Monday, October 24, 2011

To Paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen

I know the Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street Journal is a friend of mine. Ma'am, you are no Wall Street Journal.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Jaws was never my scene

Though I do like Star Wars.

This is basically just a post to announce that I have finished "The Third Policeman" and you should read it too.

I think it would be interesting if you re-read "Pilgrim's Progress" first, although I didn't do that, since they are sort of complementary. Though you probably have enough books to read already.

Anyway, bicycles are a big theme in "The Third Policeman". The first two policemen, Pluck and MacCruiskeen, are obsessed with bicycles. I am sure they ought to be an allegory for something but I am not sure what I want them to be. They sort of embody both cyclic motion and motion in a striaght line. They have the theory that gradually atoms of bicycle migrate into the riders and make them less human, while atoms of rider migrate into the bicycles and make it them more human. In my ideal life I would bicycle for three hours a day and this theory explains a lot about some of my more bicycle-like behaviour.

"How would you know a man has a lot of bicycle in his veins?"

"If his number is over Fifty you can tell it unmistakeable from his walk. He will walk smartly always and never sit down and he will lean against the wall with his elbow out and stay like that all night in the kitchen instead of going to bed. If he walks too slowly or stops in the middle of the road he will fall down in a heap and will have to be lifted and set in motion again by some extraneous party. That is the unfortunate state that the postman has cycled himself into, and I don't think he will ever cycle himself out of it."

While I cycle about not getting anywhere (since I always end up back home in the same place) I like to pretend that I am going somewhere. So using the wonders of GoogleMaps I have tracked my virtual progress from Land's End to John O'Groats, and last year I started virtually crossing the Sahara and gave up, and recently I have started virtually crossing the Sahara again. I am retracing some version of the path of the narrator of "Beau Geste" from Oran to Kano via Agades. On the basis of GoogleMaps, I am prepared to weigh into the debate into whether P. C. Wren ever actually joined the Foreign Legion - or even travelled extensively in Algeria - with a NOT.

About approaching Sidi bel-Abbes: "It was not until we were approaching our destination that sand-hills and desert encroached and a note of wildness and savagery prevailed".

No, the sand-hills and desert are far away on the other side of the mountains: it is still a long way to go to the top of the range from Sidi bel-Abbes, and while the cultivated land the road runs through might not have been cultivated then, there are plenty of uncultivated hills covered with trees.

I have ordered a paper about quantum physics in 'The Third Policeman' and I promise to come back with another post in which I quote slabs of it.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

October's Factoid

From wikipedia (PBUI):

"By 1838, open hostility was peaking again. Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs issued Missouri Executive Order 44, which encouraged Missourians to expel Mormons by all means possible or exterminate them if they would not leave. ...  In 1976 Missouri officially revoked the extermination order."

I think it would have said in the article if in say, 1975, some enterprising Missourian had beaten a Mormon extermination rap by citing Executive Order 44. So well done to the government of 1970s Missouri for seeing this potential loophole and closing it before it caused trouble!


I wanted to link to this as part of my Seven Year Anniversary linkfest. I don't really have anything to add, I just felt like linking to it again. The two pillars of optimism discussed in that link are visited again here.


The other day I had a look at my blogger profile to see how many bloggers had registered the same interests. I think you will agree that the blogosphere's priorities are sadly out of whack.

       Politics  :  119 000
       History  :  104 000
       Literature  :  94 000
       Science  :  78 200
       Philosophy  :  74 000
       Religion  :  58 100
       Ethics  :  13 100
       Buffy the Vampire Slayer  :  3 500
       Turanga Leela  :  3
       Photoshopped pictures of LOTRO Hobbits in Skimpy Lingerie  :  1


Finally, here is a picture of that shirt that Marco wouldn't make for me:

I don't believe I have ever owned anything made in Haiti. Or seen anything owned by someone else made in Haiti. It fills me with a wild enthusiastic glee to think that Haiti might actually now be a place where people make things to sell me.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

At last, an excuse to put up a picture of Tasha Yar

She hates time

Make it stop
                     (1985, Bowling for Soup)

It is chilling to think that the span of time separating the me of now from the airing of the final episode of Star Trek: TNG is greater than that yawning abyss, that age of the world, separating the young fanboy me from the airing of the final episode of TOS. Please forgive me for sitting here paralysed with existential terror for a while.

When I first wrote that I wanted to complain about the shoddy tricks in the presentation of certain modern utopias - Kim Stanley Robinson's Colour Mars series and Julian May's Galactic Milieu series- Lexifab said I ought to talk about the Roddenberry utopia as well.

