor’s research did find that these supernatural spies did indeed get some pretty significant stats—5 to 15% above chance.

3. In 1995, the CIA shut the stargate down, relegating the project to feed the conspiracy theories of sensationalistic History Channel  documentaries and American Studies professors who insist that the 1969 moon landing took place on a Hollywood sound stage.

Or maybe that’s just my experience.

In any case, for author Ed Morawksi, the story doesn’t end with an embarrassed Clinton administration–

Max Leszek is an idiot.  Technically, he’s a U.S. Air Force sergeant stationed at Edwards Air Force Base in sunny southern California, but his hyperactive curiosity doesn’t mesh with the military mindset, and gets him in trouble barely into the first chapter—when he decides to smuggle a camera onto the base and take a picture of the Super Secret Highly Classified Absolutely Off-Limits “Craft,” which may or may not be short for spacecraft (hey, I don’t want the FBI chasing after me).

Moonlighting as a photographer of second-tier, topless, wannabe models (trust me, SoCal’s full of them), Max gets distracted by his—let’s be polite—artistic muse, inadvertently allowing one of his models to get a look at his laptop, and the Craft.  Unfortunately for Max, the model’s a Chinese spy, and he’s about to be charged with a capital crime: treason.

Lucky for Max, Edwards is the home base of an even more classified military asset than a potential UFO: Alicia, a mysterious young Vietnamese woman who just happens to be the world’s most powerful remote viewer.  And lucky for Max, she can sense a latent psychic power in him.  Which is how our hero gets drafted into the world of the even more Super Secret Highly Classified Insanely Under Wraps re-vamped Project Stargate for the new millennium.  It seems there are some things even the CIA doesn’t know about.

From here, Ed Morawksi unfolds a fast-paced story with such scrupulous detail that it thoroughly convinced this reader, at least, that remote viewing is not only possible—but possibly happening right now, in the aether all around us.  And considering the author’s Air Force background, I wouldn’t be surprised if he knows something the rest of us don’t.

From the first page, the narrative style drew me in, a running first-person commentary that reveals a couple things instantly: that Max Leszek is a smart-ass, and that he’s going to get himself into a lot of trouble in the next 176 pages.  An early run-in with the Moroccan police isn’t the last time he tells us “I’ve really screwed myself” this time.

But what’s a plot without problems?

View rockets off the starting line at a fast-pace and only speeds up along the way, with short chapters and the irreverent internal monologue of Max Leszek keeping the plot constantly moving.  The realism of the description—and humorous way in which the often-befuddled, always-brazen Max sets the scene—makes our propulsion from Palm Springs to London to Morocco in the first few chapters alone seem absolutely natural.

Technical details of left propulsion unit waveguide sensors wedded to history and mythology of King Arthur and Hernán Cortes reveal Morawski’s own wide-ranging knowledge and imagination.  In fact, one of the most interesting concepts of the book centered on a particularly strange facet of remote viewing: time shifting.

For all her psychic power, the Viewer Alicia strike both Max and the reader as supremely childlike—afraid of flying, afraid of water, and completely ignorant of the Audi A6.  A girl rescued from the desert around Edwards at age 12 or 13, with amnesia of all the years before, she’s an innocent.

But her psychic travel through dimensions allows her to experience the worlds of the past—and bring Max along with here.

While View abounds with interesting technical detail, there’s a reason the book’s subtitle is A Tale of Paranormal Romance. Max, being Max, has some further trouble with misdirected amour—let’s just say getting romantically involved with a powerful psychic who’s off-limits by military fiat isn’t the best decision the ex-sergeant’s ever made.  (Though let’s not fault him too much—after a childhood crush on Michelle Kwan, Max Leszek can’t resist the waifish Asian type).

While the Alicia/Max romantic scenes are as thorough as Morawski’s descriptions of the MQ-1 Predator unmanned drone, the shifting nature of our hero and heroine’s identities through time—John Smith and Maloaka (Pocahontas), Hernán Cortes and the clever La Malinche—make the love story as unique as the espionage adventure.

