Saturday, December 27, 2008

Tik. Tok.

This is a dangerous time

This is a time without rhyme, without reason

- Graeme Connors, ‘Cyclone Season’


There is a book I wanted to read again, in the final few months of the election campaign in that faraway country which I am now doing my best to ignore. But I couldn’t find it in the library, and in the shops they only now seem to sell Sladek’s book about the good robot. Fortunately, I got a 1984 copy for Christmas through the wonders of online secondhand bookshops. Tik-Tok is the bad robot- there is something just a teensy bit wrong with his asimov circuits. He is also the first robot vice-presidential candidate, after our metal brethren are enfranchised- five-hundred million of them.


My press conference was dragging to a close: I made the usual joke about Martian annexation, parried the usual question about the Botuland crisis, and said finally:

‘I guess that about winds it up, kids. Except that I want to thank you, all of you – both friends and friendly enemies of the press – for doing one hell of a good job during this campaign. You’ve all reported what I’ve said, fairly and honestly, to the American people. Not one of you tried to exploit my – let’s say, sideshow value. I’m proud of you.’

While they gave me themselves a round of applause, I spoke to one or two of the local robots who’d promised to vote for Maxwell and me. Then I headed for the computer room to check the latest predictions – up to now, we looked certain to take thirty-eight states – but I was accosted by a reporter.

‘Hello, uh, Olsen is it?’

‘Hello, Mr Tok. Thought you might be interested in this picture. Taken not long ago in Nixon Park.’

It was a clear shot of me strangling the old man over the chessboard. My former face was unmistakeable, and so was the fact that I was squeezing his neck so hard that blood shot from between his teeth.

‘What is this, a shakedown?’

Olsen laughed. ‘Nope. I’m one of those incorruptible members of the Fourth Estate you were just babbling about. This is a still from a video tape which I’ve just handed to the police. I just wanted to see if you had any interesting comments, before you resign from politics?’

I looked around. A pair of plainclothes cops were making their way through the rows of folding chairs towards us. There was still time to kill this little shit Olsen before they reached us. I might even be able to get away afterwards. The path unfolded before me, a change of face, emigration to Mars- and even if they shot me, so what? No point in living now.

I held out my wrists for the handcuffs. Everything lost, everything. My whole life’s work, all the dreaming and building- now for the collapse. I looked at the giant pictures of Governor Maxwell and me, the bunting and the slogans. Max Dares! Tik Cares! All for nothing, wasted like my wasted life.

I found myself, in the police helicopter, allowing my mind to dwell on images from the past. They unrolled before me, a rich tapestry. … What a book it would make, if only I dared write it!

But why not? Nothing to lose now. … Nothing to lose now, and at least I could have my last spasm of notoriety: ‘You think I’m bad? Wait’ll I tell you the whole story. I started off by murdering a blind child and I ended up building death factories in Latin America, and you almost made me Vice-President, how about that?

[Here ends the manuscript of Tik-Tok’s autobiography, published on teletext as Me, Robot. The following chapter appears only in later editions, published after 2094.]


Now, I don’t accuse President-Elect Berzelius Windrip of having murdered a blind child, or burned down a nursing home, or pulled off a string of violent bank robberies, or any of the other things Tik-Tok confesses with such engaging candour in his autobiography. And I don’t think his extremist opinions are quite as extreme as ‘exterminate all the humans’. But I did breathe a sigh of relief when it became apparent he had the nomination in the bag, because I didn’t believe he could possibly win. I couldn’t imagine the electorate being foolish enough to vote for anyone with his record, with his long list of dodgy associates, with his extremely radical views.

But, just like among the very last generation of humans, rhetoric, novelty value, and the perception of candour trumps all.


‘No arguing with a best seller, Tik. And Me, Robot is not only selling well, it’s hitting the public hard.’

‘They’re shocked?’

‘Yes and no. Hell, by now, they expect anything of politicians. They’re shocked, but they’re intrigued.’ He chuckled. ‘They’re already forming Free Tik-Tok Committees.’

‘I don’t understand. Why-‘

‘Call it the complexity and perversity of human nature, Tik. In a way, it’s because you confessed to such hideous crimes that they want to let you go! I suppose people see it like this: All politicians are crooks, but most get away with their perfidy. Now, when one politician wants to come clean, it seems almost ungrateful of the state to demand his life. Anyway, they say, what’s the hurry? Could it be that certain people in high places want to silence you?’ He chuckled again. ‘So, you’re fast becoming a folk hero. I like that. Folk heroes don’t lose in court.’

‘Don’t be stupid. There’s no possible way I can win in court, and you know it. Not only was I caught red-handed committing murder, I’ve confessed to dozens of other major crimes.’

‘We’ve won already, smart-ass. With your permission, I can plead nolo contendere and the DA agrees to let us off the hook on all charges. You’ll have to pay some big fines and probably give up control of Clockman International, but you’ll walk free. Understand?’

‘No!’

‘We’ve three factors working for us,’ he said. ‘First, when you committed many of these so-called crimes, you were not legally a person, so they are not crimes. If a juke-box steals a coin, you can’t put the juke-box in jail.’

‘And what else?’

‘A second factor is, as I mentioned already, the popular appeal of Me, Robot. You’re a folk hero, and what in jury in its right mind would convict a folk hero?’

‘And the third factor?’

‘Politics. The DA is a reasonable guy, the judge is a reasonable dame, they’ve both got political careers to protect. And they both belong to Governor Maxwell’s party.’

‘So what? Maxwell dropped me. The ticket now reads Ford Maxwell for President, Ed Wankel for Vice President.’

‘Yes, but today, Maxwell announced that if you were cleared, even after the election, he would install you as Vice President. Wankel agreed to resign in your favour. They’re no idiots, Tik. They know you’ve got the vote-pulling power they need to win. So now, you’ll walk out of court not only free but Vice President. Can’t be bad, eh?’

I chuckled along with him, but my thoughts were running ahead to weightier matters. A robot assassin for Maxwell first- obvious, sure, but why aim for subtlety now? – then to get my hands on the war stuff. How long would it take, to arm the thermonuclear devices, ready the death-rays, load up the viruses? Days or weeks? Yes, and when the humans had been wiped out, how long to bring the world’s machines into line, get them ready for the big push to the stars?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Why I am not a Baha'i

In Marco's tradition of extremely long posts, and as part of a general tidying-up urge to make sure I have said everything I want to say before I go, I thought I would put this up.

I have been sitting on for about seven years and thought I would put it somewhere where it might theoretically be findable by someone who is interested in such things. It is a much-tinkered-with letter, never sent, written when I was a better person and could think more clearly than I do today. It would have been my fourth in a written dialogue with a Baha’i friend, and was last tinkered with about three years ago.



My objections to the Baha’i faith are seven:

(1) I am opposed to the ‘very heart of the purpose of the cause’, that is, bringing about the unity of mankind.

(2) I am strongly opposed to the doctrine that the laws of the state should be obeyed.

(3) No Holy Book is inerrant.

(4) No religion can claim to be an improvement on that of ‘Isa that does not enforce vegetarianism on its followers.

(5) If ‘progressive revelation’ exists, humanity will need another messenger in far less than 834 years.

(6) I feel that Baha’i teachings on Justice encourage self-righteousness and hard-heartedness.

(7) To say that God is knowable only through His Messengers is trivially true, but ultimately false.


To proceed to the first point, I have read that Abdul Baha has stated that bringing about the Unity of Mankind is the ‘very heart of the purpose of the cause’.

I do not hold this to be a laudable aim.

There are two possible interpretations of what is “good”. Good may be related to:

(i) The potential for each living being to reach their fullest capacity to be what they are, in this world.

(ii) The fitting of each living being into a “thing fit for eternity” like the pots of Robert Browning’s poem ‘Rabbi ben-Ezra’.

For both of these cases, many things remain the same: Hence, the prohibitions against killing, against taking what is not ours, against activities that disfigure the soul, are required in both. Food, shelter, education, clean water and clean air, true freedom of thought and expression; these all work towards them both. There are a few practical differences between the two definitions of good; merely removing a source of temptation will work towards (i), by minimising the hazards that must be avoided in a finite time, but will not help towards (ii). By (i), our consciences may lead us to take action against the few for the good of the many (e.g., murdering abortionists in order that the prevailing climate of terror will cause them to abandon their trade) – but by (ii) we must weigh our actions against the possible disfiguring effects of our actions on the souls of the wider community, who might be estranged from God by our actions. (I presuppose a perfect moral agent; that is, a selfless man who counts his own happiness as no greater or less than anyone else’s. Thus, the disapproval of the community that he will incur, and the possibility that he himself will “lose his salvation” cannot enter into his moral calculations.

Unity can only be a means towards good, by (i), under limited circumstances, and cannot help at all towards (ii). If (ii), it is always more important that division remain, no matter how difficult, to teach us patience and mutual respect. Diversity is what I would call a second-order good. It is true that specific instances of diversity should not be preserved if their presence brings more disfigurement of soul to individuals than its absence, for only individuals can suffer or feel joy, be sundered from God or abide forever in His presence; but you cannot look at the universe and not know Diversity to be dear to the heart of our Creator, our inordinately-fond-of-beetles God. No idea, no nation, no species, no religion, no culture, ought to be preserved if it causes more harm to individuals than it cures; but that many ideas, nations, species, religions, cultures are necessary for the health of the human race I hold as an article of faith. Just as a multiplicity of species maintains some kind of balance in the world of living things, the multiplicity of religions ensures that the harm done by prevailing errors in a particular one is minimised.

