Saturday, September 2, 2017

Murals Transform Public Space in Newark

I spent a day recently in Newark, NJ, and was surprised--and pleased--to see murals wherever I went. Not only were the images and the stories they told captivating, it was wonderful to see that they hadn't been defaced with graffiti. To me, this speaks to the respect people have for public art. When politicians oppose money for the arts, they should consider the power of public murals to bring beauty and instill community pride. And while pols may think that funding art is a lower priority than, say, funding police departments, they should consider that the lack of graffiti reflects the public's appreciation of the form. Or they can look at research, which has shown "the great power of public art to influence how we move, think and feel in city environments."

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Claudia Casper Explains What Inspired Her to Write 'The Mercy Journals' on the Latest Episode of New Books in Science Fiction

My new interview on New Books in Science Fiction is with Claudia Casper, author of The Mercy Journals (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016), which won this year's Philip K. Dick Award.

Set in 2047, it tells the story of Allen Quincy through his journals. Quincy--nicknamed Mercy--is a former soldier struggling with memories of his long-lost family and the traumas he suffered during a third world war.

The story touches on complex issues such as genocide, climate change, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But it's largely a book about one man's struggle for survival and his attempt to find meaning in a world turned upside down.

I had a lot of fun talking with Claudia, and we covered a lot of ground in our conversation, everything from Cain and Abel ("I wanted to flip it, so the Abel and Cain story would be reversed") to food shortages ("We're three meals away from chaos") to the problem with building walls between countries ("No, Donald Trump had not come on the scene when I wrote that, so that has felt somewhat prescient"). We also talked about her delightful essay, "Attending a Literary Award Ceremony in an Alternate Universe," about receiving the Philip K. Dick Award at Norwescon.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Pressed Against a Wall

In the desire to protect American values--and rights--that are under direct fire (this week the vulnerable value is a free press--see this, this and this) a demonstration started at The New York Times building and wended its way to the studios of Fox News.

Protest signs are the new street art, but the best signs at this protest (in my opinion) weren't signs but the tape some folks wore over their mouths (although I also liked the "unpaid protester" sign, visible just above the hat of the blue-taped woman.)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Risk Assessment Tools (and Their Risks)

A significant trend in criminal justice these days is the adoption of risk-assessment tools. These tools--usually short surveys administered to people who have been arrested or charged with a crime or are being released from incarceration--are used to predict the likelihood of recidivism make decisions about mental health/drug treatment or social services.

In a promising development, social scientists have been seeking to validate the effectiveness of these tools. If a tool is dubbed "validated" or "evidence-based" it means there is empirical research to show that its predictions about the likelihood of recidivism or the appropriateness of a particular social service intervention have a high likelihood of being correct. (I write "high likelihood" because nothing is ever going to be 100 percent predictive).

The application of scientific methods to these tools is exciting; it holds out the promise of being able to remove bias from decisions in the justice system (which, as we know, is rife with bias) and relying on only objective facts to decide punishment. But these tools aren't foolproof (what is, after all?) One of those dangers is that they can overlook bias so deeply embedded in our culture, they perpetuate it.

That's one of the points that Professor Reuben J. Miller, assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan, and his research collaborator Hazelette Crosby-Robinson made when I interviewed them for the Center for Court Innovation's podcast series New Thinking. They outlined some of the criticisms that have been leveled against risk assessment tools. Those criticisms include placing too much emphasis on geography and criminal history, which can distort the actual risk for clients from neighborhoods that experience an above-average presence of policing and social services. "Geography is often a proxy for race," Miller says.

You can listen to the podcast, which was recorded on Sept. 30, 2016, on the Center for Court Innovation's site or iTunes.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

On the Sidewalk


Every day, I see more and more people sprawled on the street. A scene like this is typical: life going on while a guy is flat on the ground. Often, the blankets, boxes and bedding around the figure suggest they are homeless. Less often, the person looks as if they've collapsed on the spot--I assume intoxicated with a substance, as appears to be the case with this man whom I saw a couple weeks ago at the corner of 9th Avenue and 43rd Street in Manhattan.