V is for Vengeance (season one wrap-up)

19 May

ABC’s alien invasion drama finished off season one Tuesday night with a surprisingly satisfying finale.  The last scene left us with a major question for next season, to be sure (congratulations V, you outlived FlashForward!), but the major enjoyability factor was definitely the interesting twists the writers put into a number of characters’ fate lines.

Here’s a look at where our favorite terrorists and alien invaders started off, and ended up last night on V.

Ryan Nichols

Ryan’s had a rough relationship with his girlfriend Val.  First she found out ahead of time that he wanted to propose to her, then he decided to wait on it, then she started having weird pregnancy cravings for dead rats, then she found out he was an alien—it hasn’t been easy for the originally-quite-happy couple.  When Val finally found out Ryan had been hiding his reptiloid self for years, she did the completely logical thing and left him.  Only one problem: she was pregnant with a human-alien hybrid baby (which I’m still really confused about—I thought different species couldn’t interbreed?  And the Vs aren’t just homo neandertalensis, they’re friggin extraterrestrials!  Maybe that’s a season two plot point).  So she did the next most logical thing and brought along a V doctor for her pregnancy.

Too bad Anna sent a V soldier after her.  The gang escaped the soldier once before, thanks to Kyle Hobbes’s impressive hatchet-wielding skills, but the start of “Red Sky” saw the soldier healthy as ever and chowing down on a deer in the forest.  Considering that was the first scene of the episode, I had to doublecheck to make sure I hadn’t accidentally stumbled upon Twilight.  Val, whose water had already broken, gets snatched up to the mothership.

Ryan, who manages to get on board strangely easily, finds his girl in the middle of a difficult pregnancy—understandable, considering the circumstances.  But he’s not in the room during the birth itself, and so misses out on Anna killing Val right after the mother gets a good look at her kid and lights up in… fear and horror.  Not quite the parental elation one would expect.  Ryan, aching with grief, believes Anna that she hadn’t killed Val (why does no one remember not to trust anyone?), and finds himself susceptible once more to Anna’s Bliss:

“This is what I was trying to protect you from, human emotion,” she says.  “I’m so sorry you lost her, but now… now you have me.”

So Ryan’s come full circle—he learned how to love from Val and went rogue, but lost her and came back to Anna’s creepy hive mind (“Welcome home,” she tells him, holding his baby—who we never actually see—rather possessively).  Since hindsight is 20-20, we can see some foreshadowing in last week’s episode, when Ryan almost left the Fifth Column because, without Val, he “couldn’t do it anymore.”

And just a random thought: is anyone else getting the feeling that the hybrid baby is going to be some sort of Chosen One?  I’m predicting that Anna’s plan for Tyler and Lisa involved impregnating the Lizard Princess with a hybrid baby, and that makes Val and Ryan’s a rival.

Joshua

Here’s another Visitor-turned-rebel, who’s spent most of the season at Anna’s right hand with Marcus.  We met Joshua back when everyone was still freaking out about Erica’s FBI partner (what was his name?  Dale?) trying to kill them all at George Sutton’s first Fifth Column meeting.  Joshua killed Dale for good, and got a big cheer—he was the first on-ship Visitor to reveal his true (dis)loyalties and earn appreciative applause from a captive audience.

More recently, he’s become the focus of Joshua/Lisa fanfiction, which seemed pretty on the mark in “Red Sky,” when the two beautiful Vs gave each other their last goodbyes from opposite sides of a blue energy forcefield.  Joshua knew he had to sacrifice himself after Chad Decker set up the on-ship Fifthers, and ended up ordering Erica to shoot him in hand-to-hand combat.

Pity it was only a human-made bullet, and easily healed by V medical staff.  Next season, expect to see Joshua with his cover blown (considering that his secret passcode was “John May Lives,” I’m surprised he lasted as long as he did.  Subtle.)—possibly turning back to Anna just like Ryan.  Because just like Anna, Marcus had a cheerful beside manner for the turncoat V: “Welcome back.”