I agree with Toynbee that there is a true core to all religion; but I see the great multiplicity of outward forms of worship, devotional practices, theologies, etc., not as stumbling blocks, but as a thousand thousand different paths to the One God, each particularly suited for particular people in the very diverse world we live in. I feel it would be a tragedy to lose them. I believe that not only the revelations of Muhammad and ‘Isa are of value, but that Maronites and Pentecostals, Ismailis and Wahhabites, have a particular role to play in the Divine Plan. The fact that there are no sects and divisions within the Baha’i faith is to me a very great stumbling block to considering it seriously.

In the ‘Satanic Verses’, Gibreel tells Mahound that any new idea is asked two questions: the second is, ‘what do you do to those who disagree with you when you have power over them?’ This is a question that the Catholic Church has answered, that al-Islam and a few other religions have answered, but it is not a question that the Baha’i faith has yet had to answer. The true level of tolerance exhibited by the Baha’i faith, with its claim that all religions are of God, can be gauged by two admittedly anecdotal pieces of evidence:

(i) My father-in-law was once told by a Hand of the Cause, ‘make no mistake, eventually there will be no room for any other religion but Baha’i.’ This is a very good answer to Gibreel’s question, but is quite in the spirit of those offered by the Inquisitors and Ayatollahs.

(ii) When a person seeks to sever ties with the Baha’i faith, they are asked to sign a document stating that they no longer believe Baha’ullah is a manifestation of God. Those who continue to believe so, but do not agree with particular matters on which Abdul Baha, Shogi Effendi, or the International House of Justice have spoken, exist but are never mentioned.

These specific doubts, in combination with the general principle of the good of Diversity, lead me to reject strongly seeking the unity of mankind under Baha’i auspices as a positive value.


To proceed to the second point, it is reiterated in “The World is But One Country” and in many other Baha’i writings that the laws of the state should be obeyed, even to the extent of taking up arms and killing the enemies of the state when conscripted.

My belief is that where the laws of God and the laws of men come into conflict, the laws of men must always give way.

Very many thousands of Christians have died rather than obey the laws of the state. From the days of Tiberius to Jiang Zemin, we have suffered for placing the laws of God above the whims of man. This doctrine that the state should be obeyed is an insult to the memory of those martyrs.

In the Second World War, many catholic men were executed rather than serve in the armed forces of the Third Reich. The doctrine of the Baha’i faith is that they were going against the will of God! This is unacceptable to me. I believe a major factor in the ‘success’ of Hitler was the emphasis by Martin Luther on this very thing, respect for the state and the divine sanction of authority, leading to a perverse level of respect for authority in German society. In the history of Russia and China, the other homelands of totalitarianism, religion has always been subordinate to the state and encouraged respect for authority.

On the other hand, there is a quote by Mussolini that I have always treasured; “the human material that I have to work with,” he said, “is worthless, worthless.” This judgement is a great compliment to the Italian people. I will always remember the signs on the trains in Switzerland as an insight into the connection between respect for authority and national behaviour. In German and French, the languages of nations that have spread devastation across Europe in recent centuries: “It is forbidden to stick parts of your body out the window.” In English and Italian, the languages of nations that have not: “It is dangerous to stick parts of your body out the window.” For the one set, appeal to authority is sufficient; for the other, reason must be invoked.

Although the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has often sided with the state – for example, the disgraceful record in supporting repressive regimes in Latin America - when not a state-supported church it has usually encouraged obedience to the laws of God rather than the laws of man. The revolutionary priest has been a stock character in anti-catholic pamphleteering since the time of Queen Elizabeth I (recent examples equating Liberation Theology with Marxist revolution should be easy to find at any Christian bookstore!)

With regard to these first two objections, I fear that the idolisation of unity, combined with the exhortation to obey the state, will make the Baha’i faith an ideal tool for godless and evil movements that also seek world unification. Individualism may be a source of discord; but respect for authority is far more dangerous. It has killed many millions in this century, and keeps billions in chains of their own making.


To proceed to the third point, the Baha’i faith teaches that the writings of its founder, of Abdul Baha and of Shoghi Effendi, are of divine origin and cannot be contradicted without calling into question the validity of Baha’ullah’s Divine mission.

The idea of the inerrant “Holy Book” is strongly bound up with Judaism, with Protestantism, and with Islam. This concept I believe to be erroneous, and especially dangerous in the case of the Baha’i faith where there is such a very large amount of inerrant writing.

I fear that, due to the all-embracing nature of the inerrant prescriptions for human society within the Baha’i corpus, the Baha’i faith may be more than a tool of potential world dictators, but a totalitarian theocratic state in embryo.

To a large extent, the arguments in the ‘Wine of Astonishment’ are based on a very Protestant/Muslim understanding of revelation; the Holy Book is brought down from heaven, and all we must do is obey what is written. This same spirit pervades the teachings of Baha’ullah that I have read: if you accept that his mission was of God, you must accept all of his writings as inerrant. Clearly, if I accepted that the writings of a Prophet of God are inerrant, all my other objections would have to vanish as cobwebs in a blast furnace; but I have never accepted the idea of an inerrant Holy Book in the Christian community, seeing many things in the Bible that cast disgrace on the Holy Name of God and can only be human in origin. The difficulties I have here would be magnified with the large corpus of Baha’i writings, especially the legal ones.

I would like to discuss in particular my problems with the Muhammad = Paraclete equation, which has been carried over into the Baha’i community from Islam.

Our evidence of the life and career of Jesus must, in my opinion, rest almost entirely on the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Luke, and Matthew). Biblical scholars believe the gospel of John was written at a later date, and it is impossible to read it without noting that the character and the teaching of Jesus described are very different from what is written in the other three Gospels. I have found nothing that troubles me, in the sense that it seems to be unworthy of God, in the words of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels, but this is not the case with gospel of John.

Now, the book of Acts is very clearly a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, and though I am no expert, I think the scholars are agreed that the two books had the same author. The whole plot of Acts is the sending of the Paraclete in the form of the Holy Spirit, and her nurturing the growth of the Church.

If we reject what is told us in Acts, how can we accept the evidence of the synoptic Gospels on the teaching and character of Jesus? What is the touchstone that can make Luke valid but Acts invalid? Without such a touchstone, the rejection of Acts leaves us completely at sea, and free to make up whatever Jesus suits the requirements of our philosophy.

‘Isa never wrote a book. I believe that he was a prophet of a greater order than Moses, Jeremiah, Buddha, Muhammad, Baha’ullah, et al., though all these were inspired by God, and that God does not endorse inerrant holy books.


To proceed to the fourth point, the Baha’i writings say that one day carnivory will pass away, but in no way exhort humanity to abandon the practice.

I have noted that for over three-thousand years the great sages and teachers of many lands have been telling us that carnivory is an abomination.

How can we claim to be followers of God when we gorge ourselves on the bodies of slaughtered innocents? It is true that ‘Abdul Baha said that the eating of meat would pass away eventually, but the clear retrogression from the teachings of Krsna so many years before throws the whole concept of “progressive” revelation into limbo.

I find the Baha’i position of claiming Krsna and Buddha as prophets, but ignoring what they said almost entirely, to be appallingly discourteous to practising Hindus and Buddhists. I will not discuss the immorality of eating animal food further, since many people greater than I have done so ably before.


To proceed to the fifth point, the Baha’i writings state that the next Messenger of God will be sent after 1000 revolutions of the earth around the sun have elapsed.

I believe that the environment of mankind has changed far more in the last 160 years than in the previous three thousand. In a further 834 years, the state of humanity will be unimaginable to us today. If revelation is made according to the needs of humanity, it appears obvious that new messengers will be required in far less than the thousand years foretold.

How will the Baha’i profession of the unity of ‘all religions’ hold on the world of Sevastna, where 99% of the population of four billion are Nambarunists? When there are more Selkites than Hindus in the universe, and more Mormons than any other Christian denomination? The ‘unity of all religions’ will look very silly if it leaves out the religions followed by the majority of humankind. This may appear to be a rather ridiculous fantasy of the future, but in a few hundred years I think it will be the strongest of all objections to the Baha’i faith.

The Catholic Church teaches that other religions contain truth, but has never compiled a list including some and excluding others. Rather than rely on ‘progressive revelation’, we believe that the Holy Spirit animates the Church, making her an adaptive entity that can change and continue to faithfully project the light of God to different times and places. My personal belief is that all revealed religions are in fact such adaptive entities - it is incontrovertible that most of the good achieved by Judaism, most of the real apprehension of God, has occurred since the revelation of Christianity. It is incontrovertible that most of the good achieved by Christianity, most of the real apprehension of God, has occurred since the revelation of Islam. Progressive revelation, as envisioned as the ‘passing on’ of the Light from one messenger to another, is not experimentally tenable.


To proceed to the sixth point, Baha’ullah has said in the Hidden Words: “best beloved in My eyes is justice.”

But ‘Isa said “See where it is written: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’”.

I once told a Baha’i friend that I no longer felt anger at being cheated in my business dealings, for it was not a sin to be cheated, while wrath at being cheated might easily lead me into sin. He disagreed, quoting the verse from the Hidden Words mentioned above. This scared me. I do not believe such a verse can or should be applied to relations between human beings. We should by all means strive for justice in the world, but we are the last ones who should decide whether we are personally treated justly or not. All of us in the West, for example, are beneficiaries of an unjust distribution of the world’s resources and are accomplices in preserving the unjust status-quo.

