Blog

Imagination in Flight

November 16, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin has her protagonist, Genly Ai, travel to the distant planet Gethen which has no birds or flying insects. As a result, the communities there never even thought to attempt flight and their language has no word for flying. It is no wonder, then, that the people mistrust Genly who arrives by airship. It is also easy to see why Le Guin chose this scenario. She masterfully removes something which we often take for granted (that there are flying animals and insects) and then demonstrates how it impacts imagination. (For the record, there are many other major differences between our earthly world and Gethen, but I’m only talking flight today. I definitely recommend the book for all of those who are curious about science fiction experiments.) In chapter thirteen, Genly Ai and another man are sharing folktales about the places where they are from. Genly shares the story of flight. He remarks that he is not talking about a spirit world, but the real world. He says, “’Not by flapping their arms, you know. They flew in machines like cars.’ But it was hard to say in Orgota, which lacks a word meaning precisely ‘to fly’; the closest one can come has more the meaning of ‘glide.’ ‘Well, they learned how to make machines that went right over the air as a sledge goes over the snow.’” Of course, in order to communicate, language restricts Genly Ai to analogies of the place where he is, so he focuses on a common machine from this icy climate, the sled.

 Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

The history of flight is extremely curious and inspiring. The history of aviation includes such fascinating, bold, strong personalities as Emilia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, the Wright brothers and many, many others. However, I was caught by surprise recently when I discovered how little I know about lighter-than-air ships. In reading Ships of the Air by Lyn Curlee, I saw again that same spark of curiosity that often drives human invention. Curlee writes, “One day, after watching ashes from a fire float upward, Joseph Montgolfier folded a piece of paper, held it above a fire, then watched it fly up the chimney. Joseph believed that the smoky fire created some kind of gas that was lighter than air. Only later did he and Étienne understand that hot air rises. But Joseph did understand that if a big enough bag could be filled with hot ‘gas,’ the bag would rise off the ground – and could carry a person with it.” From there begins a wonderful, rich, global history layered with politics and science. After Montgolfier demonstrated a hot air balloon flight to Marie Antoinette, the world took note. Furthermore, his balloon contained a flight crew of a sheep, rooster, and duck, whose survival proved that the atmosphere was higher than previously imagined. Many people became interested in designing and flying airships. In the late 1800s, they became popular sights in France, London and Germany. And as war broke out, the zeppelin famously became a machine of war, rather than leisure.

Back when the Montgolfier brothers were experimenting with cloth and paper balloons, however, there were many misconceptions regarding flight. Curlee writes that in 1766, “Professor Charles’s balloon floated 15 miles into the countryside, landing near a small village. The villagers, who thought the balloon was a monster, destroyed it with pitchforks.” This mentality echoes what Le Guin describes on her science fiction world, Gethen. It took an incredible amount of imagination to believe in flight. Furthermore, imagination is, in part, problem-solving. For the story of airships to become any kind of success indicates that man must often think outside the box. I return to Joseph Montgolfier watching ashes rise. With possibility comes the calculated risk of burning the paper. Understandably, then, the airship has faced many problems, such as weather, flammability, size versus weight ratios, etc. Curlee continues, “The story of lighter-than-air travel is mainly the story of failures. People who designed airships made many mistakes – often because they were experimenting with new technology, sometimes because they were careless.” Even so, hot-air balloons still inspire our imaginations. They predate airplanes, have been created by humans all over the globe, and have been put to many uses (including a German mail service). One thing is clear, flight of any kind captivates humans. The ability to defy gravity, even for an instant, sparks the imagination.

 Darth Vader at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Darth Vader at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

These photographs were taken at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Every October, over five hundred balloonists visit Albuquerque for its unique landscape and wind patterns. Balloons feature colorful designs, brand names, and cultural icons (Darth Vader is often a big hit). To see five hundred balloons floating up in the sunrise certainly inspires the imagination!

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.