The main practical problems with this were, first, that I hadn't actually thought of any shoddy tricks in the presentation of the utopian world of Star Trek and second, that the amount of canonical material out there was vastly greater than a few novels.  Also, the shoddy tricks I was concerned about were the sort of things novellists do, when they can write whatever they like to justify their creation, and Gene Roddenberry did not have this same degree of freedom. Unlike a novellist's utopia, the Roddenberry utopia already had to make compromises with the real world before we got to see it.

So I put off Lexifab's assignment for a while while I looked for my copy of David Gerrold's “The World of Star Trek” on all the bookshelves, and then in boxes in the sheds, and then gave up and ordered another copy from the other side of the world. About a minute after it arrived last week I realised it would be no help at all. It was all about TOS, filtered through network sensibilities, with a bible that explicitly warned writers off too close an examination of the society the Enterprise came from. Instead I went back to the interwebz.

The interwebz are full of win. I will just link lazily to a few of the things I found. Here is a worthwhile discussion of various unsavoury features of the society of the United Federation of Planets. This highlights the peculiar pervasiveness of a military organisation, Starfleet, in the supposedly peaceful UFP.

Most importantly, I found this.
If you allow your eyes to glaze over while you scroll down a page or two of rather shrill wingnutty background material, you will find that post on to be a lucid exposition of how TNG is a communist state. It all fits together very nicely. Michael Wong postulates some sort of left-wing revolution between TOS and TNG, but not being slaves to continuity we can simply say that TNG is the more valid picture of the Roddenberry utopia: the show made by the recognised Master of the Uberfranchise, who could finally do what he liked, showing the utopia he intended. 

Quoted elsewhere on the site is Paula Block, head of Star Trek licensing at Paramount:

“Gene R. himself had a habit of decanonizing things. He didn't like the way the animated series turned out, so he proclaimed that it was NOT CANON. He also didn't like a lot of the movies. So he didn't much consider them canon either. And—okay, I'm really going to scare you with this one-after he got TNG going, he .. well .. he sort of decided that some of the Original Series wasn't canon either. I had a discussion with him once, where I cited a couple things that were very clearly canon in the Original Series, and he told me that he didn't think that way anymore, and that he now thought of TNG as canon wherever there was conflict between the two. He admitted it was revisionist thinking, but so be it.”

We are not shown how property has been abolished in the human societies of the UFP, or how religion has withered away, or how transportation and communication have fallen completely into government hands. But it is not too hard to imagine how this could happen given the amount of time we have to play with. The trend over my lifetime – and really, for the past century – is all in this direction. Regulate the media, have government agencies take the lead in space travel, entangle corporations more and more with regulation, grow the public sector until most people get all their income from the government – it is not so far to TNG. Give humanity a few major crises to rally people around the defenders of humanity and it is easy.

My original set of requirements for a utopia were:

(1) An incorruptible ruling class who will not selfishly exploit the system, and

(2) A class of ruled who will meekly go along doing what they are told.

The fact that communication between worlds is limited in TNG, and is in the hands of a relatively small group that has been aggressively selected for certain traits since the beginning of space travel, means that these two requirements can be met more realistically than in other utopias.

In TNG, we are essentially never shown the ruled. Our picture is restricted to a small sub-section of elite cosmonauts: people with real skills who are given important work to do by the Federation and can lead useful and exciting lives. It is reasonable that these people will not bother themselves with politics and will be outwardly committed believers and happy ambassadors for the system, just like real life cosmonauts. So the only real shoddy trick is a trick of emphasis that is also a requirement of drama: we see neither the ruling class which must be incorruptible, nor the meek ruled, just this highly anomalous population of heroes.

The trend of current events shows us how a meek ruled class can be achieved. Technologicial advances mean we can make a lot of stuff cheaply. The government gives people lots of free stuff. QED. Postulating the sort of technological developments shown in Star Trek, the economic sclerosis that doomed historical communist regimes is not an issue: the ruled can be given enough free stuff to lead materially satisfying lives. If most people are comfortable with their lives, any dissidents that exist will be unable to get much traction. 

Furthermore, the government control of interworld communication and transport will effectively quarantine any trouble that does get started: there is no faster-than-light Facebook to spread the message of civil disobedience across the quadrant. The limitations of communication also mean that government in the Federation cannot possibly be centralised to the same extent as on a united Earth. It cannot be a despotic regime, but must be an aristocratic one, where a class with shared values provides a stable elite. Starfleet as shown is a plausible picture of such an elite, educated to uphold the ideals of the Federation in much the same way as the ruling elite of the British Empire were educated. Because of the poor communications between worlds, not very many of these people are required, just like a mere handful of bureaucrats were needed to run the British Empire. Aristocratic regimes have maintained relatively high standards of incorruptibility for quite long periods of time – so long as you have a small governing class with a shared ideology and mechanisms for dividing power between them, everyone in the class will watch each other, and bring anyone who diverges from the ideology or becomes too individually powerful to account.

