Leaving Ireland, foundry work, Cardiff sessions and leaving your banjo at home. Oh, and Bush Bands, mandolins and marches.
This year we’ve gotten one question from listeners more than any other: is Facebook eavesdropping on my conversations and showing me ads based on the things that I say? This week, Alex investigates.
In episode 371 of the Functional Nerds Podcast, Patrick Hester and John Anealio welcome back Hugo-award winning author, Mary Robinette Kowal! Her book – The Calculating Stars – is out with its companion in the duology – The Fated Sky – will be out in August!
About The Calculating Stars: A meteor decimates the U.S. government and paves the way for a climate cataclysm that will eventually render the earth inhospitable to humanity. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated timeline in the earth’s efforts to colonize space, as well as an unprecedented opportunity for a much larger share of humanity to take part.
One of these new entrants in the space race is Elma York, whose experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too—aside from some pesky barriers like thousands of years of history and a host of expectations about the proper place of the fairer sex. And yet, Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions may not stand a chance.
About Mary Robinette: Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of Ghost Talkers, The Glamourist Histories series, and the Lady Astronaut duology. She is a cast member of the award-wining podcast Writing Excuses and also a three-time Hugo Award winner. Her short fiction appears in Uncanny, Tor.com, and Asimov’s. Mary, a professional puppeteer, lives in Chicago. Visit her online at maryrobinettekowal.com.
This week, Hugo Award winning and Nebula Award nominated author Mary Robinette Kowal talks about her Lady Astronaut duology, which is itself a prequel to her Hugo winning short story “Lady Astronaut of Mars”.
Mary talks about the research into space flight, space travel, and the science and engineering that went into her world-building and story, nearly-forgotten history of the role of women in rocketry and the space program, and meeting with the actual scientists putting people and deep space exploration robots into space.
What if you didn’t have to be a scientist to write science fiction?
Guess what people, Mary Robinette Kowal is about to blow your mind. She has the most incredible background I have heard on the show so far: Jim Henson Puppeteer, Voiceover actor, and Hugo-award-winning Science Fiction author. YES.
Becoming a Benign Dominant
To track how humans became Earth’s dominant animal, Ehrlich began with a photo of a tarsier in a tree. The little primate had a predator’s binocular vision and an insect-grabber’s fingers. When (possibly) climate change drove some primates out of the trees, they developed a two-legged stance to get around on the savanna. Then the brain swoll up, and the first major dominance tool emerged—language with syntax.
About 2.5 million years ago, the beginnings of human culture became evident with stone tools. “We don’t have a Darwin of cultural evolution yet,” said Ehrlich. He defined cultural evolution as everything we pass on in a non-genetic way. Human culture developed slowly-the stone tools little changed from millennium to millennium, but it accelerated. There was a big leap about 50,000 years ago, after which culture took over human evolution—our brain hasn’t changed in size since then.
With agriculture’s food surplus, specialization took off. Inuits that Ehrlich once studied had a culture that was totally shared; everyone knew how everything was done. In high civilization, no one grasps a millionth of current cultural knowledge. Physicists can’t build a TV set.
Writing freed culture from the limitations of memory, and burning old solar energy (coal and oil) empowered vast global population growth. Our dominance was complete. Ehrlich regretted that we followed the competitive practices of chimps instead of bonobos, who resolve all their disputes with genital rubbing.
“The human economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Earth’s natural systems,” said Ehrlich, and when our dominance threatens the ecosystem services we depend on, we have to understand the workings of the cultural evolution that gave us that dominance. The current two greatest threats that Ehrlich sees are climate change (10 percent chance of civilization ending, and rising) and chemical toxification of the biosphere. “Every cubic centimeter of the biosphere has been modified by human activity.”
The main climate threat he sees is not rising sea levels (”You can outwalk that one”) but the melting of the snowpack that drives the world’s hydraulic civilizations— California agriculture totally dependent on the Sierra snowpack, the Andes running much of Latin America, the Himalayan snows in charge of Southeast Asia. With climate in flux, Ehrlich said, we may be facing a millennium of constant change. Already we see the outbreak of resource wars over water and oil.
He noted with satisfaction that human population appears to be leveling off at 9 to 10 billion in this century, though the remaining increase puts enormous pressure on ecosystem services. He’s not worried about depopulation problems, because “population can always be increased by unskilled laborers who love their work.”
The major hopeful element he sees is that cultural evolution can move very quickly at times. The Soviet Union disappeared overnight. The liberation of women is a profound cultural shift that occurs in decades. Facing dire times, we need to understand how cultural evolution works in order to shift our dominance away from malignant and toward the benign.
In the Q & A, Ehrlich described work he’s been doing on cultural evolution. He and a graduate student in her fifties at Stanford have been studying the progress of Polynesian canoe practices as their population fanned out across the Pacific. What was more conserved, they wondered, practical matters or decoration? Did the shape of a canoe paddle change constantly, driven by the survival pressure of greater efficiency, or did the carving and paint on the paddles change more, driven by the cultural need of each group to distinguish itself from the others.
Practical won. Once a paddle shape proved really effective, it became a cultural constant.
Max Gadney sat down with author and designer Cennyd Bowles to discuss what technologists and the design industry can do to challenge the values and ethical principles of the work they do.
Darach is joined by Peadar and Póilín Ní Géidigh to discuss the treasury of traditional Irish lyrics and how their expressiveness is lost in translation.
Darach Ó Séaghdha chats to Jody Coogan about some Hiberno-English slang words and whether they have an Irish origin or not, followed by a roundtable on irregular Irish verbs and the Irish oral exam with Ola Majekodunmi, Clodagh McGinley and Gearóidín McEvoy.
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