In Search of Big Dumb Objects

by Joshua Wilbur 

I first encountered a Big Dumb Object (“BDO”) in an underfunded school library in rural East Texas. Sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor, I held a battered paperback just a few inches from my face, periodically turning it over to inspect the image on the book’s cover.


I was twelve years old—“the real golden age of science-fiction”—and Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama captivated my imagination. The novel’s premise is simple: an alien starship, a massive cylinder of unknown origin and construction, has entered the solar system, and a crew of scientists must investigate. Thin on plot (and even thinner on characterization), Rama lingers in my memory not for what’s hidden within the vessel but for what’s kindled from without, from the mere suggestion of a colossus come from the stars. It stirred in me what sci-fi critics have called the “sense of wonder,” a feeling of awe that courses through the heart of the genre.

Nothing better epitomizes this sense of wonder than “Big Dumb Objects,” a term coined by Roz Kaveney and lovingly adopted by fans of the science fiction genre. BDOs, as you’ll have guessed, are really big, dumb in the old sense of “mute, silent, refraining from speaking,” and usually serve as a focal point for narrative action. Mysterious thing is discovered; mysterious thing is explored. In a Weird Things column for The Guardian, Damien Walter defines the BDO:

“ … the Big Dumb Object (BDO) is a unique selling point of the sci-fi genre. It can be a broad term – usually, they’re alien architectures, ranging from the man-sized to the planetary. BDOs either look extreme or unusual, and can often do extreme or unusual things: everything from lurking on a horizon to creating worlds. Usually, BDOs are plonked into plots to awe us with their majesty and mystery – really, they’re science fiction’s equivalent of a MacGuffin.” Read more »

Where in the World Are You?

by Carol A Westbrook

“Drive east 6 blocks and then turn right, and you’ll be there,” I told my son.

He answered, “Forget it. I don’t know which way is east. I’ll just use my GPS.”

I was incredulous. How could any native Chicagoan not know where east is located–toward Lake Michigan, of course! How could he not be able to find his way without GPS directions? After all, Chicago is merely a grid, as you can see on the map below. The streets are straight lines, oriented north-south and east-west, with 8 blocks to a mile. The street numbers increase by 100 every block, with the zero-zero point being downtown, at State and Madison. Give me the coordinates and I can locate you precisely and find my way there using the map in my head (except for those baffling diagonal streets). And if you prefer to use a compass, rest easy, because the compass declination in Chicago is close to zero

I shouldn’t be surprised that my son, like most younger adults, prefers his GPS. A recent survey showed that four out of five 18 to 30-year olds can’t navigate without electronic guidance, whereas more than half of people over 60 were very comfortable with maps. Myself, I prefer a map. If find my GPS is distracting when I’m driving, and if I follow it blindly I lose my place on my mental map.

Yes, I carry a map of Chicago in my head, or any other place I’m staying for more than a few days–including a hotel room. (It’s a handy way to get to the bathroom in the dark.) Most people have mental maps of their immediate vicinity and the areas where they normally travel; how they use those maps is another story. Read more »

In-Gendered Empathy

by Max Sirak

Recently I embarked on an unexpected and enlightening adventure.

I went to Las Vegas with four of my oldest friends to see some music. The band, Phish, was playing for a four night run at the MGM Grand’s Garden Arena and we decided to meet up and attend. It also happened to be over Halloween.

For those unfamiliar, Phish is a four-piece band that owes its legacy to the Grateful Dead. Their fans are fiercely loyal and regularly tour with the band, traveling from location to location and seeing as many concerts as they can. This is because Phish shows are fun

They’re equal parts concert and carnival. Beach balls and balloons bounce around the room when the band plays. The fans are engaged. They dress up in costumes. They make signs in hopes of encouraging the group to play certain songs. At a peak musical moment, the crowd spontaneously begins throwing hundreds, if not thousands, of Glow Sticks around the venue. This is called a “Glow Stick War.”

The concerts are between three and four hours. There’s no opening act and always a set-break (intermission). The music is largely instrumental and is accompanied by one of the best light shows in the business.

