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Did dinosaurs survive the impact?

This is stunning news, if true. Using a new uranium-lead dating method, researchers have determined the age of a fossil dinosaur bone from New Mexico with far greater accuracy than could be done before. Here’s the twist: the fossil bone dates from 64.8 million years ago — 700,000 years after the extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous Period that supposedly wiped out all the dinosaurs. Abstract, news coverage, press release.

The idea that some dinosaurs survived at least part of the way into the Paleocene is something that one of the paper’s co-authors, James Fassett, has been promoting for some time, generating all kinds of controversy. This is not, in other words, the first or last word on the subject. Take this news in that context.

Now if you wanted to be excessively clever, you could argue that of course dinosaurs survived into the Paleocene, because birds are a clade of dinosaurs, and birds survive today. But you know what is meant here: non-avian dinosaurs.

Thought reform and subcultures

Noting for future reference Robert Jay Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, whence the origins of the “Eight Criteria for Thought Reform” and the concept of the “thought-terminating cliché.” I’m alarmed that I recognize some of the eight criteria from some of the subcultures and cliques I’ve mucked around in. And some of the more public and dramatic dust-ups on LiveJournal — not naming names or citing examples, but the word “fail” comes to mind — seem to be manifestations of criteria three (“demand for purity”) and four (“confession”). It’s not the people who are diametrically opposed to your point of view that are most singled out for opprobrium, but the people who self-identify as belonging to the same group as you, but who are only 98 percent on the same page. For that remaining two percent, however, they must be flamed, and flamed good, until they repent their errors or leave the compound.

Among Others: a fairy tale about science fiction

Book cover: Among Others Today was the official publication date of Jo Walton’s new novel, Among Others. It’s a fantastic book, one of the best I’ve read in a long time. It’s about fairies, and magic — and growing up reading science fiction and fantasy. That sounds like a dissonant combination, but oh does it ever work.

I managed to lay hands on an advance bound manuscript because Jennifer and I actually met Jo Walton at SFContario last November. In the dealers’ room on day one of the convention, Jennifer managed to sing the praises of one of Walton’s earlier novels, Tooth and Claw (which is the kind of novel Anthony Trollope would have written, if Trollope wrote about dragons), without realizing that Jo herself was sitting right in front of her. (That’s got to be a satisfying thing to happen to an author.) By the end of the convention Jo was offering to sell us all her other books for a low price and to sign them all for Jen as well. That included the advance bound manuscript for Among Others. Looking at the cover blurb, I said, “This sounds really neat.”

I had no idea just how good it was going to be.

On the surface, Among Others is a series of journal entries over a six-month period by the protagonist, 15-year-old Welsh teenager Mori, as she starts her first year at a private boarding school. But from the first it is abundantly clear that Something Is Not Right — Mori has run away from her mother, she walks with a cane, and her twin sister, whom we see in the prologue, is referred to only in the past tense — but what that Something is comes in dribs and drabs, among the day-to-day minutiae of meeting her father’s family and dealing with classmates and schoolwork at her English (horror!) school. Also, there are fairies, who have plans for her; and she can do magic, but is afraid to do so for fear of attracting the attention of her mother, who sounds like some kind of sorceress. What the fairies’ plans are, what her mother did to cause her to flee, what happened to her sister, how she got crippled — these are all revealed in the end, but for most of the book it’s in the background, as Mori tries to put her life back together, in a new setting, surrounded by new people, after a terrible trauma.

At the same time, Mori spends an awful lot of the novel talking about science fiction. She consumes novels like candy; her journal entries are full of her reactions to virtually every science fiction novel and collection published by the 1970s. Her writing is peppered with references to Tolkien and Le Guin; she even calls one of the fairies Glorfindel. Among Others is set in 1979 and 1980, so Mori reads The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or early work by C. J. Cherryh not as classics but as new work.