Hitler and me and you are as alike as three raindrops, from the standpoint of the infinite righteousness of God; we are all absolutely reliant on the mercy of God, and stand condemned by his justice. Only by keeping this continually in mind can we escape the trap of self-righteousness and hard-heartedness that traps so many religious people. My community is excoriated by secular society for bringing forth feelings of guilt; but this is its great strength. We are all equally wicked before God’s justice.

Barry Goldwater has famously said: “extremism in defence of freedom is no vice; tolerance in pursuit of justice is no virtue”. I would agree with the first, but not the second; I suspect and fear that the Baha’i community would endorse the second, but not the first.


To proceed to the last point, a point reiterated in the Baha’i writings is “God is knowable only through His messengers”.

I do not know the point of saying that ‘God is knowable only through His messengers’. It is trivially true that it has been the work of the Prophets to break down the barriers between humanity and God, but it does not mean that we must approach God through the Prophets, know them by name, or necessarily do them any honour whatsoever. My personal understanding of the role of Christ is that the barriers between God and us have been broken down entirely, once and forever, and we need profess no intermediary.

“Seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you; ask and you will receive.” I cannot believe in ‘salvation by faith alone’ in the way that is taught in so very many Christian churches; this idea is very repugnant to me. If you asked me when I was six years old what Jesus did, I would tell you the same thing I would tell you today: ‘He taught us to call God our father.’ God is knowable as our human fathers are knowable. The grace of God is poured out continually upon all of us, ready to support our feeblest step towards goodness. One very great problem I have with the idea of progressive revelation is the way that Muslims and Baha’i’s do not call God their Father. From the outside, it appears to me that the Baha’i relationship with God is less personal, the Baha’i conception of God less immanent, than that of the Catholic Church.

The purest statement of what I believe about grace can be found in C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, where Aslan (the Christ of that world) speaks to Emeth the Calormene, who has all his life devotedly sought to know and serve Tash (not only a false God, but the Satan of that world):

“Child, all the service though hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me ... for no service which is vile can be done to me, and no service which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.” Emeth replies that he has been seeking Tash all his days, and Aslan replies: “Beloved, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

The key has been turned; the door is open; all may enter. The grace of God is poured out like the rain, to feed a thousand thousand rivers, at which all may drink. In conclusion, I find that my faith is based on the words of Jesus recorded in the synoptic gospels. There is nothing in these words that I find conflicts with my experience of God. There is much in the writings of Moses, of Muhammad, and of the Baha’i teachers that conflicts with my experience of God, the Father of the Unborn Galaxies. I believe, almost against my will, that ‘Isa was special. I would much rather find the same pure light shining through equally in the recorded work of Jesus, Confucius, Moses, the Bab, etc., with appropriate allowances for time, place, and fidelity of transmission... But I can’t....

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Civil Cult

There is a little scrap of civil religion that has appeared in the last five years or so, at least in this part of the country. Before a public speech of whatever sort, anywhere within the education sector- even if it is to open a stop work meeting- the speaker will recite a formula something like this:


"I wish to acknowledge the ##### people, the traditional owners of this land."


Frequently followed by:


"...and show my respect to all Elders, past and present."



I suppose this does as little harm, or as much harm, as burning a pinch of incense at the Emperor's altar. I would however like to proffer the following more extended litany:

"I acknowledge the ### people, the traditional custodians of this land, who love this land, who know the stories of this land and the names of its hills and rivers.

I acknowledge the many peoples who came before the ####, who also loved this land, whose names and stories are forgotten.

I acknowledge the people of the British Isles who crossed the world to learn to love this land, in whose words I am speaking, and who have made their own names and stories here.

And I acknowledge all men and women, in whatever time, and from whatever place, who have loved this land, for anyone who loves this land belongs to this land.

I wish to show my respect to all men and women of good faith who have sought truth as they understood it, and virtue as they understood it, in every age and every land. And I wish to show my respect to the many sages and prophets of East and West who built the civilisation we share: who taught us to seek for law in the universe, and in the way we live; to love our neighbours as ourselves; and to strive to live according to the principles of liberty, fraternity, and equality. For the Earth is but one country, and all of us its citizens."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Kingdoms of the Wall

Last week I finished listening to ‘The Story of India’ on CD, and I still don’t have a good feel for Michael Wood's unifying structure for Indian history. All I have come up with so far can be summed up by slightly modifying the words of Poilar’s uncle in ‘Kingdoms of the Wall’: ‘India is a world. India is a universe.’


Michael is obviously very impressed with India, and very fond of India, and wanted to write a book. He thinks many of the distinguishing features of Indian culture can be traced back before the coming of the Aryans, as far the very dawning of humanity on the subcontinent, and talks about yoni and lingam stones five thousand years old being recognised by modern villagers when dug up. Having stressed this antiquity of Indian civilisation he runs out of specific things he really wants to say and skips along from vignette to vignette for the last 2000 years without ever making much of a point. I don’t think Michael’s heart was really in telling that part of the story.

I still enjoyed it, of course, since I am also very impressed with India, and very fond of India, and wanted something to listen to in the car. So I apologise, Michael, if you are reading this, for the negative tone of what follows. Thanks for the book. I have just written about the aspects that struck me as worth quibbling about, as a contrary and pedantic Dr Clam.

There is a dreadful responsibility resting on the shoulders of anyone who goes to write about such a vast subject, because of the false impressions that can be given by leaving things out. For instance, Michael mentions famine in association with the career of the Buddha and an Emperor of the Mauryan or Kushan period- I forget which- who was moved by his inability to do anything about it to embrace Buddhist principles: then he doesn’t mention famine again until the 19th century, where it is a stick to chastise the British with for being insensitive and incompetent Imperialist rulers. This gives the false impression that the millennia in between were all jolly and well-fed, which is of course not true. Famine is a chronic problem in populous countries with rain-fed agriculture and pre-modern communications. Here, for example, is part of the account of an English traveller in Gujarat in 1631, during the reign of Shah Jahan, the ‘Golden Age of the Moguls’:

‘No less lamentable was it to see the poor people scraping on the dunghills for food, yea in the very excrements of beasts, as horses, oxen, etc., belonging to travellers, for grain that perchance might come undigested from them, and that with great greediness and strife among themselves, generally looking like anatomies with life, but scarce strength enough to remove themselves from under men’s feet, many of them expiring, others new dead…. From Surat to this place, all the highway was strowed with dead people, our noses never free of the stink of them, especially about towns; for they drag them out by the heels, stark naked, and all ages and sexes, until they are out of the gates, and there they are left, so that the way is half barred up.’

[From Peter Mundy, Travels in Europe and Asia, quoted in ‘The Men Who Ruled India’, Philip Woodruff]

In a similar way Michael says, several times, that India was something like 30% of the worlds economic output under the Moguls, and only 3% in 1900 (or at Independence- I forget which) and this he also blames, without explicitly hammering the point, on the British behaving badly. Leaving aside the fact that the 3% is probably a number based on solid data and scholarship, while the 30% is a rubbery one that someone made up: (1) The taxation policies of the Moguls could hardly have been more effective at creating poverty and quashing entrepreneurship than if they had been designed for that purpose, and similarly appalling administrative practices were found everywhere on the subcontinent when the British arrived. It is a matter of record that the British immediately started acting to reverse and ameliorate these policies, but ‘India is a world. India is a universe’ and it is not surprising they were not as effective as the Japanese were in their colonies. (2) India’s economy shrank only in relative terms, because vast swathes of the world- Europe, Japan, Russia, the Americas- were surging ahead in leaps and bounds.

Michael becomes more politically correct as he moves closer to the present, but this is not an imperceptively gradual process: it comes in quite suddenly, with the coming of Islam. He takes great pains to stress the non-ideological motives for Muslim invaders, the craving for lewtz and the necessities of power politics, and also takes pains to balance Muslim with non-Muslim atrocities. When he has to mention Mahmud of Ghazni’s destruction of Hindu temples, for example, he makes sure to say something about the contemporary wars of the Cholas in South India, who were quite happy to destroy the other side’s Hindu temples despite being Hindus themselves. He only forgets himself once, when he gets to Aurangzeb, the last great Mogul Emperor. Every other historical figure is painted in shades of grey, but he has no compunction about painting Aurangzeb completely black. The conflict between him and his brother Dara Shikoh can be construed as a conflict *between* Muslims, I expect, so Michael sides whole-heartedly with the ‘Muslim’ who is more congenial to a modern worldview. But- if the quotations attributed to Dara Shikoh in the book are accurate- he really *was* an apostate, and would not be recognised as a real Muslim by 99% of Muslims living today. Michael more or less blames Aurangzeb’s religious policies (he removed various un-Qur’anic favours extended by his predecessors to the kaffirs, and introduced Shari’a) for the collapse of the Mogul Empire, but historians today are far from agreed that this is true. It didn’t fall apart until *after* his death, after he had ruled nearly fifty years, and it was a dreadful economic mess already when he took over.

The most serious bit that is left out is one that Michael says, early on, that he left out on purpose. And it makes sense to draw the line somewhere, so he probably had to leave it out, or his book would have gone on forever. It is an aspect of Indian history that is of enormous interest to someone looking from this direction, from the East.