In preparation for the trip, a group text emerged. There were all sorts of details to hash out. Flight times, hotel reservations, and Halloween costumes were all discussed. It was quickly decided we’d dress up differently for each evening. Read more »

Callous Doughboys Band

by Christopher Bacas

I stayed out late the night before I left for college, saying goodbye to friends whose future included institutions even more punitive than mine. My parents packed my belongings in two long, green army duffel bags purchased at “Sunny’s Surplus”, where you could buy Afro picks with folding handles, decommissioned grenades and a “knuckle knife”.

At Baltimore-Washington airport, I watched a young man carrying a black-leather trumpet case unload his luggage from a Rolls Royce. My parents thought he might be going to school with me. I doubted them. My throat burnt by cheap Mexican weed, trumpet kid looked as sullen as I felt. He boarded with me and we flew southwest. At Dallas-Fort Worth, we both headed to the baggage carousels, still avoiding eye contact. The area gradually cleared, leaving a cluster of freshman music students. A saxophonist unpacked a gleaming Yamaha alto and played scales with a windup, wooden metronome. He began them slowly and evenly, a proper music lesson, and ended each with a monsoon of notes whose velocity propelled his body backwards, a cephalopod in flight.

A few of us took out the letters promising shuttle bus service to our dorm in Denton. At the curb, unmarked vans pulled in, waited and left, sometimes without picking up passengers. They drove through a lattice of Texas sun and graphite shadow. It was one-hundred and fourteen degrees. Read more »

Do You Have a Moral Duty to Leave Facebook?

S. Matthew Liao in the New York Times:

I joined Facebook in 2008, and for the most part, I have benefited from being on it. Lately, however, I have wondered whether I should delete my Facebook account. As a philosopher with a special interest in ethics, I am using “should” in the moral sense. That is, in light of recent events implicating Facebook in objectionable behavior, is there a duty to leave it?

In moral philosophy, it is common to draw a distinction between duties to oneself and duties to others. From a self-regarding perspective, there are numerous reasons one might have a duty to leave Facebook. For one thing, Facebook can be time-consuming and addictive, to no fruitful end. In addition, as researchers have demonstrated, Facebook use can worsen depression and anxiety. Someone who finds himself mindlessly and compulsively scrolling through Facebook, or who is constantly comparing himself unfavorably with his Facebook friends, might therefore have a duty of self-care to get off Facebook.

From the perspective of one’s duties to others, the possibility of a duty to leave Facebook arises once one recognizes that Facebook has played a significant role in undermining democratic values around the world.

More here.  [Thanks to Sean Carroll who left Facebook today and cited this article in his farewell note.]

Despite vast increases in the time and money spent on research, progress is barely keeping pace with the past. What went wrong?

Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen in The Atlantic:

It’s surprisingly difficult to measure scientific progress in meaningful ways. Part of the trouble is that it’s hard to accurately evaluate how important any given scientific discovery is.

Consider the early experiments on what we now call electricity. Many of these experiments seemed strange at the time. In one such experiment, scientists noticed that after rubbing amber on a cat’s fur, the amber would mysteriously attract objects such as feathers, for no apparent reason. In another experiment, a scientist noticed that a frog’s leg would unexpectedly twitch when touched by a metal scalpel.

Even to the scientists doing these experiments, it wasn’t obvious whether they were unimportant curiosities or a path to something deeper. Today, with the benefit of more than a century of hindsight, they look like epochal experiments, early hints of a new fundamental force of nature.

More here.

Matt Taibbi: Why You Should Care About the Julian Assange Case

Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone:

If you hate Assange because of his role in the 2016 race, please take a deep breath and consider what a criminal charge that does not involve the 2016 election might mean. An Assange prosecution could give the Trump presidency broad new powers to put Trump’s media “enemies” in jail, instead of just yanking a credential or two. The Jim Acosta business is a minor flap in comparison.

Although Assange may not be a traditional journalist in terms of motive, what he does is essentially indistinguishable from what news agencies do, and what happens to him will profoundly impact journalism.

Reporters regularly publish stolen, hacked and illegally-obtained material. A case that defined such behavior as criminal conspiracy would be devastating. It would have every reporter in the country ripping national security sources out of their rolodexes and tossing them in the trash.

More here.

The Autocracy App

Jacob Weisberg in the New York Review of Books:

Cardboard cutouts of Mark Zuckerberg placed outside the Capitol to protest the spread of disinformation on Facebook, Washington, D.C., April 2018

Facebook is a company that has lost control—not of its business, which has suffered remarkably little from its series of unfortunate events since the 2016 election, but of its consequences. Its old slogan, “Move fast and break things,” was changed a few years ago to the less memorable “Move fast with stable infra.” Around the world, however, Facebook continues to break many things indeed.

