Pluralistic: 19 Oct 2020

Today's links

Turning plastics into carbon nanotubes (permalink)

Between research about microplastics in the environment, China ceasing plastic recycling, and revelations about Big Oil's decades of disinformation about the recyclability of plastic overall, I've been feeling a sense of impending, plasticky doom.

But every now and again, I'll get a little cause for hope, some news story about an enzyme or catalytic process that can turn waste plastic into something useful without creating untold environmental wreckage.

Scientific papers like "Microwave-initiated catalytic deconstruction of plastic waste into hydrogen and high-value carbons" in @nature are incredibly promising!

I parsed it with the help of John Timmer's layperson-friendly breakdown for Ars Technica.

The researchers mixed grocery-store waste-plastic with iron, then hit it with microwaves.

The resulting reaction liberated vast amounts of hydrogen from the plastic, leaving behind carbon nanotubes. The majority of the iron was left unchanged, and they were able to mix fresh plastic in with it ten more times, leaving behind a 92% nanotube output.

Timmer points to a US synthetic biology group that has an idea for processing the hydrogen released in the process: an enzyme that, when mixed with porous silicon oxide, turns out lubricant, fuel, or other hydrocarbons based on tweaks to the process.

If you lack access to the paywalled version of the article and want to read it yourself, here's a Sci-Hub mirror:

(The research was done at public universities, but a condition of publishing in Nature is signing over the rights, denying public access. Researchers are not paid by Nature for these rights, and their own institutions then have to pay to access their work)

Kids reason, adults rationalize (permalink)

This is the second and final week of "The Attack Surface lectures," a series of 8 bookstore hosted virtual events exploring themes in the third Little Brother book, Attack Surface.

On Weds, Oct 21, the theme is "Little Revolutions," AKA writing radical fiction for kids, with guests Tochi Onyebuchi and Bethany C Morrow; you see, Little Brother and its sequel, Homeland, were young adult novels, while Attack Surface is a novel for adults.

That fact, and the upcoming event, have me thinking about the difference between fiction for teens and for adults. Litquake were kind enough to publish my working-through of this thinking in a new essay called "Kids Use Reason, Adults Rationalize."

I can pinpoint the exact moment I decided to write for teens: it was when Kathe Koja – herself an accomplished writer in multiple genres – guest-lectured at a Clarion writing workshop I was teaching.

Koja described how, on school visits, kids would argue passionately with her about her books, and how this wasn't rudeness – it was respect. The kids weren't reading her books as mere distractions; they were treating them as possible roadmaps to a complex and difficult world.

Before then, I was with Steven Brust: "Telling someone they wrote a bad book is like telling them they've got an ugly kid. Even if it's true, it's too late to do anything about it now, and anyway, they did everything they could to prevent it."

But Koja convinced me that when it came to teens, an exception was warranted. Little Brother and Homeland were, in effect, bets on that proposition. The bets paid off: countless now-adult readers have approached me to tell me how those books shaped their worldview.

Some became activists or cryptographers or hackers or tech workers, but even the readers who DIDN'T go into tech tell me that the books made them aware of both the liberatory power of technology, and its power to oppress, and the importance of taking a side in that fight.

Spending a decade+ in contact with young readers has changed my worldview, too. It's made me realize that while the power to reason is often present in very young people, the context – the stuff to reason about – takes time to accumulate.

There are some disciplines that lean heavily on reasoning and have relatively little context: math, computer science, chess. Learn some basic principles, apply your reasoning, and you can build up towering edifaces of work and expertise.

Other disciplines – law, medicine, history – simply require so much knowledge as well as reason that just packing in the reading takes years and years, no matter how good you are at reasoning. That's why there are child chess prodigies but not child history prodigies.

Fiction is part of that context-acquisition process.

The realization that adults don't have a monopoly on reason has a corollary: kids don't have a monopoly on failures of reason.

Indeed, there is a distinctive form of failure-to-reason endemic to adulthood: long-term rationalization, the process by which one makes a series of small compromises, one at a time, that add up to a catastrophic moral failure.

That's the crux of ATTACK SURFACE, whose protagonist, Masha, is having a moral reckoning with a career spent in mass surveillance technology – a career she has managed to square with her moral sensibilities through careful rationalization and compartmentalization.

My bet in this book is that adults who feel hopeless and nihilistic about the future will find a new kind of story: one in which the unitary hero whose personal actions save the world is replaced with a narrative of mass movements, political will, and collective action.

Rebuilding our digital infrastructure for human liberation is a vast task, but it's only a step on the road to a far larger and more urgent task: rebuilding our physical world and its energy and infrastructure to survive and address the climate emergency.

"The climate emergency demands a moonshot, but the moonshot wasn’t undertaken by science heroes working in their solitary labs: Neil Armstrong walked on the moon because of the collective, state-sponsored efforts of millions of people. If we hadn’t gotten to the Moon, the fault would have been with the system, not with Armstrong’s failure to build a rocket ship."

Someone Comes to Town Part 19 (permalink)

Today on my podcast, part 19 of my serial reading of my 2006 novel SOMEONE COMES TO TOWN, SOMEONE LEAVES TOWN, a book Gene Wolfe called "a glorious book unlike any book you’ve ever read."
Here's where to get the other parts in the series:

And here's a feed link for the whole podcast:

If you need a direct MP3 link, I've got you covered (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive, they'll host your stuff for free forever!):

Next weekend, I'm Guest of Honor at Milehicon, so I may not be able to record, but you can catch me (and other guests, like Connie Willis, Barbara Hambly, Catherynne Valente, Ian Tregillis, Walter Jon Williams, and Wil McCarthy) at the con!

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Fox shuts down Buffy Hallowe’en musical despite Whedon’s protests

#10yrsago English Heritage claims it owns every single image of Stonehenge, ever

#10yrsago HOWTO make edible Hallowe’en eyeballs

#10yrago HOWTO Make Mummy Meatloaf

#10yrsago HOWTO make a prop jetpack out of soda bottles

#5yrsago White supremacists call for Star Wars boycott because imaginary brown people

#5yrsago Some suggestions for sad, rich people

#5yrsago Survivor-count for the Chicago PD’s black-site/torture camp climbs to 7,000+

#5yrsago In upsidedownland, Verizon upheld its fiber broadband promises to 14 cities

#1yrago AOC to endorse Bernie Sanders today

#1yrago Catalan independence movement declares a general strike in Barcelona

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 519 words (73931 total).

Currently reading: Harrow the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 17)

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When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla