domingo, abril 29, 2018

SF-with-an-Agenda: "The Stars Are Legion" by Kameron Hurley

The lack of recognition for female SF writers appears to be particularly acute for what's known as 'hard science fiction', i.e. science fiction that pays fairly close attention to scientific plausibility, and that seeks to break as few physical laws as possible (in an ideal universe, perhaps, none). Other subdomains of SF have a better acceptance of female authorship -- for example, Lois McMaster Bujold has made wonderful inroads into space opera with her Vorkosigan series, and it's hard to think about time-travel fiction without bringing to mind Connie Willis' books exploring the London Blitz through time travel. And yet there's still the idea around that women don't, or can't, or shouldn't write hard SF, which is nonsense. I've started actively seeking out hard SF by female writers, and there's some tremendously good stuff there.

For a literature of the future, SF still has some fairly reactionary attitudes at times.

The problem I have with stories like "Stars are legion" is the use of superhuman powers to achieve goals. Although they may help to highlight problems in society they don't actually indicate any solution, as the likelihood of getting these powers is nil.

Although SF is ostensibly outward looking in its imagination of alternative societies, it is blinkered in seeing these new worlds only in terms of western society, taking their cue from either our capitalist or feudal experience. There are or have been many other societies around the world that are completely different. Although many are now 'corrupted' by contact with the all-conquering western society, anthropologists have recorded societies with more or less complete sexual equality (if not matriarchal) and strongly egalitarian. Yet nobody wants to explore a future where humanity re-orders society to bring these basic human drives back into play.

However, dystopian novels win prizes, utopian novels are remaindered.

Narrative-wise, the book felt like an uphill climb. All those crooked mother, pregnancy metaphors... I didn't care about the plot, about the so-called metaphors and while there were bits of Zan's Journey "From the Centre of the Earth" that were mildly interesting, I just didn't care. I hate it when writers have an agenda. I don't want an agenda rammed in my face. I want Story. At heart it's just a somewhat traditional journey where Zan picks up various party members who are at varying levels of sanity, knowledgeability, and trustworthiness, and who agree to help her reach the surface of the planet so she can complete her mission. In a nutshell, that's what you'll get. All crap and sundry, imaginably run by the idea that every experience has some amazing extant point which by juxtaposition to metaphor would add more than a thousand yet unknown words to common vocabulary adding in new contexts to the more extraordinary of imagining past historic events more glorified and opportune than near say scribes whose pen they love but paper they mourn.

What is “Science Fiction” anyway? One of the genre’s greatest (IMHO) authors, Harlan Ellison, could not abide the term. He proposed “Speculative Fiction” instead (and Heinlein before him). And it’s the term I prefer myself. Of course; you may feel that all fiction is, by its very nature, “speculative”, in that it did not really happen. Or, did it? Harlan is utterly mad. He's also right. Speculative fiction is the term we should be using to describe all books that ask "What if?" For example, what if Vikings had actually settled North America permanently instead of giving up after a few years? You'd now have the world's largest socialist democracy and Prime Minister Olafsson of Vinland. And Swedish would be one of the world's dominant languages. Maybe I can get Kim Stanley Robinson interested in this idea. I shall expect only 50% of the book royalties and income from film rights in return for giving him an idea he could have easily thought of on his own.

Anyway! I’m a quasi-bald-headed white male, who has forgotten whatever point he was trying to make. Ta ta.

NB: I just wish this book had been written by Tiptree or Le Guin. And because I don’t want you to say I’m only fond of deceased female SF writers, how about Maureen F. McHugh? “After the Apocalypse” and “China Mountain Zhang”. Does this ring a bell for anyone? I’m sure it doesn’t. No one reads worthwhile SF writers anymore, male or female…

SF = Speculative Fiction.

sexta-feira, abril 27, 2018

SF-of-a-Different-Persuasion: "James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon" by Julie Phillips

“What I do with emotion is not, strictly, to ‘bottle it up.’ I parcel it out. I make it drive me in work; I try to use it to understand the world; I occasionally try to form or express little bits in objective writing or drawing; I try to stay out of situations which encourage it; I take it out in physical exertion – and what still can’t be handled I do ‘bottle up’ and sit on. What else can one do? […]”

Alice Sheldon in “James Tiptree, Jr. - The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon” by Julie Phillips

Biographies have traditionally had a complex relationship with "truth." Hesketh Pearson's brilliantly readable mid-twentieth-century biographies favour "good stories" over the boring facts. Julie Phillips didn’t have to tackle one of the most difficult things in writing a biography: correct the distortions and myths in previous biographies. It was all a blank sheet. Phillips seems to favour the "bag of facts" approach to biography which has been gaining favour but this too has its problems – notably, that reading such a book tends to be a chore, not a pleasure. The challenge, I think, is to keep a balance between telling the story and being rigorously, “checkably” factual.

