dear Brutus…

dna chain

In mid-May of 2014, at the 60th anniversary of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) was quoted as stating the equivalent of “There’s no gene for invasion in Chinese people’s blood.”

In late June of that year, Jürgen Klinsmann, the head coach of United States Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) said, “It’s not in the U.S. DNA to go out and play for a draw, nor is it in the German DNA, we’ll both be playing to win.”

The phrase “not in our DNA” has long been a bête noire for me. The connotation is, more often than not, used to state an aversion somehow built in to the behavior of a person or group. As such, it is a reversal of the late ‘90s business jargon of “corporate DNA”. In that context it was meant to express what was part of a company’s vision, mission, and culture. It has evolved into what could become a dangerous misconception based on casual misuse.

While technically correct, behavior is not dictated by DNA, the metaphor has become very common in American political discourse. In May of 2011, then presidential candidate Herman Cain voiced the opinion that being No. 2 economically and militarily is not in our DNA. This bad habit is not limited to the GOP either; their critics often charge that “unlike the conservatives, it’s just not in our DNA.”

Often this is used to hint at one position having moral superiority over the opposing side. Last year, President Obama opined that discrimination casts “a long shadow and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.”

Misuse of “DNA” and what result it may or may not produce is probably unrelated to doubt of or actual opposition to science. For the most part, we trust doctors to use true understanding of genetics to treat or prevent disease. Increasingly we expect forensicologists to employ the same discipline either to convict or exonerate in matters of jurisprudence.

But at the same time the suspicion that the moon landing was a hoax persists and the anti-vaxxer subculture has been gaining strength for more than a century; it’s nothing new.

If we’re not careful about science, whether from ignorance or Luddism, in fiction or reality we run the risk of making potentially tragic mistakes. The Inquisition tried Galileo for heresy in 1633. He was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. Pope Urban VIII had acted out of anger and fear of science and its implications. Considering other acts of the Inquisition, Galileo got off lucky. It took the Vatican almost 360 years to come full circle on their decision with Pope John Paul II finally admitting the errors of the Catholic Church in that regard.

Misapprehension of science including genetics did not spare Alan Turing unfortunate and severe persecution. The father of artificial intelligence and hero of breaking the German Enigma cipher machines during WWII was honored in 1945 with induction to the Order of the British Empire. Six years later he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

The following year he was convicted of gross indecency (homosexuality was considered criminal in the United Kingdom from 1885 to 1967) and given a choice between imprisonment and probation. He chose the latter but that forced him agree to hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido. It is a widely held belief this judgment led to Turing committing suicide.

It may be hyperbolic to suggest that “It’s not in our DNA.” could lead to future attempts to cure racial or ideological diversity. There probably won’t be further recourse to medicine to enforce conformity with regard to gender binary. But misconceptions, like their cousin – superstition, die hard.

There are dangers in a political climate where one side seeks to make opposition illegal, or worse, misuse science to eradicate it. I can’t – and I don’t think we should – avoid the worry that any belief that fault lies in our stars (i.e., that our behavior is chained to our DNA) could end in catastrophe.


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Mirror, mirror…

Authors frequently make the claim they are able to hear their characters speaking – about their own motivations and the world into which they find themselves planted. This is usually not meant to indicate the actual lines of dialog that may appear in the fiction although that can certainly result.

The longer an author, and hopefully any reader, spends involved with the story the more the characters begin to behave like real people. They inform the author precisely who they are as if conversations or interviews with them had actually taken place. If resisted, the writer runs the risk of presenting them merely as puppets.

While world-building and developing some of the science for Astral (working title), many of the intended characters have begun having arguments with each other in a non-dialog manner. The political situation that has grown out of the “realities” of FTL travel and genetic engineering has resulted in the citizens of Dalim entrenching themselves as opposite camps. I have to admit a bit of surprise at this. No author with whom I’ve ever talked mentioned this aspect of character talk.