Marcus

Imagine that—Marcus is actually starting to do something other than stand next to Anna looking creepy.  In the final scenes of the finale, Marcus actually got physical with Anna, trying to force her from “initiating the sequence” on a floating computer monitor.  We have no idea what “the sequence” is, but from the roiling red skies that resulted, it’s probably bad.

Marcus also revealed himself last night to have been the man behind Kyle Hobbes’s many contract killings (of course, I thought we already knew that)—and offered the mercenary another job, to infiltrate the Fifth Column.  He seemed to have some sort of leverage over Hobbes, a picture which we didn’t see and which he explained with one word: “Her.”

Kyle Hobbes

I’m thinking a daughter.  Maybe?  In any case, he already is in the Fifth Column, unbeknownst the Marcus and the Vs.  Being a double agent just turns things slightly more complicated.

Although, admittedly, I wasn’t sure Kyle Hobbes’s loyalties could even get more complicated.

Hobbes is a mercenary, but has appeared up until a couple weeks ago to be completely loyal to the Fifth Column.  He’s gotten them illegal weapons, built explosives from the ground up, and tortured other contract killers in the basement of a church with a medieval device called a “heretic’s fork.”  Which could just as easily be a byword for his own double-dealing and difficult choices.  After promising Marcus a hard-drive containing research that could destroy the Vs (reptile-killing algae, to be specific) last week, this week he uses that connection with Anna’s right hand man to get Marcus off the ship in time for Erica to blow up Anna’s babies.  (This was a pretty complicated finale.)  The question that remains is now this: Is Hobbes using his back-alley relationship with the Vs because he’s really loyal to the Fifthers? Is he hedging his bets, playing both sides until he sees who wins? Or does he even know, himself?  He did look pretty shocked when Marcus showed him “her,” after all.  My theory: he’s hanging around in church basements to watch Erica Evans strap guns to her thigh.

But that’s all speculation.

Father Jack Landry

Speaking of church basements, Erica and the gang might not have a place to hang out and plot next season, seeing that Jack’s been thrown out of St. Josephine’s.

I know I’ve been bashing Jack all season for being too naïve, too trusting, and all-around too priestly to be a very useful member of the Fifth Column.  But after “Red Sky,” I’m starting to think that being a priest is just as good as being a terrorist.  Father Jack is kind of awesome.

Tormented all season about whether or not to speak out publicly against the Vs, Jack finally did it with a super intense homily about the Vs as “false prophets.”  Disobeying the orders of the church pastor, who thinks the Vs are messengers of God, Jack stood up on Sunday to a packed crowd and finally challenged the Vs the best way he can—not with surface-to-air missiles, but the Word of God:

“I was lost, and now I am found.  I lost the courage to tell you the truth, that you need to choose who you are going to follow—the Vs, or God?  Because you can’t serve two masters… There is a war upon us, a war for our souls. With love, hope, and faith, we can overcome anything.  Who among you will join me? Let V no longer stand for Visitor, let V stand for Victory!”

By that point, only Erica, Hobbes, and half a dozen other parishioners sat scattered around the pews, but those who were there, stood.  Jack proved that he could do something for the Fifth Column—be its public voice.  As a priest, he had a both a pulpit (literally) and an aura of moral authority.  Though the final scene saw him exiting St. Josephine’s in a sweatsuit, in those vestments, Jack Landry has some influence.  Though he’d been unwittingly feeding Chad Decker information these past weeks, he’s shaping up to be the anti-Decker, the mouthpiece not of Anna, but the opposition.

Chad Decker

Of course, Chad finally realized in the finale what either ambition or naivete had been blinding him to before: Anna’s using him, and she’s definitely not the savior of mankind.

After following Joshua’s hint to check out the creepy V acupuncture rooms—where human Live Aboard Program members (I just realized—the program puts humans right in Anna’s LAP, get it?) get experimented on in their sleep, Chad had his epiphany.  Too bad it was too late to save all the on-ship V Fifthers he’d ratted out along with Joshua.

