Space Operas, Audiobooks, and Linguistic Ponderings…

There’s been an interesting rabbit hole I’ve tumbled down lately. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’d been listening to a lot of podcasts, and there really are some amazing ones out there. It’s a great way to pass time while driving to and from work, driving to pick up the kids, or listening while doing work around the house and yard.

For whatever reason, several months back I got a deal on an Audible subscription and started listening to audiobooks. They’d never really piqued my interest before, but as an avid reader I sometimes just don’t want to put books down and do the stuff I need to do. Listening to a good audiobook while performing rote or mindless tasks is a great way to keep “reading” while taking care of business. Audiobooks are probably not for everyone, but I have to say that it’s worth giving them a shot. If you want to try Audible on a trial membership, check out this deal.

What I’ve found is that narrators can not only make or break an audiobook, but there’s a nuanced performance for fiction that fills a niche I didn’t know needed to exist. Despite the age-old comment that the movie is never as good as the book, visual arts do offer a different take on our tried-and-true favorites. The Hunger Games series is a fine example of this. The written trilogy by Suzanne Collins is fantastic, but the movies are also really quite good. There’s a thrill to a good action movie, especially when shared with the family, that’s not found in reading. Of course the flip side is that a good book allows our imaginations to run away with the story and characters and develop a mental image of a universe that exists nowhere except in our heads, and that’s what draws so many of us to reading.

Audiobooks fit neatly in between these two places. When a narrator voices their characters well, dialog can come alive in ways that it doesn’t on the written page. Your imagination still gets a great workout, but some of the mundane pieces are built for you, and the experience can be utterly amazing.

I’ve found that with several books, I’ve purchased the Kindle version and the Audible version, and will flip seamlessly back and forth between them. After I’ve listened to the audio version for a bit, I begin hearing dialog in the voice of the narrator which adds a bit of mental tactility to the reading experience.

So, with that all out of the way, I’ve found two series’ that I feel the need to share. Both are science fiction – a genre I like, but don’t tend to read much of – and both are “space operas”, a sub-genre I’m not sure I’ve ever read.

The first is the Bobiverse series, by Dennis E. Taylor. It’s an irreverent tale of the near future told in an Adams-esque style of humor, grounded with plausibly hard science. It’s not a difficult read by any means, and the characters are delightful in profoundly human ways. This was the series that cemented audiobooks for me. Ray Porter is a narration genius, and portrays the characters wonderfully. (eBooks, audiobooks)

After that series and some other reading and listening, I stumbled upon the Expeditionary Force series by Craig Alanson. In many ways this series feels pedestrian. The books have a definite formula that they follow which lends itself to a feeling of predictability. But the stories themselves are actually really good, and despite being able to predict the arc of each, the content still tends to be surprising. This series also has a fantastic narrator in R. C. Bray. A very worthwhile read for sci-fi fans.


So, that whole bit about where listening to audiobooks fits in between reading a book and watching a movie? I had an interesting listen that felt like it closed a loop there. I’ve always been a fan of linguistics, and after years of teachers in primary and secondary school thumping into my brain the “right” way to write and speak, I was a bit of a prescriptivist, clucking my tongue at grammar mistakes and misused words. A few years back I went back to college and got a degree in Writing and Rhetoric (just for fun). Throughout my time there, my prescriptivism melted away and was replaced with a descriptivist view.

Another audiobook I’m still listening through is the Audible version of The Story of Human Language, one of The Great Courses by Professor John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute. Lecture 18: Dialects Spoken Style, Written Style, and Lecture 19: Dialects: The Fallacy of Blackboard Grammar both fundamentally bolstered my views on descriptivism. One of the larger points made by McWhorter is that language is naturally and primarily a spoken venture. While we often look to writing as the ultimate form of language perfection, the vast majority of us speak more than we write, and listen more than we read. In fact, written language is still considerably “new” as compared to spoken language, and as such the formalities seen in written language are a newer construct a compared to language itself.

In the vein, it seems that audiobooks speak to our brains in a way that reading from a page simply cannot. Not only does the language get softened, but the processing centers of our brains that interpret language are more geared for vocalization than they are parsing words on a page or screen.

Audiobooks, I believe, may be the future of information and entertainment.

Fermi’s Paradox and Human Umwelt

I’ve spent a lot of time lately listening to mind-broadening podcasts. I can’t recommend highly enough checking out some of the ‘casts linked below if you like to make your brain-wiring more complex.

The most recent podcast adventure has been Rob Reid’s the After On podcast. It started as a way to visit the real-science topics in his fictional book of the same title.