Swing and A Miss

August 24, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

How do algorithms know which options are right for you? They are purportedly a mathematical calculation based on personal tastes, previous preferences and your own interaction. I will use examples from Pandora and Netflix to express my meaning, but really, I could broaden this discussion to any number of entities. Also, I am using a very broad understanding of algorithms for this general discussion.

Recently, the song “Pachelbel Meets U2” popped onto my classical channel. Regardless of the song’s merits, however, I was immediately annoyed. I wanted this channel to be purely classical. For me, U2’s “With or Without You” came through so strongly that I could not focus on Pachelbel and it totally distracted me. I explain this only because it demonstrates taste’s incredible caprice. I like U2, I like Pachelbel, I like instrumentals of contemporary music, so, really, isn’t this just an example of me being picky? And I answer, yes! Of course, but isn’t that what taste is?! All I know is that I gave this song a thumbs down on my classical channel, for no really good reason. Sorry, Pandora, that was a swing and a miss.

My favorite category on Netflix is “Because You Watched.” This category bases suggestions off of something that you recently watched. These selections are not restricted to genre. In fact, they almost defy genre. Sometimes it links by actor, or comments by other viewers. And Netflix has nothing to lose with this process. The more content they recommend, the better for them. In fact, all of the companies that invest in complex algorithms have everything to gain. And consumers react by giving them data that they need to run the algorithms. If Pandora throws in instrumentals to my classical, and I vote thumbs-down, then Pandora responds with another selection. It also simultaneously removes this song (and perhaps some song group) from my category.

Broadly defined by Merriam-Webster, algorithms are a “procedure for solving a mathematical problem in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation.” Could that also be a definition of taste? There are many reasons that I might remove something from a playlist. Here are only a handful:

1] I don’t like the song

2] it doesn’t fit my current mood

3] I like it, but it is outside of the station’s intended purpose

4] I don’t like U2 and/or Pachelbel

5] I don’t like mixing genres

6] I don’t like remakes

7] I don’t like pianos or guitars

So, how does any mathematical equation break this nonsense down into bits of actionable information? How could an algorithm match infinite experience? Netflix and Pandora answer this by including other people’s recommendations. So, perhaps you gave a thumbs up to a movie that happened to be in the science fiction genre. Instead of recommending only sci-fi movies, Netflix will populate a handful of sci-fi and also some random films based on what other people liked. So, if another person liked the sci-fi movie you just watched, you will probably see a recommendation that has nothing to do with science fiction. And this seemingly random selection comes from other people’s tastes. Netflix, Pandora and others gain a lot by incorporating this feature. The more you interact, the more accurately they recommend, but also the more user-specific data they gain, which reinforces the whole system.

Does this type of system function differently than, say, radio in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when top Billboard hits drove the radio songs that we all heard? Radio offered choice mainly by genre: country, Spanish, pop, etc. Though they did compile data, it pales in comparison to the amount of data that is available by these new devices. Radio offered music and we listened or not. I never thought twice about how many times I heard the Eagles or Michael Jackson on the radio. But now, I wonder why my Pandora Spanish station continues to play songs by Latin artists in English. Why are the ads in English, whereas my friends’ ads are in Spanish? I wonder if my behavior prompts Pandora to believe that English is my first language.

As we invite these devices into our homes and lives, it is worth truly thinking about taste. (Per a previous post, taste according to Merriam-Webster is: “a] critical judgment, discernment, or appreciation b] manner or aesthetic quality indicative of such discernment or appreciation.”) Why does Pandora (or any service) recommend something to you specifically? What do they know about you and are they making the critical judgments for you? I do not ask this because I am worried about some cyber conspiracy (although I’m sure there is data to support that too). But rather, I am worried about how taste interacts with culture. How individualized is the Pandora community and does it in any way reflect community as we currently define it?

With constantly changing technology, I wonder if something is being mistakenly hidden, missed or suppressed. I go back to the idea that Pandora thinks my first language is English, though I have given no data to support this. The algorithm seems to be making critical judgments about me, not just my music.

