City States, Redux

I’ve posted about our strange city-ignoring system of governance before, and still suspect that in Canada particularly, we should re-organize the country into a system of cities and their associated hinterlands, at least from Sudbury west. Here’s an American take on the subject, with thoughtful comments that speak to Canada’s very different structure.

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Headlong Steampunk Exuberance

Cover art for The Black Lung Captain

I’ve just finished Chris Wooding’s The Black Lung Captain, and it’s a delight from start to finish. The world building is strictly kitchen-sink fantasy, with airships, demonology, wormhole travel, and a mad jumble of incompatible real-world technologies—shotguns and auto cannon cheek-by-jowl with magical tracking rings and half-sentient swords. It ought to come off as an amateurish pastiche, but the headlong pace of the story keeps your attention on the plot and the characters. It reminds me of Cynosure, in the Grimjack comics—basically everything is true, to one degree or another, in one neighbourhood or another, at least long enough to move the story ahead.

The best aspect, for me, was the omniscient narrator’s access to all the characters’ secret motivations and hidden agendas—our heroes are a tough, scroungy band of outsiders and outlaws, bristling with weapons and swagger. Inside, though, they’re as fretful and indecisive as any ordinary person—maybe a little more. The story proceeds on two levels at once—the strategy and tactics of a wild McGuffin chase across the planet, punctuated by gunfire, bloodshed, and airship malfunctions, and just as important, the successive revelations, reconciliations, and personal epiphanies that determine why they all persist in their hazardous adventures.

Wonderful stuff—dark and bright, violent and tender, but never gloomy or sadistic, and ultimately hopeful. Recommended.

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Intelligence and Chronotypes

Intelligent People All Have One Thing in Common: They Stay Up Later Than You

Facile, shallow, and only supported by only a modest amount of evidence—but as a confirmed night-owl I want to believe it, so it must be true. <grin>

Joking aside, though, I’m happy to see more articles about chronotypes and personality in the media lately—the long social dominance of early-bird values seems to be waning. Perhaps I’ll one day get to work in an office free from social jet-lag.

I’ve read about this fairly seriously, starting with William Dement’s The Promise of Sleep a decade ago. The best resource, though, is a somewhat more academic book (still quite approachable) by Till Roenneberg, called Internal Time. Recommended.

Cover of Till Roenneberg’s book, Internal Time.

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Reindeer may not actually fly, but they’re pretty cool

I knew that people used reindeer for traction, meat, hides, and milk, but had no idea anyone actually rode them.

Mongolian man riding a saddled reindeer.

I’m sort of impressed that they don’t trim down those big rangifer antlers—I’d hate to get a tine in the eye, myself.

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Scientific progress does not go BOINK!

Everyone should read this, I think. Non-scientists for the useful antidote to breathless reporting. Scientists, for a link you can forward to people asking breathless questions about dubious new results.

Progress in science almost never involves anyone shouting eureka! Anything new is by definition untested, unreplicated, unreliable. Trying to turn every mildly promising journal publication into an exciting news article is a folly of lazy journalists, and sometimes of university public-relations people—it has nothing to do with the progress of scientific understand. </rant>

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The Paradox of Choice

I love the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. They’ve started doing videos lately:

I don’t actually experience this particular sorrow very often, because I live mostly inside my own head—never been much of a sensation seeker. Still, ‘onism’ is a handy shorthand for both the fear of missing out, and the paradox of choice—that every choice made, every path taken, implies many other choices rejected, other turnings passed by, and the greater your awareness of choice—the bigger a world you inhabit, thanks to the media, the internet, and the tales of your adventurous friends—the greater your sense of loss.

The video captures those feelings wonderfully—most impressive.

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Soul-Sucking Office-Speak

Apart from vehement agreement, I have little to add to this excellent analysis. Well, except to point out that in a world full of people concealing their shoddy thinking with insufferable bafflegab, the best way to stand out is to convey your ideas in beautifully clear, concrete, and elegant language. And if you need a hand crafting just the right presentation, white paper, or proposal…that’s where I come in.

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Cave paintings as animation

This Nautilus article’s title overreaches a bit, but the rest is fascinating.

Cave Art Shadows by BY Miko Maciaszek


Art by Miko Maciaszek.

Cave paintings are wonderful in many different ways—strictly as works of art, as scientific evidence of technology and culture among early humans, and as a reminder of the universality of figurative art, as distinct from abstract or symbolic art. If you think about it a little, though, they also represent a very limited glimpse into the lives of their creators. Surely people able to paint realistic and beautiful animals must have had the capacity to create many other artworks, not as readily preserved across the millennia.

Consider: to create such beautiful images, the artists must have needed to practice—a lot. The cave walls are not daubed with a thousand crude sketches for every beautiful mature work. So there must have been a great deal of other art, probably in the same media but on different surfaces. Some would have been exercises and practice works, but surely not all top-quality work was hidden underground. They must have displayed art in other places too.

Did artists hold up paintings on hide or bark, say, by camp-fires or in the light of oil lamps in their tents, and use sequential presentation of different images to tell a story? Did the people who visited the caves have to interpret the images there from first principles, or did they see them in the light of a lifetime of other art performances? Were the cave paintings the main focus of attention, or were they backdrops for theatre or dance performances?

Similarly, what about their clothing, their ritual costumes, their tools and weapons, their tents, travois, storage vessels, or what-have-you? These things have not come down to us, and in fact there are almost no depictions of human beings in these cave paintings. Did they have a taboo of some sort against painting the image of a person? Some rule against graven images, perhaps? Or did that apply only to the cave paintings? What did everything else look like, among the people who made these?

So, thanks to Zach Zorich for this article—partly for the delightful suggestion that ancient cave-paintings were actually animations, and even more for inspiring so much fruitful speculation on what else they might have been.

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Challenging ideas? Try communicating visually.


I wish I could convince everyone just how useful it is to put complex ideas in visual form. Not everyone deals well with abstractions, and even for those who do, it’s a lot more work, and hence a deterrent to learning. Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe is excellent for that reason—I don’t know that it’s a particularly excellent history, but it’s likely to engage and educate far more people than any text-only equivalent.

I say this as a writer myself—I believe in the power of words to explain, convince, inspire, and engage. But when you have controversial, difficult, or off-putting material at hand, you need to use every available tool to engage the reader’s attention, and connect the abstract and general with the concrete and particular.

Given 100 people you’d like to understand (say) climate change, would you rather end up with one expert and 99 completely uninformed people, or 90 decently well-informed people and 10 uninformed? (There’s a hard core of wilful people you’ll probably never reach.) I’d like to see more instances of the latter, myself, but it’s hard to argue that approach, because it gets mixed up with mass-media approach: dumbing down the ideas so far that you get one angry expert, fuming at the stupidity, and 99 who know nothing, but confidently believe they understand the issue much better than the experts.

Try to pitch accessible, engaging, entertaining explanations, and the aforesaid angry experts denounce you for pandering. Understandable, but counterproductive. So, by way of evidence, here is a startling and fascinating take on the issue of drug addiction, in cartoon form—carefully fact-checked, expert-reviewed cartoons, you understand—by an impressive Australian artist.

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Correlation does not imply causation—but you knew that, right?

Brilliant. Though personally I blame the pandas. Those parallel trend lines can’t be a coincidence. Just look: it’s all there in black and white.

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