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Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction

“When transformation is done right, it’s like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, but when done wrong, all you have is a rejiggered caterpillar.”*…

Mail trucks, with mostly short and predictable routes, are naturals to lead the electrification revolution. But as Aaron Gordon explains, the USPS, as an institution, is not…

A year ago, the USPS announced it was buying between 50,000 and 165,000 new delivery trucks over the next decade from Oshkosh Defense, a defense contractor based in Wisconsin, as part of the long-awaited replacement of the current iconic mail trucks. The USPS provided few details about the vehicles, except to highlight key features like air conditioning, automatic emergency braking, and other safety technology, none of which the famous boxy neighborhood delivery vehicles have. The USPS also said the trucks would be a mix of both battery electric and internal combustion engine vehicles, but didn’t specify the ratio. 

At first, the new vehicles, whether gas or electric, were a hit. They’re rather cute for a truck, with a low front grill and huge windshield, giving it the unmistakable likeness of a duck. And your friendly neighborhood postal worker desperately needs them, since the USPS’s current fleet of trucks is 30 years old on average, far longer than the USPS expected them to run. It costs the USPS $5,000 per vehicle per year in maintenance alone to keep them running. And despite that exorbitant expense, it still can’t stop dozens of them from spontaneously combusting every year

But what began as mostly good-natured celebration over a cute, much-needed truck went downhill fast. It increasingly became clear the massive order was utterly unfit for the modern age. In a legally-mandated environmental review, the USPS revealed the gas version of the truck will get essentially the same miles per gallon with the air conditioning on as the current truck gets, or about 8 mpg, worse than the RAM ProMaster, which the USPS also uses, which gets roughly 14 mpg. It also revealed the truck’s weight was selected to be precisely one pound heavier than the “heavy duty truck” cutoff which frees it from various environmental regulations, including getting better gas mileage. And, most controversially of all, only 10 percent of the trucks will be electric, even though the USPS itself said in the environmental review that 95 percent of its routes are fit for EVs.

Why? Well, part of the reason is internal…

“The Postal Service made individual decisions that might have been rational,” said Michael Ravnitzky, chief counsel to the chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission from 2009 to 2015, “but taken as a whole, they don’t seem explicable to the public because the public is judging it by today’s standards, rather than the standards of when [the postal service] started this, like 10 or 15 or 20 years ago.”…

Starting in the 1980s, the USPS had to pay its own bills, received no subsidies from Congress, had no mandate to consider environmental or social issues, and mostly heard from Congresspeople when they were getting complaints about their local post office reducing its hours but were nowhere to be found when it came time to discuss the $56 billion in made-up debt the agency had been saddled with. If politicians weren’t publicly rooting for the USPS to go away as an antiquated institution from a bygone era, they at least weren’t going to stick their necks out for it, because they could no longer see to it that a local political supporter got a job at the post office. For most politicians, the post office had become a non-entity in ways that both helped and hurt the postal service. The USPS was going alone and would have to make do with what it had.

And what it had, in the late 2000s, was some 142,000 decaying delivery trucks, most pushing 20 years old then, with no air conditioning or power steering, that didn’t comply with any environmental regulations because they had been built before such regulations existed, got terrible gas mileage, and needed replacement parts that manufacturers were no longer making. USPS engineers were taking the body from one truck and the parts from another to make a new one, stacking safety hazard upon safety hazard as it created more and more Frankentrucks. 

The engineering department knew it desperately needed new vehicles but that it wasn’t going to get them any time soon. So it became intimately familiar with the 142,000 of the ones it had. Internal combustion engines were what the engineering people knew. If a part broke, they knew how to get a new one, or how to fashion one together if new ones didn’t exist. The fact that they were able to stretch the useful life of these trucks beyond the planned 20 years and push 30 years or more has been considered by the engineering department as nothing short of heroic. 

For the people who “bleed blue,” as the saying in the USPS goes, electric vehicles may have been better in theory, but gas was better for the realities they faced. Because when Congress inevitably screws them again and makes them stretch the lives of the next trucks a decade or two longer than planned, they’ll need to duct tape and glue those trucks together, too. And they don’t know how to glue an EV back together…

And part of the reason goes to rules imposed by Congress. EV’s are more expensive upfront, but promise lower overall expenses (maintenance, fuel, etc.) overall; still…

After a 2006 law saddled the USPS with made-up debt to help balance the federal budget, the USPS acts as if it lacks the financial flexibility to make any mistakes, a fear that results in an organization so tepid and conservative it ends up making many of them…

The USPS, like many large government bureaucracies, have two different budgets: operating and capital expenses. The operating budget of some $80 billion a year is the one that goes towards delivering mail every day: paying people, fueling trucks, fixing trucks, running their equipment and facilities, and so on. The capital budget, which is just a couple billion dollars a year at most, is the one that pays for investing in upgrades to all that stuff: Buying new trucks, purchasing a new HVAC system for a post office, and the like. 