Flight of the Pegasus

The Flight of the Pegasus

A novel set against the backdrop of human colonization of a few score exoplanets needs details about ships and speed. While developing Astral I’ve consulted a few people who are more adept than I about mathematics, astrophysics, and CAD programs. Chris Newstead and his MOLIMI team are adept and amiable collaborators in helping me envision spaceships. The Flight of the Pegasus is not their work. Stay tuned for that. I’ve no doubt it will impress. Similarly, Roger Sorensen and Ben Adams have been providing assistance with a range of sciences frequently found in sci fi.

World-building in science fiction may involve knowing the star system one has selected has two suns and that the characters living on a planet there would cast two shadows. Letting the characters be more than shadows themselves means more than giving them a backstory and description. I don’t have images for the characters as yet but I know what they think when they look in the mirror.

orbits

The distances traveled and methods for the trip are not as important as really listening to a character’s tales of woe and joy upon reaching the destination. Speculation about future innovations and inventions matters far less than understanding a character’s perspective on their life and plans for living it — and hopefully well regardless of an author’s ideas about any obstacles.

It is part of the writer’s job to obstruct his or her characters. That’s what makes any story interesting. But muting those characters and/or depriving them of the thoughts and skills they claim to have is a disservice to them and a mistake in presenting their saga.

Jules Henri Poincaré was a true polymath of the Victorian–Edwardian era and one of the fathers of special relativity and chaos theory. He has become a new hero of a sort as I’ve been working on Astral.

Dr. Poincaré has been quoted as having said, “If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.” I’ve adopted a comparable point of view about what I must allow for my characters.

 


let’s make it a good one…

Astral is my first effort at a sci fi novel since high school. I don’t have any of the scripts or books I wrote then with one exception and while the retained short story is not The Eye of Argon it isn’t The Time Machine by any stretch.

As noted previously, my science fiction preference requires space travel. But what about the rest of the world(s) in which the story takes place? We’re quite unlikely to invent any propulsion system that could make reaching exoplanets feasible without seeing advances in other scientific and technological fields. By the time any visit to α Centauri is made, it seems probable that we might also have taken a significantly more active role in our own evolution.

Astral won’t be a big bucket into which I’ll pour all the science that appeals to me. However, the characters in the novel will consider many  machines yet to be dreamt of to be common, everyday things. Part of the world-building has to include a fairly thorough understanding of the societal repercussions of fictional innovations. What will it mean if we can travel faster than light and have mastered manipulation of the genome?

Opinion of human civilization 500 years ago can range widely. Should our emphasis be on the artistic achievements of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo or on the rise and impact of Imperialism? Is it more important to note the wars and plagues or the contributions of Martin Luther and Galileo Galilei? In 500 more years what will be the state of art and thought? Human nature may never change, despite our technological sophistication.

By the time audiences first took seats in the Globe Theatre in London and other people were excavating Pompeii near modern Naples, what humanity was and probably would always be was already on full display – fully developed. The fact that Shakespeare and Vesuvius still interest us may prove this point.

There will be more than a few exceptionally dark, perhaps ugly moments in Astral. Tonight I’ve been pondering which aspects of the characters who inhabit one human colony find beautiful and how they find it in their lives.

Any moment in time is both great and horrible if viewed from a wide enough point of view. What sort of future we create and whatever tales we tell about it depend – as it always has – on what perspective we adopt.

Imagine


ѱφ

fellow travelers…

On or about Sept. 28, 1991, Dr. Carl Sagan and Tenzin Gyatso (བསྟན་འཛིན་རྒྱ་མཚོ།) met. I am neither a scientist nor a theologian but both of these men have my respect. The former is most broadly known for Cosmos: A Personal Voyage and the latter as the 14ᵗʰ Dalai Lama. The approaches to the subject of understanding the universe they each took are different but the mission are one and the same. The meeting was recorded, at least in part, and while the video quality is poor but the message is strong and can be found here.