But Chad was one of the half-dozen parishioners standing in support of Father Jack, so maybe the tide’s about to turn.  In my first post on V, if I recall correctly, I labeled Chad Decker the most powerful man on the planet.  If he’s not with Anna anymore, that’s a pretty good sign—especially if she still thinks she is.

Erica Evans

By the season finale, I might say Erica Evans is the most powerful person on the planet, now, considering how close she is to Anna by way of her son—and just how much Anna (amazingly!) trusts her.

When Anna invited Erica and Tyler up to the mothership for a getting to know you dinner, she told Marcus—“With Agent Evans as my ally on the ground, and my new army, the humans won’t know what hit them.”

Wrong on both counts, Anna.  The V High Commander doesn’t have a more determined enemy.  As much as Anna chatters on about “the very thing that drives humans—love,” she still underestimates just what a mother might do to protect her son.  And Erica’s not above vengeance, either.  Last week, she started on her path to manipulating Lisa away from Anna (which culminated in last night, when Lisa betrayed her mother and her own kind by handing Erica a blue energy grenade to destroy Anna’s soldier babies).  This week, she froze all of Anna’s other reptile spawn.  As she threw the grenade, she made her position pretty damn clear: “Here’s to your children’s future, Anna.”

Ouch.

But after Joshua staged his own murder at Erica’s hand, Agent Evans is now in the perfect place to get to Anna—mother of the princess’s boyfriend, trusted by Anna so much that she gets to carry a gun on board (“Its okay—she’s an ally.”), head of the FBI-Vistor joint taskforce against the Fifth Column, and head of the Fifth Column itself, if Erica can’t stop the Vs, no one can.

Anna

And the humans are going to need that sort of help next season, now that Anna’s “initiated the sequence.”

One of the biggest shocks of the season finale was the total breakdown of the ice cold, always-composed Anna, who practices facial expressions and vocal inflections in the mirror before speaking publicly.  After finding her thousands of baby soldiers frozen (only 12 survived, Marcus told her, and even those might not make it very long), Anna screamed, sobbed, and choked on a horrified question:

Anna: “What’s…happening… to me!?”

Marcus: “I believe you’re experiencing your first human emotion.”

Maybe she and Erica do have something in common after all—the grief and anger of a wronged mother.

Anna’s heartbreak left me gaping, but behind her, Lisa smiled—possibly pleased that the mother who would have her daughter’s legs broken was creeping toward the danger zone on the V empathy test.  Even so, my hope is that emotions weakens her in the face of the Fifth Column, but doesn’t turn her “good”—I think I’d die of the triteness.  Her emotion already did push her near the edge at the end of “Red Sky,” or as Marcus said, she was acting “rashly” and “irrationally.”

Which brings us to “the sequence” and the title of the episode: “Red Sky.”

In her grief, anger, and emotional breakdown, Anna stormed out of her birthing room to one of her ubiquitous floating computer monitor forcefields.  She typed in a code, and revealed an image of the earth surrounded by pulsing red V ships.  And then, the most cryptic conversation on tv since Ilana and Bram kept asking everyone what lies under the shadow of the statue:

Marcus: This is terrible to be sure, but we must not act rashly.

Anna: They must pay!

M: (grabs arm) This is too soon.  If we initiate the sequence now—

A: (grunts and tears arm away/ jabs at computer screen with red illuminated ships around the planet)

M: Do you know what you’ve done?

A: Vengeance.

(Yes, and I’m sure that’s exactly what the script looked like.)

So we can probably assume that the sequence has something to do with the total destruction of humanity, right?  The clouds turning red and rippling across the sky was ominous in the extreme (and rather reminiscent of Independence Day).  But there was pathos there, and I’m ready to find out what happens next not only with the story, but with the characters that make it work.

Here’s to Amazon’s Group Mind

18 May

On the Internet, everything is connected.