While any individual USPS employee easily understands that paying $5,000 a year to keep 30-year-old trucks running makes no sense, the USPS bureaucracy can’t. To buy new ones would be a capital cost, for which the USPS would have to borrow money, something it legally could not do for the last decade.

It had reached its Congressionally-mandated borrowing limit. If the USPS had been able to borrow more money, it would have had to give it to the federal government as part of the terms of that disastrous 2006 law, which mandated the USPS pay it $5.5 billion every year. The USPS did so, amassing some $18 billion in an account managed by the federal government, until 2011, when it stopped because it could no longer afford it. So while the USPS could continue to run up deficits in its operating budget, it couldn’t borrow any more money for capital expenses, the kind that saves an organization money in the long run…

Why the USPS bought expensive, environmentally-unfriendly mail trucks: “Who Killed the Electric Mail Truck?,” from @A_W_Gordon in @motherboard. Eminently worth reading in full.

* paraphrase of George Westerman


As we think systemically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1818 that Mary Shelley’s epoch-making tale of a man-made monster, Frankenstein, was published.  Shelley had begun writing the story two years earlier, when she was 18 and on vacation near Geneva with her soon-to-be husband (the poet Percy Shelley) and their friend Lord Byron.  The house party set itself the task of each writing a gothic story; only Mary finished hers.  The first edition was published anonymously; Shelley was first publicly identified as the author on the title page of the 1823 second edition.

The work has, as Brian Aldiss argues, a strong claim to being the first true science fiction novel.  As the sub-title– “The Modern Prometheus”– suggests (and like most great sci fi), it treats the philosophical, cultural, and psychological ramifications of scientific and technological progress.


“When the past is always with you, it may as well be present; and if it is present, it will be future as well.”*…

It’s been nearly 40 years since Gibson’s seminal Neuromancer was published. As Cory Doctorow notes, Eileen Gunn was a friend of Gibson’s from the earliest days, who while an exec at Microsoft, hosted him – then a penniless aspiring writer – in Seattle and took him to the hacker bars where he eavesdropped on what he calls “the poetics of the technological subculture.” She reflects on Neuromancer‘s impact– its lessons and the questions it raises– then and now…

… William Gibson’s cool, collected language doesn’t make a big deal about this being the future. Your brain glides smoothly past quotidian details that might have been futuristic the first time you read them, but now are just the way the world rolls. The transition to global connectedness and a global economy has been accomplished; cyberspace is here and people all over the world have casual access to it; outer space is an international arena and not just a US/Soviet hegemony. There are Russians here, or, at least, the clunky remains of their materiel, but, presciently, there are no Soviets in Neuromancer...

What is most interesting about Neuromancer is not the caper––although that’s certainly intricate and interesting itself. It’s not simply the suggestion of a compelling future­­––some of which has vanished from the text merely by coming to pass, but much of which is intact and captivating. What is most interesting to me, after forty years and many re-readings, is its meditation on the relationship between personality and memory and humanity, on originality and creativity, on what makes people real…

Gibson himself has said that, in creating a future that didn’t end in a global nuclear disaster, he thought he was creating an optimistic future. In the 1980s, reading Neuromancer’s grim future somehow alleviated, for me at least, the fear that the unknown future would be unsurvivable. It made today a familiar place. Our fears are different now, but Gibson’s books continue to serve that purpose….

I urge you to read and re-read not only Neuromancer, but Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, the subsequent books in the Sprawl trilogy. As Gibson continued to explore this alternate future, he continued to extend his mastery of craft and content. In the two following books, his larger vision of what he was writing about becomes evident, as I think it did to him as he wrote them. The Gibsonian world and the Gibsonian universe are larger and more diverse than Neuromancer, larger even than this entire trilogy. They contain multitudes. If you don’t already know them, I hope you will check them all out. His peculiar dystopian optimism, that humans will somehow elude complete obliteration, has grown larger over the years, and we need it more than ever…

Amen. “William Gibson’s Neuromancer: Does the Edge Still Bleed?,” from @eileen_gunn via @doctorow.

