Ever since I moved into my first apartment I’ve always had a place at home to work. Sometimes it was a desk, but more often it was just a comfortable chair where I could use a laptop for hours on end, usually to write. My present employer had a liberal telework policy even before Covid-19, so I requested the opportunity to have a scheduled work-from-home day once every two weeks. I’ve been doing that level of teleworking for the last four years, and when I would mention it to coworkers they would remark that they couldn’t work from home. “There are just too many distractions,” they would tell me. As you might expect, those same coworkers have not been faring too well these last three months. Other coworkers had told me that they didn’t have a place to work at home. Though several of them have since made spaces, some have just committed to working at the kitchen table. Some haven’t had a choice, as the work-from-home pandemic has resulted in a shortage in office furniture as demand has skyrocketed, but also as raw materials (i.e. plastic) are diverted to PPE production.
The pandemic is nowhere near ending, so the white collar masses are unlikely to return to business spaces anytime soon. Some are arguing that maybe we shouldn’t – or won’t want to – return to the office in pre-pandemic numbers. Now that mass telework has been forced on employers, some are seeing benefit and opportunity, especially the massive social media companies that other corporations tend to watch. Facebook announced in July that within the next ten years they expect half of their employees to be on permanent telework. In May, Twitter said that many employees could work from home “forever.” Back in late July, one month after New York City officials gave the green light for employees to return to work, more than 90% of Manhattan office workers were choosing to continue to work from home.
I have a number of friends with jobs that saw them predominantly, or entirely, teleworking in the years leading up to the pandemic. That percentage of the work force had been growing steadily, but post-pandemic many are expecting that we will have jumped years ahead in the trend. This change has the potential to be transformative. I have a few coworkers that had never worked from home and quickly came to love it. My wife professes to enjoy seeing me more, and having complete control of my environment has helped lessen the frequency of my migraines.
If we don’t have to go to the office, how many of us will choose to? If, say, 20% of the white collar workers in rent-bloated cities choose full-time telework, why wouldn’t they move out of the city to get more space for less elsewhere? Since the majority of Democratic voters are concentrated in cities, what would a mass office exodus do to political demographics? Many of our housing decisions are based on where we work. If work will allow us to live hundreds of miles away, then how will we choose where to live? Some would undoubtedly still choose cities, but there is a difference between living in a city of half a million inhabitants and living in a metropolis with eight million other people.
Science fiction writer and editor Frederik Pohl is attributed with saying, “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.” The earliest written appearance of this concept seems to be a 1953 essay by Isaac Asimov where he said “It is easy to predict an automobile in 1880; it is very hard to predict a traffic problem. The former is really only an extrapolation of the railroad. The latter is something completely novel and unexpected.” (Yes, I can connect almost anything to Asimov. He wrote so much, and about so many things, that it’s not that hard.) Science fiction predicted the rise of computers, but famously underestimated their impact. Interestingly, Clifford Simak, my favorite science fiction writer, did predict the death of the city, not through telework but through another dystopian motivation. In the short story “City,” which constitutes the opening chapter of his likewise titled novel, the protagonist argues with the few remaining residents of his city:
"The city failed," he said, "and it is well it failed. Instead of sitting here in mourning above its broken body you should rise to your feet and shout your thanks it failed.
American cities may become deserted. Not because they are easy targets for nuclear weapons, but because they are easy targets for viruses. Some countries can’t afford to disperse; they need cities to house their populations. The United States has two and a half times the population of Japan, but twenty-four times the surface area. We could space out, lessen the spread of infectious diseases that are only going to get more prevalent, and fundamentally change the way we live and work as a society.
Then again, if Simak had one flaw it was his unwavering belief that the best life – maybe the only life worth living – was the country life. I don’t roll that way. I lived that life for a few years and didn’t care for it. Cities won’t die as Simak hoped, but they could definitely stand to be less densely packed. If you can choose to live in a megalopolis or a moderate sized city, why choose the megalopolis when rent is three and a half times as much, especially if you can make the same money?
Every few years the old “I don’t want my musicians to be political” rant crops up, almost always from conservatives. Songs are essentially poetry set to music, and like any form of writing, many of the best and most endearing songs have something to say. Of course, only in our modern polarized political climate would art with a social message be “political.” If the present Covid-19 crisis has taught Americans anything, it’s that “wearing a mask during a pandemic” is somehow political.
Songs with social messages go back at least as long as audio recordings opened the possibility of a message reaching a mass audience. Just like there wasn’t much use in writing essays critiquing social structure before the printing press allowed you to reach people outside your immediate social bubble, mass distribution of music made it possible for original art to spread to a broad audience. The 1960s and 1970s saw the creation of some of the most timeless songs of women’s empowerment, from Aretha Franklin’s Respect to Helen Reddy’s I am Woman. Songs of acceptance and love took many forms, from the simple beauty of Harry Belafonte’s Turn the World Around, to the more subversive Lola by The Kinks which got many in the 1970s to sing along to transgender acceptance. I personally can’t think of protest music without Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth popping into my head, and those lyrics have come to me a lot these days.