Look at Bali; look at Borobodur, at Angkor Wat, at the galleries of painted scenes from the Ramayana you can see at that palace in Bangkok: Indian culture is the background culture to a region of half a billion inhabitants outside of India. It sank in and became part of those places, in a way that Chinese culture never really has. Like Greek or American culture, Indian culture was an attractive product that could be readily exported. The Islam of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, is an Islam that was mediated through India, was Indified on its way. I would have liked to hear more about how all this happened. Michael had to leave something out, and looking from the West, from his home in the UK, this Drang nach Osten probably seemed like an obvious thing to leave out. But by leaving in- as you have to – all the movements of ideas and people from the West- the Aryans, the Greeks, the Arabs, the Moguls- the impression that you get is of an Indian civilisation more passive than it was, an eternal Mata Bharat merely receiving and transforming the products of virile men from the West.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

It's all there in Green Day's "International Superhits". Goodness me, what do they teach them in these schools?

I want to be the minority
I dont need your authority
Down with the (im)moral majority
cause I want to be the minority

Stepped out of the line
Like a sheep runs from the herd
Marching out of time
To my own beat now
The only way I know

One light, one mind
Flashing in the dark
Blinded by the silence of a thousand broken hearts

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Emperor Ashoka: The First Blogger?

Some weeks ago someone on guild chat in ‘Age of Conan’ told us a little story about how ignorant one of his co-workers was. According to my informant, this fellow had said, ‘I’m not voting for Obama because he’s going to take our troops out of Israel.’

Aha, I thought. I want to be as ignorant as that guy!

So that is the goal I have been assiduously pursuing. I have not looked at a newspaper since then. I have deleted all my bookmarks to the sites of current affairs information I once religiously consulted. I have not turned the radio on. I am enjoying my new-found ignorance. It is liberating, exhilarating. Out there, things could be going as pear-shaped as they do in ‘In the Mouth of Madness’, but here it is all peace and beauty, green rolling hills, sheep, marking exams, and decapitating Picts in ‘Age of Conan’.

La la la la, I can’t hear you, stupid world.

I was quite chuffed that the one thing I did inadvertently hear about by word of mouth in the first week was something about a fistfight between rival groups of monks in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre- the antithesis of ‘news’ in that I could have heard the same story at practically any time in the last 1500 years.

Abstaining from the radio in the car is hardest. For a week or so I listened to Green Day’s ‘International Superhits’ instead, for an hour and a half each day. So I was very grateful when my favourite spouse-creature gave me, for my birthday, an 8-CD audio book, ‘The Story of India’, by Michael Wood. So, while I find the ignorance I seek, at the same time I am becoming more informed about other things, less ephemeral factoids that have stood the test of time.

The last book Michael Wood wrote before this one was apparently about Alexander the Great, so he drags the Greeks in whenever possible. For the state of affairs at the time of Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Mauryan Empire, for example, he talks mainly about the impressions recorded by a Greek traveller named Megasthenes.

Either Megasthenes, or Michael Wood from some crumbs of information in Megasthenes’ account, makes a big deal about the fact that the bureaucracy of the Mauryan empire operated without any written records; that it was a ‘memory based society’. But by the time we get to the reign of Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka, this is clearly not true: Ashoka’s place in history as a great ruler derives mainly from the blog entries (or edicts, as they prefer to call them) he had carved on stone pillars forty or fifty feet high and distributed throughout his empire, rather more frequently than Nato updates his blog. He seems to have been an enthusiast, getting in there and exploiting the possibilities of the new medium.

Clearly, someone was there to read these things. And from about the same time, there is a raft of other literature: the Arthashastra, the Kamasutra, lives of the Buddha and the Jain saints, etc. So in the space of a few generations something had happened that was more momentous than the coming of the Internet, more transforming than the invention of printing, more challenging to the existing social order than the introduction of double-entry bookkeeping.* And oddly enough, Michael Wood did not say anything at all about this transition from a pre-literate to a literate society. I found this very strange.

I haven’t reached the end of the CDs yet, so I don’t yet have a good feel for what Michael Wood is using as an unifying structure for Indian History. But if I was writing it, it would be a technologically driven narrative, and writing would be the critical driving technological advance, and these few generations would be *the* big moment, *the* critical transition.

Let us imagine I lived 3000 years ago in India and sat around wrestling with profound philosophical questions. What could I do with any answers I came up with? All I could do was tell other people. If nobody listened to me- if nobody knew what I was on about and the village called me ‘Crazy Old Clam’- then I would be stuffed.

So if I really wanted future generations to get my message, I would have to collect my young sons and nephews, who had to do what I told them, and make them memorise the contents of my blog. I would make them repeat it over and over again, until they got it right, and then make them solemnly swear to force their sons and nephews to memorise it as well.

The technological limitations on the transmission of knowledge would *force me* to found a hereditary priesthood, as the only way of preserving my message.

There is a terribly sad story in the first chapter of the book.

Apparently there is a ritual passed down among an isolated group of Brahmins in South India from generation to generation, which incorporates mantras which take several days to chant, and is so complicated and expensive it can only be done once every couple of decades. Michael Wood breathlessly explains that the mantras, on computer analysis, find their closest analogies in birdsong, and recklessly speculates that these interminable strings of nonsense syllables are a relic of humanity’s pre-linguistic deep past.

As if.

I expect these mantras are the sad, degraded, content-free results of a millennia-long intergenerational game of Chinese Whispers.

I imagine Vedic Age Clam gathered his sons and nephews, got them to memorise his profound philosophical musings, made them promise to pass them on in turn to their sons and nephews, and impressed upon them as strongly as he could that they shouldn’t change any of it, they should pass it down just as he had told them. Because if they did change it, then his profound musings would be misrepresented.

And I expect the Clam descendants did the best job they could. But in the third generation after Vedic Age Clam, let’s say the word ‘cogent’ falls out of polite usage, and is forgotten, and is replaced by the word ‘spluznar’. Do the Clamites simply replace ‘cogent’ with ‘spluznar’? Not if Vedic Age Clam has impressed on them sufficiently the necessity to keep his blog unchanged. They will explain for a few generations that ‘cogent’ actually means ‘spluznar’, but as these inconsistencies build up, there get to be too many things to explain, and the explanations have to get briefer and more cryptic, and are discontinued completely one day, and the Clamites find themselves reciting the meaningless word ‘cogent’ – or, after the First, Second, and Third Vowel Shifts, and some assimilations and palatalisations and other linguistic shenanigans, a string of syllables something like: ‘kyooshadoo’. All sorts of things like this will happen: words will change meanings, topical allusions will become meaningless, the pronunciation of the blog will start to diverge from everyday pronunciation… the language will evolve out from under Vedic Age Clam’s attempt to preserve his thoughts, and in time his diligent followers will find themselves reciting hour after hour of gibberish.

Poor Vedic Age Clam. :(

But since those few generations everything has been different. If I am one of Mahavira’s disciples, or one of the Buddha’s disciples, or one of the Four Evangelists, or Salman the Persian, I don’t need to found a priestly caste. I can *write down* what the master said. I can crystallize knowledge in a form that will persist even should my language become extinct, if there is someone sufficiently clever to translate it into a modern language, so someone can sit on the other side of the world and get a pretty good idea of what Muhammad or Jesus or the Buddha or Mahavira meant to tell us.

There has been no more significant advance in the transmission of knowledge than this. Everything since is just frosting.

Before, we had oral traditions, priestly castes, archetypal stories, and esoteric rites with obscure meanings. Afterwards, we have the Peoples of the Book.


* : From http://www.cs.trinity.edu/rjensen/theory/00overview/theory01.htm

Werner Sombart, a German economic historian, says, ‘... double-entry bookkeeping is borne of the same spirit as the system of Galileo and Newton" and "Capitalism without double-entry bookkeeping is simply inconceivable. They hold together as form and matter. And one may indeed doubt whether capitalism has procured in double-entry bookkeeping a tool which activates its forces, or whether double-entry bookkeeping has first given rise to capitalism out of its own (rational and systematic) spirit.’

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Goodness me, is that the time?

It sounds more impressive in latin:

O tempora! O mores!

I am thinking I have pretty much said everything I want to say. You should all have a good idea of what I think about things, and why, and how. If you have been reading this blog for any length of time you will have formed excellent models of Dr Clam in your heads that you can consult to find out what I would say on any given topic. I must diminish, and they increase...

For I find that I am out of tune with the spirit of the times. I march out of time, to the funny kazoo music playing in my head. I have been beaten and left for dead in a ditch by the Zeitgeist. So I will turn my back on this reality that, tediously enough, is always there, to devote myself to more beautiful and necessary things that better merit my attention.

I really don't believe that Dr Clam and President wossname, you know, that guy, can exist in the same universe. So sometime between now and the inauguration, I plan for all of this to come down. Let me know if there are any bits you particularly want if you are establishing a museum of reactionary thought, or whatever.

Am I a drama queen?

Is this nothing but a childish hissy fit?