* William Gibson, Neuromancer


As we find our ways forward, we might send ruminative birthday greetings to a master of a different genre, Georges Joseph Christian Simenon; he was born on this date in 1903.  A prolific author (who published nearly 500 novels and numerous short works), he is best known as the creator of the fictional detective Jules Maigret.  His work is featured in the collection La Pléiade (inspiration for the Library of America), and in 1966 he was awarded the Mystery Writers of America’s highest honor, the Grand Master Award.



“History is humankind trying to get a grip. Obviously its not easy. But it could go better if you would pay a little more attention to certain details, like for instance your planet.”*…

A blast from the past…

In 1938, 20-year-old filmmaker Richard H. Lyford directed and starred in As the Earth Turns, a science-fiction silent movie about a mad scientist who purposely induces climate change as a way to end world violence.

But the 45-minute film became “lost,” only to resurface 80 years later, in 2018, when Lyford’s grandniece, Kim Lyford Bishop, discovered it. (After creating the film, Lyford went on to work at Disney and earn an Oscar for the 1950 documentary “The Titan: Story of Michelangelo.”)

Bishop then asked music composer Ed Hartman, who was her daughter’s percussions teacher, to score it.

Although “As the Earth Turns” was finally released in 2019 and took part in 123 film festivals, it will finally premiere on television on Halloween night, this Sunday on Turner Classic Movies at 9pm PST…

From The Seattle Times:

… “As the Earth Turns is the work of an exuberant, ambitious young man: Lyford wrote, directed and shot the film, and managed to corral a stable of actors and crew to capture his vision. You can see his fascination with the craft of filmmaking: Lyford experiments with miniatures and models (then used in Hollywood films, and a remarkable accomplishment for a barely-out-of-his-teens hobbyist), explosions, earthquakes and special makeup effects, all on a budget of next to nothing.”

A 1938 sci-fi film about climate change was lost. It’s making its TV debut 83 years later,” from Carla Sinclair (@Carla_Sinclair) and @BoingBoing.

* Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140


As we ponder prescience, we might recall that it was on this date in 2012 that Hurricane Sandy (AKA Superstorm Sandy) hit the east coast of the United States, killing 148 directly and 138 indirectly, wreaking nearly $70 billion in damages, and causing major power outages. In New York City streets, tunnels, and subway lines were flooded.


“This potential possibility need only play a role as a counterfactual, according to quantum theory, for it to have an actual effect!”*…

Contemplate counterfactuals: things that have not happened — but could happen — a neglected area of scientific theory…

If you could soar high in the sky, as red kites often do in search of prey, and look down at the domain of all things known and yet to be known, you would see something very curious: a vast class of things that science has so far almost entirely neglected. These things are central to our understanding of physical reality, both at the everyday level and at the level of the most fundamental phenomena in physics — yet they have traditionally been regarded as impossible to incorporate into fundamental scientific explana­tions. They are facts not about what is — the ‘actual’ — but about what could or could not be. In order to distinguish them from the ac­tual, they are called counterfactuals.

Suppose that some future space mission visited a remote planet in another solar system, and that they left a stainless-steel box there, containing among other things the critical edition of, say, William Blake’s poems. That the poetry book is subsequently sit­ting somewhere on that planet is a factual property of it. That the words in it could be read is a counterfactual property, which is true regardless of whether those words will ever be read by anyone. The box may be never found; and yet that those words could be read would still be true — and laden with significance. It would signify, for instance, that a civilization visited the planet, and much about its degree of sophistication.

To further grasp the importance of counterfactual properties, and their difference from actual properties, imagine a computer programmed to produce on its display a string of zeroes. That is a factual property of the computer, to do with its actual state — with what is. The fact that it could be reprogrammed to output other strings is a counterfactual property of the computer. The computer may never be so programmed; but the fact that it could is an essential fact about it, without which it would not qualify as a computer.

The counterfactuals that matter to science and physics, and that have so far been neglected, are facts about what could or could not be made to happen to physical systems; about what is possible or impossible. They are fundamental because they express essential features of the laws of physics — the rules that govern every system in the universe. For instance, a counterfactual property imposed by the laws of physics is that it is impossible to build a perpetual motion machine. A perpetual motion machine is not simply an object that moves forever once set into motion: it must also gener­ate some useful sort of motion. If this device could exist, it would produce energy out of no energy. It could be harnessed to make your car run forever without using fuel of any sort. Any sequence of transformations turning something without energy into some thing with energy, without depleting any energy supply, is impos­sible in our universe: it could not be made to happen, because of a fundamental law that physicists call the principle of conservation of energy.