To read more posts about about taste, try these.

Taste defined in art and music

Taste according to Gibbon and Brillat-Savarin

To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Pleasures of Reading, Thinking and Conversing in Science Fiction Age

May 11, 2018

Thanks to Dr. John Reynolds, HMU alumnus, for today's post.

How malleable the notion of science fiction is! What strange places one ends up in when exploring such a seemingly simple question: "Is Star Wars science fiction?" The question grew out of reflections on and discussions about Alissa Simon's blog post “What is Science Fiction” from April 27, 2018. Originally, I planned on exploring important differences between science fiction and fantasy, and I thought that Star Wars would make an excellent cultural artifact for further conversation, especially with the approach of Star Wars Day (May the Fourth Be with You) and a stand-alone Han Solo movie arriving in theaters near the end of May.

I enjoy the passion found in diverse commentators on science fiction who disagree on the classification, value, and influence of Star Wars. They form a community as diverse as the vision for the Star Wars universe. Some find the films and franchise a threat to the genre of authentic science fiction and a disintegrating influence on culture. Others find it part of a benign or even beneficial paradigm shift in our cultural habits concerning narrative, entertainment, and culture. Some scholars and fans make strict distinctions between hard science fiction and soft science fiction. Some adamantly refuse to acknowledge Star Wars as science fiction, citing numerous scientific and technical deficiencies, while others find a home for it in the category of soft science fiction. Those who commend the soft science fiction of Star Wars tend to align it with the ongoing idea of myth. Such mythic identification links the characters, plots, and themes with ongoing archetypes that continue to fascinate human beings across time and cultures. In an older online posting found on The American Prospect, Cara Feinberg captures this sense of interest while exploring the question "Is Star Wars Art?" She explains how the 2002 Brooklyn Museum's presentation of Star Wars: The Magic of Myth "examines the mythological roots of the now legendary film saga that explores themes of heroism and redemption and the triumph of good over evil through the creation of characters that exemplify chivalry, nobility, valor, and evil...." Likewise, I recall Joseph Campbell making such claims while being interviewed by Bill Moyers about the power of myth and the hero's journey in the late eighties.

A few tangential opinions about science fiction provide additional insights about fans and science fiction that go beyond limited concerns involving just Star Wars. Along with the exploratory and predictive functions of science fiction, Jason Sanford asserts that it actually helps create the future, as he winsomely explains how those techies who brought us the Motorola flip-phone were clearly Star Trek fans. In a style reminiscent of Jeff Foxworthy's "You might be a redneck if..." comedy, one interesting post describes "11 Habits That All Sci-Fi Readers Have In Common," ranging from "[l]ooking for the real science behind the fake science fiction," to "[c]orrecting people on the differences between sci-fi and fantasy," and “[c]oming up with plans for when the aliens arrive". A formal study of reading habits suggests that the genre of science fiction texts may entice its readers to be less skillful interpreters of texts. I suspect that the potentially bad influence depends much more on a given reader's willingness to read any genre thoughtfully. Although my sample size is relatively small, I have known several high school English students who are as critically adept at analyzing Austen and Shakespeare as they are at evaluating android and space stories. Is such science fiction a foe to those of us who deeply value the Great Books and Great Conversation traditions? I think not. When I think of how much one of my current students enjoys discussing traditional literary texts alongside science fiction stories, I am inspired to assert, "It is a universe truthfully acknowledged that technological, sociological, psychological, and spiritual forces need careful balancing."

An even more extensive demonstration of discussing science fiction thoughtfully comes in Adam Roberts' The History of Science Fiction. Roberts carefully examines the contemporary popularity of science fiction and offers a strange point of origin for it in the Protestant Reformation: Adams asserts that his "core argument is not just that SF begins out of the Reformation; it is that the fierce cultural climate of that time shaped SF, wrote its DNA in ways that manifest substantively even into the 21st century." Roberts provides a striking contrast to the well-worn arguments about science fiction's origin in nineteenth or twentieth century. He notes that his own research that yielded his book's first edition led him to see science fiction

"as a distinctly Protestant kind of ‘fantastic’ writing that has budded off from the older (broadly) Catholic traditions of magical and fantastic romances and stories, responding to the new sciences, the advances in which were also tangled up in complex ways with Reformation culture."