What's unusual in this photo is that a police officer is on the scene, although the situation doesn't necessarily call for police intervention. A representative from a social service agency would be ideal. I suppose in the old days (whenever they were), a stranger might have offered a helping hand. Did such days really exist? Perhaps in a small town people were (and are) willing to lend a hand, when requests for help come infrequently. But in Manhattan, where there are people begging on every other street corner and bodies and blankets squeezed into doorways and along sidewalks across Midtown, stopping to help does not feel like a viable option. The problem is too large for any one good Samaritan, and even stopping to give a quarter or a sandwich isn't a solution (although perhaps it is a solution of the moment, for one person's fleeting need).

Each person I see provokes a series of questions: Who are they? How did they get there? Are they in any way responsible for their current unfortunate situation or are they entirely victims (and why do I feel the need to assign blame anyway)? Aren't there social services that can help them? Why are there so many street people? Why don't they rise up and demand change? Why don't they travel to a friendlier environment where they can sleep on soft ground and not cement? What was their life like 10 years ago? What will it be like 10 years from now?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

An Expert on the Past, Ada Palmer has Little Trouble Inventing a Detailed Future

Cory Doctorow has described Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning (Tor, 2016) as a book "more intricate, more plausible, more significant than any debut I can recall."

That praise reflects Palmer's immense skill in building a world 500 years in the future but also her vast knowledge of the past. And it's no surprise that Palmer knows something about the past. In addition to launching the first of a four-volume series with Tor, she is a cultural and intellectual historian at the University of Chicago, where she studies (among other things) the history of publishing and the Italian Renaissance.

She says that knowing exactly how the world has changed over the last 500 years - politically, culturally, socially - has helped her imagine plausible changes for the next 500.

In Too Like the Lightning, the 25th century is enjoying a reinterpretation of the 18th century Enlightenment, although with flying cars and non-geographic nations. Society congratulates itself for having banished organized religion and gender distinctions (Palmer writes much of the book using the singular "they") but, as in so many cultures, people are blind to their own shortcomings.

"This is a particular future that didn't do a good job finishing the end game of feminism and gender equality," Palmer says, explaining that "they erased it too fast, stopped the conversation and consequently still have tons of baggage."

Before she put pen to paper, Palmer spent five years planning the world of Too Like the Lightning, including forecasting the future history that shaped it. And it took another eight years for the book to be published.

But critics and readers agree that it was worth the wait. The second installment in the Terra Ignota series, Seven Surrenders, was originally slated for publication in December but Tor has pushed back the release to February to make room for a paperback version of Too Like the Lightning first.

Related link: Voltaire's Micromegas

Rob Wolf is the author of The Alternate Universe and The Escape.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Enlightenment meets traffic jams in Zen City

"The future begins with a traffic jam."

This is how Eliot Fintushel described to me the setting of Zen City (Zero Books, 2016), his science fiction novel about the obstacles encountered along the path to spiritual fulfillment, when I interviewed him on the new episode of New Books in Science Fiction.

In Fintushel's book, the quest for enlightenment manifests as a physical journey as his protagonist, Big Man, makes his way from an eternal traffic jam (in which people have been rooted so long on a highway exit ramp that they've created cults around their Econoline vans and Chevrolet Chevelles) to the City, where those who have achieved true enlightenment are literally merged into a single body-consciousness that transcends reality as we know it.

More than a commentary on Buddhism, the story is a meditation on religion and the challenge of using "robes and rituals" to find enlightenment, Fintushel explains. The problem is when enlightenment itself becomes a sign of status, he says, undermining the goal of enlightenment, which is supposedly a state of "no status."

Fintushel's adventure is both poetic and funny, meditating on language as much as belief. He is playing with the "limits of identifying things," evoking the viewpoint of a baby. "If you watch a baby's eyes moving around, they don't fix on objects or even on people the way we do. They don't have categories of objects and people. And I'm assuming, for the sake of the fiction anyway, that that's more real than the reality of objects and things and people."