Case in point: Amazon recommendations.  I was a loyal Barnes and Noble shopper up until Christmas, when I got my beautiful Kindle and abandoned the brick and mortar B&N for Amazon ebooks.  As is often mentioned, digital books cost less than physical copies (and for online shoppers, eliminate the need for paying postage)—but Amazon probably makes up more than the difference in the sheer volume of books people are buying.  A lot of Amazon testimonials say something about users reading more on their Kindle because of the ease of purchasing, 60-second delivery, and 400,000+ title selection.  But in my experience, the real reason I read more these days is because I’ve learned something very important—the Algorithm knows best.

I like new fiction.  I didn’t know I liked new fiction until this year—because I didn’t know what was out there.  And then came The Algorithm.

The Algorithm is Amazon’s recommendation system, that takes into account past purchases, search history, purchase history of other customers, and the whole great cloud of interconnected tags (I’m pretty sure a couple accio spells are involved too).  It’s like a book club with millions of members.

The Algorithm is scary accurate.

Back in ye olde simple days, I thought I could pick out my own books.  But after a couple weeks with Mr. Linus (my Kindle), I came to the realization that the group mind of the Internet knows me better than I know myself.  I’d bought Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series online at B&N; Amazon didn’t know about it.  But after I came over to the dark side, I got an email recommending China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, which has a narrative style so amazingly similar to Peake’s that I was almost jumping up and down.

I think that sealed the deal.

That’s why I don’t buy the arguments that Apple’s iPad is going to kill the Kindle or loosen Amazon’s hold on the market.  The balance of ereaders might shift, but Amazon’s group mind, at this time, has no parallel.  Even people who’ve switched from the Kindle to the iPad (which can run a Kindle app) say the same.  From a comment thread on Facebook’s Kindle fan page:

I hate to admit it, but I just gave my Kindle 2 to my sister. I *LOVED* my Kindle, but I bought the iPad and the Kindle just sat on my nightstand. Yes, the Kindle is lighter and yes, the eInk is easier to read, but I will say that the backlight is nice at night (vs. a clip-on light). Anyway, I’ll NEVER leave Amazon – I now just read everything through Kindle for iPad.

Am I a Kindle traitor? LOL

No, not a traitor.  I love my Kindle, and extol its virtues to strangers on the bus, but the group mind’s the thing.  The accumulated search and buying histories of millions of customers is a major databank, and not something an oversized iPod Touch is likely to beat in the ebooks market in the near future.  And hey, if the Apple Algorithm can generate recommendations that good, more power to Steve Jobs.  It’s still a win for the customer.

But still, stop calling it magical.

Just an aside: speaking of Internet interconnectedness, Amazon’s beta-testing their new Kindle software (Kindle 2.5), which I’m told is going to allow the export of annotations and highlights directly from the book to Twitter or Facebook–which is kind of awesome, right?

The Singularity is Nearer: DNA computers

17 May

Luddites watch out!  New research indicates that DNA could be used as the backbone of the next generation of computer circuits.  From a FOX News article:

Instead of conventional circuits built of silicon that use electrical current, computer engineers could take advantage of the unique properties of DNA, the double-helix molecule that carries life’s information.

“Conventional technology has reached its physical limits,” said Chris Dwyer, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering.  Dwyer recently demonstrated that by simply mixing customized snippets of DNA and other molecules, he could create billions of identical, tiny, waffle-looking structures.  These nanostructures can then be used as the building blocks for a variety of circuit-based applications, ranging from the biomedical to the computational.

Sound eerily familiar?  Maybe you remember it from my earlier post on the technological singularity and Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity is Near:

The Singularity will represent the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but transcends our biological roots.  There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality.  If you wonder what will remain unequivocally human in such a world, it’s simply this: ours is the species that inherently seeks to extend it’s physical and mental reach beyond current limitations.

Kurzweil’s pinned the date at roughly 2050–here’s to that!