As I reflect on his thesis, I cannot help but think of the root meaning of Catholic as "whole" or "universal." Roberts first provides a helpful summation of his view of a classic Catholic vision of human beings in relationship to the universe:

"To an orthodox Catholic imagination a plurality of inhabited worlds becomes an intolerable supposition; other stars and planets become a theological rather than a material reality, as they were for Dante - a sort of spiritual window-dressing to God’s essentially human-sized creation."

In contrast, he shows how he conceives of the Protestant Reformation vision:

"[The] cosmos expands before the probing inquiries of empirical science through the 17th and 18th centuries, and the imaginative-speculative exploration of that universe expands with it. This is the science fiction imagination, and it becomes increasingly a function of Western Protestant culture. From this SF develops as an imaginatively expansive, and materialist mode of literature, as opposed to the magical-fantastic, fundamentally religious mode that comes to be known as fantasy."

For me, this provides a powerful way for reading the texts of Francis Bacon and surfacing, not only his methodology, but also imaginative vision for scientific purpose. I'm finding motivation to re-read him along side of Dante to further explore these strange contrasts: a rather strong material-spiritual dialectic is at work in comparing these two authors. To clarify his personal position on these two streams of influence, Roberts also gently assures us that he does "not mean to suggest a priority of value or merit of one mode over the other," and that he equally enjoys reading fantasy and science fiction.

Clearly, there is much more to explore in Roberts' expositional history of science fiction, but it offers interesting connections for consideration about the nature and popularity of Star Wars and a host of other modern popular fantastical films. Roberts notes that "[t]he level on which Star Wars works most effectively is precisely as visual myth." By this, he suggests that the appeal of Star Wars and its legacy functions to give audiences a grand sense of imaginative connectedness to our ever-expanded sense of smallness in a really big universe - much in the way he envisions the Catholic imaginative tradition. In this line of thought, even more than the Reformation's break from visual and sacramental ways of imagining the world, our society's increasing secularization leaves many of us hungry for ways to re-enchant our connections to nature, the world, and the larger universe. Awareness of such hungers helps us appreciate Roberts' assertion that "SF is now the most popular form of art on the planet because it has colonised visual media." Star Wars was essentially the first film to break open and popularize this experience of visual myth. Even the current excitement about Avengers: Infinity War resembles the visual myth experience and can be traced back to the influence of Star Wars.

If I understand Roberts correctly, we benefit from becoming increasingly aware of how we get so enamored by the power of visual myth and large-scale spectacles because such self-awareness serves as an important part of understanding our collective and individual assumptions about our identities. Otherwise, we lose sight of many important not-so-visual concerns for pursuing human flourishing. Perhaps, this is Socrates with a lightsaber admonishing us to know ourselves? Consequently, many of the resources for sharpening our visions of the present and the future come from understanding the influences of the past more clearly and deeply, and we benefit from conversing about and reflecting on these influences. With a healthy dose of optimism, Roberts finds a glimmer of hope related to this concern as he opines that the two heroes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens "are, respectively, a competent and brave woman, and a man of Nigerian heritage," and that "[e]ven as it cycles through the comforting old tropes and features, this new Star Wars is proving what SF has always known, that this is a mode of art intensely hospitable to diversity." Indeed, from the urban centers to the outer rim of our society, many ideas related to Star Wars have some surprisingly powerful ways of sparking diverse and thoughtful conversations about past, present, and future visions of human flourishing.

“Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”  – Yoda

To write a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

What Is Science Fiction

April 27, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a three-day conference hosted by the Great Books Council of San Francisco. The event, which took place at Asilomar, offers four discussions focused on one play, one work of non-fiction, one of fiction and a handful of poems. The wonderful selections were further enriched through discussion. The selected fiction was Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Though this story is set on a distant planet and in a distant future, I connected with many of the issues raised in the text. Personally, I feel that Le Guin brilliantly demonstrated what it is like to meet a culture very different from your own. It included political frustrations, tensions between genders, misunderstandings of all kinds, economic interests, and an epic journey. To be honest, the setting could be nearly anywhere and at any time because she addressed so many universal societal issues. However, in moving the narrative outside of “earthly” restrictions, Le Guin allows for dynamic debate, divorced from possibly hurtful particulars. So, in part, science fiction allows for an emotional detachment in a way that actual events or specific names and places would not allow.

More than that, though, science fiction allows the reader to examine the consequences of what we often call “progress”. In last week’s blog, HMU Fellow in Ideas, Matt Phillips wrote about one of the benefits of writing in a noir style. He writes: “Noir—as a genre and practice—provides an effective palette for drawing, defining, and collapsing contrasts. And contrast, on its face, is what disparity is—an ill-drawn, and often evil, contrast.” In a similar fashion, science fiction provides a palette for understanding unknowns. As science progresses at light speed, it moves far past the average citizen’s grasp. There is no way to keep track of each scientific study or each new technological platform. Science’s broad reach affects our daily lives in demonstrable ways, but more often than not, understanding a new device arrives as an after-effect. Regulators and lawyers struggle to keep abreast of changing technologies. We even struggle to name new technologies, which we often base off of natural phenomena such as “cloud computing” or “website”. The science fiction writer is tasked with thinking in terms of possibility. What if faster is not better? Or, what if faster is greatly better? What are the possible outcomes of gene-therapy? Or, who should have access to such potentially powerful tools?

Science fiction, however, does not predict futures. It simply explores them. In the preface to The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin writes:


“This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the Second World War; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…. In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only be the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed.

“The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrödinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future – indeed  Schrödinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted – but to describe the reality, the present world.”

In a recent report on genetic technology, NIH Director Francis Collins claims: “When something truly significant is discovered its consequences are overestimated in the short term and underestimated in the long term." Simply put, it is difficult for the non-scientist to understand the scope of the continual scientific evolution. Therefore, the science fiction writer designs and creates a thought experiment meant to discover potential outcomes. The evolution of science fiction seems natural to me, as humans progressively depend upon and live with technology. Excited by new capabilities, we are also curious about implications. For example, what if anyone could alter their own genes; should they?

In another article, new types of data are being used to identify poverty and restructure impoverished areas. I found it particularly interesting to see the diverse groups necessary to discuss such implementations. The article mentions:  “a coalition of homeowners, renters, people with the experience of homelessness, nonprofit developers, community associations, religious institutions, policy experts, and university faculty” who will discuss human rights issues in such a difficult transition. I can see how science programs (such as STEM or STEAM) benefit society. I also firmly believe that ethics courses are as necessary as science. I believe that this is another benefit of science fiction: it is almost a category between the two, uniting science with fictitious outcomes in which we can ask ethical questions. It is authors like Le Guin who question our understanding of progress. I do not mean to imply that we should not embrace technology or change. In fact, rather the opposite. I embrace science, science fiction and ethics as all necessary parts of my education.

In addition to excellent discussions, the group at Asilomar listened to a keynote speech by Corie Ralston, current director of the Berkeley Center for Structural Biology. Not only is she a scientist, but she also writes science fiction. She gave a wonderful presentation that included a short history of science fiction, but also a hopeful future for the genre. Her website describes a deep-rooted love of science, nature, creative thought and reading. She writes: “If writing is a way to emotionally understand our world, then science is a way to practically understand our world. And science is more than that to me: it is a way of exploring and creating and learning how to think. It uses the best of our human nature. It is a continual source of awe.” I could not agree more.

Thanks to the wonderful folks of the Great Books Council of San Francisco for welcoming me into their discussions!

To post a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.