When it comes to autobiographies, you sit down with your blank sheet of A4 and start sucking your pencil (or your mouse), desperate for inspiration; isn't the mining of your own life likely to be more quickly and readily available at all hours of day and night and perhaps require less effort than having to pass what you have learned of the nature and life of other people through a process of synthesis and precis and imaginative marshalling? There may also be the thought that the hanging out of dirty linen (linen from best Irish flax?) on a public washing line may be helpful to one's own bruised psyche. Though full disclosure is very fashionable these days, of course, I'm not sure this is necessarily therapeutic. This also applies to biographies. Just as in so many films a scene airing much emotion is accompanied by a sly, tinkling, solo piano as the filmmakers slip into telling-you-what-to-feel mode. Perhaps we can make a distinction between a case where a writer dishes the dirt on him/herself, with little collateral damage caused, and a case where Big Bertha transmogrifies into a cluster bomb and the havoc spreads inexorably from the centre, like a pebble chucked into the Tralee Ship Canal outside Blennerville.

Tiptree/Sheldon was literally a Feminist-in-Disguise for generations. I'd agree she doesn't fit the current shrill, superficial version of feminism that is sometimes just online shaming (and not all that progressive often) but I'd wager she's going to have a lot more credibility as a feminist in 100 years’ time and all the twitter "feminists" will be forgotten along with the motherhood-on-a-pedestal Victorians, the racist anti-Union feminists of the early 1900s and the anti-sex pro-Reagan 1980s groups. Feminism is a very old and long tradition. I think he/she had been thinking about it lucidly for a lot longer than most all of us. Too bad his/her story ended the way it did. We may never know what it really happened and what made him/her do it.

Without delving much deeper into the book, I would say the aim of any writer is to publish something that sells. In the book blogosphere, I meet lots of people who think they can write, including two or three who think they can write so well, that they want to charge people to listen to their advice on what these people should be reading. They call themselves bibliotherapists. I can't tell you how desperate I am to tell them that they are living in cloud cuckoo land and that the country is full of bin men, shop assistants and dog walkers who are in every way equal, but haven't got their brass necks. I imagine a lot of writers who pick an unusual subject - like writing about a writer such as Tiptree - have had enough of emptying bins or walking dogs. That also goes for Biographers.

As one alien said to another after visiting earth, 'What do you think?' The other alien replied: 'Well the ones with the intelligence seem ok, but I'm not sure about the ones with the testicles.', and this coming from a Sapiens belonging to the latter; Tiptree belonged to the former.

NB: Must-read for those of you who love SF-of-a-different-Persuasion. Unmissable as well because of the letters between Tiptree/Sheldon and some other SF writers, namely Philip K. Dick, Joanna Russ, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

A coda:

“’And then about three o’clock in the morning Mrs. Sheldon called me back and told me that she had actually killed Mr. Sheldon. I remember she said, ‘Jim, I slain Ting by own hand and I’m about to take my own life, and for God’s sake don’t call the police, to give me time to do what I have to do here.’ And by this point there was nothing I could do. I did call the police, and they went over and found that both of them were dead.’”

John Morrison in ““James Tiptree, Jr. - The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon” by Julie Phillips

Tiptree/Sheldon was true to herself to the end of her days. Big testicles. What a woman! My kind of SF.

SF = Speculative Fiction.

quinta-feira, abril 26, 2018

Dumbed-Down-Science Squared: "String Theory for Dummies" by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

My criticism of these kind of books, from what I have read from other stuff, is that the writers tend to spout all the standard or classic theories as tablets of stone and rarely introduce new ideas (presentation-wise). Imagine you were able to generate a video clip of a science book where a whole gallery of core concepts flashed by in say 60 minutes. Are we sure we’d be able to learn something from the process? Is it likely that some of the images would leave a deep impression on you? My two cents: in fact, you are seeing it, but not understanding it. It is probably similar with these dummy series of books; you get an impression, maybe even learn something, but it is unlikely to have a significant effect on your understanding of the subject at hand. I suppose it depends on the reason one attempts the book in the first place. Snobbery? (Yes, of course I have read a String Theory book.) To enter a pub quiz? (Answer to Q69: The twin at the edge of the galaxy ages more quickly.) To search for understanding about how and why the world works as it does, and how we came to understand it? (Say what?) In this age of everything-available-at-your-fingertips, aren't we all a little guilty of wanting answers to pub quiz questions without doing the work of understanding how the answer was derived? I had a physics teacher at college who kept insisting for me to "show my working". Seeking facts without understanding limits our horizons; reduces us to consumers of other people's work; makes us lazy; leads eventually to the (sorry, folks) copy-and-paste unchecked stories about the EU, the bite-size propaganda of referendum campaigns, the swallowing hook-line-and-sinker of stories that serve as confirmation bias, the decrying of experts simply because they are experts, the loss of critical reading skills.