In Myanmar, hatred whipped up on Facebook Messenger has driven ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. In India, false child abduction rumors on Facebook’s WhatsApp service have incited mobs to lynch innocent victims. In the Philippines, Turkey, and other receding democracies, gangs of “patriotic trolls” use Facebook to spread disinformation and terrorize opponents. And in the United States, the platform’s advertising tools remain conduits for subterranean propaganda.

Mark Zuckerberg now spends much of his time apologizing for data breaches, privacy violations, and the manipulation of Facebook users by Russian spies. This is not how it was supposed to be. A decade ago, Zuckerberg and the company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, championed Facebook as an agent of free expression, protest, and positive political change. To drive progress, Zuckerberg always argued, societies would have to get over their hang-ups about privacy, which he described as a dated concept and no longer the social norm.

More here.

Rob Reich on “Is philanthropy bad for democracy?”

From Julia Galef’s Rationally Speaking:

This episode features political scientist Rob Reich, author of “Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy, and How it Can Do Better”. Rob and Julia debate his criticisms of philanthropy: Does it deserve to be tax-deductible? Is it a violation of the autonomy of recipients to attach strings to their charitable gifts? And do philanthropists have too much power in society?

More here.

In the 1970s, the Swedish labor movement developed a plan to gradually socialize ownership. What can we learn from it today?

Peter Gowan and Mio Tastas Viktorsson in Jacobin:

Confronting the power of capital in the United States will require a plan.

We may be confident that the concentration of capital in the hands of a tiny minority represents both the primary obstacle to economic equality and one of the most fundamental threats to democracy in America, but without a concrete agenda capable of securing control over capital for the people, we will never succeed in overcoming these problems.

The potential benefits of public control over the 30 percent of the national income which flows to capital are immense: a society which can provide a level of comfort, security, and freedom currently unknown by most, a massive reduction in racial and gender wealth gaps, and a healthier democracy.

As such, the question of how to secure control of capital for the people must be engaged seriously, honestly, and by drawing upon the lessons of others who have tried to do so before.

More here.

A look at the life and career of Edward Said

From Al Jazeera:

Born to affluent parents in Palestine under the British mandate in 1935, Edward W Said devoted his adult life to raising awareness of the Palestinian cause on the world stage. A literature professor at Columbia University and celebrated intellectual, “he was a scholar and an ordinary man’s person,” according to the Independent’s Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk.

A fatal diagnosis with leukaemia in 1991 prompted him to start working on Out of Place: A Memoir, a coming-of-age story of exile and a celebration of his irrecoverable past. In this masterpiece, Said rediscovers the lost Arab world of his early years in Palestine, as well as in Lebanon and Egypt.

Raised as a Protestant in a predominately Eastern Orthodox community in Jerusalem, he realised early in life that he had something of a split identity. His first name was British, his last name Arabic and he carried an American passport through his father’s US army service in the first world war.

More here.

Women Beyond the Verge

Lidija Haas in Bookforum:

Two Southern belles on the run get catcalled one too many times by the same schlubby dude; they blow up his truck. A couple of rough-and-ready French chicks talk their way into an architect’s house—his place is “like a drawing by a well-balanced child,” as is his smug, suave, symmetrical mug—and point their Smith & Wessons at him, all the while admiring both his book collection and his calm under pressure. “It’s clear to me,” one of them tells him affectionately, “that you stand out from our past encounters.” Then she shoots him in the face. “Get your fucking hands off me, goddamn it!” yells a leader of the National Women’s Political Caucus at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, addressing the member of the white-guy network-news crowd who is trying to restrain her as she rages over their failure to cover her group’s contributions. “The next son of a bitch that touches a woman is gonna get kicked in the balls.” A ten-year-old African American girl, menaced by a white boy, picks up a chunk of brick and aims it at him. When an avowed pussy-grabber tries to win a presidential debate against his female opponent by trotting out a bunch of women who’ve accused her husband of rape and other misconduct, a woman journalist takes to cable news to defend her beloved historic candidate, “shaking and red-faced with rage.”

Furious women make for good montage. It’s true that the examples above are angry for very different reasons and channel their anger in very different ways; it’s also true that the first two scenarios are fictional. Still, together they give you a glimpse of the kinds of pleasures and frustrations on offer for readers of Good and Mad, journalist Rebecca Traister’s reported manifesto on feminism after Trump. Traister’s thesis seems at first a seductively straightforward one. She argues that the rage of “nonwhite non-men” as a political force has so far not been given anywhere near its due in American history and culture, that it has been responsible for a significant portion of progressive change in this country, and thus that the newish angry-woman constituencies fired up by the 2016 election (many of them white and comfortably off) are part of a proud lineage, and should be celebrated and encouraged. It’s an intriguing double move—giving women of color their rightful, pioneering place in feminist and progressive history while also insisting on the automatic right of white liberal feminists to be directly identified with a more radical tradition.

More here.

Is the Aeneid a Celebration of Empire—or a Critique?

Daniel Mendelsohn in The New Yorker:

Since the end of the first century A.D., people have been playing a game with a certain book. In this game, you open the book to a random spot and place your finger on the text; the passage you select will, it is thought, predict your future. If this sounds silly, the results suggest otherwise. The first person known to have played the game was a highborn Roman who was fretting about whether he’d be chosen to follow his cousin, the emperor Trajan, on the throne; after opening the book to this passage—

I recognize that he is that king of Rome,
Gray headed, gray bearded, who will formulate
The laws for the early city . . .

—he was confident that he’d succeed. His name was Hadrian.

Through the centuries, others sought to discover their fates in this book, from the French novelist Rabelais, in the early sixteenth century (some of whose characters play the game, too), to the British king Charles I, who, during the Civil War—which culminated in the loss of his kingdom and his head—visited an Oxford library and was alarmed to find that he’d placed his finger on a passage that concluded, “But let him die before his time, and lie / Somewhere unburied on a lonely beach.” Two and a half centuries later, as the Germans marched toward Paris at the beginning of the First World War, a classicist named David Ansell Slater, who had once viewed the very volume that Charles had consulted, found himself scouring the same text, hoping for a portent of good news.

What was the book, and why was it taken so seriously? The answer lies in the name of the game: sortes vergilianae. The Latin noun sortes means lots—as in “drawing lots,” a reference to the game’s element of chance. The adjective vergilianae, which means “having to do with Vergilius,” identifies the book: the works of the Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro, whom we know as Virgil. For a long stretch of Western history, few people would have found it odd to ascribe prophetic power to this collection of Latin verse. Its author, after all, was the greatest and the most influential of all Roman poets. A friend and confidant of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, Virgil was already considered a classic in his own lifetime: revered, quoted, imitated, and occasionally parodied by other writers, taught in schools, and devoured by the general public. Later generations of Romans considered his works a font of human knowledge, from rhetoric to ethics to agriculture; by the Middle Ages, the poet had come to be regarded as a wizard whose powers included the ability to control Vesuvius’s eruptions and to cure blindness in sheep.

However fantastical the proportions to which this reverence grew, it was grounded in a very real achievement represented by one poem in particular: the Aeneid, a heroic epic in twelve chapters (or “books”) about the mythic founding of Rome, which some ancient sources say Augustus commissioned and which was, arguably, the single most influential literary work of European civilization for the better part of two millennia.

More here.

The Ethical Quandary of Human Infection Studies

Linda Nordling in Undark:

In February of last year, 64 healthy adult Kenyans checked into a university residence in the coastal town of Kilifi. After a battery of medical tests, they proceeded, one by one, into a room where a doctor injected them with live malaria parasites. Left untreated, the infection could have sickened or even killed them, since malaria claims hundreds of thousands of lives every year.

But the volunteers — among them casual laborers, subsistence farmers, and young mothers from nearby villages — were promised treatment as soon as infection took hold. They spent the next few weeks sleeping, eating, and socializing together under the watchful eye of scientists, giving regular blood samples and undergoing physical exams. Some grew sick within a couple of weeks, and were treated and cleared of the parasite before being sent home. Those who did not fall ill were treated after three weeks as a precaution and discharged, too.

As compensation, the volunteers received between $300 and $480 each, or roughly $20 a day, a rate based on the minimum wage for casual laborers in Kenya and the out-of-pocket allowance set for overnight stays by KEMRI, the Kenya Medical Research Institute.

More here.