Thursday, February 21, 2008

Best kids' movie in last decade?

Jeff's grandma just sent him a copy of The Iron Giant - along with a beautiful hand-knitted scarf.

I saw TIG when it first came out, before Jeff was born, and I've seen it a few times since. But unlike most of the other kids' movies I've had to watch a bazillion times (that's how kids are, when they like something they want to see it a lot), I just can't get tired of it.

The story is about Hogarth, the child of a waitress single mother in a small town in Maine during the height of the Cold War, who makes friends with a giant robot from space. Who the robot is or where he came from isn't gone into much. What's more important is who other people think the robot is. Hogarth has to hide his enormous friend from the suspicious world - especially Kent Mansley, an insanely paranoid government agent who makes General Jack D. Ripper look like a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Hogarth has the help of Dean, a beatnik junkyard owner who makes art out of his junk. The portrait of the period is just fantastic. Of course I wasn't actually born yet, so maybe someone who was alive then could contradict me. But the American Paranoid attitude never goes out of style, and the CW was just one of the more famous incarnations of the same attitude that's running our country today.

The movie has some great action scenes when the robot's weapon-like background reveals itself. But in the end the movie is about the struggle (both within the robot and within us) between the inclination to shoot first and ask questions later, and the much more difficult decision to try to accept what we don't understand. Especially for boys, it's got the perfect combination of cool action and the right message.

Whether you have kids or not, you absolutely have to see this. To make it even better, it might be one of the last great big-budget animation movies done with hand drawings instead of CGI. Check it out.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Late report back from Boskone

I haven't written about Boskone until now because there is something going on in my head that's making it unbearable to stay up past 8:30. It's wreaking havoc with my writing schedule too, let me tell you.

So what happened at Boskone?

Saw a great panel by Matthew Jarpe about new drugs being developed, at which I learned a lot. It's easy to get down on Big Pharma about their business practices, and there's a lot to criticize. But as Matthew pointed out, developing a new drug can take 10-15 years from start to finish, and cost 800 million or more. And at the end, as apparently happens quite frequently, you might end up with a product that doesn't work, or at least doesn't work well enough to sell as a drug. So that illuminates part of why the companies act the way they do.

I also saw a number of panels about story writing by James Patrick Kelly, as well as a reading by him. As a Clarion applicant, it was hard to work up the courage to introduce myself to Kelly at his autographing. As it turned out, there was no reason for fear at all. Kelly is one of the nicest, most laid-back guys I've ever talked to. He asked with genuine concern and interest about my writing career, and was genuinely congratulatory when I told him about the Apex story.

On Sunday, after I saw Kelly read, got to talk to Matthew about writing for a while. He told me a bunch of his story ideas, none of which I will steal :). I wanted to see his second reading on the future of health care, but I didn't want to miss out on Jennifer Pelland reading from her new Apex book Unwelcome Bodies. I am going to pre-order this book and so should you. She read most of the story "Brushstrokes," then teasingly left it unfinished.

Then I saw a reading by Howard Waldrop, a name I've been aware of for awhile but whose work I am only just discovering. No matter how much I read in sci-fi and fantasy, I always find there's more to discover. That's what makes it fun.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Finished Clarion App

Called in sick today (yes, I really am sick) and spent the entire day applying to Clarion. What a nerve-wracking experience. I was most of the way through when I realized that my stories weren't in quite the right format. I tried to go back, but everything froze up. I had to close out and do most of the app over again.

At least Clarion's app is fairly transparent; next I have to figure out how to apply to Clarion West, which has an application faq page, but no apparent link to the page to apply. [Whoops, it's on the first page. I would swear it wasn't there before if I wasn't such a space.]

I am not going to get my hopes up too much here. Everyone tells me that this year is going to be especially difficult. After all, Neil Gaiman is on the staff this year. And Clarion West has Cory Doctorow and Chuck Palahniuk. I really wanted to do Odyssey, but that starts in early June, which is Regents Month at New York Public Schools. Blah. Well, it's not as if I won't have a fun summer anyway; before Clarion we were planning to spend two months in Hood River, and I can still live with that.

Simultaneously, Jen just finished her NEA app. She said she'll give me all the money. I'm recording this now so there's a record.

