anthony dobranski online


Thoughts on Eden while mowing my lawn

In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil on the serpent’s advice, “know their nakedness,” and are thrown from the garden to a life of toil and want – the original sin that in Christianity, Christ died to forgive.

This sin of the apple is such a tortured and joyless reading of the story that I (nominally atheist, though also not) had to wonder how it has taken hold. Perhaps because we learn it as children, when banishment seems impossibly hard, when knowing nakedness only connotes embarrassment.

If you let go of this reading, the story is a much better message for adults than for children. It’s an obvious metaphor for adulthood, and of the need to separate from any parent – if you’re gonna have sex under My roof, God tells His creation, time to get your own roof.

If you are anthropologically minded, it represents the transition from the hunter-gatherer life to stabler but more labor-intensive agricultural life. A fall from grace, perhaps, but with the planet’s grace, hewing our own structures and spaces out of it, using ever more of it, removing ourselves from it with the flaming swords of burning wells.

Eden is garden, always a garden. Gardens are safe. You don’t worry about running through thorn bushes from lionesses in a garden, but you can still pick a strawberry. We take this idea into our names for safe child spaces, real or imaginary – kindergarten, A Child’s Garden of Verses.

A garden is a managed space. Adam and Eve don’t mow their lawns or trim the verge – who does? Maybe this is why the angels rebelled.

To a gnostic, of course, the serpent is the true good in Eden, the pirate message from outside the garden, warning the garden is unreal and pernicious. Think of the clones in Never Let Me Go, or Neo in The Matrix. They know something’s not right in their managed world. The serpent is the path out, and a reassurance that maybe what is beyond isn’t nearly as terrifying as they tell you.

Maybe you don’t need forgiveness for wanting to leave. Maybe you just grew up. Those flaming swords keeping you from that past? They’re just time.


Destroying Budapest

My science-fiction work-in-progress is set in a single city, and I needed to see it to imagine living in it. Welcome to Pest! Only walk on gray parts….

Pest, the White Lake and the Soft Lands

Budapest was a proxy in the One-Day War between Greater Russia and Umoja East Africa. Buda is now the White Lake, a boiling toxic waste of microscopic robots that eat carbon dioxide, and anything else, to make diamonds that wash on its shores. Both embargoed no-person’s-land and boomtown, Pest houses thieves, smugglers, engineers, and skaters, daredevil gladiators who jump and spin over the Lake in maglev boots, just one fall from death.

I suppose I could have done any old thing to ruin a city, but I wanted a dusting of Science! in my fiction. I thought a fractal would make a believably consistent result small enough for microscopic robots to store. I used FractalWorks, a Mac app, to generate a tiny portion of the celebrated Mandelbrot function, and overlaid this on a large screenshot of central Budapest, so its finer arcs and whorls were the length of city blocks.

Budapest map and Mandelbrot sliver

Budapest map and Mandelbrot sliver

I didn’t think at the scale of blocks it could ever be so precise – if nothing else, land would collapse – so I cut out the Lake using an image editor’s predictive selection tool, to make the edges sloppy and eroded.

Both the pink and white areas are products of the fractal. The white is the Lake itself, while the pink represents Soft Lands, areas of shifting underground streams through which nanites recharge, around which smugglers tunnel.

It’s been a huge help to have the reference. Putting my characters on a literal map lets me figure out relative distances, and helps me imagine the land and the city that might grow from it.

I also thought further about my mechanical monster’s makeup. Where Lake meets land has always been seductively quiet, since earliest drafts. Instead, let the meeting of Lake and Soft Lands be a place of churn and upheaval, the turbulence of nanites going into and out of dormancy around the buzz of other nanites quantumly-uncertain just where their strange fractal stops. I have a heart murmur too.

It’s easier to name things in the context of the city’s weird sense of humor now, and I’m looking at it as more impressively built than previous drafts. Where before it was falling apart and hastily erected, now I see it as printed and reprinted, strange but regular, by the same artificially-intelligent drone “taxibots” that run the city services. This has new virtues and a very different look. And some rewriting.

If this map gets reproduced in the book, I don’t want the plain line drawing quality of most novel maps. Rather I’d commission a graphic artist to generate a cityscape, degrade that so it looked like a 12th-generation-photocopy of an old image, have all the landmarks written in sloppy marker. At top: “Welcome to Pest where you will likely die.” At bottom: “Wanna know more? Live and learn.”


1 Comment

The STEM and the Flower (Education)

Thanks to Fareed Zakaria for his recent column calling out the recent obsession with STEM education — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I urge its wide readership.

The issue is not STEM, of course, but obsession — and it’s not really obsession, in the end, but the lazy desire for a panacea. Wouldn’t it be great to think that we could just do one kind of studying to be successful? And we could cut school funding too!

The world doesn’t work that way, alas. Defunding arts and humanities education will not make us a nation of successful technocrats. It will make us poorer in spirit, which will make us poorer in pocket, and make our culture harder to sustain. Without language, music, and art, people literally can’t communicate, explain, teach, and inspire.