Whether we have any formal training in the fields of science, religion, or philosophy or not, all of us share the goal of comprehension. What is the cosmos and why do we find ourselves in it? There are pragmatic, non-philosophical answers to pursuit of this knowledge.

In one of the final interviews of Dr. Sagan, he was asked to comment on the consequences of science and technology on human civilization. In part, this was his answer:

“And if we don’t understand it, and by ‘we’ I mean the general public, if it’s something that – ‘Oh. I’m not good at that. I don’t know anything about it.’ – then who’s making all of the decisions about science and technology that are going to determine what kind of future our children live in?”

Two years before his death, Dr. Sagan gave a lecture at Cornell University and included a philosophical reflection on an already well-known photograph taken of Earth by the Voyager 1 space probe. This is often called The Pale Blue Dot speech. It is truly worth a listen. Essential.

Just a phrase or two might offend some but, if so, it might be among those who have decided they can learn nothing from science or scientists. Nevertheless, the message and emotional tone of Dr. Sagan’s plea should be universally held – regardless of any other ideology at least in the opinion of this author. In very few words, relatively speaking, this stands as a summary of what being human means and could mean. From the moment I first heard them they also stood as something of a miracle.

To paraphrase a definition of miracles I once read, they’d be inexplicable events that inspire us to do more/better. Put this way – science, religion, and the individual quest for meaning with which we’re all involved might all include a miraculous experience along the way. With this two-part formula for a miracle each of us is able to define and find our own.

Earth and Song

As far as is known, the Dalai Lama hasn’t commented directly on this almost poetic prompt for humanity to acquire an improved perspective. However, the following opinion from him seems ample cause to presume the two scholars would be in agreement.

“Whether one is rich or poor, educated or illiterate, religious or nonbelieving, man or woman, black, white, or brown, we are all the same. Physically, emotionally, and mentally, we are all equal. We all share basic needs for food, shelter, safety, and love. We all aspire to happiness and we all shun suffering. Each of us has hopes, worries, fears, and dreams. Each of us wants the best for our family and loved ones. We all experience pain when we suffer loss and joy when we achieve what we seek. On this fundamental level, religion, ethnicity, culture, and language make no difference.”

As a miracle results – by this definition – from an inexplicable source, it is the effect on our motivation that matters more and whether and how we allow ourselves to be moved and motivated. I don’t see any conflict between religion (“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”) and science (“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”). I don’t see any reason why they can’t both have their share in the miraculous. It’s a big universe.


Meanwhile, Fortius…

Civil War.jpg

By the numbers, with five on Team Red and six on Team Blue, one might be tempted to predict Captain America’s side [Blue] will win. That said, evaluating each individual character and collectively by the sides chosen shows more actual superpowers in Iron Man’s faction [Red].

Marvel sometimes rates its characters in six categories of a Power Grid:

  • Intelligence
  • Stength
  • Speed
  • Durability
  • Energy Projection
  • Fighting Skills

These are measured on scales from 1 to 7, with 2 considered the score for the normal person – regardless of category. Red is more powerful in all but the last rating. Tony Stark’s stance in Civil War and those who support it are – in total – almost a third again better than the First Avenger and his troops. Advantage: Red Team!

Given the leadership and tactical advantages Steve Rogers can be presumed to possess, his side will almost certainly have the better strategy (without actually determining a way to avoid a physical conflict). Advantage: Blue Team!

The most powerful single heroes in the fight are Vision for Red and Scarlet Witch for Blue. The synthezoid delivered the coup de grâce against Ultron via the Mind Gem and therefore, if used against any member of the opposing side, would be more than sufficient. As the mutant’s powers have been portrayed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the only member of Stark’s faction that might be immune is Vision.

The respective powers of these two both count as Energy Projection and they are  equivalent according to the Power Grid in that aspect. Logically, the fight should boil down to just them and, with regard to every other rating, Vision is superior. Victory: Red Team!