The Roddenberry utopia of TNG is dependent on a government monopoly of interworld communications that is reasonable, given the size and probable cost of the intersystem ships shown. The utopia seems entirely plausible to me. It could be introduced and maintained without any shoddy tricks of the kind I talked about with Kim Stanley Robinson's utopia or Julian May's utopia. The only trick is involved in selling the utopia to us, the viewer at home, by zooming in on one small facet of the world.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Three Anecdotes Addressing the Existence of God

First Anecdote
I can only ever remember once praying for God to show me a sign of his existence, one night when I was lying in bed unable to sleep. That night I went on and on being unable to sleep, long after the time I would usually be asleep. Then I heard a small sound from the cat. I got out of bed and found that the cat had gotten hold of a gecko. I rescued the gecko from the cat, and then I could sleep.

Commentary on the First Anecdote
An action of God within the universe ought to be explicable also in terms of a chain of causes within the universe. Futile acts of interspecies altruism can be explained as an accidental side-effect of the development of intraspecies altruism that has survival value: is it foolish of me to see them also as signs of a merciful God working in the universe?

Second Anecdote
At that moment I was the closest I have ever been to committing a terrorist act. As I strode briskly from the station to the building where I worked, I was full of righteous indignation, and was thinking – still very idly, still not seriously at all – of the best mechanism for distributing a certain white powder to certain temples of Moloch in the City of Dreadful Night. In the middle of a pedestrian crossing the lace of one of my boots caught on a hook on my other boot, and fastened my feet momentarily together. My momentum carried me forward so that I teetered crazily for a moment and then fell flat on the pavement. I had my keys in my hand, ready to unlock the door of my office, and as I fell forward I lost hold of them. Sharing my forward momentum, they skittered ahead across the pavement and disappeared into a storm drain.

Commentary on the Second Anecdote
Is it foolish of me to see this as a sign signifying “don't do that”?

Third Anecdote
Every day I skim the news for some word of the long-running conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the fate of the refugees displaced the better part of a generation ago. There is never anything. Instead, almost every day I read of another conflict, involving similar numbers of people, about which the nations of the world complain continually. I observe one small nation against which the whole world is united, whose crimes are smaller than most nations and yet are the only crimes which the world condemns. I see that this is the only nation that you would find with the same name and in much the same location as you would 2800 years ago. I see also that this is a nation of people that were condemned for thousands of years for not having a nation, for being parasites on other nations. I see that this people have made an enormously disproportionate contribution to science and art and to the entire structure of modern Western civilisation. And I observe that the religion of this people is uniquely free of selfish meme material: it neither promises its adherents extravagant rewards in an afterlife, nor claims to be a universal religion that all men must follow.

Commentary on the Third Anecdote
One would think that the Jews would be the one people the 'international community' would be willing to cut a little slack, if they had any historical consciousness. The Chesterbelloc wrote at length about how the survival of the Catholic Church was a miraculous thing, how the institution was again and again on the point of becoming a lifeless shell but was then reanimated: but the survival of the Jews seems to me to be orders of magnitude more impressive. If there is anything miraculous in swimming against the tide of history, in maintaining through many trials an uncorrupted ideology that points to a just and merciful God, then it is the Jews who are miraculous.

Sunday, October 02, 2011


I  have read that a theatre academic somewhere in the rebel colonies put the poster on the right up on his door, and the university administrators sent people to take it down because it was an incitement to violence. Now, probably in the small print of his contract there is a statement that says they can do this. And maybe the academic in question is some sort of a psychopath, but has another clause in his contract saying he can't be sacked unless he actually shoots someone, and the university PR people have just done a crummy job selling the story. But I suspect not.
What struck me painfully, this being the week it is, was how diametrically opposed Captain Reynolds' stated philosophy is from the current practice of the rebel colonists in carrying out their overseas contingency operations. When the unmanned drone crashes through the roof and blows you into small pieces, you will be asleep and unarmed, and your attacker will be hundreds or thousands of miles away. This is doubtless much more practical than Captain Reynolds. But the rebel colonists are much less likely to end up with an enemy that respects them. And the world will hear only hypocrisy when they make impassioned speeches after their enemies kill their people when they are unarmed and sleeping.
The reference to 'this being the week it is' refers to another thing I read this week, that the rebel colonists are now doing this sort of thing to their own citizens without going through the forms of sentencing them to death in absentia. This is one further little step down a road whose destination, I think, is bad. And it disturbs me much more than the Andrew Bolt thing that I was going on about earlier.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

'Even if a cataclysmic upheaval like a communistic regime should come, the old tradition of individuality, toleration, moderation and common sense will break Communism and change it beyond recognition, rather than Communism with its socialistic, impersonal and rigoristic outlook break the old tradition. It must be so.'

(Lin Yutang, My Country and My People, 1934)