There are a lot of great interviews with some try geniuses, but two struck me as oddly intertwined, despite not discussing one another. The first was Episode #8 with Stephen Webb about Fermi’s Paradox, and the second was Episode #22 with neuroscientist David Eagleman about our senses.

Stephen Webb has a great book called “Where Is Everybody?” which investigates 75 possible and plausible solutions to Fermi’s Paradox. In it, there are some hypotheses about how we’re just not looking the right way or for the right things. It outlines how we’re expecting an advanced civilization to leave some electromagnetic trace in the galaxy, and maybe we’re looking at the wrong frqeuncies. How we expect an advanced civilization to have created something like a Dyson Sphere, but we don’t see infrared radiation that we’d expect from one.

The interview with Eagleman talks about the human Umwelt and how our experiences of reality differ even from other terrestrial creatures and possibly even other humans. Even the way which we interpret the EM fields and radiation around us in often unlike other critters here on Earth do.

There’s a question often posited about something like color. We all “see” the same wavelength and call it blue. But what I see as blue may or may not actually be the same color that you see as blue. But since we’d both always label it as blue, we’d never know.

Extrapolate that to another level. Even assuming that all life experience the EM spectrum at all (which very well may not be the case), what we sense and how we sense it could be vastly different. If a civilization evolved to communicate via an organ that transmits and receives microwaves the way we transmit and receive sound, they aren’t going to use microwaves to push data around their planet; it would be tremendously noisy.

And this is even assuming that they not only sense the EM spectrum, but that their sense function remotely the same as our own. Birds and cows “feel” magnetism, some creatures “sense” electrical fields (some humans can “hear” electricity – I often have this sensation, though less so now than in the 80s when EM sources weren’t as well shielded), and some creatures develop the ability to produce visible light in biomes where visible light isn’t typically sense by other creatures which allow a sort of secret messaging. Here on Earth we all (so far as I’m aware) experience the world through EM, but even so it’s a vast array of “how”. And it’s entirely plausible that some terrestrial creatures sense things that we don’t. We know some methods of that: direct sensing pheromones and biochemical, sensing scent as a core method of building their world (ticks), et cetera. But how many don’t we know of?

In the end, we have expectations about intelligent life elsewhere in the universe that are very human centric. But just as we found that the solar system is not geocentric, and that the universe is not heliocentric, we are likely to learn that intelligent life is not homocentric.

Food for thought… we may look forever and not find our next door neighbors in the galaxy simply because our Umwelt and theirs are incompatible.

Wow, it’s been a while…

Hello, world!

It’s been a while, but I’ve recently found that I have a lot to say. I also just spent a little bit looking back through my posts. Apparently post-forty Xepherys is a little different than pre-forty Xepherys. Interesting notes to take on some of my past posts.

At any rate, there should be more activity around here again. Let’s see how long it lasts this time ‘round.

Why Words, Why?

Today I’ve discovered that there’s a word I’m not fond of.  It’s not a new, trendy buzzword.  It’s not some made up word from fiction.  It’s a word that I’ve used throughout my life, and that it’s only just dawned on me is an awful word…   sanction.  Not that the word itself is offensive, either, but that it’s two primary definitions are nearly antonymous.

sanc·tion
ˈsaNG(k)SH(ə)n/
noun
  1. 1.
    a threatened penalty for disobeying a law or rule.
    “a range of sanctions aimed at deterring insider abuse”
  2. 2.
    official permission or approval for an action.
    “he appealed to the bishop for his sanction”

So, it can be a threat for doing something wrong or it can merit approval.  Good job, English language, you have failed us yet again.  This came up because of a headline on Ars Technica that read: “Star Wars officially sanctions Rick Rubin-produced dance album”.  I assume that by “Star Wars” the author meant “Disney”, but the point remains that the title of the article could work in either meaning of sanction.  It’s not uncommon for Disney to frown upon unofficial derivatives, thus that was my initial understanding of the headline.  Apparently I understood incorrectly.

Streaming Media, Big Conglomerates, Disparate Parties, and YOU!!!

Today is a half-ranting, half-questioning the order of things type of day.  Ars Technica today has a story about Netflix losing the Warner Bros. portion of it’s catalog as WB plans to move forward with it’s own streaming media service.  This is a very mixed bag to me, and here’s why:

On one hand, I am holding on to all hope for the day that HBO Go becomes unshackled from the chains of cable/satellite subscriptions.  If I could pay HBO $4.99/mo to stream HBO Go without cable, I would ditch cable in a heartbeat.  That would be, to me, as or more valuable then the few bucks I give to Spotify every month.  Conversely, despite no longer being a Netflix subscriber, it irks me when content producers and publishers pull shows from content distributors to make their own service.  This splintering of availability can only be seen as a money-grab and really weakens the whole of the ecosystem.  (For the record, I feel this way about the video game industry as well, and wish awful things upon EA for being forced to use Origin when Steam would be better)

So, while I wish for a day when I can ditch cable entirely (it’s coming), I don’t necessarily want everything truly à la carte; I just want things better.  Hulu Plus and HBO Go (and previously Netflix), as well as game services like GameFly, are where I want things to go.  I just want them to also stay there once they land.