Perhaps. Probably. But I know my emotional involvement with this stupid world was beginning to cripple me, and I have selfishly decided to solve my problem by henceforth ignoring the world as much as possible.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters

[Below I have copied out for you a famous essay by Yevgeniy Zamyatin. I will see you at the other end.]
Name me the final number, the highest, the greatest.
But that’s absurd! If the number of numbers is infinite, how can there be a final number?
Then how can you speak of a final revolution? There is no final one. Revolutions are infinite.
(From We)

Ask point blank: What is revolution?
Some people will answer, paraphrasing Louis XIV: We are the revolution. Others will answer by the calendar, naming the month and the day. Still others will give you an ABC answer. But if we are to go on from the ABC to syllables, the answer will be this:
Two dead, dark stars collide with an inaudible, deafening crash and light a new star: this is revolution. A molecule breaks away from its orbit and, bursting into a neighbouring atomic universe, gives birth to a new element: this is revolution. Lobachevsky cracks the walls of the millennia-old Euclidean world with a single book, opening a path to innumerable non-Euclidean spaces: this is revolution.
Revolution is everywhere, in everything. It is infinite. There is no final revolution, no final number. The social revolution is only one of an infinite number of numbers: the law of revolution is not a social law, but an immeasurably greater one. It is a cosmic, universal law- like the laws of the conservation of energy and of the dissipation of energy (entropy). Some day, an exact formula for the law of revolution will be established. And in this formula, nations, classes, stars- and books- will be expressed as numerical quantities.
The law of revolution is red, fiery, deadly: but this death means the birth of new life, a new star. And the law of entropy is cold, icy blue, like the icy interplanetary infinities. The flame turns from red to an even, warm pink, no longer deadly, but comfortable. The sun ages into a planet, convenient for highways, stores, beds, prostitutes, prisons: this is the law. And if the planet is to be kindled into youth again, it must be set on fire, it must be thrown off the smooth highway of evolution: this is the law.
The flame will cool tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. (In the Book of Genesis days are equal to years, ages). But someone must see this already today, and speak heretically today about tomorrow. Heretics are the only (bitter) remedy against the entropy of human thought.
Where the flaming, seething sphere (in science, religion, social life, art) cools, the fiery magma becomes coated with dogma- a rigid, ossified, motionless crust. Dogmatisation in science, religion, social life, or art is the entropy of thought. What has become dogma no longer burns: it only gives off warmth- it is tepid, it is cool. Instead of the Sermon on the Mount, under the scorching sun, to upraised arms and sobbing people, there is drowsy prayer in a magnificent abbey. Instead of Galileo’s ‘But still, it turns!’ there are dispassionate computations in a well-heated room in an observatory. On the Galileos, the engineers build their own structures, slowly, bit by bit, like corals. This is the path of revolution- until a new heresy explodes the crush of dogma and all the edifices of the most enduring stone which have been raised upon it.
Explosions are not very comfortable. And therefore the exploders, the heretics, are justly exterminated by fire, by axes, by words. To every today, to every evolution, to the laborious, slow, useful, most useful, creative, coral-building work, heretics are a threat. Stupidly, recklessly, they burst into today from tomorrow; they are romantics. Babeuf was justly beheaded in 1797; he leaped into 1797 across 150 years. It is just to chop off the head of a heretical literature which challenges dogma; this literature is harmful.
But harmful literature is more useful than useful literature, for it is antientropic, it is a means of combating calcification, sclerosis, crust, moss, quiescence. It is utopian, absurd- like Babeuf in 1797. But it is right 150 years later.
We know Darwin. We know what followed Darwin- mutations, Weissmanism, neo-Lamarckism. But all of these are attics, balconies: the building itself is Darwin. And in this building there are not only tadpoles and fungi, but also man. Fangs are sharpened only when there is someone to gnaw on. Domestic hens have wings only for flapping. The same is true for hens and for ideas: ideas nourished on chopped meat cutlets lose their teeth, like civilised, cutlet-eating man. Heretics are necessary to health; if there are no heretics, they should be invented.
A literature that is alive does not live by yesterday’s clock, nor by today’s, but by tomorrow’s. It is a sailor sent aloft: from the masthead he can see foundering ships, icebergs, and maelstroms still invisible from the deck. He can be dragged down from the mast and put to tending the boilers or working the capstan, but that will not change anything: the mast will remain, and the next man on the masthead will see what the first has seen.
In a storm, you must have a man aloft. We are in the midst of a storm today, and SOS signals come from every side. Only yesterday a writer could calmly stroll along the deck, clicking his Kodak (genre); but who will want to look at landscapes and genre scenes when the world is listing at a forty-five-degree angle, the green maws are gaping, the hull is creaking? Today we can look and think only as men do in the face of death: we are about to die- and what did it all mean? How have we lived? If we could start over again, from the beginning, what would we live by? And for what? What we need in literature today are vast philosophic horizons- horizons seen from mastheads, from airplanes; we need the most ultimate, the most fearsome, the most fearless ‘Why?’ and ‘What next?’.
This is what children ask. But then children are the boldest philosophers. They enter life naked, not covered by the smallest fig leaf of dogma, absolutes, creeds. This is why every question they ask is so absurdly na├»ve and so frighteningly complex. The new men entering life today are as naked and fearless as children; and they, too, like children, like Schopenhauer, like Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, ask “Why?’ and ‘What next?’ Philosophers of genius, children, and the people are equally wise- because they ask equally foolish questions. Foolish to a civilised man who has a well-furnished European apartment, with an excellent toilet, and a well-furnished dogma.
Organic chemistry has already obliterated the line between living and dead matter. It is an error to divide people into the living and the dead: there are people who are dead-alive, and people who are alive-alive. The dead-alive also write, walk, speak, act. But they make no mistakes; only machines make no mistakes, and they produce only dead things. The alive-alive are constantly in error, in search, in questions, in torment.
The same is true of what we write: it walks and it talks, but it can be dead-alive or alive-alive. What is truly alive stops before nothing and ceaselessly seeks answers to absurd, ‘childish’ questions. Let the answers be wrong, let the philosophy be mistaken- errors are more valuable than truths: truth is of the machine, error is alive; truth reassures, error disturbs. And if answers be impossible of attainment, all the better! Dealing with answered questions is the privilege of brain’s constructed like a cow’s stomach, which, as we know, is built to digest cud.
If there were anything fixed in nature, if there were truths, all of this would, of course, be wrong. But fortunately, all truths are erroneous. This is the very essence of the dialectical process: today’s truths become errors tomorrow; there is no final number.
This truth (the only one) is for the strong alone. Weak-nerved minds insist on a finite universe, a last number; they need, in Nietzsche’s words, ‘the crutches of certainty’. The weak-nerved lack the strength to include themselves in the dialectic syllogism. True, this is difficult. But it is the very thing that Einstein succeeded in doing: he managed to remember that he, Einstein, observing motion with a watch in hand, was also moving; he succeeded at looking at the motion of the earth from outside.
This is precisely how a great literature, which knows no final numbers, looks at the movements of the earth.
The formal character of a living literature is the same as its inner character: it denies verities, it denies what everybody knows and what I have known until this moment. It departs from the canonical tracks, from the broad highway.
The broad highway of Russian literature, worn to a high gloss by the giant wheels of Tolstoy, Gorky, and Chekhov, is Realism, daily life; hence, we must turn away from daily life. The tracks canonised and sanctified by Blok, Sologub, and Bely are the tracks of Symbolism, which renounced daily life; hence, we must turn toward daily life.
Absurd? Yes. The intersection of parallel lines is also absurd. But it is absurd only in the canonic, plane geometry of Euclid. In non-Euclidean geometry it is an axiom. All you need is to cease to be plane, to rise above the plane. To literature today the plane surface of daily life is what the earth is to an airplane- a mere runway from which to take off, in order to rise aloft, from daily life to the realities of being, to philosophy, to the fantastic. Let yesterday’s cart creak along the well-paved highways. The living have strength enough to cut away their yesterday.
Whether you put a police inspector or a commissar into the cart, it remains a cart. And literature will remain the literature of yesterday even if you drive ‘revolutionary life’ along the well-travelled highway- and even if you drive it in a dashing troika with bells. What we need today are automobiles, airplanes, flickering, flight, dots, dashes, seconds.
The old, slow, creaking descriptions are a thing of the past: today the rule is brevity- but every word must be supercharged, high-voltage. We must compress into a single second what was held before in a sixty-second minute. And hence, syntax becomes elliptic, volatile; the complex pyramids of periods are dismantled stone by stone into independent sentences. When you are moving fast, the canonised, the customary eludes the eye: hence, the unusual, often startling, symbolism and vocabulary. The image is sharp, synthetic, with a single salient feature- the one feature you will glimpse from a speeding car. The custom-hallowed lexicon has been invaded by provincialisms, neologisms, science, mathematics, technology.
If this becomes the rule, the writer’s talent consists in making the rule the exception. There are far more writers who turn the exception into the rule.
Science and art both project the world along certain coordinates. Differences in form are due only to differences in the coordinates. All realistic forms are projections along the fixed, plane coordinates of Euclid’s world. These coordinates do not exist in nature. Nor does the finite, fixed world: this world is a convention, an abstraction, an unreality. And therefore Realism- be it ‘socialist’ or ‘bourgeois’- is unreal. Far closer to reality is projection along speeding, curved surfaces- as in the new mathematics and the new art. Realism that is not primitive, not realia but realiora, consists in displacement, distortion, curvature, nonobjectivity. Only the camera lens is objective.
A new form is not intelligible to everyone; many find it difficult. Perhaps. The ordinary, the banal is, of course, simpler, more pleasant, more comfortable. Euclid’s world is very simple, and Einstein’s world is very difficult- but it is no longer possible to return to Euclid. No revolution, no heresy is comfortable or easy. For it is a leap, it is a break in the smooth evolutionary curve, and a break is a wound, a pain. But the wound is necessary: most of mankind suffers from hereditary sleeping sickness, and victims of this sickness (entropy) must not be allowed to sleep, or it will be their final sleep, death.
The same disease often afflicts artists and writers: they sink into satiated slumber in forms once invented and twice perfected. And the lack the strength to wound themselves, to cease loving what they once loved, to leave their old, familiar apartments filled with the scent of laurel leaves and walk away into the open field, to start anew.
Of course, to wound oneself is difficult, even dangerous. But for those who are alive, living today as yesterday and yesterday as today is still more difficult.
(1923)

[Hello again. There is one thing I do not agree with in this essay of Zamyatin’s, and that thing may be an error of the translation, or my misreading, or an exaggeration made in recoiling from the opposite error which does not truly reflect Zamyatin’s thought. Of course, if someone comes to you and says, I have the truth here, it is in my pocket, here is the theory that explains it all, that answers all your questions, that cannot be improved upon- you ought to flee from such a person. But that does not mean that there is not such a thing as objective truth. Nor does the mutability of nature imply that we cannot approach that objective truth asymptotically, each theory an improvement on the one that went before, even if we will never get there. It does not mean that Einstein’s theory was not an objective improvement on Galileo’s. Zamyatin trained as an engineer, so I am sure he would agree with me. If there was no such thing as objective truth- as opposed to ‘truths’ known by men- then he could not say ‘the mast will remain, and the next man on the masthead will see what the first has seen’. The ship we sail in is floating on a real sea, there are real icebergs, real maelstroms, real storms on the horizon- that is why the man on the masthead is important. The taste of the water remains salt, whatever you care to call it, and its conductivity lies within certain narrow parameters, and somewhere in it crimson gugfish are swimming.]