But…

Joss Whedon is well-known as a geek. This includes playing Dungeons & Dragons – so we can guess that he’s experienced in overcoming the numbers on any character sheet to triumph. He’s also not stranger to chance influencing the outcome; he’s probably rolled his fair share of Natural 20s. Maybe losing side before the third act will get unexpected help from Spider-man in some way (making him the Random Encounter).

In addition, although I’ve never played D&D with Mr. Whedon, he will twist the rules as much as serves the story – and maybe a little more. Even taking that into consideration, there are a few things I doubt he’ll avoid.

Expect to see most of the following…

  • The MCU’s two newest, Ant-Man and Black Panther, will make trouble for each other – demonstrating what they’re capable of in a “fresh” way.
  • The two women will engage is some manner of one-on-one conflict and it will probably be more or less a draw. The audience probably expects this but it’s been done to death.
  • Some moment of brotherhood between two of the three characters of African descent is likely and, if handled well, could enhance the story.
  • Hawkeye will last longer than he should given the odds and any form of sense.
  • There will be a nod to Scarlet Witch and Vision potentially having a relationship at some future point, if the film parallels the comics that is.

Mr. Whedon has written many actual comic books, including the first 24 issues of Astonishing X-Men. (It’s ironic he can’t use those characters in the film.) We know from his body of work that he features and favors the underdog. Buffy, its extended franchise, and Firefly/Serenity (i.e., almost his entire oeuvre) all demonstrate that he’ll kill a beloved character.

These factors in conjunction mean the underdog pack will almost certainly win but it will cost them at least one of their (our) favorites. Prediction 1: In Captain America: Civil War, Blue will win the day but the titular character will “die” just as he did in the comic book arc on which the film is based.

“Tahiti is a magical place.”

Since Agent Coulson’s death and return, that is a new euphemism for the comic book death trope. Prediction 2: The post-credits stinger(s) will show all of this is playing into the hands of Thanos and then remind us of Valhalla while hinting at Cap’s return from it.

Only uncle Ben is staying dead but that’s another franchise.


Graecum est; non legitur

Letters are fascinating. Why shouldn’t we find them so? Their shapes afford us a sense of order if not actual orthodoxy and by them – along with the sounds they represent – we attempt to make ourselves known. Letters are even how we identify ourselves.

As writing systems are essential to our having a recorded history, letters are as old as time. In his last fable, Hyginus states, “The Parcae – Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos invented seven Greek letters.”

ΑΒΗΙΟΤΥ

The novel I’ve set in mythological Greece won’t be written in Ancient or Modern Greek but I have been making an effort to get the character names and certain terms correct. Effort at being thorough and accurate has often taken me to the area where fascinating letters become tricky things — in combination they invite pronunciation, spelling, and meaning.

During my formal education the pronunciation key in any dictionary made use of diacritical marks. Later the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) became the key of choice. Though there is an online English-to-IPA translator, I’ve yet to find one that works in reverse. I still have to compare IPA vowels to a diacritical chart.

dia v ipa

In addition to the story of Teiresias, another novel in development takes place chiefly in WWII-era Great Britain. This setting brings up an entirely new set of permutations of expression and a few slightly different vowels.

While on his third visit to England and attempting, among other things, to have Pennsylvania made a Royal Colony rather than a proprietary province, Benjamin Franklin devised A Scheme for a new Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling.

The premise of any phonetic structure – beyond illustrating pronunciation – is that knowing how a word sounds is the same as knowing how to spell it. Dr. Franklin removed c, j, q, w, x, and y. Six new letters were introduced. The rules are not included here but many websites provide them.

Franklin letters

It seems unlikely that Franklin’s scheme could have replaced the alphabet; it would have meant having to relearn to read and write for those who already knew. Dr. Franklin did give permission to another to try.

“As an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government. Great Britain, whose children we are, and whose language we speak, should no longer be our standard…” — Noah Webster

Both men became more involved with The American War of Independence. Spelling and use of certain words were deliberately – and apparently irrevocably – changed. The British-import alphabet thankfully remained.