From Gary Wolfe’s review on Locus Online:

What is remarkable is not only how Walton evokes the capacity of fiction to preserve wonder and hope in a dispiriting world, but how she conveys this, as with the Hardy comment, in the opinionated but not quite fully-formed voice of a teenager discovering these works at the tail-end of the 1970s, which comes across as a kind of Golden Age of SF in Mori’s narrative, with Tolkien already established as canonical, Heinlein just entering his cranky late phase, and Le Guin, Zelazny, and Tiptree, along with the historical novels of Mary Renault, coming as astonishing revelations to a young British reader.

It’s hard, in fact, not to think of Jo’s many blog entries about books at there is clearly a lot of Jo in Mori, and Mori in Jo. Among Others is at least partially autobiographical, and while Jo and Mori are both Welsh and the same age, both read voraciously and fast and both walk with a cane, it would be dangerous to assume that Jo got into any magical duels as a child, or can show me where the fairies are. (Alas.)

This is a fairy tale, and it’s a novel about reading science fiction. But as the title suggests, with its double meaning, it’s also a novel about being an outsider. Sherwood Smith has a lot to say about the repeated presence of liminality in Among Others: a Welsh girl in an English school, a practitioner of magic who can see fairies in a mundane world, leaving her mother’s family and getting acquainted with her father’s.

Being an outsider, of course, is also something that most science fiction fans can relate to. Growing up reading science fiction means living somewhere else — in Middle-earth or Xanth, on Pern or Terminus or Mars. It can be a lonely life if there’s no one around who gets you. Sure, a couple of my classmates read Piers Anthony and Anne McCaffrey in junior high, but finding someone who could get the obscure Tolkien references — by high school I was writing notes to myself using the Tengwar — was an impossible task, to say nothing of finding anyone else who read Asimov or Niven. Indeed, like Mori, my main source of science fiction was my father; like Mori, I’m a second-generation science fiction reader. But unlike Mori, I couldn’t cast a spell to find, as she eventually does, a circle of people like her: a science fiction reading group.

(Indeed, though Jen and I met because of our mutual interest in snakes, what truly sealed the deal, I think, was our mutual interest in science fiction: she saw my library. And it was only last year — at the tender age of 38 — that I started attending science fiction conventions for the first time. I’ve long felt out of place in virtually every social and work context, a square peg always finding round holes; it may only be in science fiction fandom that I can find a karass, to use the Vonnegut term Walton borrows, of my own.)

As Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Walton’s editor at Tor Books, writes in a blog entry on both and Making Light:

I am not Welsh or female, I do not walk with a cane, and I do not have a dead sibling or a parent who wants me dead. I never attended a boarding school, my family is far-flung and American, and I have never (to the best of my knowledge) conversed with fairies. And yet to a startling extent Among Others feels like a book about the experience of being me when I was, like Mori, fifteen. This turns out to be a fairly common reaction to reading Walton’s novel, at least among the kind of people I tend to know. It is quite possibly the best thing I have ever read about the way people of our ilk, when young, use books and reading to — in the words of Robert Charles Wilson — “light the way out of a difficult childhood.”

If you grew up reading science fiction and fantasy like I did, you will resonate like a tuning fork when you read this. You have to read this. I’m not kidding. If you don’t believe me, read this excerpt. If that’s not enough to make you run out and buy it, I don’t know what to do with you. It’s so good, if it doesn’t make next year’s Hugo and Nebula ballots, I will be most put out.

More reading: Cory Doctorow’s review on Boing Boing; Jo Walton’s LiveJournal.

Among Others by Jo Walton

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Peter Watts on hacking the brain stem

Peter Watts’s 2006 science-fiction novel, Blindsight (previously) was a first-contact novel (with vampires) that had a lot of chewy things to say about neuroscience and consciousness. He says a lot more about the subject in this presentation at last October’s Toronto SpecFic Colloquium, “Gods, Jackboots, and Rule 34: How Pornography Could Save the World.” It’s well worth 44 minutes of your time; I’ve assembled the four parts uploaded to YouTube by ChiZine into a single playlist for convenience’s sake.