Thou Shalt Have No Other Blogs Before Me

19 Feb

Tonsured saints poring over Scripture share space with smiling teens pecking away at laptops on the Vatican’s new online home, Pope2You.net.  Considering its ancient roots, tomes of canon law, and secret archives of dusty manuscripts, the Roman Catholic Church’s recent emphasis on an increasing Internet presence seems almost anachronistic.  But as disorienting as photo galleries of the beatifically-smiling Benedict XVI may be at any URL, the Vatican’s Facebook fan pages and new iPhone apps have been in the works for centuries—theologically, at least.

The Catholic Church is not only the largest Christian church, but one of the world’s longest-lasting institutions in general—something that hints at a strategy of more than inertia at work.  Though rigid in matters of doctrine (there’s no arguing a priest out of transubstantiation), throughout its history the Vatican has shown itself to be surprisingly flexible in matters of practice:

St. Paul convinced the Council of Jerusalem, way back in the first century, to accept non-Jews into the infant Christian community without requiring that they follow the strictures of Mosaic Law.  Pope Gregory the Great’s extant letters to 7th-century missionaries, entrusted with converting the pagan bretwalda of southern England, instructed them to be practical more than zealous: no burning temples or banning pagan holy days—just re-name them.  Even the Protestant Reformation, which is often used today to highlight the corruption and abuses of the medieval Catholic Church, was a break based on doctrinal differences—criticizing indulgence sellers was perfectly orthodox; rejecting the consecration of the Eucharist was not.

Historically, this tendency to adapt on matters of practice has been used to make Catholicism accessible to more people; today, the Vatican is continuing that pattern by embracing the use of the Internet in evangelizing.  St. Paul had his Gentiles; Benedict gets the bloggers.

In the last year alone, the Church under Pope Benedict XVI has worked to disseminate Vatican news with a YouTube channel (updated daily) and an officially-sponsored Facebook, iPhone, and iPod Touch application: iBreviary, essentially a digital prayer book.  (All of this, of course, can be shared with friends via “virtual postcards” from Rome.)  The Vatican has also recently called for more use of the Internet at the local level, encouraging parish priests to learn how to blog, Facebook, or use multimedia tools in how they communicate with their flocks.

The Pope made his position clear on January 24, 2010: the 44th Annual World Communications Day, at which he called the Internet “an opportunity for believers,” cited a “challenge to employ the Gospel” with these new resources, and commented that the Internet “can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis.”

Nevertheless, this progressive outlook on technological culture contrasts sharply with the Vatican’s increasingly conservative stances on other cultural topics.  In the early 1990s (just a few centuries late), then-Pope John Paul II officially acknowledged that the Earth does, after all, orbit the sun—but Benedict XVI still calls the unfortunate Galileo Galilei’s trial and house arrest “rational and just.”  Ironically, it’s those same college students who, after this statement, protested His Holiness’s planned lecture at LaSapienza University in Rome, are now the targets of the Vatican’s recent cyber crusade.

Benedict XVI has shown himself to be more than conventionally traditional on issues closer to the modern day, as well.  His support for distinct gender roles and comments on homosexuality, for example, has proven particularly controversial: his statement that homosexuality “is a more or less a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder” goes just a little beyond John Paul II’s hate the sin, love the sinner sort of outlook.

And the Church has shown itself as implacable on contraception as it is on abortion.  Benedict XVI crushed the rumored Vatican council on the use of contraceptives that made headlines some years ago, and had chastised those rebel priests who claimed condoms might be permissible when used for family planning.  The notion is simply unacceptable—even within the bonds of marriage.

If these reactionary doctrinal positions seem incompatible with his strong support of Internet preaching, it may be because this latter stance is a very recent change in policy.  The 44th Annual World Communications Day may have been a triumph for the Internet, but this same Pope Benedict XVI had less flattering things to say about the online world at the 43rd.  To take one excerpt from his vitriolic speech, Facebook was accused of “degrading human beings.”  The mass media in its entirety was denounced as “poison.”

These previous statements indicate the real purpose of this Internet policy turnabout: a shrewd attempt to spread a conservative message and make it accessible as practically as possible, not the hint of a more progressive outlook on modern culture in general.  For Pope Benedict XVI, the Internet, it seems, is just one more barbarian temple to re-purpose.