PS. Matthew Jarpe, if you're reading this I put your name under "List Clarion graduates you know." Hope that's okay. :)

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Murdoch's MySpace censors athiests

I usually don't like to make a big deal about stuff like this, but this is absolute crap. (Thanks to Peter Watts for the alert.) What is worse, perhaps, is that it has generated barely a blip in the general news coverage. One can only imagine the outrage if the site had shut down these guys, or these or these or even the self-proclaimed "Mormon Mafia," which appears to be a genuine LDS meeting place.

And what did this group do to be shut down? They merely existed, and talked about the fact that they don't believe in an omnipotent intelligence running the universe. As with these guys at Wilifred Laurier University, all it took was for a group of Christians to get together and complain that the mere existence of an atheist group offended them so much that it could not be permitted. A couple thousand years ago (and a few places in the world even today), Christians were genuinely prosecuted, being thrown to the lions for so much as proclaiming their belief. In America, however, there is this ridiculous persecution complex in which certain Christians wail oppression at the mere fact that you refuse to believe what they want you to. Yeah, I'm sure that's exactly what Tom Jefferson had in mind.

Let me re-iterate that unlike the new "militant atheist" movement (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.), I don't have much of a problem with Christianity, though I'm not a Christian myself. Jen is, and I have learned a lot from her. In fact, I am down with about ninety percent of the moral precepts of most of the major religions out there. The stuff I don't like in various religions (the gay-hating, the burkas, crusades & suicide bombers, etc.) tends to be cultural stuff tacked on and given a scriptural justification. I usually say I'm an agnostic, but the whole atheist/agnostic divide means a lot more to believers than it does to non-believers. In my case the word usually means "I don't believe in your God but it's cool if you do and I don't want to argue about it."

But this kind of closed-minded censorship really brings out my inner Dawkins. Not that this is about me personally. I'm a white middle-class American heterosexual male - almost certainly the least-oppressed demographic on the planet Earth. And I have never seen a reason for a MySpace page, since I'm happily married and not in a band. But it frightens me to think that a large power base in our country feels that it shouldn't even be okay for people like me to talk about our beliefs, or lack of them.

I really wouldn't mind if someone told me I had misinterpreted this whole thing and there was some perfectly legitimate reason the group was shut down. Then I'll put a mea culpa in the update and a strikethrough through this whole post. But if not, how can this be okay?

Monday, February 4, 2008

Cover art for Issue 12 of Apex inspired by my story!

Jason Sizemore just alerted me that at the Apex Digest LiveJournal page they've just put up a teaser of the cover of Issue 12, a beautiful piece of work by Osvaldo Gonzalez inspired by my story "I Can't Look at the City," which will appear in that issue.

Like any good piece of art should, it gave me reason to look at my own story in a new way. To see a talented artist take inspiration from your own work and view it through his own artistic lens is certainly the most sincere form of flattery I can think of. Good work Osvaldo, and thanks again to Jason for the opportunity!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Trolleys, fat men, and the follies of utilitarianism

Please participate in my highly scientifical, completely experimental scientific experiment:

You are in a situation where there is an opportunity to to [horrible thing X]. You become aware, through a brief moment of unexplained omnipotence, that you can be absolutely certain that if you do not do [horrible thing X] that [even more horrible thing Y] will happen. Will you do [horrible thing X]?

What? You won't? What kind of a moral imbecile are you? Can't you see that according to my highly experimental scientifical and completely realistic situation that I have constructed that the only reasonable thing to do is [horrible thing X]? Boy, what a bunch of idiots you non-scientifical layschmucks are.

Of course, there is now an entire field devoted to exploring similar experiments to the one above with literature that, according to the New York Times book review (sorry, it's not online) "makes the Talmud look like Cliff's notes." The most famous is the trolley problem, and the related "fat man trolley problem." In the simple trolley problem, a trolley is going to kill five people, and you can save them by switching the track, which only has one person on it. Stuff like this happens to me all the time.

Most people are willing to flip the switch. By comparison, in the related "fat man" problem, the only way to save the five people is to throw a single fat man in front of the trolley. He's fat, see, because you know that your skinny self won't stop the trolley, so there's no "out" through self-sacrificial altruism. I assume people who are already fat aren't allowed to participate in the experiment.

A lot of really intelligent people are shocked that experimental subjects who are willing to flip the switch to the single person are not willing to throw the fat guy. Or if not shocked, then patronizingly dismissive, like Peter Watts. Not to specifically pick on Watts; he's a crank in the good sense and we can't have enough of those.

I'd argue that the reason people can't seem to make this seemingly completely logical choice is that our sense of morality has evolved not to deal with completely logical theoretical situations like this, but rather to deal with moral choices we actually might have to make in real life.

The FMT problem assumes that you are somehow able to calculate, in the split-second you have to make the decision, that the mass of the FM will be enough to stop the trolley, but you won't. Also, that you'll be able to overcome the resistance of the FM and that the trolley going off the tracks won't cause even more death and destruction, and a thousand other things that no one could be expected to know. A thousand factors that you must somehow instantly calculate to determine that there is no alternative to going against what the Torah and Bible call the Sixth Commandment, a rule that's pretty universally noted (though not, unfortunately, so universally followed) in every religious and moral system anyone's ever come up with.

But Jim, you foolish literalist you, can't you see that this is a completely theoretical concept? We know that no one is actually going to have to make that choice. It's not like it's going to change what people do in the real world.

Recently enough, however, a completely different exercise in theoretical morality might well have had a similar effect. Alan Dershowitz, the famous legal mind who among other things defended OJ, argued not long after 9/11 that there might be circumstances under which there would be a justification for "torture warrants." His reasoning is based on the "ticking time-bomb terrorist case," in which we have a terrorist and are somehow absolutely certain that there is a ticking nuclear bomb that's going to blow up New York and that this terrorist knows where it is, but we somehow also don't know where it is ourselves. It doesn't take a lot of thought to see the similarities to the trolley problem. Tom Tomorrow had a brilliant cartoon, which I somehow can't find, in which he imagined a possibility that a small baby swallowed the instructions to disable a ticking time bomb. "Foolish shortsighted Congress! They never created a legal mechanism to cut open a baby!" wails a policeman.

The point is, if you think about it enough, you can come up with a theoretical situation under which any horrible action could theoretically be justified. Like imagine if, for some reason, um, if you didn't torture an innocent little girl to death, like, a hundred nuclear bombs would go off all over the world killing half of Earth's population! Would you torture the little girl? Would you? Would you? Come on, it's a completely logical theoretical situation!

A few years after Dershowitz' completely theoretical bit of reasoning, we discovered what was going on at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, which of course was nothing like what Dershowitz had in mind. But the moral reasoning here was like a game of telephone, in which all of the reasonable logical parts were lost as it passed from person to person. Once the possibility for torture became open to discussion, the barriers against it washed away like sand in the tides. Yes, I know it's not that simple. Our intelligence agencies have been torturing people for a long time, and Alan Dershowitz didn't open the gate himself, but rather was responding to the gates being opened by other people. The point is, theoretical arguments can have real-world outcomes.

But what about the fat-man trolley argument? We don't have an epidemic of people shoving obese people in front of trains, right? So what's the problem?

But then, for a lot of people, the Iraq war itself was a fat-man trolley type problem. Yes, people argued, a lot of people will die in the war (though in most cases, nobody they personally knew). But as a result we'll get rid of the monster Saddam, as a result saving many more people. That argument doesn't hold a lot of water now, because according to most estimates the number of people killed since the invasion has surpassed even the worst estimates of Saddam's monstrosities. And if you're being a strict utilitarian, you can't argue that it's different because we ourselves didn't kill all the people. The trolley went off the rails and straight through a pedestrian mall, just as anyone who has read much about the history of wars should have anticipated it might. That's why a lot of people preferred we stuck with a special-case variant of C6, one agreed to by all the members of the UN after WWII including us, to the effect of "you don't just go and attack another country that hasn't attacked you."

I'm not strictly opposed to utilitarianism. The most popular alternative view, which is to simply see morality as a bunch of rules to be followed because they're written in a really old book somewhere (or the UN charter, for that matter), has an equal if not greater number of shortcomings. But let's watch out for being really stupid by being too smart.