The New Scientist has a Flash Fiction contest. The topic is "futures that never were." Maybe the geniuses at We Alone have 350 words.
You should all read this interview with Bruce Sterling. Full of tasty nuggets on global warming, fiction writing, futurism, Google, other cultures, Texas, science funding, morality.
Yesterday, I visited the Immortals. I abandoned my car at the periphery wall, no vehicles are allowed inside the Old City, lest immortality be cut short by accident. The narrow streets were packed with shuffling, cautious forms, cast into darkness by the overhanging extensions and expansions of the longevity hospitals, their needs for space long impossible to meet on the ground.
Two of the players in my ASUDND game have posted some great thoughts on their experience with RPGs so far (MK and John), and I feel it's only fair to post mine. Why do we play games? Because they're fun. And why are they fun? When RPGs work, they combine the best parts of the narrative experience of a good novel, the tactic cut-and-thrust of a skirmish wargame, and the social pleasure of hanging out with people you like.
Narratives are the heart of the RPG. What kind of story do you want to tell, what themes, what stakes, what characters? For a GM, the tension is between a tightly plotted story, and the sandbox, where the character explore a broader world. ASUDND is a sandbox, I've created a very sketched out island populated by prospectors, goblin tribes, mysterious ruins, and mercenaries, and let the characters seek their own paths.
The standard D&D story is half-way between Campbell's monomyth, and a heist movie, where a team of skilled professionals is a given a quest, completes it through the strategic use of violence, and is rewarded with power and another quest. Eventually, you go from nobody to plane-shaking god-slaying superpower. This model works well enough, but gets a little tiresome. Great gaming enables players to establish a character, then places that character in a situation of actual conflict, where their preconceived notions of morality and loyalty break down. As I put in the teaser for my play-by-post game, Under No Banners, “What do you believe, and how far will you go for those beliefs?” I want to create a world that lets ambitious people seek excellence, and puts those ambitions in conflict with each other, and with something larger.
To describe where ASUDND stands, the Emerald Regiment has put their plans of capitalist-imperalist domination on hold to deal with a personal feud with an NPC group doing many of the same things they've done. To accomplish this, they've allied with the goblin tribes against their previous employers. But every action has consequences: goblins can't pay for mercenaries, and the Regiment has made a stand against everything that Port Arthur stands for. Where will they go from here? I would say that the past few sessions have been practice, this is where the adventure really starts.
The second part of the game is the system. Both of my players mention some dismay at their pregenerated characters. I personally find D&D4e a lot of fun as a tactical wargame, regardless of the roleplaying, which means that part of my job as DM is to teach new players how this game works. Character creation should be a collaborative process between a player and the rest of the group, usually mediated by the GM. In this case, because I have so much more power due to my knowledge of the rules, and D&D character building software, I've appropriated a lot of that process, translating a rough description of the character that the player into the language of the D&D4e ruleset. This is not how the game should work, and I hopefully won't have to do it again. Conversely, I need to shape up my encounters, making them more balanced, interesting, and treasure-filled.
I could talk more about ludic circles, or cultural models, or finite and infinite games, but I've found that RPGs are delicate creatures, and the tools of academic discourse usually just mangle them, like deep sea fish being brought to the surface. Forget the theory, Gary Gygax has The Wisdom.
"The ultimate success of this adventure in your campaign, rests upon you, the DM. It is you skill and knowledge not only of the adventure and the AD&D rule system, but of your players as well, that determine how enjoyable your games with this adventure are, There is no "right" way to run any encounter. There is only your way to of running encounters. You may add or delete from the story as you see fit. What is contained within is only a skeleton, it is your input that makes it a worthwhile adventure".
"You are not entering this world in the usual manner, for you are setting forth to be a Dungeon Master. Certainly there are stout fighters, mighty magic-users, wily thieves, and courageous clerics who will make their mark in the magical lands of D&D adventure. You however, are above even the greatest of these, for as DM you are to become the Shaper of the Cosmos. It is you who will give form and content to the all the universe. You will breathe life into the stillness, giving meaning and purpose to all the actions which are to follow."