It’s that last one which is hardest to quantify, least utilitarian, but most vital. Life is not easy, and even the most successful of us have days on end of meticulous tedium. Most people are hard pressed to give a damn about anything over time if their lives are not enriched by whimsy and beauty – not merely by consuming it, but by engaging with it, in the way one only can with understanding and training. Even Mr. Spock liked to jam with a band.

The stem is vitally important to the plant, but so is the flower. They are parts of a common purpose. Things can survive if they are stunted, but they can’t flourish or evolve. Lose sight of that, and we lose.


Revolutionary atheists vs Stockholm syndrome (John Gray)

Esteemed cosmologist, and my old friend, Andrew Jaffe just posted a quick retort on his blog to a long essay by philosopher John Gray. Gray has an objection to the strident challenging tone of modern atheist thought-leaders like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

I am not the scientist Andrew Jaffe is, and I was hopeful that Gray’s essay was something endearing and woolly, a plea for magic in our contemplative moments. Some time ago I began having issues with my atheism, a matter of personal feeling about this great universe. I’m not sure even now if I am proud or sheepish about it, but it is what it is – I am a woolly atheist.

Gray’s objections alas are very different, and worrisome. Supposedly Gray is discussing why militant religion is in resurgence, but Gray – himself a self-professed atheist – really writes to vilify and blame, cheekily calling the New Atheists “missionary” and “evangelical,” and less cheekily comparing them to the pseudo-scientists who justified Nazi and Soviet genocides.

It took a while for me to understand: John Gray has Stockholm syndrome. He’s been living in a culture that has been deferential to the religious for a very long time, and he can’t see a way past that.

Modern atheists are revolutionaries, not missionaries, and this is their revolution: to insist that in the modern world — where we fly without feathered wings, talk across distances without magic crystals, kill far-away enemies without thunderbolts and stop epidemics without human sacrifices — religion must now justify the exalted place it demands in the making of public policy and education.  Continue reading


1 Comment

We might be the first intelligent life

The Economist this week reports on the work of Tsvi Piran and Raul Jimenez, calculating the frequency of gamma-ray bursts. This is not an arcane question.

Gamma-ray bursts are incredible yet short-lived generations of energy, cause as yet unknown, great enough to kill all life on a planet as close to the blast as 10,000 light-years (just shy of six quadrillion miles). The closer you get to the center of a galaxy, the more frequent gamma-ray bursts are — and thus, the more inhospitable that region is to life.

Douglas Adams described our home star as being in “the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy.” Turns out, the galactic suburbs may be the only place life could survive long enough to become intelligent.

But wait, there’s more. By Piran and Jimenez’s reckoning, our galaxy is one of the ten percent of galaxies with a high “metallicity” — meaning, with stars full of elements other than hydrogen and helium. In metal-rich galaxies, gamma-ray bursts are rarer. So, not only are we made from the ashes of older stars, but we live in a place with enough star-ash that we are less threatened with gamma-ray extinction.

In short, we might be among the first intelligent life forms.

This is a lovely, trippy idea, made earthier and more bitter by our recent brush with nuclear armageddon. It is also an idea almost completely unexplored in fiction or myth.

Continue reading


Science blinded by vocabulary

The New York Times Magazine recently had a fascinating article about the quest to establish a scientific basis for bisexuality. It discussed the early work of researcher Michael Bailey, who first used studies of penile inflation while watching both gay and straight porn to conclude that there was no measurable bisexual response.

Among the points raised in the strong objection to this study (objections to which he is listening) was that porn in and of itself is not always arousing to people; one lay-person noted that the ill-used and unhealthy women who often appear in porn are a turn-off to people who care about women as more than just targets.

It’s another reminder (I’ve written about this before) that scientists need to ask better questions, to step back from assumptions and unquestioned terminology. The -sexual in science’s terms for people’s affections sounds precise, but is so reductive as to mislead. Yes we desire certain people, and it is with those people that we are likely to form lasting pairings. But we know that in those pairings are a world of romance, of partnership, of spiritual complementarity.

Yet a professor of psychology who seeks the truth of a sexuality so rare and furtive as to be a Yeti, fifty years after Alfred Kinsey put male attraction on a six-point range, can’t think to do more than check for chubbies. His science was blinded by vocabulary. Continue reading


American, in my genes?

Over the last few years I have begun to wonder how many of our human differences are actually heritable. Specifically: if Americans, both North and South, are and are growing biologically different from the descendants those who didn’t leave their home countries.

It’s not as silly as it might first sound. We’re only beginning to scratch the full complexity of our biochemical nature, and how our nurture affects it — but it is becoming clear to science that what happens to our bodies can affect what a given gene does, from turning it off to changing its products; and, that we can pass on those effects to the bodies we create.

But how far into our individual natures does this heritability go?

Two people, even two siblings, endure the same heartbreaking war or famine, or are ruled by the same invader or dictatorship. One emigrates, the other doesn’t. Why? You can’t say there’s no biochemical component, so you can’t say there’s no genetic one. And if by emigrating, a person continues to live long enough to breed, or eats a vastly improved diet (even to the point of getting fat, with those additional biochemical changes) — and if their children breed with children of people from other regions, who also left their homes? Continue reading