Unsurprisingly, the blues genre has a long history of speaking about black oppression in America. Billie Holiday’s song Strange Fruit, based on a poem by a Jewish civil rights activist, brought a lot of heat down from white audiences in the 1940s, and even from the US Federal Government. Holiday’s clean tones and passionate singing evoke a strong poetic image.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
There is presently an explosion of social messaging across all music genres, which is undoubtedly a reflection of our times. Childish Gambino’s This is America, and the music video that goes along with it, is a masterpiece. Janelle Monáe’s albums contain a wealth of social messaging (one of the many reasons I love her work), and one of my favorites is Americans with this amazing stanza
I like my woman in the kitchen
I teach my children superstitions
I keep my two guns on my blue nightstand
A pretty young thang, she can wash my clothes
But she'll never ever wear my pants
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite modern artists who was taken from us at the height of his career by stomach cancer. Charles Bradley was heavily inspired by funk, in particular James Brown. In The World (Is Going Up in Flames) he desperately asks the listener who is to blame for all the world’s troubles. “Is it you? Or you?” before turning to himself and asking “Me?” then cries at the implication that it is his fault, representing the blame that a black man carries in America.
So you love science fiction stories but don’t have the cash to drop on a magazine. Or maybe you don’t want to commit out of the gate to purchasing an entire magazine issue. What if I told you that you could read award wining science fiction stories from today’s leading authors for free?
There are more science fiction outlets today than ever before. Although traditional print magazines like Analog, Asimov’s, and F&SF lead the pack, there are non-traditional publishing models that are consistently putting out award winning original content from the same field of authors as the big three. The so-called “free to read” model has found a lot of success in the age of Patreon. Issues are published online in a blog format free to read by anyone with an internet connection. Ads help support the content, with most support coming from digital (or in some cases print on demand) sales in more convenient packages like epub, Weightless Books, Amazon Kindle, or DRM-free PDF. One highly successful publication is Clarkesworld, created and edited by Neil Clarke. Clarkesworld has been publishing monthly since October 2006, and has ranked up quite the awards list, including multiple Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for both individual stories and the magazine as a whole. You can read all of these award winning stories for free, and Clarkesworld maintains a convenient awards list on their website. So why not give them a read? Below are a few stories I’ve personally enjoyed from Clarkesworld to get you started.
“The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer, September 2017. 2018 Hugo award winner for Best Novelette, and a classic science fiction story inside a classic science fiction story.
“Passage of Earth” by Michael Swanwick, April 2014. An alien is brought into the county morgue by the coroner’s ex-wife for an autopsy.
“Bits” by Naomi Kritzer, October 2013. A very fun story about alien sex toys. (I know, I know, but give it a try. It’s actually my favorite on this list, and it shows how Clarkesworld isn’t afraid of topics.)
“Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion” by Caroline M. Yoachim, August 2014. A beautiful story of grief and forgiveness after an accidental alien attack.
“The Oddish Gesture of Humans” by Gabriel Calácia, July 2020. A nice short story about that odd thing humans do. This is the author’s first published story.
All I ever wanted as a scientist was to work on interesting problems. I’ve also long contended that almost any subject is interesting if you approach it from the right angle. I’d argue that James Smoliga feels the same way. Smoliga, a physiologist and physiotherapist, recently conducted a study of historical data from Nathan’s Famous Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest to scientifically assess the long term performance increase of these “elite athletes.”
Essentially all competitive sports exhibit a long term improvement that will plateau at some point. Take sprinters, for instance. It is possible to use physiology to determine the maximum theoretical speed that a human could possibly run. Usain Bolt is famously the fastest runner ever officially clocked, with a peak speed during the 100 meter sprint of 27.51 mph. Scientists estimate that humans have a peak sprint speed of between 35 and 40 mph, which is about half the top speed of the fastest quadrupeds. It is reasonable to expect that over time, with improved nutrition and biological sciences, humans will get faster and faster, but will plateau somewhere around 40 mph.
It seems that competitive hot dog eating has undergone a similar trend in just 40 years, and that humans might be reaching the plateau very quickly. The limit to how many hot dogs a human can eat in 10 minutes is dominated by how far a human stomach and stretch to take on an ungodly amount of sausage. (With running, the limiting factor is how fast human leg muscles can move, which is based on the rate that muscles can contract and expand, so in a way it’s a very similar problem.) A more scientific term for stomach stretchiness is “gut plasticity,” and Smoliga has calculated that maximum human gut plasticity is equivalent to eating 84 hot dogs in 10 minutes. The thing is, the present world record is 75 hot dogs in 10 minutes. If you plot the “active consumption rate” of hot dogs – defined as hot dogs per minute – in the Nathan’s contest since 1980 you get the following chart.
The circles are data from 10 minutes competitions, and the squares are from 12 minutes competitions. In 1980 it was pretty much one hot dog per minute, or 10 hot dogs in 10 minutes. And that is what is so incredible. Every physical sport has this shape of curve, but the time between the low point and the plateau is usually much longer. As fast as Usain Bolt is, he is nowhere near the theoretical maximum human speed. Joey Chestnut, who holds the present record at 75 hot dogs in 10 minutes, is very close to the theoretical maximum of 84. This leads to an interesting question: Why are competitive eaters progressing up the curve so much faster than other athletes?
Smoliga proposes an answer. In competitive running, an athlete must train their body to undergo an intense physical strain. This training turns them into a very specialized, and highly adapted, peak physical specimen. A competitive eater must also train their body, but rather than improving physical fitness, what might actually be happening is a chronic form of damage. It’s a lot easier to break something than it is to fix it, and that may be exactly what competitive eaters are doing to their own guts. Smoliga argues that high performance competitive eaters haven’t been around long enough to assess the long term health implications of this sport, but in general increased gut plasticity to the point that normal gut plasticity is no longer possible would not be good for long term health. It’s not a shock that routine binge eating (“training”) is probably not good for you.
So there you have it. Nathan’s Famous Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest is a great case study for a weird bit of human physiology. And you probably thought it was just a silly sport.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.