Rebuttal to Coffee Party Founder Annabel Park

Annabel,

First, for the most part I agree with much of the Coffee Party ideals that you’ve laid out over time.  As a Libertarian, my primary motivation is to lessen government control and invigorate personal freedoms.

This morning I read your post regarding your responses to pro-gun folk.  Unfortunately, I think you’ve responded to some of the more hyperbolic claims (though not all without any truth), which makes the pro-gun crowd seem a bit absurd.  I’d like to take this opportunity to rebut some of your comments, and hopefully add to the discussion.

Dear friends who can’t tolerate anyone bringing up gun control

In this section, I feel some lines are blurred.  The primary point that you are making, however, appears to be that regulation and a ban are different.  I agree with this.  However, regulation can effectively ban things.  For an example, let’s look at the recent BuckyBall fiasco (or click here for additional info).  In this case a federal body with no legislative authority, the CPSC, effectively shut down a company because a few children were injured by their products, despite warnings on the packaging.  These magnetic desk toys harm far fewer people than many other every day items – certainly fewer than guns.  This kind of reaction from the government is exactly what the seriously pro-gun crowd fears.  Sometimes hyperbole is more than paranoia.

Dear friends who say that calling for better gun laws is like calling for a ban on cars

Fair points.  Except that I would say that only a very specific selection of guns are created to kill people.  Most are made to protect people or to hunt animals.  The only guns explicitly made to kill people are assault rifles and sidearms designed for the military and various militia around the world.  This is a relatively small fraction of guns that are manufactured.  Just because something can kill people does not mean that it’s made to kill people.  Tasers are “non-lethal,” but still kill people with an oddly high probability.

Dear friends who say that Newtown is about mental illness and we should only discuss improving healthcare for the mentally ill

Perhaps “only” is too strong of a qualifier, but this is not an unreasonable approach.  A foundation of our country is supposed to be personal responsibility, for better or worse.  That includes placing responsibility on those responsible for actions.  Smith & Wesson doesn’t kill people as a company.  The guy who runs the local gun shop?  Probably doesn’t kill people.  The legislators who don’t create more stringent gun laws?  The judges who uphold our Constitutional rights?  Also probably not out slaying random citizens.  Just like in rape cases, we need to blame the person who is directly and immediately responsible for committing the crime.  Just like it’s not a woman’s fault for being raped because she dresses “provocatively,” it’s not anyone else’s fault but the shooter’s that people died by his or her hand (hand, and not gun, being imperative language here).

Dear friends who say the problem is the person not the gun

Well yes.  But this is also a bit of a misnomer.  Just like a terrorist will find a way, so will a lunatic.  I often joke in an agitated way about the TSA and it’s regulations.  I find it amusing that somehow matches are okay and a lighter is not, despite the fact that they both create fire.  Or that I can bring my keys on a plane, but not nail clippers.  I’m fairly confident that if I intended to physically harm someone on a plane, my keys would make a better weapon than nail clippers.  It’s about placing blame in ways that allow people to feel safe.  The problem isn’t the gun or the person with the gun, it’s the person who wants to kill people.  I’m additionally confident that if he couldn’t get a gun, he could’ve built a pipe bomb, or stolen a car and run kids down after school, or any number of other ways to harm others.  How can an inanimate object be to blame?  It’s simply a logical fallacy to believe that it possible.

Dear friends who say we need guns to protect ourselves from the government

I think, perhaps, you’d be surprised to find out that we wouldn’t need tanks and fighter jets and rocket launchers to overthrow our government.  We’d just need people and guns.  I’m a combat veteran with six years in the U.S. Army and a tour in Afghanistan.  I know first hand how resistance can be utilized with lesser equipment.  The Taliban don’t have tanks or Apaches, or armored vehicles, or a nuclear arsenal.  Yet they continue to kick our collective butts on their turf.  The American Revolutionary War was fought by some guys against the King’s Army – and we won (with a little help).  Look to the Arab Spring to see a multitude of examples or how regular plain old people without modern/better equipment or training have overthrown governments.  We just need ourselves and our guns.  Legitimately.