[May 16th 2012. I'm glad to see via Blogger's statistics widget that of all my pages this is the one that has had the most views in recent times. I'm happy to think I'm helping to keep this essay alive in the minds of the world. :D ]

Sunday, November 02, 2008

libera nos

Didn't get any reply from this letter I sent a couple of weeks ago, so I may as well show it to you folks:


Dear Father Greeley,

There is no reason for you to remember me- we probably were never actually introduced to each other- but I am pretty sure I assisted you at Mass once, when I was an altar boy at St. Odelia's c.1982. The other morning I was browsing on the net before going to work and I came across an article by an Andrew Greeley about the US Presidential Election. I thought to myself 'surely that can't be the same Andrew Greeley', but I followed a few links and was surprised to find that it was.

I have been formed by my Catholic background. I strive to live a self-consistent philosophy of respect for life. I am against the death penalty, a vegetarian, in favour of the judicious use of force to bring down murderous tyrants, and opposed to the slaughter of innocent unborn children.

I know this last goes on ceaselessly around the world. I left the US many years ago, and know that what happens there is but a tiny fraction of what happens in the world, that it ought not to bother me as much as what goes on in India and China. But I have become too emotionally involved in events in my native land, this last year or so. I am drinking too much. I cannot concentrate at work. I feel nervous, panicky, sick to my stomach, because of my fear that a man will be elected President of the US who will appoint five or six 'pro-choice' judges to the Supreme Court. This would mean, almost certainly, that I could not hope to see an end to Roe vs Wade in my lifetime. The killing would go on, and on, and on, ceaselessly, in every city of your nation 'under God'. The man who would do this is the man you describe as 'your guy'.

I cannot see how waging an illegal war- granting this to be the case- or burning books- granting this to be the case- can possibly compare the gravity and horror of the moral evil that 'your guy' seeks to entrench in the United States.

I know the folly of trying to change anyone's mind, when they are set on a course. So I won't try. But I am heartsick, I am close to despair, I am close to being physically ill, at the prospect of 'your guy' being President. I felt compelled to let you know. God bless.

From Surah 81, The Overthrowing:

In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.
When the sun is overthrown, and when the stars fall, and when the hills are moved, and when the camels big with young are abandoned, and when the wild beasts are herded together, and when the seas rise, and when souls are reunited, and when the girl-child that was buried alive is asked for what sin she was slain, and when the pages are laid open, and when the sky is torn away, and when hell is lighted, and when the garden is brought nigh, then every soul will know what it hath made ready.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Y is for You

I've said before that I find monologue boring. I have to listen to myself in my own head enough as it is, going over the same tired ideas again and again, reinforcing my own errors through repetition. It would be a total waste of time for me to write the same stuff down just so I could sit back and admire it- oblivious to the flaws everyone else can see. Over and over I will overlook the obvious, until it is pointed out by someone else. Decade after decade I will go on believing some core principle of mine is ‘self-evident’ until someone else tells me it isn’t.


If nobody had ever commented on this blog, I would probably have given up after a few months. So, it is yours as much as mine. And in any list of important figures whose influence has gone towards creating the Clamly memeplex, you certainly deserve a mention. Thank you, lexifab, marco, winstoninabox, jenny, and everyone else who has stopped by and said anything, ever. I still don’t really understand how any of you think. But I sure do like having you around.

You have made me expand on things I would never have thought of expanding on if left to my own devices, which has been good for me; you have forced me to clarify and clarify and clarify my thoughts about the things I feel most strongly about, until they are practically coherent; you have led me to read all sorts of things I wouldn’t have thought of reading, which have also been good for me; you have introduced me to Mr Stross when I have abandoned all faith in science fiction; you have persuaded me that the ‘Many Universes’ model of quantum mechanics may not be entirely stupid; and you have taught me at least one invaluable lesson.

(Probably more than one. But I can't remember the others at the moment.)


I had another little mission statement I prepared earlier hanging around- ah, here it is:

I believe there is such a thing as truth.

Therefore, I wish to be corrected when I am in error.

An assertion of a contrary opinion does not correct me.

I hunger and thirst for reasoning which will correct me.

If I say I do not understand you, I do not understand you.

If what to you is self-evident is not self-evident to me, I need to imagine a worldview in which such a thing could be self-evident. Please help me to do this.


Thanks for all your good work in correcting me thus far. Grats! :)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Big Ideas, My Shiny Metal Arse

I found some hastily scribbled notes the other day dating from the time of the Prime Minister's '2020 summit' (or, as I like to call it, 'Keating! The Musical'.)


Take on the AMA?

Take responsibility for the whole nuclear fuel cycle?

Nationalise insurance companies?

Show our integration with Asia by making an ambit claim for the Spratly and Paracel islands?

We could stop government funding to private schools.

We could drop out of the UN and approach our NATO partners in Afghanistan, Israel and Micronesia about forming a United Non-Evil Nations.


I think these are all things that a Labor government with a high approval rating might be able to pull off that are sort of kind of in the spirit of the historical Labor movement.

A Labor government should be able to take on the most powerful and disruptive union/cartel in the country, the Australian Medical Association. We do not have enough medical doctors. There are artificial constraints on the supply of medical doctors. Those constraints should be removed. There are other problems with our health system that are also amenable to imaginative legislative fixes- for instance, litigation costs us an enormous amount both through the huge insurance costs doctors pay and by encouraging them to carry out unnecessary tests. There are legislative ways to fix this, surely.

There is no real reason why the party of the workers should oppose something that could make us all richer than Croesus. Nuclear power is not going to disappear if we close our eyes and hope it goes away. We are already involved in the nuclear fuel cycle, so we are not standing to one side setting a pure and righteous example. I'm sure no rational person really thinks it is better for high level nuclear waste derived from Australian uranium to be stored in more densely populated countries that are geologically and politically less stable than we are.

Some things should be in the public sector; some things should be in the private sector. I think the evils engendered by insurance- which is haram, anyhow- would be minimised if securing individuals and companies from misfortune was made a responsibility of the collective.

Of course, issuing stamps showing the Shellberight Islands as part of Australia would only be a joke. But it would be funny.

I don't know why the government gives money to private schools. I don't know why private schools don't reject it on the basis that the one who pays the piper calls the tune. With all my exposure to the education system, primary, secondary, and tertiary, I think the sector as a whole is highly infected with selfish meme material: it exists largely to perpetuate its own existence, rather than carry out its ostensible function. Yes, the world has moved on from needing semi-literate manual labourers to work in factories and read the yellow press: there are better ways of educating people. (NB: better here does not mean 'cheaper', its invariable meaning in the education industry). One day I expect I shall have to write a 'Jerry Macguire'-style screed about all the things we are doing wrong and the better ways we could be doing them.

The last thing about ditching the United Nations is of course an old fantasy from the right wing of the blogosphere. But, if you really want to pursue the multilateralist strategy and punch above your weight diplomatically, is there any better way than to get in on the ground floor of the new, improved, United Nations 2.0? Lu Kewen could be the Billy Hughes of the 21st century.


Hey- it has been almost a year of the new order. How is the government working out for all of you who were so pleased when it came in? (Not trying to pick a fight here, mostly just interested in what sort of changes have trickled down to the Commonwealth public service, to those of you selflessly slaving away there.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

X is for Xenophon

No, seriously.

No, not the Senator.

And not directly, but at third or fourth hand.

But I am not just scraping around desperately for authors starting with ‘X’. I really do have an autobiographical story about my interaction with the Anabasis, though it can hardly be called one of *the* most significant books in my life.
When I was about eight, I read a paraphrased and condensed English version of Xenophon’s account of the retreat of the 10,000. I remember its illustrations were those black and white prints interspersed amid the text that used to be really common. Among them there was one of an ostrich running across the Syrian Desert, I am pretty sure, and one of a column of soldiers walking along a road with steep cliffs on either side. The lowering, overcast-sky quality of the illustrations helped colour my whole perception of antiquity. And translated over to my perception of Middle Earth, I think. The pictures that automatically leap to my mind when I think of those long lost places always have overcast skies. I think- again, I am not sure- that this was the first non-Biblical work I had read dealing with the Greco-Roman world. So it reinforced a mental image that I had for a long time, until I read much much more, of Greece as a distant place that you approach from the East, rather than as a place where you are.