When not writing or involved with other arts and history, I sometimes explore the world of conlanging – a documentary about which was directed by a friend of mine – Britton Watkins. Conlanging is the pursuit of developing new languages and/or alphabets, usually for the sake of fiction.

Examples include languages of Tolkien’s elves and of Roddenberry’s aliens (developers include Dorothy Jones Heydt, Mark R. Gardner, and Marc Okrand). Mr. Watkins has also produced a very thorough and beautiful font for writing in Vulcan. The best-known real world conlang may be Esperanto, created by L. L. Zamenhof and offered with high hopes as “an easy-to-learn, politically neutral language”.

I hesitate to say that most conlangers use the IPA while developing their new languages but many do. This is particularly true of most of the dozen or so who’ve attempted a Circular Gallifreyan font. Exceptions include the systems by Loren Sherman and Rachel Sutherland, respectively. Their alphabets are the most commonly used by fandom.

Hexagon

All this to say — we may not have been looking at the symbols of the Time Lords from quite the right vantage point. Every letter – real or imaginary – is two-dimensional. Given time and relative dimensions in space, Gallifreyan letters may not be flat shapes; I don’t think it’s Circular at all. For the sake of art and of curiosity, I am developing a new system and will likely produce a font and/or Photoshop Brush Set. The guide will include IPA and diacritical alike.

revolve


鬼劃符

3rd Quadrant, Sector 8023

If it hadn’t been for the blizzard this post would have been a few days earlier and would have predicted Steven Moffat leaving his position as showrunner of Doctor Who. For some weeks, he had been discussing when he’d know it was time to go. This changed to news of his “actively seeking” his replacement early this month. There was other data but – as this post can no longer prove prescience – it is hoped you’ll enjoy a slightly different Doctor Who-related story.

In mid-September of last year, while attending a new convention, I was asked to be a guest panelist for a Doctor Who discussion. I am leaving anonymous those who invited me to participate as a courtesy due to the nature of this story. They’ll be getting private messages about this post and can certainly chime in when they see this and if they so wish.

One of the questions posed in two parts to the audience for a show-of-hands response was: “How many like the new Doctor (Peter Capaldi)?”

The reaction was mixed and one who raised her hand to express a negative opinion was probably in her very early teens. The moderator asked her specifically why she was opposed to the 12th Doctor.

She informed us that she’d heard there was a policy that the Doctor was supposed to be getting younger. Apparently she believed Gallifreyans experience the equivalent of aging backwards – incrementally – with each regeneration. Given that Christopher Eccleston is 7 years older than David Tennant, who is 11 years older than Matt Smith, it seems she was expecting an incarnation portrayed by an actor in his (or her) early 20s or even younger.

This would certainly mean the Doctor’s and her own age would more or less match up with the 13th.

One of the lines Mr. Capaldi has delivered while playing the part was: “Clara, I’m not your boyfriend.” There’s no evidence that the girl in the audience wanted a younger actor in the role to facilitate a crush. More of her comments made it seem more likely she wanted to see the Doctor as a kind of playmate, though.

My heart went out to the girl in the audience then and still does to some extent. How does one correct a misapprehension about BBC policy, or showrunner intent, or Doctor Who canon without stepping on a dream? Isn’t one of the features of DW how easily it engages our imagination?

With Mr. Moffat’s departure the only installment of DW in 2016 will be the next Christmas special. The new companion series “Class” doesn’t start filming until Spring and won’t air until next year either. The target demographic for Class would seem to be much closer to the age of the girl at the panel. I hope she finds her peer in it.

I could say I hate waiting (because I do). I could say I’m happy to see Moffat’s tenure end (as I am). But I think this year-plus gap in Doctor Who affords all of us fresh territory in the imagination it invites – the Girl in the Audience included.

I’ve already been inspired; there’s a new art project inspired by these and other thoughts.

Gallifrey Page

Let’s see where this goes. Or, in other words, stay tuned.


 

δ³Σx²