Required reading: mapping the favela

Paul Raven @ 05-11-2009

favela housing, Rio de JanieroVia Chairman Bruce, here’s some required reading for anyone writing near-future fiction that involves a favela as a setting… and given the way the world is becoming urbanised, a near-future story that doesn’t feature a favela can probably be considered to have something missing from it! It’s an article from 2008 in the Harvard Design Magazine, titled “Resisting Representation: the Informal Geographies of Rio de Janiero, and it’s well worth the half hour or so it’ll take you to read it. Here’s a brief sample:

Rio de Janeiro is a city with a population of just over six million in its central urban areas, of which, according to officials, an estimated 20% are residents of favelas. These favelas vary enormously in size and character. These urban islands, like those of the earth’s waters, have formed according to several genealogies and geologies. Some, like continental islands, share a history and underlying structure with those around them, as if they have collectively broken off from a land mass. Others, like volcanic islands, seem to develop independently and suddenly from more isolated and turbulent forces. Still other favelas, like coral atolls, build slowly on an underlying urban structure. These metaphors show how favelas differ in their relationship to their surroundings—their seemingly insular status belies the fact that submerged structures tie them to the city.

Read on for more details about the utilities and transport infrastructures that enable favelas to exist, and the socioeconomic pressures that ensure they keep growing and multiplying in spite of all attempts to curb the expansion. [image by anthony_goto]

And as an added bonus, here’s a game-changing technology to drop into your fictional favela – Contraptor is the name of both an organisation and the open-source rapid prototyping system it has designed and built. Like a more sturdy and diverse answer to the RepRap, in other words – an affordable way to put the means of production into the hands of pretty much anyone with a few hundred dollars and an internet connection [via Fabbaloo]. You’ve got your setting, you’ve got your novum – and you’ve got a thousand stories waiting to be written.


Genes, genomes, and skiffy

Tom James @ 09-02-2009

beesKen MacLeod has a monograph up on genomics, sociology and science-fiction at the genomics forum:

Social scientists are less likely than natural scientists to star as villains or heroes in SF. Their work, however, has deeply influenced the genre.

At first or second or third hand – directly, through popularizations, and as refracted through mass media – anthropology, economics, sociology, and political theory have all raised questions to which SF writers have imagined answers.

As well as highlighting the importance of sociology and economics to the development of science fiction MacLeod suggests a reading list of suitable novels that are relevant to his topic. He also compliments us literary SF fans:

Written SF (whose core readership and reviewers are more scientifically informed than the general public) usually has to hew to stricter standards of scientific plausibility…

Damn staight.

[via Ken MacLeod][image from Todd Huffman on flickr]


The dark side of social networks

Paul Raven @ 23-10-2008

network of metal strutsWhile you were busy updating your status on Facebook, social networks became a scientific discipline as well as an internet phenomenon… and the leading boffin in the field reckons that – contrary to popular belief – the internet is making us more insular, less diverse, and more prone to polarised ideological thinking.

Using the current election as a model, Krebs says that the internet does not bring people with different ideas together. Instead, people seek out groups with similar ideologies, which makes them less prone to objective, flexible thinking. And no matter how extreme the idea, there’s someone out there on the web who will build a forum around it.

Psychological research has shown that when people find their “political mirrors,” they immediately build clusters around their ideas. This is why politicians’ use of confrontational language like, “You’re either with us, or with the terrorists,” seems to work.

It’s not all negativity, though; Krebs believes that social networks can be useful tools once the “strong individuals or groups that can lead to group-thinking shifts” are identified… which should make the marketing types happy, if no one else. [image by dominik99]

But even so, this doesn’t exactly feel like news – my memories of school are a bit fuzzy, but I think I remember the social cliques working exactly the same way. Maybe what Krebs is observing is just an amplification of a long-standing human tendency?


Bumblebees teach police to catch serial killers

Tomas Martin @ 30-07-2008

James R. Bumblebee: keeping our plants reproducingWhat do busy busy bumblebees and sinister serial killers have in common? They both stray far from their home when doing plying their trade, according to scientists from the University of London. When foraging for nectar, a bumblebee will create a ‘buffer zone’ around its nest that it won’t drink the flowers in, so that predators and parasites don’t follow it back to its home. The researchers found that this buffer zone was very similar to the pattern created by serial killers when they kill their victims. By studying the paths of bumblebees they hope to give forensic experts better clues as to where a killer might live based on his killings. We’d better make sure we keep the bees alive then.

[Story via bbc, picture by feileacan]


Probing the six degrees of separation

Tomas Martin @ 26-02-2008

Are you six degrees away from someone, or somewhat less?Discover has a good article this week about a couple of social scientists and their attempts to confirm Milgrim’s infamous ‘six degrees of separation’ experiment. Milgrim gave a number of people a letter and asked them to get it to a person they didn’t know directly though people they did know, then a person that person knew, etc. He found the chains averaged at 6 people, leading to the urban myth and the game ‘Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon’, in which people link up actors in a similar way (from personal experience, it almost always seems to go via Dan Ackroyd). Kevin Bacon even has a website called Six Degrees, linking celebrities and people with charitable organisations.

The scientists found that in both Milgrim and their follow-up studies, the six degrees often held up but people only completed their chain of connections a small amount of the time. They found that although often the six degree connection was about right when the link was completed, the likelihood of them reaching their target usually depended on the willingness or hostility of the people inbetween. For instance, for someone like Morgan Spurlock looking for Osama Bin Laden the last couple of chains are probably extremely resistant to taking part, so it’ll be hard to find him! I’d be interested to see if, as internet networks grow in popularity and sophistication, whether the number of degrees actually decreases in a hyper-connected future.

Discover also has a look at six physicists who could be considered ‘the next Einstein’. Personally I think Richard Feynman should hold that title and anyone now should be considered ‘the next Richard Feynman’ but the article is a nice brief overview of some leading lights in theoretical physics all the same.

[story via Discover, image via Wikipedia Commons]


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