The next year I wrote a story at school, which I think must have been influenced strongly by the bit in Xenophon’s book where they are freezing to death in the Armenian mountains, because it was about a Greek army marching through an icy landscape and being generally miserable. Of course, in my story, there were also vampires.
The teacher (aide?) I showed it to didn’t believe I had written it and wanted to know where I had copied it from. I can’t remember whether I talked them around or not, but the accusation was evidently traumatic enough that I remember it with irritation even now.

This is all very trivial and autobiographical, I know. You may console yourself with the thought that we are nearly at the end of the alphabet, so soon I will stop talking about myself.

I had a read of a non-juvenile English translation before I wrote this, and it is interesting how very topical some of the themes are.

The dangers of unconditional negotiations with perfidious Persians:

Tissaphernes replied as follows: ‘I am really delighted, Clearchus, to hear your sensible speech. With the sentiments which you have, it seems to me that, if you were to contemplate doing me an injury, you would be simultaneously plotting against your own interests. But, now, you must listen in your turn so that you may be convinced that you, too, would be wrong in entertaining any lack of confidence either in the King or in me.
If we really wanted to destroy you, do you think we are short in numbers of cavalry or infantry or in the right sort of equipment with which to damage you, while incurring no risk of retaliation? Or do you think it is likely that we could not find favourable ground to attack you? Remember all the flat country which you go through with great difficulty even when the inhabitants are friendly to you. Consider all the mountains which you have to cross which we could occupy first and make impassable for you. Think of all the rivers where we could cut you into detachments and engage with as many at a time as we liked. And there are some of these rivers which you could not get across at all unless we brought you across. Even supposing we had the worst of it along all these lines, you can be sure, anyway, that fire is more powerful than crops, and if we burnt the crops we could bring famine into the battle against you; and, with all the courage in the world, you could not fight against that. With all of these methods of making war on you at our disposal, how can you imagine that out of all of them we should choose the one method which involves wickedness in the sight of the gods and shame in the eyes of men? It is simply and solely among people who are without means and desperate and without any other way out (and even then they must be villains) that you will find men willing to secure their ends by perjury to the gods and faithlessness towards men. It is not so with us, Clearchus. We are not such blockheads and simpletons.
You may ask why, since we have the power to destroy you, we have not proceeded to do so. Let me tell you that what is responsible for this is my own desire that I should earn the confidence of the Greeks and that I should, by doing good to them, return to the coast with the support of that mercenary army on which Cyrus, in his journey inland, relied only because he gave them their pay. As to the ways in which your help is useful to me, you have mentioned some of them yourself.’

After this conversation Tissaphernes behaved with great affection towards Clearchus, urged him to stay with him for the time being and had him as his guest at supper.

When they arrived at the entrance to of Tissaphernes’ tent, the generals were invited inside. They were Proxenus the Boeotian, Menon the Thessalian, Agias the Arcadian, Clearchus the Spartan and Socrates the Achaen. The captains waited at the entrance. Not long afterwards, at one and the same signal, those who were inside were seized and those who were outside were massacred. After that contingents of native cavalry rode over the plain and killed all the Greeks they could find, slaves and free-men alike. The Greeks saw with surprise these cavalry maneouvres from their camp and were in doubt about what they were doing until Nicarchus the Arcadian escaped and came there with a wound in his stomach and holding his intestines in his hands.

Some of the immemorial inherent problems of democracies, in this exchange between a Spartan and an Athenian:

‘It would be a much better plan, then, for us to steal a bit of the undefended mountain from them when they are not looking . . . I gather that you Spartans, Chirisophus,- I mean the real officer class- study how to steal from your earliest boyhood, and think that so far from being a disgrace it is an actual distinction to steal anything that is not forbidden by law. And, so that you may become expert thieves and try to get away with what you steal, it is laid down by law that you get a beating if you are caught stealing. Here is an excellent opportunity for you to give us an exhibition of the way in which you were brought up and to preserve us from blows, by seeing to it that we are not caught stealing our bit of mountain.’
‘Well,’ said Chirisophus, ‘what I have gathered about you Athenians is that you are remarkably good at stealing public funds, even though it is a very risky business for whoever does so; and your best men are the greatest experts at it, that is if it is your best men who are considered the right people to be in the government. So here is a chance for you too to give an exhibition of the way in which you were brought up.’


Then there is the bewildering melange of ethnic groups riven with internecine strife in the Caucasus, just like there is today.

And I think there are clear analogies between the ‘poll-driven’ leadership of our times and Xenophon’s reliance on consulting sheep entrails to make decisions.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Random Jottings from Somewhere Else

The creek of reason

Was only ever a narrow ribbon of hope in the desert

But now it is a chain of stagnant waterholes

Full of shopping trolleys and broken bottles…


I am here in another inland city with a minor university, a minor university that has decided not to offer a chemistry degree anymore and so has handed over the chemistry it is contractually obligated to teach its third year students to our minor university: specifically, to me. I am here to supervise four going-on-five days of experimental work, where from 8:30 to 5:30 with a break for lunch they will grind away doing experiments. These experiments involve the exercise of real, unglamourous, skills- distillation, recrystallisation, not poisoning oneself or settling oneself on fire. The lab we are in is splendid. Such a high ceiling. Taps everywhere. It has the look and the smell of the organic chemistry labs of my own undergraduate days, but it is much too big for us. There is plenty of equipment, plenty of apparatus, plenty of room to rattle around in. All my life this sector of science, my sector of science, has, in this country at least been shrinking.

I never liked the term ‘central science’, but it is. It is the real key to solving our problems in health, our problems with the environment, in developing new materials that will allow Moore’s Law to keep rolling along, that will allow us to upload sentient lobsters to the Interweb.

Of course, these things are still rolling along, I tell myself. Science is not really a dried-up creek, it is still an unstoppable tsunami. Only not here. Or, not much.

Sometimes I google something to find out more about it and find something I have written about it, almost immediately.

Sometimes what I have written is embarrassingly wrong.

Watched the documentary about murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya on SBS the other night. I was impressed by how flash Moscow looked, how much stuff there was on the shelves of the market where her beautiful daughter Vera was shopping, how nice the buses seemed compared to the buses in Sydney. So while at the same time as I fully agreed with the central message about the abominable behavior of the Russian regime, I felt a utilitarian countercurrent of admiration, an involuntary hunch that maybe Putin is not just some grubby authoritarian, but Russia’s Lee Kuan Yew. I still remember those initial few hours of euphoria in Singapore “I have seen the future, and it works”.

As we enter the age of stupid…

My aversion to many-universes models was excessive and irrational. After thinking the matter over carefully, I no longer think there are any logical or moral objections to a many-universes model. I will continue to reject these models on two bases, but I will seek to moderate my language and will not automatically reject them. These two bases are:

(1) Parsimony. We can explain things adequately without them.

(2) Utility. They do not shed any useful light on the most interesting and crucial aspects of quantum mechanics, and hence are not very exciting.

I will now outline my initial objections to many-worlds models, and the answers to those objections I have come up with on further reflection.

The first objection is the aesthetic-moral one made so effectively by Larry Niven in the story ‘All the Myriad Ways’. This story made a strong impression on me, and I now realise with a shock that it alone probably qualifies Niven, after all, to hold down the letter ‘N’ in my list of influential authors.

[I need to find the story again to find the quote I want to put here, so in the meantime you can link to this discussion about the Buffyverse.]

But, in agreeing with this objection, I am not thinking quantitatively. And I am not thinking correctly about *how* microscopic splits of universes lead to macroscopic variations.

It is not equally likely that I will keep driving merrily along the road, and that I will veer suddenly to the left and run over a nun. The bundle of lives that it is ‘me’, if it has a 1 in 10 trillion chance of veering aside and hitting the nun, has been shaped by the choices it has made to be ‘better’ than some other bundle of lives that has a 1 in 10 million chance of veering aside and hitting the nun. Furthermore, I do not know that a choice I can think about is actually possible: perhaps my freedom is more restricted than I believe, and I actually have no finite probability of veering aside and running over the nun.

Perhaps this is best expressed in terms of another one of those Socratic dialogue thingies.

Assertion: It seems that the possible number of universes is infinite, such that any imaginable universe is not only an image of truth, but a fraction of truth. Therefore the many-universes model is immoral and aesthetically repellent.

Response: However, the evidence suggests strongly that our universe has not existed forever, which means it had a beginning. This beginning surely imposes some set of initial conditions on the bundle of possible universes, which implies that the number of multiple universes is not infinite.

Assertion: Although the possible number of universes may be finite, it seems that we cannot quantify, to any extent whatsoever, the probability of one universe existing rather than another. Therefore the many-universes model is still immoral, yadda yadda.

Response: However, statistical thermodynamics provides a very good model for how we could do this. Imagine, if you will, a simple universe of a large number of red balls that can be placed at any of a large number of energy levels separated by a finite amount of energy. Let us imagine that this universe has a certain total energy, that it begins at some point in time with the balls assigned to some unique configuration of energy levels, and that balls are free to move from one energy level to another- not completely freely, but with a high probability to adjacent levels and a decreasing probability to more distant levels.

This is a reasonable model for a classical universe. We can’t know exactly what the configuration of balls is, but whenever any change happens in this universe, we can say it is in the direction of the configuration of balls that can be made in more different ways. This is just a statistical law, which arises from having lots of balls, but it is so solid that it is the basis for the second law of thermodynamics, and hence for everything.