"The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don't need any rules."
Roger Pielke Jr always has something interesting to say about climate change, and today's post about the politicization of climate science was no exception. Piekle refers to a recent article in National Journal that “Nineteen of the 20 Republican Senate nominees who have expressed an opinion on the widespread scientific consensus that greenhouse gases are altering the world's climate have declared the science either inconclusive or dead wrong, often in vitriolic terms.” Piekle notes that policy has become increasingly hyper-politicized, there's nothing inherently 'conservative' about not believing in global warming, except as a badge of tribal identity. Reconstructing how climate science came to be viewed in such a politicized light would be an interesting exercise, but as it related to contemporary issues, Pielke calls for a de-politicization of climate science. Referring to an editoral by Michael Mann about the Climate-gate emails he says:
“Do Mann and the climate science community actually think that directly linking battles over climate science to upcoming national elections will depoliticize climate science?!
Not only does the public get the politicians that it deserves, but it seems that climate scientists get the politics that they deserve as well. Until the scientific community shows some willingness to take actions that reduce rather than reinforce the political intensity of the climate debate, they are acting as willing accomplices in its hyper-politicization.”
Really, Dr Pielke? Should climate scientists just lie back and take the “vitriol” in the hopes that global warming will stop being a political football? I believe that Piekle is trying to recover a model of science and the state that no longer applies. As Sheila Jasanoff explains, the contract of post-WW2 American science was that the state would supply funding to scientists, and scientists would supply knowledge to legitimate the decisions of the state (Jasanoff, Technologies of Humility: Citizen Participation in Governing Science, 2003) This contract was rendered void by 1990 because of deviant science (see David Baltimore and AIDS), political demands on scientists to legitimate regulations on objects that were poorly defined, like microparticulates and GM foods, and the growing awareness by scientists of the political and social implications of their work.
We can't turn back time to those halcyon days of the early Cold War, so what now? The choices break down into more involvement, or less. Scientists could decide that certain topics are too politically risky to investigate. I believe this course to be a bad one, as the realm of the non-political is microscopic, perhaps only the most abstruse areas of theory are free of politics. And even if scientists relinquish politics, the demand for expert knowledge is too ingrained in American democracy. Whether they want it or not, scientific knowledge will be used and misused by politicians.
The alternative, engagement, is highly risky. It requires the organization of scientists as political actors, from a national to local levels. It demands the scientists act as a class to bestow and withhold the favor of expert knowledge on their representatives. When you play the game, you might win, but you also might lose. Scientists could find their fortunes tied to one party, and a host of issues completely unrelated to science. They could find themselves on the losing end of an economic downturn, or a culture war, guilty by association.
By their words and actions, Republican candidates across America have rejected the favor of science, so what interests do scientists have in supporting them? Let them rule from the gut, let's see how far they get in a society that no matter how much it denies it, relies on scientific knowledge. But from here, scientists face an even more momentous choice. Tactically, their only allies are the Democrats, but Democrats are only marginally more credible on scientific issues. Thomas Friedman (420 Drink KoolAid EVRYDAY) says that we're primed for the rise of a third party. Does science have sufficient credibility and unity to form the core of that party?
This is very much à propos of none of the grand debates about the future. It can hardly be, because urban form is necessarily so static, so hard to change, so grounded in heavy expensive physical bricks. It's something we're pretty much stuck with whatever else happens.
A recent post on transit consultant Jarrett Walker's blog Human Transit discusses why it's misleading to talk about the average density of a city or urban area. There are other factors, but mainly it's misleading because the average tells us nothing about the shape of the curve, and also because it averages over land area when, in trying to decide policy, we ought to think about what affects the most people.
The US Census Bureau defines urban areas by taking a city center and eating up adjacent blocks until it reaches areas that are not built up (or another urban area.) The blocks that are included are contiguous blocks with density at least 1000/sq. mi. and adjacent blocks with density at least 500/sq. mi. Such an area will include both high-rises and suburbia, and the average density (which the Census Bureau provides) tells us nothing about urban form. For example, it rates Los Angeles as more dense than New York, which is obviously misleading. Nevertheless, as we shall see, our prejudices are also often misleading, and more detailed and meaningful numbers can help us adjudicate between the two. So I downloaded some data from the 2000 census and made the following graphs, whose x-scale is pleasingly logarithmic:
There are a number of things that stand out in this graph, both obvious and surprising. Without much prejudice as to which is which, here are some of them.
- The densities of older cities (New York City, Chicago, and Boston) are essentially bimodal, with a dense, older urban core surrounded by low-density suburbs built up after World War II, although Boston's curve is oddly flat. The densities of newer cities are essentially unimodal. Everyone in LA lives at broadly the same density -- it's no accident even Italo Calvino called it a city without form.
- About 7 of the 18 million people in greater New York City -- the vast majority of whom form much of the population of the city proper -- live at densities that are home to only about 5% of LA, the Bay Area, Boston and Chicago.
- On the other hand, LA's curve is pretty much uniformly higher than Chicago's; for any given density, there are more Angelenos living above it than Chicagoans. This is worth dwelling on because most people think of Chicago, and not LA, as a Real City with tall buildings. I suspect I know the reason for this. The densest parts of Chicago are the Loop and the lakeshore on the North Side; these are also the most affluent, most-visited, most touristy parts. On the other hand, the touristy, impressive, upscale parts of LA are spread all over the place, and are mostly not in the densest parts, which are the areas just east and west of Downtown as well as South Central, that place whose condition is so shameful they gave up and renamed it to South LA. (Hollywood is also very dense, but, outside the famous bits, also rather poor.) Even if you live in a city, you are mostly a tourist outside your own neighborhood, and so the parts you see are unrepresentative. "[Y]our stereotype of Los Angeles may be a ranch-style house with a big pool on a cul-de-sac," writes Jarrett; indeed, we think of LA as low density because when we think of a city we first think of its sparkly rich parts. (I kind of exclude myself from this 'we' since I like to grub around in ethnic neighborhoods, but it still applies to some degree.)
This also makes me suspect that the best public transit model for LA would be the one that Chicago uses: rail lines that go to most places, but not necessarily from everywhere to everywhere, and faster, better buses. This seems to be what is already happening, but it will require free transfers and higher frequencies off-peak to make it really convenient.
- While the most common density for the other Western cities is between the two peaks of the Eastern ones, Seattle, despite its hipster image, seems to pretty much be a sea of sprawl; it has a single peak which is around that of New York and Chicago's suburbs.
- Atlanta deserves its reputation as a sprawl capital. Not only does it entirely consist of low-density suburbs, but those suburbs are actually considerably lower-density than those of other cities.
- Las Vegas is middling dense, if you average over the metro area, but amazingly uniform. Half its population lives in densities within a factor of two of each other.
I'd be curious to try this on cities outside the United States, and on more diverse urban forms, but not so curious as to look for the data myself.
"I want to state the following moral principle: If a new technology makes it possible to avoid a conflict between legitimate interests, it is our duty to use the new technology."
--Stellan Welin Reproductive Ectogenesis
Sometimes technological effects change is incremental, other times it is transformative. Making an entire section of moral and ethical conflict obsolete is one of the most transformative uses of technology. Beyond the technical limitations surrounding our lives, we are shaped by the moral character of the debates those technologies engender. Welin is speaking of ectogenesis, incubating embryos outside a female womb, and the abortion debate, but similar issues apply with other technologies. Digital media and intellectual property law is a contemporary case, uploading and physical murder may be one in the future.
Do we have an obligation to bypass conflict with technology?