This is a brilliant talk, filled with lots of controversial but fun stuff (data clearly showing that the U.S. is not a developed country, for example). It’s about “hard character science fiction” — applying, he says, the latest in neuroscience and evolutionary theory to literature. He makes the rather unsettling argument that much of what we think and believe — religion, political ideology — have much more to do with brain-stem reactions than with rational thought — that the rational mind is sort of a Dilbertian pointy-haired boss that is rather detached from what’s really going on in the organization. Fear and paranoia, bred into the species by millions of years of natural selection, are actively hampering our ability to solve 21st-century problems, Watts says; the results can be seen in the rise of religiosity and authoritarianism when people are under stress. Successfully effecting political change may be more a matter of hacking the human brain — eroticizing the reduction of carbon emissions, for example — than persuading through logical argument.

Snake geriatrics

The Butler’s garter snake is on her last legs (so to speak). For a few months now she’s been growing a lump in her midsection that looks identical to the liver tumour that killed Big Momma, my extraordinarily fecund female red-sided garter snake, in 2002. It’s awfully big now, almost as big as Big Momma’s, but Big Momma was a much bigger snake. And after her last shed, we discovered that her tail has withered almost completely, which is something I’ve never seen before. It won’t be long for her, I think.

But, like Big Momma was in 2002, the Butler’s garter is old. For her species, she’s preposterously old: she was born in the summer of 2000, which makes her 10½ years old. Her sister died nearly five years ago, and that was from age-related causes. So I’m not at all upset that the Butler’s garter snake is dying now, because she’s had a better, longer run than almost every other member of her species in captivity. For some time I thought she held the longevity record, but I’m no longer sure that’s the case. In any case, I’m not ashamed: we’ve managed to keep her alive for more than 10 years (I got her in October 2000), and that’s saying something.

In fact, because we stopped buying snakes several years ago, and because many of the snakes who’ve dropped dead on us were more recent acquisitions, our snake collection is looking downright geriatric. The average age of our snakes is, in fact, nine years old (the median is eight and a half). That’s a rough estimate, because I’ve had to guess the exact age of several of our snakes who arrived as adults, and I’ve assumed each snake was born in the middle of the year — I know the year of birth, but not necessarily the month. But the point is still there: these are not young snakes. Most were bought at about the same age (i.e., young) and at about the same time, so these snakes represent a cohort of sorts.

Which means they’re going to start dying off at roughly the same time. Now garter snakes as a rule don’t live as long as corn, rat or pine snakes, so a 10-year-old garter snake is much closer to the end than a 10-year-old corn snake, which might easily live another five or ten years. So the snakes’ departure from our household is going to be a bit more spread out than their arrival was. But it’s going to happen. There are three garter snakes in our collection, including the Butler’s, who are more than 10 years old — Extrovert, the female wandering garter snake, will be 12 this summer — and I don’t expect to have them much longer. And George the plains garter, whose age I can only guess at, is as handicapped as ever and still not dead.

The Dune sequels explained

In her re-read of Frank Herbert’s Dune, Jo Walton emits a devastatingly accurate assessment of the novel’s sequels:

I loved it when I was twelve, and I read the sequels, which are each half as good as the one before, and I didn’t give up until they were homeopathically good.

“Homeopathically good”: that’s a great — if nasty — line. (Think about it.) But her assessment aligns with mine: I still read Dune again every now and then, but got rid of the rest of the series years ago.

For all your plotting chamber needs

During the now-legendary “Family Trees of Fantasy” panel at SFContario, Michael Swanwick uttered what may have been the line of the convention. While arguing for what he saw as the rather progressive sexual politics in E. R. Eddison’s work, he described a scene, from what I think must be Mistress of Mistresses (1935), in which a man returning home to his wife learns from her that the king is dead. His thoughts turn from the long-anticipated erotic encounter: “We must go to our plotting chamber and scheme.”

Oh, we loved that line (especially the way that Swanwick delivered it: he’s a fantastic panel performer). We used variants of it for days afterward. (“We must go to our [gerund] chamber and [verb].” Use your imagination.) In the comments to Jo Walton’s post about the panel, I wrote: “‘We must go to the plotting chamber and scheme’ is now a catchphrase in our house. I want a sign on my office door: ‘PLOTTING CHAMBER. Scheming (in progress / not in progress)’ with a little arrow.”

