Saturday, December 22, 2007

Spero: Question Seven

If the universe was created by an omniscient God, it was created for some reason.
And as we are part of that universe, we were also created for some reason. Are we here to be something? To do something? If so, what?

Maybe, because of the collaborative live-role-playing aspects of how we were created, we are too flawed ever to be or to do what it is we were created for. Maybe it will be our descendants- be they genetically human, giant robots, uplifted gila monsters, or virtual intelligences living in carpets of intelligent polysaccharides- who will be or do this thing.

Whatever it is, being Good is a precondition. Being reasonable is another precondition, or we will never be able to Do anything.

One thing I have often thought of is that maybe our role is to start to untangle the flaws of creation. We should be able to make a natural world where each thing can be fully itself, can seek and participate in truth and beauty, where carnivory and the other appalling horrors of the ‘natural’ world are removed. We can start with humanity, like Lord Ivywood prophesies in The Flying Inn:
‘If we come at last to live on light, as men said of the chameleon, if some
cosmic magic closed to us now, as radium was but recently closed, allows us to
transmute the very metals into flesh without breaking into the bloody house of
life, we shall know these things when we achieve them. It is enough for us now
if we have reached a spiritual station, in which at least the living head we lop
has not eyes to reproach us; and the herbs we gather cannot cry against our
cruelty like the mandrake.’

Then, we can move on to the rest. I have argued before that the individual is more important than the group, so if no individual tigers are harmed, and their genetic material is preserved as part of a thousand new varieties of Neo-tiger, I can see no downside to making them into autotrophs. This sort of endeavour- to remake the natural world as a place of more justice and mercy- would I think be a major goal of many ideologies in a real Greg Egan or Charles Stross future society. Of course it is a goal of incredible hubris, requiring megayears for its realization even in a tiny corner of the universe. And if the point of the universe does not lie inside it, but in the Universe, and we are all here- microbes, curlews, humans, and sentient galaxies- to be made into fit instruments for eternity, then maybe it is a waste of time. Possibly.

But then? Once we have reconstructed the living world, what is the point?
A problem with the popular virtues of our present civilization is that they are essentially negative. ‘Peace’- what does it mean, beyond ‘absence of violence’? ‘Justice’ means ‘equitable distribution of misery’; ‘mercy’ means ‘protection from the bad consequences of one’s actions’. In the Earthly Paradise, none of those virtues will have any meaning. We need some motivating virtues for life in the Earthly Paradise. If not, what can we do but go backwards?

As Paul tells us in Alpha Ralpha Boulevard:
We were drunk with happiness in those early years. Everyone was, especially the
young people. These were the first years of the Rediscovery of Man, when the Instrumentality dug deep in the treasury, reconstructing the old cultures, the old languages, and even the old troubles. The nightmare of perfection had taken our forefathers to the edge of suicide. ...
I myself was the first man to put a postage stamp on a letter, after fourteen thousand years. I took Virginia to see the first piano recital. We watched at the eye-machine when cholera was released in Tasmania, and we saw the Tasmanians dancing in the streets, now that they did not have to be protected anymore. Everywhere, things became exciting. Everywhere, men and women worked with a wild will to build a more imperfect world.

Of course, we will be very different creatures by that time. We should have a much clearer idea of God and a much clearer idea of the universe. Maybe the way forward will be clear. But maybe, as so often happens, our capabilities will have outstripped our moral sense. We will need strong medicine for that time. I suggest the following:

We should never be satisfied with the ideal we can imagine;
We should strive for the ideal we cannot yet imagine.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Epigraph from Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons

Goes like this:

Poor communications deter theft;

good communications promote theft;

perfect communications stop theft.

- Van Braam

Sunday, December 16, 2007

S is also for Linebarger

Re-reading the Book of Skulls makes me nostalgic for the landscapes of the Old Country.

There are very few of the tremendous vertical cacti here, the saguaros, though I
see a few, fifty or sixty feet tall, some way back from the path. What we have
instead, thousands of them, is a weird thing about six feet high, with a gnarled
grey wooden trunk and a lot of long dangling clusters of spines and green bumpy
things. The chainfruit cholla, Ned calls it, and warns us to keep far away from
it. The spines are sharp. So we avoid it; but there’s another cholla here, the
teddybear cholla, that’s not so easy to avoid. The teddybear is a bummer. Little
stubby plants a foot or two high, covered with thousands of fuzzy straw-coloured
spines: you look the wrong way, and the spines jump up and bite you. I swear
they do. My boots are covered with prickles. The teddybear breaks easily and
chunks come loose and roll away; they lie scattered everywhere, a lot of them
right in the path. Ned says that each chunk will take root eventually and become
a new plant. We have to watch our steps all the time for fear of coming down on
one. You can’t just kick a teddybear chunk aside if it sin your way, either. I
tried that and the cactus stuck to my boot, and I reached down to pull it off,
only to get it stuck to my fingertips next. A hundred needles jabbing me at
once. Like fire. I yelled. Most uncool screams. Ned had to pry it away, using
two twigs as handles. My fingers still burn. Dark, tiny points are buried in the
flesh. I wonder if they’ll get infected. There’s plenty of other cactus here,
too- barrel cactus, prickly pear, six or seven more that not even Ned can put
names to. And leafy trees with thorns, mesquite, acacia. All the plants here are
hostile. Don’t touch me, they say.

This landscape has all the inimical gooshiness of Belzagor, with the added benefit- or liability- of being real. I miss cactus. All the trees here look the same to me.

There should be more meat to this series of transitions, but here goes:

* The characters in Book of Skulls want to live forever, and do desperate things in the attempt. The people in the book who are immortal- if they really are- are strange and mystical and not like other men because they have vastly more life experience.

* The characters in Glasshouse, by Charles Stross, really do live forever. But when everybody is special, nobody is, and they all seem to be the kind of shallow Gen-X perennial adolescents that you can’t heave a rock in Newtown without hitting. When they get too close to gaining some sort of value from their life experience, they have memory enemas.

* One of the nifty things about Glasshouse was how the narrator is a veteran of a military organization called the ‘Linebarger Cats’. I assumed this was probably a tribute to Paul Linebarger, friend of Chiang Kai-Shek, expert in psychological warfare, and author of science fiction under the name Cordwainer Smith. Latter on, the ‘Cordwainer something-or-others’- I can’t remember what exactly, and I’ve taken the book back to the library, mea culpa- is given as another name used by the Linebarger Cats, making the identification obvious.

The science fiction of Cordwainer Smith is rife with cats, but I like to think the ‘Linebarger Cats’ of Glasshouse are echoes of the cats in The Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal:

He coded these cats. He coded them with messages just as monstrous as the messages which had made the men-women of Arachosia into monsters. This is what he coded:
Do not breed true.
Invent new chemistry.
You will serve man.
Become civilized.
Learn speech.
You will serve man.
When man calls you will serve man.
Go back, and come forth.
Serve man.

These instructions were no mere verbal instructions. They were imprints on the actual molecular structure of the animals. They were changes in the genetic and biological coding which went with these cats. And then Suzdal committed his offence against the laws of mankind. He had a chronopathic device on board the ship. A time distorter, usually to be used for a moment or a second or two to bring the ship away from utter destruction. …
Suzdal remained calm. He coded the genetic cats. He loaded them into life-bombs. He adjusted the controls of his chronopathic machine illegally, so that instead of reaching one second for a ship of eighty thousand tons, they reached two million years for a load of less than four kilos. He flung the cats into the nameless moon of
And he flung them back in time. …
The cats came. Their ships glittered in the naked sky above Arachosia. Their little combat craft attacked. The cats who had not existed a moment before, but who had then had two million years in which to follow a destiny printed into their brains, printed down their spinal cords, etched into the chemistry of their bodies and personalities. The cats had turned into people of a kind, with speech, intelligence, hope, and a mission. Their mission was to reach Suzdal, to rescue him, to obey him, and to damage Arachosia.The cat ships screamed their battle warnings.
“This is the day of the year of the promised age. And now come cats!”

I don’t know if it was entirely wise of Stross to remind me of Smith. I still have to read a lot more of Stross’ stuff, but his worlds seem to be geeky Greg Egan-like places inhabited by people who are mentally just like us, worlds drained of mystery and the terror of the dark places between the stars by uber-technology.* The people in Smith’s universe are not quite people like us. They’re people, but you can imagine them being people from a different time. And the Instrumentality tried to make the universe into a place drained of mystery and terror, but gave it away.

I haven’t managed to get to Kingdoms of the Wall yet, it seems.
Nor have I dragged in, as planned, Star Maker, Roadside Picnic, or Orbitsville.

S is just one of those letters.

* Or not.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Eat More Whales

I went out last week to pick up some hens to replace the ones that were taken by some wild beast earlier in the year. An email had gone around at work saying that they had 200 to find homes for. They had been part of an experiment on debeaking methods, trying to figure out the best way to stop them from pecking each other to death when three of them are packed into a cage the size of a hatbox. It was a good experiment- within the system- trying to make chicken culture more humane. Kind of like putting a band-aid on a cancer, as a wise man once said.
But, the experiment was over, and the birds were surplus to requirements, and it was needful to get rid of as many as could be gotten rid of to people who wanted them, before the others were sold to the chicken extract manufacturers.

They seem healthy enough. They all have a lot of feathers missing, so they don’t look so crash hot, and the claws on their feet are dreadfully long since they’ve spent their whole lives walking on wire cage. It was neat to watch them lift their feet really high as they walked upon the ground for the first time, and neat to see them peck at things in the earth for the first time, and discovering dirt baths for the first time, and generally starting to behave like chickens instead of like automaton drones. It was like they had just been born.

Time will pass, and we will doubtless discover the distinctive personalities of each of the five hens, and they will no longer be an undifferentiated mass of ragamuffins. For they are all different when you get to know them, just like rats and cats and elephants.
I will remember, of course, the shed full of hundreds like them packed into hat-box sized wire cages that we didn’t take away, and the nine billion (or is it nineteen billion? Ninety billion?) of their kind that we slaughter every year.

There aren’t many meals on a chicken. There are a lot more on a cow. It is much better to kill the occasional cow and share it around, rather than making continual hecatombs of chickens. I strongly suspect that there is not a lot of difference between what it is like to be a cow and what it is like to be a chicken: both can obviously feel pain, be happy or miserable, and have individual personalities.

Better yet, I thought as I was driving home with my cardboard box full of chickens, we should eat whales. There are many more meals on a whale than there are on a cow. Thousands and thousands and thousands of chickens worth. Sure, they are particularly sensitive and intelligent animals. But we wouldn’t bat an eyelid at letting a particularly sensitive and intelligent human die to save the lives of tens of thousands of epsilon semi-morons. At least, I hope we wouldn’t. Chickens have feelings too. Chickens can suffer. I think if you added up all the suffering and lost potential of the thousands of chickens you’d need to balance one whale, even if they are much dumber and less sensitive than the one whale, it could hardly be a contest. Besides, whales are the ultimate free-range animals. Up until the moment they catch and explosive harpoon in the guts, they live free in the open ocean, pursuing their mysterious cetacean social goals. They aren’t shut up in hatbox-sized cages or debeaked or nothing.

I’ve always been anti-whaling, and I still am, viscerally and sentimentally, but really, I don’t think we have a leg to stand on. We have frivolously and sentimentally promoted a few animals, like dolphins and dogs, to honorary human status, and expecting other cultures to do the same is the worst kind of cultural imperialism. We get understandably upset when them accursed foreigners complain about us eating those cute wittle-icky kangaroos. How can we complain about the cruelty of whaling when we subject innumerable other animals to miserable lives before knocking them off and devouring their corpses? As another wise man once said, first remove the stick from your eye, then go about removing the speck from the other guy’s eye.
When we embrace vegetarianism- which will, by the way, do more to curb global warming than closing down every coal-fired power station in the country*- we can go about pontificating to the Japanese about whaling. But until then? Much better to eat the gigantic happy animals, instead of the itty-bitty miserable ones.

* Statistic just made up by me. But almost certainly true. Research pending…

Thursday, December 13, 2007

20/20 Targets

I caught the end of a discussion on the radio the other day about '20/20' targets.

Should Australia commit to a 15% reduction? 20%? 25%?

Now, some may call me fanatic, but I think this kind of response to a serious global crisis is nothing short of pathetic.

I call upon the Federal government to commit to a 100% reduction in this pernicious form of limited-overs 'cricket'.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

S is for Silverberg

Marco is keen for me to write about a non-controversial science fiction author. I am happy to oblige. If you have taken the ‘Are you Dr Clam?’ survey on the right, you will have come across the question ‘Which of these Robert Silverberg novels have you frequently re-read?’
So I may as well write about those books, and why I have often re-read them (if I can possibly figure it out). This should be non-controversial, if perhaps fundamentally uninteresting.

Downward to the Earth (1969) gets its title from Ecclesiastes 3:21, but I have always associated it with my mis-remembering of Psalm 118:25- ‘Adhaesit pavimento anima mea’ of the Vulgate- as ‘my soul cleaves downward to the Earth’. Silverberg drags me downward to the earth. I find nothing seductive in the godless worlds of Asimov, or Egan, or Heinlein. They are not places I want to live. The actions of the characters are not actions I want to emulate. For the worlds of Foster- long ago- and still, sometimes, in the worlds of Herbert, I feel a stir of longing, but they are safe worlds, and the characters who live in them do not imperil my soul. Robert Silverberg’s godless worlds somehow seethe with all the things I find attractive in godless reality.

Who wouldn’t be Gunderson? Wandering across a planet that he helped wrest from the alien wilderness as the alien wilderness inexorably takes it back. Both phases are terribly attractive to me: the carving of a raw new place, and the decay of an old place. The bits in between, where it is clean and orderly and functional, are booooring. I love the way Belzagor pullulates. It is a riot of living things, things that accurately reflect the intoxicating reality of real living things in the way so many of them are inimical to man. Here there are not just space monsters, but gooshy parasites with all the gooshiness of real earthly parasites. Most sci-fi writers shy away from the raw gooshiness of living things as we know them. Not Silverberg. The Face of the Waters (1991) does this even more. Actually, hmm, it does it so much it is kind of unreadable.
And what are Gunderson’s wanderings about? Sex, drugs, and the pursuit of mysterious knowledge. Things that drag the soul downward. Lots of writers can write about these things without making them seem attractive. But not Silverberg. Ah, forget about Gunderson! Who wouldn’t be Kurtz, leading the Nildoror astray with a perversion of their most sacred rite? Actually, I know he is totally reprehensible and stupid. Nobody with any sense or any shred of decency would behave like him. But there is a creepy attractiveness to him, part of the whole adhaesit pavimento anima mea thing…

There are other things to like in Downward to the Earth. There is the sense that the whole rest of the universe really exists, even though you never hear very much about the rest of Earth’s colonial empire. In Across a Billion Years – which is otherwise fairly forgettable- there is an Israeli character on board the ship, and in the little potted biography he is given at the beginning it says something like he did his degree in Alexandria, and post-docced in Baghdad, but he’d never been out of Israel before. Why is that great? Because it is never mentioned again, and is not important to the plot in any way whatsoever. It is just a superfluous geopolitical detail that makes you feel the rest of the world is really there and the story isn’t taking place in front of a cardboard backdrop.

I don’t find the characters in The Book of Skulls (1972) attractive. There is just a bit of the Generation-X envy- I don’t know how widespread this is, really- of the Baby Boomer generation and their wild sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll adventures. We are the sensible ones. I am happy we are the sensible ones. I like being sensible. But this inglorious and stupid longing to have been part of the great age of stupidity is real.

I actually bought my copy of The Book of Skulls in a great barn of a secondhand bookstore in Tucson with my friend Tim Harrison, who I have been unable to find with Google. We used to make photocopied comic books together, long ago. He worked for the Clinton campaign in 1996 and- last I heard from him- he was tracking to the fanatical left edge of idea space as quickly as I was moving into Clamspace. But that’s not important right now. At the time I hadn’t read that many Robert Silverberg books and I wasn’t that fond of them, but it said on the back cover that the immortal monks lived in the desert outside of Tucson. So I bought it. Inside, I found that the immortal monks actually lived in the desert outside of Phoenix, our arch-nemesis. Oh well. It was not as egregious an example of misleading coverness as the cover of Journey to the Centre of the Earth that I used to own.

Yes, that is a ‘raft’ ascending Mt Etna on the cover. Yes, the characters are wearing space suits. Yes, there are four of them. The cover illustrator obviously flipped it open and read half a page at the end, the slacker.

I think there is a bit of geek wish-fulfillment in The Book of Skulls in that the two weedy intellectual ones survive to the end, and the two jocks die. I don’t think it would turn out like that. Especially as Oliver’s will to live at all costs is made so much of in the bits where we are inside his head. Would he really kill himself over something as trivial, in comparison to thousands of years of existence, as his sexuality? Not from how he’s written. But I guess, in the parts of the book that haven’t been written, I guess he reached the same conclusion that any immortal character in a Greg Egan book would, that the one thing worse than annihilation is turning into something antithetical to what you are now. You can endure a temptation for seventy years. You can repress the darkness. But forever? There is no hope while your soul cleaves downward to the earth.

Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980) appeals partly because Majipoor, like Belzagor, pullulates. All those cities and peoples. The continually reiterated vastness of it. Is it just that Silverberg keeps going on about the vastness of it that it seems vast? Is the vastness just in the unwritten story inside my head, and not in the created Majipoor? I don’t know. A lot of the *particulars* of the trilogy are unsatisfactory. But as a tiny bit, seen through a glass darkly, of a world that is 99.999% hidden, it is superb. My favourite of the trilogy is actually the Majipoor Chronicles. A single tale spanning continents will unavoidably shrink a world. But a collection of stories each set in a tiny fragment of a world, that’s the way to make it vast…

The way things are continually named but not described, as if we are familiar with them already? That is splendid world-building. But the world is too creepily lawful, like the one we live in.* I think it would be frustrating to live there. Maybe that is another temptation dragging me toward the earth, the temptation to chaotically create lawful worlds for other people to live in…
I just came across something about how Majipoor was originally conceived of as an overwhelmingly urban world, which explains something that always bugged me, the imbalance between the urban areas and the rural areas responsible for feeding them. There never seemed to be enough of the latter to me. I justified the ‘alternating ribbons of city and farmland’ in western Zimroel to myself by saying that they were actually blobs of urban area on the highway like beads on a string, with lots of farmland to the north and south.
I get the impression I am trailing off into inane geographical pedantry. So I will just… trail off… and finish up with Kingdoms of the Wall (1992) at another date.

Actually, before I go, there is one huge piece missing in the pullulating tropical luxuriance of all these worlds of Silverberg's, and that is fecundity. If I were writing them, they would be seething with children as well. Characters would be getting knocked up all the time.

* Though not as creepily lawful as the Land of Oz. I have been re-reading these books to Miss E and am finding the place scarily totalitarian:

‘Ozma is as nearly perfect as a fairy may be, and she is noted for her wisdom as well as for her other qualities. Her happy subjects adore their girl Ruler and each one considers her a comrade and protector.’
(The Scarecrow of Oz)

‘Isn’t one punished enough in knowing one has done wrong? Don’t you wish, Ojo, with all your heart, that you had not been disobedient and broken a Law of Oz? ‘
‘I – I hate to be different from other people,’ he admitted.
‘Yes; one likes to be respected as highly as his neighbours are,’ said the woman. ‘When you are tried and found guilty, you will be obliged to make amends, in some way. I don’t know just what Ozma will do to you, because this is the first time one of us has broken a Law; but you may be sure she will be just and merciful. Here in the Emerald City people are too happy and contented ever to do wrong; but perhaps you come from some faraway corner of our land, and having no love for Ozma carelessly broke one of her Laws.’
(The Patchwork Girl of Oz)

‘This wonderful Magic Picture was one of the royal Ozma’s greatest treasures. .. If one who stood before it wished to see what any person- anywhere in the world- was doing, it was only necessary to make the wish and the scene in the Magic Picture would shift the scene where that person was and show exactly what he or she was engaged in doing.’
‘Of all the magical things that surrounded Glinda in her castle there was none more marvelous than her Great Book of Records. On the pages of this record book were constantly being inscribed- day by day and hour by hour- all the important events that happened anywhere in the known world , and they were inscribed in the book at precisely the moment the events happened. … For that reason nothing could be concealed from Glinda the Good, who only had to look at the pages of the Great Book of Records to know everything that had taken place.’
(The Lost Princess of Oz)

Asymmetric access to information corrupts. Asymmetric access to *lots* of information corrupts *a lot*.

Monday, December 03, 2007

R is for Rushdie

We arrived in Calcutta on the train from Bhubaneshwar one morning in the summer of 1995, for a one night stopover on the way to somewhere else. We were expecting a seething mass of humanity, but instead the streets were eerily silent. We found a taxi to take us to a hotel, and it was the closest I have ever felt to The Day of the Triffids. The middle of Calcutta after all looks pretty much like 1950s London would look if it had been left at the mercy of the elements for a few years. The streets were eerily silent, the driver told us, because it was an election day and people were staying at home to avoid bomb throwers. It wasn’t a national election, or even a state election, just a city council election.

After we got settled in the hotel I went out into the streets and meandered about. As the day wore on they grew more and more alive. It was one of the best meandering abouts in my life. I met a nice man who had lost his job in a factory injection-molding polyethylene and was living on the streets trying to save up for a train ticket to Bangalore to find work. I wandered around the museum for a while, which was a marvelous 19th century wonderland with endless cases of beetles and whole temples taken apart and rebuilt inside. In comparison to Delhi, which had seemed brash and American and stupid, Calcutta seemed restrained and English and intelligent. Street vendors in Delhi had tried to sell me all kinds of mindless tourist trash. A street vendor in Calcutta tried to sell me A Brief History of Time. I already had one; but then he moved on to Midnight’s Children, and I bought one. I am very fond of my copy of Midnight’s Children.

I have already quoted the bit of The Satanic Verses that I carried around in my wallet for years. Twice. So I won’t again, I guess.

This first question of Gibreel’s is really just a fine piece of Clamly emoting which can’t be said to have changed me, just sunk in and reinforced what was already there.

The second question, in case I have only mentioned it on comments on other blogs is more or less: How do you treat other ideas when you do change the world? I am sure it is expressed in a better way in the book, but I am too lazy to look up the proper words. This second question of Gibreel’s has hung around in my head as a sort of goad to conservatism, making me wary of novel ideologies. If I want to know how Catholic states answered this question, or how the Caliphate did, or Communists, or the Conservative Party, or a Jewish state, I can google it. If I want to know how the Inspiring New Movement with Noble Rhetoric will answer this question, I have to carefully read between the lines and try to figure out what they might get up to should they manage to answer the first question. Better just to keep my distance from the Baha’i’s, or from the Greens, no matter how superficially attractive they might seem from time to time.

Another thing I have carried around in my head for ages, colouring my worldview in a minor way, is Rushdie’s characterization of Adelaide as the sort of place where Steven King novels happen. Every couple of years something weird and ghastly happens to set me nodding in agreement with this insight again.

Besides that- well, the sudden elevation of Rushdie to super-celebrity fugitive status happened when I was an easily influenced undergraduate. It was exciting, in an age of proverbial undergraduate apathy, for there to be a book around which reading was in some way a political act. I’m still not sure whether Rushdie blundered in without meaning to cause offence, or whether he set out to cause offence. At any rate, revisiting what he said is a stark reminder of how much easier it is to give offence nowadays. The title ‘The Satanic Verses’ was translated into several languages using a word that means specifically ‘verses of the Qur’an’, hence ‘The Satanic Qur’an’, which in striking at the very source of authority in Islam is practically the worst thing you can say. Inside, this is reinforced by the explicit suggestion that the holiest thing in the world, the uncreated Qur’an, was composed fraudulently. Publishing all that was an act of unparalled audacity. (All chaotic people ought to feel some admiration for the audacity, even if you think it was wholly reprehensible, in the same way we admired the audacity of the 9/11 plotters.) It now seems obvious that millions of people would want to kill you for writing such things. Nowadays, of course, all you have to give the wrong name to a teddy bear.
Androoo will have forgotten this anecdote, I am sure. Once upon that time he said he thought fundamentalist Islam was the most dangerous religion for the world, and I disagreed with him, saying the Evangelical Christians were far more likely to cause trouble and regurgitating some trivial anecdote about Marilyn Quayle. Have we swapped places? That I am not sure about.

I found out by reading the paper the next day that it had been a peaceful election. That is, nobody had been killed. There had been bomb throwing incidents at polling booths X, Y, Z, etc., but all in all it had been a fine example of a peaceful democratic process. Interestingly- the paper said, putting no more spin on it than that- the wards the incumbent party won (it was returned) it mostly won by quite narrow margins, while the wards the opposition won they romped in. Curious coincidence, eh?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

And for all this

I did say I didn’t have a horse in the election, but I guess I did have a preferred outcome. That outcome would have been a narrow victory for one side or another, narrow enough to lend some power to the independents and stifle any hyperbole about mandates and morning springing at the brown brink eastward. A narrow victory would have been the best thing to nourish democracy and stifle its great enemy, the legislative activism that is ceaselessly sowing the tares of law until they stand thick and tall choking every patch of fertile ground. If you followed my link to Belloc in the last post, you might have read the following bit about one of the reasons for the appeal of Islam in the ancient near east. But as you probably didn’t, here it is again:

…society had fallen, much as our society has today, into a tangle wherein the bulk of men were disappointed and angry and seeking for a solution to the whole group of social strains. There was indebtedness everywhere; the power of money and consequent usury. There was slavery everywhere. Society reposed upon it, as ours reposes upon wage slavery today. There was weariness and discontent with theological debate, which, for all its intensity, had grown out of touch with the masses. There lay upon the freemen, already tortured with debt, a heavy burden of imperial taxation; and there was the irritant of existing central government interfering with men's lives; there was the tyranny of the lawyers and their charges. To all this Islam came as a vast relief and a solution of strain.

Anyway, is it safe for me to read the papers again? Have all the people who were outrageously pleased by the election result finished jubilating? It was principally the thought of the ‘Howard Haters’ celebrating with all the subtlety and intelligence they brought to their complaining that made the prospect of a Labor victory unpleasant to me. I always found the depth of their hatred incomprehensible. Here was a man seamlessly continuing the Hawke-Keating era agendas of privatizing stuff, of interning asylum seekers, of gutting higher education, and loyally supporting the US alliance. All governments since 1975 have more or less done the same thing. The Coalition government was not remotely ‘of the right’ in any way that would be recognisable historically anywhere. It wasn’t socially conservative, it wasn’t economically conservative, it wasn’t small-government conservative, it didn’t have any autocratic tendencies that weren’t shared with the Hawke and Keating governments. Of course, Howard’s government made far too many laws. True, he did that bullshit ‘never ever’ thing. I trust Lexifab’s appraisal that standards of accountability nosedived under his watch. And he seems to have been, on balance, more of a lying weasel than the other guy seems to be. But I don’t think there was anything particularly dark and evil about the man or his government. He seemed to be more decent and more competent than the general run of leaders in the Western world.

I expect Rudd will be, as well. I liked him when he used to appear on the TV in the mornings in the days when I watched TV in the mornings. He voted the right way in the ‘Let Scientists Go Crazy Ape Bonkers with Their Drill and Sex’ vote on embryonic stem cells. (Like Howard and Costello, and Peter Garrett; and unlike Brendan Nelson or Malcolm Turnbull.) I hope he goes through with his undertaking to abandon the old government’s move to introduce an identity card by stealth. I know that what he has said and what the old lot said about climate change and foreign policy, once you scrape away the rhetoric, is almost exactly the same, so I don’t feel any unease there. I don’t expect his government will be any better or worse for my sector than the last one- especially as Higher Education is now one of many far-flung satrapies watched over by a Minister for Everything. But I might allow myself to be a teensy bit hopeful there. I’m also happy with the way Rudd distanced himself from the frivolous cultural obsessions of Keating. I felt a Costello government would have been far more likely to subject us to another time-wasting constitutional change debate.


Perhaps only a Labor government will be able to get away with not implementing ‘Son of Kyoto’. Perhaps only a Labor government will be able to get bipartisan support for Hilary’s invasion of Iran. I hope so.

This really is the Lucky Country. Howard did a decent job. I am pretty sure Rudd will do a decent job. The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil. And if the Howard Haters have finished rejoicing, I can happily go back to reading the papers!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Q is for al-Qur'an

'I'm afraid there's no niche in the world for people that won't be either Pagan or Christian.' - Ransom, aka The Director, in That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis

The first time I read that line, the words that rose unbidden in my mind were these: 'There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet.' True, Belloc et al. have attempted to appropriate Islam as the greatest of the Christian heresies, but I think if we are going to play that game there is a much better case for considering Christianity as the greatest of the Jewish heresies. Muhammad never lived as a Christian or operated inside a Christian society the same way that Jesus lived as a Jew and operated within a Jewish society.

Over in Marco's blog we have been talking about not reading books, and the Qur'an is an example of a book in my life that I have never read. I never got past alif baa taa, you see, and the Qur'an is by definition in Arabic. I have read Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall's English paraphrase, The Meaning of the Glorious Qur'an and the 19th century Koran by Sale.* I had the first with me when I visited the future Nato many years ago, as our meteoric paths through idea space briefly passed- at a great distance, but probably closer than we had been before or since. The other thing I was reading was a very nice graphic novel life of Christ by a Peruvian Catholic of the Liberation Theology sort, while I think Nato was reading something evangelical that talked about how the wealth and power of the United States were signs of God's favour. I think. I may be misremembering/misrepresenting it dreadfully. I also took TMOTGQ with me one summer when I was labouring for a couple of geophysicists at a tiny camp at the back of beyond. Neither of them wanted to be geophysicists. One was an example of what I now recognise as the Sydney Anglo-Celtic yuppie archetype, who wanted to get into IT, and spent his evenings poring over computer techie stuff. I expect he eventually made a gazillion dollars. The other was a vegetarian interested in Eastern Philosophy who spent six months of each year backpacking around India, and he spent his evenings reading books of Eastern Philosophy. He was curious about my TMOTGQ and borrowed it for an evening. He found it quite traumatic. It was the most intolerant religious book he had ever read, he said. I think. I remember he was traumatised, at any rate. I also remember late one night, when there was an assignment I had to hand in the next morning that I hadn't started yet, and I was reading TMOTGQ. I asked myself the question: 'What would be a better use of my time if I were to die tommorrow? Staying up all night doing my assignment or staying up all night reading TMOTGQ?' That is the sort of foolish question first year university students ask themselves.

If you ever find yourself surrounded by Christians of that sort which considers the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God, and their constant company and constant repetition of their arguments are slowly wearing you away, drip drip drip, so that you begin to consider that maybe there is something to what they are saying, you must do what I did. You must stay up all night reading Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall's The Meaning of the Glorious Qur'an. Two things may happen, if you read with attention.

You may realise that the book you thought was an infallible book cannot possibly be an infallible book, but that the book you hold might be the shadow cast from eternity of an infallible book. Maybe it is what you are seeking. It is written like an infallible book, written by someone who teaches with authority, not like the scribes or the Pharisees. Here is the core of the message of the Old Testament, repeated without the barbarities and the improbabilities and the legalistic dross. Here is the same message, the call to the same God, but written with clarity, with confidence, with universality. That is one thing that might happen.

The other thing is that you may decide that infallible books are not for you.

Long have I been attracted by this confident voice out of the desert. It began, I think, with reading history. Islam seemed to me to have been since its inception the only proven competitor with Christianity in idea space. In my first histories of the future, the union of Christianity with Islam was a common theme. I fasted for Ramadan in 1990.

Do not worry: I am too Catholic in my marrow to revert. Should the great ideological conflict of the 21st century turn out to be the same as the great ideological conflict of the 12th, as the president of a Catholic student association suggested to me at Devil Bunny City University in August 2001, I know which side I will be on. But...

Until then, I am a teensy bit conflicted.

I'm with the robust defenders of Christendom. But if the struggle is between the robust defenders of Dar-al-Islam and the decadent and gormless post-Christian West, I'm not going to put myself out to help the infidels.

I have said most of all this before, probably better, in scattered places here and in comments on Nato's blog. This post in the 'Reformation' thread, f'rinstance.

*: If you don't have time to read these yourself, you could always read the Cardinal's book report.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The March of Folly: Dr Clam and Democracy

I missed the 1988 US Presidential election by a few days, either by being too young or too disorganised. I forget which. So the first time I participated in the democratic process was the 1990 US mid-term elections. I voted for the Democrat on the grounds that he was the only one who had enough initiative to send election propaganda to us on the other side of the world. Also, he seemed like a good bloke.

By the time 1992 rolled around I was capable of rational thought, so I carefully weighed up all the pros and cons and determined which presidential candidate I should vote for. Then I realised that the critical factor in my decision had been whether the candidate was good for Australia. It seemed to me that voting on this basis was not really fair on my fellow Americans, and decided not to vote in American elections anymore.

In 1997 I voted for a Labor candidate. This was for the incumbent mayor of our city. The notable thing about this election was that at the time he was having a bitter argument with the local paper on the grounds that they were out to get him, but it was solely due to the local paper that I voted for him. I was temperamentally and ideologically inclined towards the ‘other side’; but whenever the paper quoted the challenger (s)he came across as a complete dill whose only coherent policies were stupid and unattractive.

In 1998 I played a minor role in the brief ascendancy of ‘One Nation’ in Queensland by exhausting my preferences (which you can do in Queensland state elections) rather than directing preferences to Peter Beattie- little dreaming he would one day become a Sennacherib-like destroyer of the weak, but disliking him already. The guy I had voted for came third, and our electorate ended up being represented by a man whose previous claim to fame was as a shopping-centre Santa Claus.

I made a bumper sticker: ‘Don’t blame me, I voted for the Easter Bunny.’

At the time, this was not technically true.

Later that year, I gave us the GST by voting for the Liberal candidate in our marginally marginal seat and for the Democrats in the Senate. ‘My’ senator was Andrew Bartlett, and I still feel a twinge of pride whenever he writes something sensible in the papers or gets drunk in Parliament.

In 2000 I didn’t vote for anyone in the US Presidential elections, but I still feel responsible because I had made up my mind in advance to see how long I could go before finding out who won. Thus the morning after, after not turning on the TV, I very carefully made it all the way from home to work on the train without once looking at anyone’s newspaper. I had been in my office for about five minutes when someone burst in to tell me that nobody had found out who won...

In 2001 I did vote for the Easter Bunny. I was cross at all the parties in the House of Representatives for voting themselves such a big pay rise for no reason, and was in an incredibly safe seat anyway. So I pencilled in The Easter Bunny and Osama bin Laden on my ballot paper and preferenced them relative to the major parties.

The silly thing I did that election was in the vote for the Senate, where my directed preferences ended up going to the Greens and electing Kerry Nettle. I have written her several letters as ‘My’ senator, but she has never acknowledged receipt of any of them, and she has always voted the exact opposite to how I asked her to.

Oh, I almost forgot the constitutional referendum. I voted informal straight down the line- keen though I was to support Aden Ridgeway’s preamble- for the same reason I stopped voting in American elections. I realised I had a visceral, un-Australian respect for the constitution which was entirely due to my American background. Because of my cultural background, I considered constitutions to be quasi-sacred documents. Writing the Queen out of the constitution would be too much like writing Britney Spears into Second Corinthians. I did not think it would be fair on my fellow Australians to cast my vote on such a basis.

In 2004 we moved to a locality with sitting Independents on the state and federal level, who I have voted for whenever possible. They answer my letters, and on at least one notable occasion our Federal member has explicitly said in Parliament he was voting the way his constituents told him to, and then voted the way I told him!

Also in 2004, after reading Dante’s De Monarchia I decided that the President of the United States was not just the representative of the American people, but was the rightful successor to the Holy Roman Emperor as holder of the temporal power in Christendom. So it was okay to vote in American presidential elections again.

I went to check out this site after reading Emma Tom’s spiel on it in El Pais de Murdoch and answered all the questions in a perfectly Clamly way.

It told me to vote for Labor. And, despite the fact that one of my top three nominated issues was ‘climate change’ and my expressed opinion thereon was ‘don’t sign anything, don’t do anything, its all bollocks’ it told me to put the Greens next. I find myself a teensy bit suspicious of its objectivity.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Spero: Question Six

Q.6. Can this universe be reconciled with the hypothesis of a benevolent God?

The expression ‘law of nature’ is as old as Pindar in Greek, as Lucretius in Latin. But until modern times, it was used, as ‘law’ ought to be, of something that can be broken but ought not to be. – C. S. Peirce

Because of the disjointed way I have approached this Spero document, this is a question I have already answered.

The universe, animate and inanimate, certainly seems to contain evil.

My position is that this seeming evil is not just something to do with our perception of the universe, but something that is really there.

I reject the pantheist position that, seen from the appropriate angle, all seeming evil will turn out to really be good.

And I reject the Holmes Rolston III position that good and evil are only concepts applicable to our human world.

Thus, as the universe contains evil, it would seem that the universe could not have been created by an omnibenevolent God.


We observe that the evil in human society is easily explained by the freedom of humans to accept or reject the good. The easiest way to explain the evil in the rest of the universe is that it also arises from the freedom of free-willed entities to accept or reject the good. My hope is that the rules of the universe we live in were not created, by fiat, by God, but are at least in part the product of the choices of beings much more fundamental than us. The universe is a game, a game in which making up the rules is part of the game.

‘Original sin’ is the fact that we can do nothing that is perfectly good, because of how the game has panned up until now. The cumulative errors of All Decisions Antecedent to Mankind have limited our freedom of action so that we can do nothing that is not flawed. That does not mean that there is not always a best action, just that the best action is frequently very bad.

Holmes Rolston III

I find that the bit in my original Spero document where I mention this fellow, he is only tenuously connected with the question I claim to be answering, so I will talk about him here instead.

He did me the valuable service, in 1996 or 1997, of stating clearly an untenable philosophy for me to react against. This was valuable because, in reacting against this untenable philosophy, I had for the first time to state clearly what I believed in opposition to it. This means that I need to apologise for inevitably misrepresenting his true position. I am not claiming the opinions I am going to attribute to him are a correct picture of what he really believed 1996/1997, or what he believes now. They are only what I perceived his opinions to be when he came to talk to us.

HR3 seemed to be saying that the universe may be split into two domains: the domain of culture, and the domain of nature. Morality, as we understand it, is restricted to the domain of culture. It is here that we should apply ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’, or whatever. Where the domain of nature is concerned, we have one duty and one duty only: to leave it alone. Our ‘moral’ responsibility is to ensure that the parasitic wasps keep gnawing away at the entrails of their hosts, that a bison calf who falls through thin ice is left to drown, that beached whales stay beached, that wildfires started by natural means are allowed to burn unchecked, no matter what animal suffering results.

I asked HR3 a question about what determines whether a being is under culture, or under nature, and his answer was- I think- in terms of technology. We have the power to alter our environment, and this places us in the realm of culture: animals do not, and live under nature.

This seemed to me most unsatisfactory. What about most of the people who have ever lived, whose abilities to alter their environment were crude compared to ours? What about the representatives of those people today, leading ‘primitive’ lives in the wilds of South America or Africa? Do they belong to nature, or to culture? It seemed to me that, in the absence of anything like a ‘soul’ to identify who belonged to nature and who to culture, these unfortunate brothers and sisters of ours were condemned to nature.

I decided a while afterwards that the ‘technology’ answer would not be sufficient for the disciples of HR3, centuries from now, and that they would seek out and find some empirical touchstone for belonging to culture, some quantifiable ‘soul’ that they would all turn out to have. I decide it would be more interesting if not everyone we now consider human had this experimentally detectable soul, and ran a game where the player characters were un-souled low-technology dwellers on an Earth which had been lovingly restored as a nature preserve. The followers of HR3, who I called the ‘Zephron’, lived in high-tech orbital colonies and left the surface strictly alone according to their interpretation of HR3’s principles.

Against the Zephron, and in reaction against my (mis)understanding of HR3’s position, I therefore state:
The moral laws that are to be obeyed by humans are a manifestation of the same moral laws that are to be obeyed by bison, by electrons, and by sentient galaxies. We might not recognize them as such, but they are all rules that emerge from the same moral equation, the same ethical Theory of Everything.

Another thing HR3 seemed to be saying was that we had did not just have duties toward individuals; we had duties toward species; we had duties towards ecosystems; we had duties towards the Earth. These sound like trivial, innocuous statements. Yet, because- perhaps- I was in the mood to be contrary after the first bit of HR3’s talk, I reacted against these statements too. What happens, in practice, when ‘duties to an ecosystem’ conflict with ‘duties to the individual’? It is usually the individual that suffers. It is the individual who is poisoned, who is shot, who is uprooted, who is intentionally infected with disease. We all accept this as perfectly normal and praiseworthy. Yet it is wrong.

Only an individual can suffer. Only an individual can know joy. Only an individual can, in whatever small way, make choices that bring it nearer to or farther from perfection. It is wrong to make individuals suffer in order to protect an ecosystem. Our primary responsibility towards an ecosystem, and towards the Earth, is towards them as collections of individuals. We have real secondary responsibilities to preserve diversity, and to preserve beauty, but it is the duties towards individuals that are paramount. If we have an opportunity to replace an ecosystem where individual lives are nasty, brutish, and short with an ecosystem that is more pleasant for the individuals comprising it, we have a moral duty to do so. If we can only save the last five Neeble beasts by exterminating a thousand Meeble beasts, we have a moral duty not to do so.

Against the Zephron, and in agreement with Margaret Thatcher, I therefore state: ‘There is no such thing as a species.’

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

P is for Poe

I think that if you were some sort of psychological archaeologist, and you could dig down through all the consciously scientific strata of my mind, and all the consciously religious strata, and all the weird deposits laid down by the vagaries of history and biology, you would find- a very little distance above the primeval bedrock of "There seems to be an I that is thinking"- these words, engraved in letters as deep as a spear as long:

Hear the sledges with the bells-
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

Hear the mellow wedding bells,
Golden bells!
What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!
Through the balmy air of night
How they ring out their delight!
From the molten-golden notes,
And an in tune,
What a liquid ditty floats
To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats
On the moon!
Oh, from out the sounding cells,
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the Future! how it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells,bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!

Hear the loud alarum bells-
Brazen bells!
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
With a desperate desire,
And a resolute endeavor,
Now–now to sit or never,
By the side of the pale-faced moon.
Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells
Of Despair!
How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear it fully knows,
By the twanging,
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows:
Yet the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling,
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells-
Of the bells-
Of the bells, bells, bells,bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!

Hear the tolling of the bells-
Iron Bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy menace of their tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.
And the people–ah, the people-
They that dwell up in the steeple,
All Alone
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone-
They are neither man nor woman-
They are neither brute nor human-
They are Ghouls:
And their king it is who tolls;
And he rolls, rolls, rolls,
A paean from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the paean of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the paean of the bells-
Of the bells:
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the throbbing of the bells-
Of the bells, bells, bells-
To the sobbing of the bells;
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells-
Of the bells, bells, bells:
To the tolling of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells-
Bells, bells, bells-
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

O is for Orwell

Hobbit women are often named after plants and flowers, says Tolkien in the LOTR Appendices, and it was vague memories of Keep the Aspidistra Flying that led me to name my hobbit rogue Aspidistra, was back in 1991. While young her nose had been cut off by a mage looking for spell components, but eventually she managed to source a golden one. In LOTR Online, you cannot make up characters with no noses, but I have reconstituted an Aspidistra:

Figure 1: Aspidistra under the constellation Menelvagor

‘To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. One thing that helps towards it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record about one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it.’ – George Orwell

On November 24th, I expect Labor shall win the federal election. The sudden convergence of policy on everything between the two parties is in one way disappointing, but in another way is a refreshing sign that our country is more or less sane. It would be much worse if the two sides were being dragged along by their lunatic fringes, which seems to be the case in certain other English-speaking countries.

The public pronouncements of Rudd have tracked ‘right’ on Iraq to such an extent that I think it will make absolutely no difference to the U.S. alliance which party wins. In the meanwhile, the Prime Minister has tracked ‘left’ on Anthropogenic Global Warming to such an extent that he is no better than Labor. He has also frightened me by promising to enshrine ‘Some Australians are more equal than others’ in the constitution, and I am irritated by the prospect of him handing over to Costello because I know this would mean another time-wasting constitutional debate.
I don’t expect I shall mind Labor winning overmuch, given this convergence. A Labor government will provide a good opportunity for people to remember that mandatory detention of asylum seekers, gutting higher education, and privatising everything that stands still long enough to slap a price tag on it were policies initiated by the last lot of federal Labor governments.

I have read fewer of Orwell’s essays than I ought, but the ones I have read say something clearly and logically, and the something that they say is always sane, and usually something I can agree with. This is unlike any essays that are written in newspapers or magazines nowadays. Even this celebrated fragment has a good deal of truth in it, and an important message for me to remember:

‘Chesterton was a writer of considerable talent who chose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda. During the last twenty years or so of his life, his entire output was in reality an endless repetition of the same thing, under its laboured cleverness as simple and boring as ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians.’ Every book that he wrote, every scrap of dialogue, had to demonstrate beyond the possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the pagan.’

The protagonist in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, whose name escapes me, has an attitude to birth control which one now expects to find only among extreme religious believers. I am pretty sure from things I have read elsewhere that Orwell shared this opinion. In fact, from where I stand now the similarities between Orwell and Chesterton are far more important than the differences.

I was reading 1984 after school on the afternoon when my sister was being born, and my maths teacher walked by, not knowing my sister was being born just then, and said ‘Big Brother!’.

This is included as an example of an anecdote that has no point.

The only longer work of Orwell’s that I have read and re-read is Animal Farm. In the introduction to the edition I have it suggests that the subtitle ‘A Fairy Story’ relates to the arbitrary nature of success in fairy tales. In fairy tales, there is often no logic to choosing a successful course of action. Anyone may succeed in a fairy tale, no matter how unpromising their beginnings, but for everyone who succeeds hundreds fail. Think of all those knights who try and fail to rescue the princess, leaving their bones to litter the landscape, before the hero succeeds for some arbitrary reason.

Chesterton makes a similar point on the arbitrary nature of morality in fairy tales. In fairy tales, there is often no logic to what is stated to be good or bad. Happiness hangs by an irrational thread. Chesterton shoehorns the arbitrary nature of fairy tale morality into an argument that fairy tales are moral after all.

But I am not entirely convinced.

I have a bad habit of not paying enough attention to things. And I rarely forget instances when I have been stupid. (This is why I keep getting ‘Running out of memory’ errors). So I can remember my father showing me something with the quote ‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.’ on it and me breezily, stupidly, saying that I had seen it before. Of course my father would not show me something that was not worth looking at. It had been misquoted as ‘All people are equal, but some are more equal than others’. It had been misattributed, to- I think- ‘Animal House’ rather than ‘Animal Farm’-and it had been, worst of all, cited approvingly to illustrate the importance of education, since by education we could be one of those animals who are more equal than the other ones!

I have felt very bad about not paying attention at that moment ever since. I’m sorry, dad. :(

This is included as an example of an anecdote that has a point.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Spero: Question 5

[The notes on this point in my ‘Spero’ document are not the most coherent. I am not entirely sure what my pre-blogging self intended to say from the fragmentary notes they made, so I may be going off on a complete tangent here and misrepresenting their opinions.]

What is the universe like?

When we compare our concept of God and our concept of the universe, it would be good if they did not contradict one another. If they seem to do so, we must either adjust our concept of God, or adjust our concept of the universe, or adjust our concept of how they are linked one to another. I am using my definition of ‘universe’ which was something like ‘everything that exists which is potentially knowable to us’ as opposed to ‘Universe’ which was simply ‘everything that exists’.

Thus my implacable opposition to what is called Creationism owes a great deal, as I have said before, to the assertion that to create the universe ex nihilo as we see it- with all its pointless suffering and such a lot of excellent indirect evidence that it was not created ex nihilo like it is now- is absolutely unworthy of any God worth worshipping.

What do we see, when we look at the universe?

We see that it is physically rather hostile to creatures like us. It seems to be governed primarily by impersonal laws that make no distinctions between us: it does not matter whether we are nice or nasty, it does not matter what our name is or where we went to school, we will all obey G = m1m2/r2 if we should trip and fall.

On the other hand, the universe is psychically congenial. These implacable laws seems to be within our capacity to figure out. This is pretty amazing.

The universe is rather big.

The universe is also prodigal. It is inexplicably full of vast numbers of very similar things. If it was created ex nihilo, it was created by someone with a child’s joy in repeating very similar things over and over and over again. Look at all of those stars! Look at all of those insects! Look at all of those organic compounds!

The universe does not have one story at one scale, but a bewildering hierarchy of stories at different scales. Things that are very very small are interesting, and obey certain rules. These rules acting on these small things give rise to systems that are larger, and can be largely understood in terms of different rules which do not explicitly refer to the set of rules operating on the smaller scale. And these systems give rise to higher order systems, etc. The universe has all these layers of nested hierarchies emerging out of each other. But, there is no indication that one level of the hierarchy is more important than any other: if it was created ex nihilo, it was created by someone who lavished equal attention on all levels of the hierarchy.

The laws we have discovered suggest that there is no need to postulate that there is anything called ‘mind’ separate from ‘matter’ in the universe. But matter is incredibly interesting and behaves in bizarre ways. We can explain all of the hoped-for phenomena that we used to postulate a ‘soul’ for without there being anything in the universe besides matter. This is the point my pre-blogging self spent most of their time nattering about in the fragmentary notes.

I suggest that the universe also seems to be very pretty, at any scale we happen to look at.

Thus, the universe appears to be:

So darn mean.
Yet largely explicable.
Inexplicably large.
Inordinately fond of beetles.
In agreement with the statement ‘size doesn’t matter’.
Full of matter.

I am not sure what my pre-blogging self was aiming at- but I think my aim now is that all of these features of the universe should sit comfortably within a self-consistent worldview incorporating God as defined previously. There are certainly other features of the universe that will impress you, that ought to be fit into this self-consistent worldview as well...

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Doubtless I have written many dumb things

...and on the principle of ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ ought to remain silent. But I am weak.

Here is an extract from a letter quoted in a book I have just finished reading:

They keep sheep in Magdalen grove now, and I hear the fleecy care bleating all day long: I am shocked to find that none of my pupils, though they are all acquainted with pastoral poetry, regards them as anything but a nuisance: and one of my colleagues has been heard to ask why sheep have their wool cut off.

It is immediately followed by a second extract from the same letter:

It frightens me, almost. And so it did the other night when I heard two undergrads, giving a list of pleasures which were (a) Nazi, (b) leading to homosexuality. They were: feeling the wind in your hair, walking with bare feet in the grass, and bathing in the rain. Think it over: it gets worse the longer you look at it.

Now, if you knew *nothing at all* about the writer except that he wrote the first quote as well as the second quote, it would be blindingly clear that (s)he has overheard two pretentious undergraduates, with little experience of life outside the city and in obvious reaction to the early 20th century German cult of Nature, saying that these simple pleasures lead to Nazism and homosexuality. The undergraduates are saying that bathing in the rain leads to Nazism and homosexuality.

But, but, this is the ridiculous thing, the guy who is writing the book that quotes the letter doesn’t get it! This is what he says:

‘It is twenty-two years since I read that letter ... and on and off I have been thinking it over. At no time have I been able to see anything Nazi or necessarily homosexual in the listed pleasures, which are precisely of the kind which might occur in a George MacDonald fantasy. But the pleasures are, of course, those of youth, and Lewis at the age of forty seems to have forgotten what it was like to be young. He sees exuberant, and perhaps sensual, pleasure in the natural world ... now such stuff seems to him ‘Nazi’.’

Perhaps this would be excusable if Lewis were a minor figure in this book. But it is a biography of him! Elsewhere in the book, it is clear that the guy who wrote it has read everything C. S. Lewis ever published, as well as reams of unpublished material and things written about him by people who knew him personally. He ought to have gleaned some vague sense of what the fellow is like. In twenty-two years, how could it not have clicked that his reading of the letter was preposterously wrong? Didn’t he show his manuscript to any friends or colleagues who could have pointed out that his reading of the letter was wrong? If he could misread his subject so badly, what is he doing writing a biography of him at all?

Speaking of biography, I read the other day in the newspaper that there is no biography in English of Hu Jintao, despite the fact that he has been in charge of the Renegade Mainland Provinces for five years. This seems to indicate a frightening lack of interest by the English-speaking-world in the non-English-speaking world.

And I see Thabo Mbeki has won a Nobel Prize in Medicine. Congrats!

Spero: Question 4, take 2

Q: What do we mean by God?

A: At some level of the Universe more fundamental than our own, there exists an entity which is omniscient and omnibenevolent with regard to our universe. That is, it knows everything there is to know about our universe and wills what is good, without exception, for everything in our universe. This entity is God.

Omniscience, and therefore omnibenevolence, will be limited by the amount of information coming from yet more fundamental levels of the Universe, unless it is also true that God is the fundamental self-existent uncreated thing upon which everything else is dependent.

God can interact with us as a person, although what God is really like is as unknowable to us. This person is not a face put on by God, but is a valid ‘cross section’ of God, like the Sphere in Flatland being able to interact with A. Square as a circle.

This is the point that winstoninabox said he wanted to hear more about- in those happy days of long ago when the world was young- the intersection between God and Man.

I hold two ideas which sit somewhat uncomfortably together and make it hard for me to get hold of how this works.

The first idea is that we obtain all our information about the Universe through sense impressions, so that God must interact with us through the universe. In every instance of God interacting with us there will be material causes in the universe that make material changes in our brains.

The second idea is that the universe as we see it has the properties it has because of interactions between God and free-willed entities more fundamental than we are. God would not by fiat alter the properties that have arisen because of the free decisions of these entities, because that would make a mockery of their free will.

Thus, God acts only through the rules of the universe He has constructed, and can only interact with us- transient emergent phenomena emerging from the interactions between more fundamental beings- when the freely willed actions of those more fundamental beings allow. So I am stuck saying on the one hand that we cannot tell what God is like by observing how the universe is, but on the other hand that we do not have any other means of obtaining information.

I think the only way out is not to restrict ourselves to the means of knowledge that are ‘at our disposal’, but to consider also the means of knowledge that are not at our disposal: our observations of how the universe ‘ought to be’ are just as much part of the universe, even if they are not verifiable, as our observations of how the universe ‘is’. Hence the importance of the unwieldy term ‘physico-psychical’ in the quote below:

Just as long acquaintance with a man of great character may greatly influence one’s whole manner of conduct ... so if contemplation and study of the physico-psychical universe can imbue a man with principles of conduct analogous to the influence of a great man’s works or conversation, then that analogue of a mind- for it is impossible to say that any human attribute is literally applicable- is what he means by God.” (C. S. Peirce, ‘The Concept of God’)

I first read this a while ago and did not agree with it, but after thrashing around unsuccessfully looking for a better explanation I have read it again more carefully and think that I do. Though this contemplation of the universe will always be looking ‘through a glass darkly’, we should still see features in the universe which point us towards God. I think these are:

* The morality, C. S. Lewis’s ‘Tao’, which we seem to share.

* Our sense of the numinous which William James made so much of.

* The fact that science actually works, which ought to keep us all in a state of continuous total amazement.

Beyond this, I would suggest that God communicates with us through apparently chance combinations of events. God can hold the whole universe in His mind the way we can hold an equilateral triangle, and see that if these uncountable trillions of fundamental particles here, and here, and here can be persuaded to take various actions {N1, N2 ... Nlots}, it will present a particular set of circumstances to a particular transient being such as you or me. Since God is continually active in the universe in this way, maybe it would be true to say that all our experiences are experiences of God, if we chose to interpret them in this way. If these experiences make us feel like we ought to behave as though God exists, then we ought to.

How can we have an idea of God which is consistent with the reality of God? Putting things in terms of Peirce’s four ways of making our ideas clear:

* We could just stick to whatever ideas we happen to have, come what may.
* We could try to conform with the ideas of the people around us.
* We could define some a priori rules.
* We could make a study of our own and other people’s experiences.

I think in this particular case authority and experiment are uniquely conflated as ways of knowing. If we try to abstract the things that are common to human experience of God, it is hard to get anything much except the ‘Tao’. Therefore I am going to propose only one a priori rule, that we should respect this largely common moral teaching of humanity, and seek to hold an image of God that conforms with it.

In the absence of evidence outside our own experience of God, we have a duty to hope for the Best God Possible. We know (or think we know, or hope) that there is such a thing as Good. The Best Possible God will therefore be perfectly Good, and that is the God we should seek.

I hold that this omnibenevolence is the critical characteristic of God. (Omniscience is only necessary because in order to act towards the optimal outcome in a system, you need perfect knowledge about that system. Omnipotence is incapable of definition.)

An Omnibenevolent God will desire us to do any small thing that is good, but will not be satisfied until we are perfect.

What father is not pleased with the first tottering attempt of his little one to walk? What father would be satisfied with anything but the manly step of the full-grown son?” (George MacDonald)

So if anyone tells us either that God will reject our first tentative moves towards good, or will ultimately be content for us to remain as something less than perfectly good, we should ignore what they say.

I worked with a Mormon once who was quite scandalized by the idea of deathbed conversions.

‘You have these Mafia people who spend their whole lives doing horrible things, then on their deathbed they repent, and that’s okay, they go to Heaven? Where’s the justice in that?’

This opinion is to be rejected because it is in conflict with omnibenevolence.

If the authority of very many Saints and Prophets tells us something is wrong, while our conscience can see nothing wrong with it, then the omnibenevolence of God suggests that we ought to swallow our pride and accept that ‘the white we see is black’, because progress in goodness can only mean becoming more good.

If on the other hand we voluntarily wish to reject something that our Saints and Prophets have historically had no problem with- e.g., owning slaves, or eating dead animals- we may possibly be right: Ignatius Loyola never said that we had to accept that ‘the black we see is white’.

If there is anything in our inherited idea of God that suggests He is not omnibenevolent- such as, for example, the idea that non-believers will be subjected to eternal torture;
or the idea that He just happened to create a world full of pointless animal suffering-
then we must reject these ideas and try to interpret our observations of the universe, or the probable reality behind what authority has told us, in a way which does not call God’s omnibenevolence into question. We must cut away from our idea of God anything that we would consider unworthy behaviour in a human. How much more would such behaviour be unworthy of an omnibenevolent God?

Following the principle of omnibenevolence is one way that reason can give us a clearer picture of God. Ultimately, experience of God is the only way to know God. Here, reason can also help us to form a clearer picture of God by considering the experience of other people, since as individuals we are such a tiny sample of humanity.

If our idea of God is in conflict with our personal experience of God, either our idea of God is flawed or we have misinterpreted our experience of God. Authority- the cumulative experience of God and the ideas about God developed by those who have gone before us- can help us to judge whether we have interpreted our experience of God correctly. Finding out what other humans think about God, and their experience of God, will always be valuable. Do we behave in a similar way because of our experience of God as other people who have had experience of God? Is there something obvious we have missed? If we maintain a respect for Authority, and are very very reluctant to contradict any of the Prophets, we will be most unlikely to end up like Thomas Müntzer or Jim Jones.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Old men staring out to sea

There is a Film Forensics about The Island; but I just saw it the other day and had to write something. Or, I saw it the other day and just had to write something.

I can’t remember the last movie I saw that started out with so much promise and then collapsed so completely. It was like The Matrix and the first of those crummy Matrix sequels had been combined into one movie. It was like Highlander and Highlander 2 had been combined into one movie. It was like the screenwriter had disappeared halfway through, and been replaced by his 15-year-old clone who liked to blow things up.

So my first suggestion for improving the movie would involve the following two steps:

(a) Cut it in half
(b) Throw the second half away

Two things bothered me, besides the long and tedious action sequences. The first was the economics of the cloning operation, and the second was the behaviour of the people involved in it.

Economics first: $5 million is just too much to pay if all you get is replacement organs, and them not on demand: who wants to wait in a coma for months or years while your replacement parts are grown? Androo hit the nail on the head: “If the technology is there for building adult bodies, it’s not so much of a leap to go further and have brain transplants. Why bother repairing the old host body, when you can just move your brain into a new body? Ickier, more memorable, and we have a chance at some interesting plot points to go with it. The clones have to be physically trained to match (or exceed) the capabilities of the originals, which is a better explanation of why they have to be conscious...”

Then the people: Of course, groups of people can easily be persuaded to do evil things to other people. You usually need to do two things: isolate your group of evildoers from outside norms of behaviour, and convince them that their target group is subhuman. In The Island, there are too many humans working with the clones, and they interact with them all the time and see them behaving like regular humans. They are allowed to treat them occasionally in dehumanising and cruel ways, but not as a matter of course, since that would spoil the product. And they do not live on an isolated company compound, but commute to normal homes in the outside world. I think, if under these circumstances none of them have had pangs of conscience, if none of them have squealed about what is going on, it can only mean the rest of the country shares their morality. It only makes sense that they would behave that way if everyone considers clones to be inhuman, whether they are conscious or not, and that the uplifting scene of clones wandering across the desert at the end will soon be followed by scenes of helicopters rounding them up and taking them back to the pens.

In my version, most of the black-shirted people wandering around managing the clones will be clones themselves, who believe the same backstory, but have been conditioned to believe they have an important role in managing the facility and will automatically be sent on to the Island after a given length of time. Among these will be a few humans, some of the very few who know the whole story. Upstairs, where the clones are processed, things will be as automated as possible, and most humans working there will be unaware that the products were ever conscious.

The first part of the film will therefore unfold almost exactly the same as before, except that, of course, there is no need for white-suited clones to know how to read. I expect black-suited clones will be able to read. Also, the sleazy mechanic will be played by Jet Li.

When Lincoln escapes into the upper part of the facility, he will not find bustling corridors full of medicos, but- after a bit of atmospheric wandering around looking at cool special effects- an operating theatre where remotely operated robodocs are operating on the football-player replacement clone. Everything is under control: there is no racing about trying to escape. Lincoln just sees the guy lying there, obviously the man who won the lottery. An unspeakable machine comes up and puts some tubes in. Another one puts in some more tubes. Some lights flash. Maybe something beeps. Another machine comes up and shaves a small spot on his head. Splot, a machine sticks a thick steel tube through his skull. Schlurp, we see his brain being pumped, grayish-pink and icky, through a transparent tube. He is shrinkwrapped, a few more tubes are attached, and then a door whooshes open and a couple of gowned figures come in to check dials and wheel him away.

Consumers don’t come to the facility. That would be bad. So there is no scene with a baby being handed to grateful parents.

Then, there is no stupid action scene when Lincoln and Jordon get away. The clones are smart. Androo, again, has it perfectly right: “Have them both with some notion that they’re escaping to somewhere incredibly dangerous: that the world is not only radioactive, but filled with hideous beasts, as they see on the videos. They dress in radiation suits, take fresh water, weapons, and other supplies, and are cunning about hiding.”

Now, if you were running a facility like this, where would you put it? A disused military base in an open democracy where there are things like a free press and an activist judiciary? Only if you are a Michael Moore-style fantasist and the government is in on the deal. No, when they get out of the facility, the clones are not in the Nevada desert. They are on a bleak street in a Chinese industrial city, tarted up to look a bit more like Blade Runner because it is after all 2042. As they wander down the street, totally lost and looking like dills in their radiation suits, we see that the ‘Medical Supply House’ they have escaped from is not the only one. No, this street is lined with them. They can’t tell, because they can’t read.

Since, for a brand new body, $5 million is not so much. Millions of people can pay that. There are hundreds of these places here in Chengdu, where labour is cheaper and regulations less strict than they are in Nevada.

We flash back to the excitingly CGI-rendered video conference (clients aren’t going to travel out to the middle of nowhere to listen to a sales talk, after all) where the evil scientist fills in the back story for the folks at home. Its not good for old geezers to be transported into a body that is bed-ridden and weak from just sitting there in a vegetative state, of course: so it has to be exercised, by the latest top of the range equipment which keeps it in tip-top condition. Our automatic equipment for exercising our vegetative clones is the best in the world, which is why our bodies command premium prices, etc., etc. Because, and this is why the guys who own this place are really evil, they don’t have to keep the clones conscious in order to make their product. It’s just cheaper that way. It’s all about the bottom line.

The clones are wandering down the street when Lincoln sees his old friend Jet Li. Jet Li drops his dinner, which he is carrying home, in surprise. Jet Li can fill the clones in on his version of the backstory back at his place.

Now, I have slightly reconsidered my first suggestion, which was to throw the second half of the movie away. Perhaps some essential part of The Island is the dichotomy between a cerebral, intelligent world that is a total fraud and a stupid world of ultrakinetic action that is reality. Instead, we will make sure that the hyperkinetic action sequences are justified by the only justification for hyperkinetic action sequences, that they be part of the Hong Kong action movie tradition.

So, there is some artificial plot device to stop the clones from contacting their owners right away. They are pursued by the police and by the mercenaries. Far fewer things are totally destroyed, since we have spent more of the special effects budget on booze. The police will actually collect the clones, bring them into the station- not to charge them with the murder of Jet Li, because he is alive in this version, and they’ve brought him into the station too, but because it is an authoritarian state where they can do what they like to simple-minded foreigners in weird costumes who run away and break things- and then they will be grabbed by the mercenaries, who have more impressive special effects than the police.

The clones will be tied up and spirited away, but we always thought the mercenary leader was going to turn out to be a good guy, and our suspicions are about to be confirmed: he has gotten a better offer and is being nice to the clones and taking them somewhere else. Meanwhile it will be revealed to the viewers at home that, going through proper channels, what the police were going to do is hush things up and disappear the clones quietly. The mercenary leader is taking the clone to Matt Damon of Team America: World Police, who is investigating dumping of cheap Chinese clones on the market. We are just starting to like the mercenary leader when he turns evil again and is shot by Matt Damon. Lincoln borrows Matt Damon’s mobile phone and calls his owner. His owner is mortified and nice, and immediately arranges for the two clones to be repatriated.

Lincoln and Jordon go to live with Ur-Lincoln, who lives on- dramatic music- an island! Yep, it’s a real nice private artificial island, either in Tampa Bay (like in that Alan Dean Foster book based on Navajo mythology), or part of The World in Dubai. (There will be nothing in this film to offend any geography pedants.)

We see the same police who were going to hush things up barging into the upper floors of the clone factory, now that it is no longer possible to hush things up.

We see the other clones owned by Americans being happily repatriated to a real swell holding facility in Nevada, until Team America:World Police can figure out what to do with them.

We see Lincoln and Jordon sitting on the beach happily drinking pina coladas.

We see the inert bodies of the evil scientist and the rest of his evil non-clone collaborators, and yes, that’s Jet Li there too, he was caught by the authorities as well- being processed on a conveyor belt. A robodoc much like the one we saw in use in their facility is dissecting them for organs. Splot. Schlurp. Buzz, whir.

Then we pan along that street in Chengdu again, past ‘Medical Supply House’ after ‘Medical Supply House’.

Everyone happy. Cue credits. Await diplomatic incident.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Butlerian Jihad, My Shiny Metal Arse

The term 'Butlerian Jihad' is obviously a reference to Samuel Butler's 'Erewhon'.

Deriving the name from somebody named 'Serena Butler' or 'Jehanne Butler' is just plain stupid.

N is for Nobody

Science fiction is dead.

Exhibit 1: Last month I found myself in the ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’ section of an average-sized bookshop, one of a major chain of such shops that you can find in any shopping centre in the country.

There were some Star Trek books. There were some Star Wars books. I think there may have been some Stargate books. There were a few of those sequels to the Dune Books by Brian Herbert which I have never had the slightest inclination to read. There was ‘I, Robot’. There was, in one gleam of hope, a whole slab of shelf devoted to a new edition of Philip K. Dick’s novels.

Beyond that, it was all Fantasy.

Of course, not all bookstores are like that. But if Science Fiction was a going concern, there wouldn’t be any bookstores like that.

To a first approximation, therefore, it would seem that no science fiction with mass appeal is being written today.

Refutations of this statement, with copious counter-examples, would be welcome. While awaiting them I will have a go at possible explanations:

(1) As a superannuated fuddy-duddy, I am out of touch with the vibrant and populous community of modern science fiction readers. Entirely possible... but if they were really vibrant and populous one would still expect to see more evidence of it in the chain bookstores. I think.

(2) It just got too hard to write science fiction, because the real world got too science-fictiony, and was more or less the same as the Cyberpunk world we used to read.

Exhibit 2: When I read science fiction, even my favourite stuff, it always has a period feel nowadays: In all but a very few cases, it is obviously of the 50s, or the 60s, or the 70s, or the 80s, and could not be anything else. I can immediately imagine a ‘generic’ science fiction story of each of those decades, as dated by its themes and characters as if it were full of artifacts and celebrities of that period.

Exhibit 3: I can think of two authors immediately who wrote science fiction that was interesting and good, in different ways, and then went off to achieve fame and fortune writing formulaic fantasy. I can’t think of anyone who went the other way.

I sat down once and thought about what sort of thing I liked to read best of all, and I remember deciding that it was science fiction stories of the sort written by Larry Niven. I can’t think of any particular way they stand out. It is just that every other particular science fiction author I think of has particular foibles that would grate on me if I had to read only them forever. So, if I was forced to take the short stories of only one author with me to Camp X-Ray to read and re-read for the term of my natural life, it would have to be Larry Niven.

Having said that, I have almost never re-read a Larry Niven novel.

And, I can’t think of any way in which Larry Niven has changed my world view. Perhaps changes in world view only arise in response to being sufficiently irritated. So, although ‘N’ was originally going to be for Larry Niven, I have changed my mind.

N is for the next science fiction author to make an impact on the way I look at the world.