Figure 1. Two sets of red ball universes with total energy 42. There is only one way of arranging the balls that gives rise to the universe on the left. There are many ways of arranging the balls that give rise to the set of universes on the right.

Is there anything to stop us from saying that the physical meaning of probability is that everything happens, and every time a ball moves from one place to another the universe splits?

No, there is nothing to stop us, we can certainly say this. This might be a useful way to look at things in a classical universe. It gives a very straightforward physical interpretation of probability. There are no real aesthetico-moral objections, since the choices (or deterministic non-choices) we make are the same ones we would make in the classical universe, according to the laws (or guidelines) or thermodynamics. We just interpret them as probabilities rather than unique events. I think, given how very large large numbers are, if we say that every particle in the universe can choose (or be impelled) to change state once a chronon, our macroscopic choices (or non choices) take place at such a high level of emergent phenomena that most of the unnerving possibilities that make us turn away from the many-universes model, like Larry Niven, with fear and loathing, are in any meaningful sense of the word, impossible.

Assertion: Okay, okay, maybe you’re right. But what about the two-slit experiment?

Response: The two-slit experiment?

Assertion: Let me explain. Actually, you can probably get a much better idea if you go out and get hold of a copy of Feynman’s ‘Lectures in Physics’. It is in Volume III.

If you have two slits in an electron-proof thingy such that a single beam of electrons can go through both of them at once, then ping onto an electron detector, you can get two different outcomes, depending on whether you put something at the slits to detect whether the electrons go through them or not.

Figure 2. Things that can happen in the two-slit experiment with a beam of particles.

You get this result- electrons acting like particles would act if you detect them, and like waves if you don’t detect them- even if you shoot them through one at a time, so you can detect each electron striking the other side individually, ping, ping, ping.

The two-slit experiment is relevant because it seems to imply communication between bundles of universes. An electron chooses to go through one slit or another: the universe splits. But the overall features of the observed universe depend on the choices of many electrons. How can this make sense, in a many universe model? How can the many-universes model cast any light on this? Should we not see, in a universe of red balls, the particle-like distribution of particles in all cases.

Response: Yes, this is one of the more wacky things about quantum mechanics. Actually, I fail to see how the many-universes model can cast any light upon it. Perhaps Marco (pbuh) can explain.

However, the two-slit experiment can still make sense in a many-universes model. It does *not* imply communication between universes, because wave-particle duality can mean something like the De Broglie pilot wave model, which is perfectly consistent with electrons going through independently to create an interference pattern. This does not rely on any spooky ‘now I’m a wave, now I’m a particle, ooga-booga’ weirdness, which Dr Clam has decided he finds more irritating than the many-universes model.

Assertion: What about the different behaviour of fermions and bosons? A few chapters later on in Feynman’s ‘Lectures on Physics’, there is this really nifty discussion of scattering. Particles that are different from each other scatter in one way, which is the same sort of way, more or less, as macroscopic lumps of matter. Particles that are identical scatter in one of two completely different ways, depending on whether they have integer spin (bosons) or half integer spin (fermions).

Feynman writes somewhere that he tried to put together an explanation for this difference between fermions and bosons into an undergraduate lecture, but found he couldn’t do it, which he says means that we don’t really understand it. Whatever it is, doesn’t it just knock the stuffing out of the many universes theory? Here we have macroscopic consequences arising from probabilities that don’t seem to behave anything like probabilities behave in your universe full of balls. And that’s the wacky way all probabilities behave in quantum mechanics. Sure, you can save your many-universes theory by adding lots of wacky ad hoc rules about how ‘balls’ of different kinds should behave, but what good is that? It hardly makes it a useful predictive theory, huh, huh?

Response: Again, this example is one of the more spectacularly weird things about quantum mechanics. And maybe shoehorning it into a many-universes model would just be papering-over a dodgy theory. But maybe it could actually shed some light on the problem. For instance, our model of the universe of balls sort of implies that we can tell the balls apart: but if the balls are indistinguishable, then there is only one way to get to this configuration, just like there is only one way to get to this configuration, and they are equally ‘probable’. Or am I dreaming?

Figure 3. Two sets of red ball universes with total energy 42. If all the balls are indistinguishable, isn’t it true that there is only one way of arranging the balls that gives rise to the universe on the right, just like the universe on the left?

White King: Tell him he’s dreaming.


9.10.8

I have been spending my time here in this inland city, doing wet chemistry during the day- which I am not so good at, I would not be the one doing this in a more knowledgeable time- and at night I come back and watch the Sky business news- because I have a very low resistance to television- and read ‘Accelerando’. Only a chapter at a time, because then my brain is too stretched and I have to go and take a nap. I thought tonight that maybe I am wasting my time, messing about with dumb matter, when the real game is elsewhere. But someone has to figure out these things.

I am reminded, in these exciting times, of a story I once read by Leo Szilard, where capitalism is compared to the manic depressive cycles of the insane.

Stross has something that is superficially plausible in ‘Accelerando’, on making command economies as effective as market economies, using expert systems that can evolve optimal allocations of resources without the need for competition in the real world. This sounds good, but what it leaves out is the ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’ principle. We have all these sophisticated computer models for all sorts of things, and so many of them are just rubbish, because they need more and better inputs than we can provide. A pseudo-market in silico cannot function like a real market until we are massively, massively, massively documented in real time.

When that day comes, we will have to get rid of so many of our stupid laws it isn’t funny.

Usury is a sin. Muahahahaha!

The world is flat - with gigantic frigging walls built everywhere.

Like, our dog runs off. He doesn’t go very far, and he hasn’t gotten into a great deal of trouble (yet), but we live in the sort of neighbourhood where one day, someone will shoot him. We went to a good deal of trouble putting up one of those electronic dog fences, which worked real well for a while. However, he is a dem clever dog, and when the battery in his zappy collar was low he worked it out, and just barreled out through it from then onwards. We thought we would get a more uber zappy collar, and the ones available locally were real expensive, but there were much cheaper ones on the net from overseas- like half the price- so we ordered one of them. Customs stopped it. It is apparently legal to sell them in Australia, but not to import them. This seems a bizarrely nit-picky instance of restraint of trade. We googled importing them, and all we could find was stuff about their use as sex toys. Oops.

Like, I get all these emails from Indian undergraduate project students looking for a place to come and do a three month or so final year project. Unfortunately, I always have to write back and tell them what I have found out after making inquiries, that there is a 0.0001% chance of their getting a visa to come and do this.

Like, our university demands one particular English test. It is the TOEFL instead of the IELTS, or vice versa. I can’t quite remember. I ended up waiting nine months for a student from the Middle East I had offered a scholarship- who had perfectly decent English skills- to get in to do the proper test at the heavily oversubscribed testing centre in his country, and what with one thing or another, I had to hand the scholarship money back before he could take it.

They are absolutely batshit insane – to quote Lexifab, in another context – about occupational health and safety at the place I am visiting. A fellow came around this morning to move my pushbike – because he got an email from someone else in the Geschutzapparat, telling him to come around and move my pushbike – because it was a safety hazard, leaning up against a wall inside the lab in a way that impinged too much on a thoroughfare that none of us actually fared through during the course of a day.

It is the only place I have ever been where prescription glasses do not count as safety glasses in the teaching lab. I have just ignored this directive.


10.10.8

You should try and complete this statement my son made to me the other day: ‘My mind gets confused when I…’

I am about 43% of the way through Accelerando. My brain is feeling stretched, as it is meant to. At the same time, I am living through what seems to be an exciting economic phase transition.

It is probably right and good that the tertiary sector as presently constituted should begin to wither away. It is configured for the old age of stupid, not the coming age of stupid. We need to educate a leaven of people who actually know things to get us through the coming age of stupid, using the tools of this/that age.

A symptom of the new age of stupid is the idea that simulated ‘experiments’ can replace experiments. We need to find a way to escape from the tyranny of safe.

I predict that in another month, after the ‘worse than expected’ RMP growth numbers come out (worse than expected by who?) everyone will be looking critically for the first time at all the RMP economic data we’ve seen for the past decade and telling us that it is dodgy as. Roll on Economics 2.0!

‘…think about knight’s moves in four-dimensional chess.’


11.10.8

Finished Accelerando. Once the pace accelerates past what the characters can cope with so their story is left behind, it is relatively easy for a simple human like me to keep up.

For what its worth, I don’t think it is possible- within the universe- for there to be a conscious entity which stands in relation to a human being as a human being stands to a tapeworm. This analogy crops up a number of times in Accelerando.

Datum: The complexity of possible problems scales in a dizzying way. For example: Two body problem, easy. Three body problem, impossible. (NB: Number of bodies in the universe, 10180 ono. )

Datum: There is a limit to how fast information can pass from one place to another. It isn’t all that fast, compared to speeds we can imagine.

Datum: There is a limit to how much stuff can be packed into a particular volume. It isn’t all that much, compared to smallnesses we can imagine.

I think if you put these three things together, it will work out the horizon of possibly tractable problems in our universe will turn out to be not all that far removed from the horizon of problems solvable by human intelligence in our universe.

I believe there could certainly be conscious entities which stand in relation to a human being as a human civilization of several quadrillion humans stand to a human being. But I don’t think that degree of ability to hold information, to come up with new ideas, to link existing ideas, would be qualitatively different from human intelligence, to the same extent that we are different from tapeworms.