It seems that Jennifer was paying attention. Look what she had done:

Obscure E. R. Eddison reference

(Alas, “chamber” wouldn’t fit on the board, so “room” had to be substituted. Ordering this sign apparently raised some eyebrows.)

Now I have to figure out where to put the damn thing. I suspect it’s too heavy to put on my office door, and too wide to put beside it. It can’t go in my office: if scheming is in progress, after all, it’s best not to disturb it. That’s the point of a plotting chamber: you can’t scheme just anywhere.

The One Metre Initiative

The One Metre Initiative aims to build an observatory not too far from here, making use of the preposterously dark skies of the Madawaska Highlands. The site is, as far as I can tell, not far from Denbeigh, Ontario (and north of Bon Echo Provincial Park); we probably pass by every time we drive to Toronto. At the heart of the observatory will be a wide-field telescope with a five-degree field of view: one metre in aperture, f/2.5 at prime focus, with a 112-megapixel camera attached — which is being touted as the largest telescope in Canada, and competitive with other wide-field scopes used for detecting such things as near-Earth objects and supernovae. The facility will also be a tourist site: there will be a visitor centre, and there are plans to host star parties. The project is privately financed: $4.5 million has been raised so far, with another $1.2 million still to go. It’ll be interesting to see how this turns out.

The pesticide that kills bees

Herb garden 2

A pesticide is being fingered as the culprit behind the sudden collapse of wild and domestic bee populations. The pesticide, clothianidin, attacks an insect’s nervous system. It was approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2003; a 2007 study on its effects on bee populations was later found to be flawed, according to an internal EPA memo that surfaced last month. The memo called for another field study and precautionary labelling. (In Canada, such labelling already exists: see clothianidin’s listing in the Pesticide Product Information Database.)

Meanwhile, an accidental release of clothianidin in Germany in 2008 resulted in two thirds of the region’s bees dropping dead. As a result, it and similar pesticides have been banned in several European countries; that ban may be helping bee populations.

Nevertheless, clothianidin is widely used in the U.S. (especially on corn); Bayer, its manufacturer, sold $262 million worth in 2009. Seeds are even sold pre-treated with the stuff; it ends up in the plant’s pollen and nectar — which is how it gets to the bees. Warnings not to apply it when bees are in the vicinity don’t really apply if it’s already coursing through the plant.

I can’t do this subject justice. You should read Fast Company’s three-part series on clothianidin, the EPA, and bees: one, two, three. As well, io9 has an excellent summary.

The King’s Speech

I saw The King’s Speech on Sunday, and while I thought that the movie itself was quite well done, with emotional (if scenery-chewing) performances, what really struck me was the audience. Contrary to my expectations, the movie was shown in one of the movieplex’s larger theatres, and the house was packed — and when we left, the lineup for the next showing stretched past the other theatre entrances. I thought the crowds were for Black Swan and True Grit, that The King’s Speech would be sparsely attended — another modestly budgeted period piece that got modest theatre receipts before receiving an arseload of Oscars. Where were all these people coming from? Was the Monarchist League organizing field trips?

King George VI in Canada I got a good look at the audience when the lights came up. We’re in our late thirties, and we were among the younger viewers. The 18-25 demographic was not much in attendance. It occurred to me that the bulk of this audience was old enough to remember George VI on the throne. In other words, he was their King, one they remembered fondly. At least that’s my theory. I wonder if the movie’s doing better in Canada than it is in the U.S. — that would be one way to tell.

More thoughts about the movie. Guy Pearce’s performance as Edward VIII was almost a perfect mimicry, if you compare it with recordings of Edward VIII’s voice. And compare Colin Firth’s version of George VI’s speech at the outbreak of World War II with a recording of the original. I did think that the period between George VI’s ascension and the outbreak of World War II was dealt with in too abbreviated a fashion, but I suspect it fell to the needs of a rather focused story — a refreshing change from many biopics that try to cover everything, rather than focus on a specific point.

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