Dear friends who treat the Constitution as some holy scripture from God and who think they have divined the correct, original, literal, interpretation of it

This is a double-edged sword.  If we allow too much leeway in interpretation, then the government holds to power to eventually interpret it however they choose.  With legislation like the USA PATRIOT ACT, apparently many members of Congress feel they can mock the Constitution to begin with – why give them additional ammunition?

Dear friends who think we need more God in the classroom

On this, I agree wholeheartedly!

Dear friends who think we need more guns in the classroom to protect our children

Now you’ve turned the hyperbole train on yourself with: “Why stop at arming teachers? Why not arm children?”

First, children don’t have the frontal lobe development to discern appropriate actions where violence is concerned.  Simple biology and psychology tells us this.  But why NOT arm teachers, even if it’s only some?  Or allow/require schools to hire an armed guard?  A teacher friend of mine disliked my stance on this over Facebook, and asked why the police couldn’t just step up patrolling.  It’s interesting to me that teachers seem to not realize that they get paid exactly in the same fashion as police officers.  If there isn’t enough money for enough teachers, there probably isn’t enough money for more officers.  Maybe we can have one FEWER teacher at each school, and one ADDITIONAL officer to protect them all.  I bet the teachers would love that, too.

Dear friends who fear that your guns will be confiscated

While I agree that the NRA leadership isn’t exactly helpful in making things safer, I understand the fear that they harbor.  I’m not paranoid.  I highly doubt that in my lifetime the government will ever come for my single assault rifle (that I legally own).  However, I do fear that sometime in my children’s or grandchildren’s lifetime that this could happen.  Protecting the future of our country is as important as protecting the present.

So, there we have it… my piece of the discussion.  Annabel, I’d love to hear your thoughts on my comments.

-Jesse

Shock Jocks or Average Joes?

As some of you may have heard, last week saw a prank call by radio personalities in Australia to the hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge (Catherine “Kate” Middleton) is being seen for severe morning sickness.  Apparently, however, the nurse that took the call and passed it along to the ward where the Duchess was staying committed suicide on Friday, and all indicators point to this being caused by the prank calls.  Now there is a cry out against “shock jocks” (a moniker often reserved for the likes of Howard Stern, who certainly is more shocking than a prank call pretending to be the Queen Mother) and finger-pointing at the two Australians behind the calls.

Frankly, I think this is just insane.  It was a prank phone call.  It’s awful that Ms.  Jacintha Saldanha decided to take her own life over the issue, but is blaming these two radio personalities the answer?  If someone commits suicide because they lose their house, and it’s because they were legitimately not credit worthy, is it the bank’s fault that they took things to that level?  I say no.  What do you think?

Zealous Partisanship is Bad, mmm’kay?

Shame on Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson for her decision on Gary Johnson’s eligibility to run as the Libertarian candidate for President of the United States on Michigan ballots.  Instead of interpreting the sore loser law through a lens of common sense and dignity, she instead chose to make it an issue of partisan tom-foolery.

Incomprehensible!  I know who won’t be getting any votes from me in the future.

If you agree, contact the Secretary of State office.  If someone has a phone number or email, that would be ideal.  For now, use this contact form:

http://www.michigan.gov/sos/0,4670,7-127-15049-25634–,00.html

Explain to Secretary Johnson that chess-style manuevering should not trump the rightful and moral interpretation of our laws, either in the fine State of Michigan, or in our great country.

 

For more information, please read the following:

http://www.courthousenews.com/2012/09/20/50483.htm

http://www.examiner.com/article/gary-johnson-loses-battle-michigan-appealing-decision

2012: A Space Odyssey (almost for real)…

I love space.  Not personal space (though I enjoy that, too, from time to time) but outer space, interstellar space, the sparkle-filled, infinite near-void that surrounds the little rock we call home.  I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi that discussed space travel, nonfiction that detailedspace exploration, and day-dreaming about what’s out there that we can’t even begin to comprehend or guess at.

Several years ago, there was talk of real, true space travel (at least in low Earth orbit) for the everyperson, coming soon to a space port near you.  This intensified my interest greatly, and I’ve been keeping track of these programs – my favorite is SpaceX – ever since.  Then there were Pathfinder, Spirit, and Opportunity.  Rovers on Mars, collecting data that we’d never seen before.

So imagine my delight while watching NASA/JPL’s “7 Minutes of Terror” video outlining the landing of Curiosity (aka Mars Science Laboratory).  Now, about twelve hours after the fact, I am writing about the successful deployment of Curiosity on Mars’ surface – even having used all the craziness depicted in the video linked above.  A space crane?  between that and my iPad, I really feel like we’re closing in on Star Trek territory.

 

I am a happy and excited geek!