Another significant counterfactual property of physical sys­tems, central to thermodynamics, is that a steam engine is possible. A steam engine is a device that transforms energy of one sort into energy of a different sort, and it can perform useful tasks, such as moving a piston, without ever violating that principle of conserva­tion of energy. Actual steam engines (those that have been built so far) are factual properties of our universe. The possibility of build­ing a steam engine, which existed long before the first one was actually built, is a counterfactual.

So the fundamental types of counterfactuals that occur in physics are of two kinds: one is the impossibility of performing a transformation (e.g., building a perpetual motion machine); the other is the possibility of performing a transformation (e.g., building a steam engine). Both are cardinal properties of the laws of phys­ics; and, among other things, they have crucial implications for our endeavours: no matter how hard we try, or how ingeniously we think, we cannot bring about transformations that the laws of physics declare to be impossible — for example, creating a per­petual motion machine. However, by thinking hard enough, we can come up with more and better ways of performing a pos­sible transformation — for instance, that of constructing a steam engine — which can then improve over time.

In the prevailing scientific worldview, counterfactual proper­ties of physical systems are unfairly regarded as second-class citi­zens, or even excluded altogether. Why? It is because of a deep misconception, which, paradoxically, originated within my own field, theoretical physics. The misconception is that once you have specified everything that exists in the physical world and what happens to it — all the actual stuff — then you have explained every­thing that can be explained. Does that sound indisputable? It may well. For it is easy to get drawn into this way of thinking with­out ever realising that one has swallowed a number of substantive assumptions that are unwarranted. For you can’t explain what a computer is solely by specifying the computation it is actually per­forming at a given time; you need to explain what the possible com­putations it could perform are, if it were programmed in possible ways. More generally, you can’t explain the presence of a lifeboat aboard a pirate ship only in terms of an actual shipwreck. Everyone knows that the lifeboat is there because of a shipwreck that could happen (a counterfactual explanation). And that would still be the reason even if the ship never did sink!

Despite regarding counterfactuals as not fundamental, science has been making rapid, relentless progress, for example, by devel­oping new powerful theories of fundamental physics, such as quantum theory and Einstein’s general relativity; and novel expla­nations in biology — with genetics and molecular biology — and in neuroscience. But in certain areas, it is no longer the case. The assumption that all fundamental explanations in science must be expressed only in terms of what happens, with little or no refer­ence to counterfactuals, is now getting in the way of progress. For counterfactuals are essential to a number of things that are cur­rently explained only vaguely in science, or not explained at all. Counterfactuals are central to an exact, unified theory of heat, work, and information (both classical and quantum); to explain mat­ters such as the appearance of design in living things; and to a sci­entific explanation of knowledge…

An excerpt from Chiara Marletto‘s The Science of Can and Can’t: A Physicist’s Journey Through the Land of Counterfactuals, via the invaluable @delanceyplace.

[Image above: source]

* Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness


As we ponder the plausible, we might send superlatively speculative birthday greetings to an accomplished counterfactualist, H.G. Wells; he was born on this date in 1866.  A prolific writer of novels, history, political and social commentary, textbooks, and rules for war games, Wells is best remembered (with Jules Verne and Hugo Gernsback) as “the father of science fiction” for his “scientific romances”– The War of the WorldsThe Time MachineThe Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau, et al.


“Writers use everything. We can’t help it. Whatever touches us touches our writing.”*…

How a teenager anxious to launch a sci-fi zine helped birth one of Octavia Butler’s most important essays…

Science fiction writer Octavia Estelle Butler, who passed away 15 years ago, would have celebrated her 74th birthday on June 22 of this year. She was a prolific author of 15 novels and the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” I knew Octavia when I was a teenager. Although my behavior with her was appalling at times, the result of our brief interaction turned out to be more meaningful and enduring than I could have imagined…

A wonderful story about a wonderful writer: “Octavia Butler and the Pimply, Pompous Publisher.”

* Octavia Butler


As we are grateful that the Butler did it, we might recall that it was on this date in 1954 that J. R. R. Tolkien published The Fellowship of the Ring, a sequel to The Hobbit (published 17 years earlier) and the first volume in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 29, 2021 at 1:00 am

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