Which is where we are today.

Whether the writer is that narrow in his views could be just that is what the reader wants and have dumbed down the material so as not to lose his audience. I wish we could have some of the Horizon programs of years ago when if you weren't capable of understanding them it was tough, but everything on TV is dumbed down now. Just a couple of hours a week on one channel on stuff you really have to struggle to get your mind around is all I am asking for.

I am sometimes embarrassed to hear scientists (who really should know better) claiming that they have "objective" knowledge of the universe. Luckily guys like Smolin, having pondered these matters as scientific theorists, come out the other side all philosophical and talk of the universe inventing itself. Which suddenly freaks out all us bong-smokers, even though if we'd been paying attention the Buddha, Berkeley, Hume, Kant and co have been saying this for centuries...It seems we agree on the benefits of bong smoking on metaphysics. Sometimes in my hazier moments I'm convinced we're all the godhead reflecting in infinite mirrors and if you disagree then that's fine because I'm sure I'll agree with you when I am you... or something like that.

Sages peer into the riddles of matter and consciousness, hoping to explain them. So what is 'explain'? Ah, but that's the toy to be shaken away and us awake in a sudden earthquake, or eclipsed in an instant by a friendly shout, or a remembered tune wafting from a nearby cafe, re-encoding through the eardrum and intoxicating the brain, or in stumbling on a pavement crack while lost in speculation, just catching oneself before the oncoming traffic, head tumbling down from the clouds to know again how slippery the concrete becomes under driving rain. It doesn't matter how the numbers do or don't add up; it is still the biggest Game of Marbles on Earth, using the smallest marbles in the Universe! When "science" knows about the Nature of TIME then all the current theories can be put into perspective and discarded. The answer to string theorist's problems is obviously not mundane quantum computing, been there done that any day now, but extra-dimensional quantum computing to get more omph in their analysis. They should be able to dream that up even if only on a string budget. I think a basic problem with communicating science is that you can't start to get a feel for difficult subjects like math and science without spending a lot of time trying to solve the problems at the end of each textbook chapter (or ones set by your teacher). I said 'trying'; you don't need to succeed every time. Kind of, if killer experiments are top trumps. Which is where String Theory falls down big time as they cannot design testable predictions that don't require a convenient quasar or an accelerator that can work at impossible energies (to unravel one of their strings). It is not testable.

Down in Biology we decline to regard non testable ideas as science. But then we tend to be experimenter heavy and theorist light. Physics' problem is too many math inclined theorists with nothing else to do. What they have done with String Theory is build castles in the air, wonderful, exotic, baroque castles but made of nothing and signifying only a massive waste of time and intellectual effort.

What people forget is that mathematics is a language, a highly formal and logical one, but a language nevertheless. Languages can be used to describe fictions, self-consistent, highly compelling fictions (religions, Game of Thrones) but fictions nevertheless. Without scientific experiments to determine which stories are true vs those which are not there is no way to tell the fiction from the truth. Which is why the holometer is so heartening. It is Science.

quarta-feira, abril 25, 2018

Urinating-on-the-corpse-of-SF: "The Prefect" by Alastair Reynolds

“A starship built around a single massive engine designed to suck in interstellar hydrogen and use it for reaction mass. Because it didn’t have to carry its own fuel around, it could go almost as fast as it liked, right up to the edge of light-speed.”

In “The Prefect” by Alastair Reynolds

So you're happy about a 900-year old alien driving a ship that looks like a police box that can travel through time and is larger on the inside than on the outside towing an entire planet across the universe, but some people are annoyed because it didn't shake enough? Seriously, I can never understand why SF readers get so picky over the stuff they are prepared to suspend their disbelief over. Either you're going to reject the whole damn thing, or you should accept it all, I say. Having said that, while accepting the initial fantastic premises of this book, I'm happy for it to bend basic physics, but not to slit its throat and urinate on the corpse. To take the earth-towing scene again; where's the sense of threat to humanity if, in the end, it can survive cataclysmic events like being pulled across the universe, with only basic refurbishing needed? The basic rule of thumb about suspension of disbelief applies to all fiction, not just SF: anything is acceptable as a premise, but once the premise is in place, you have to follow through as realistically as possible. In other words, you start with a “What If”..., and the “What If” can be completely insane - e.g. What If the CIA invented a non-existent agent to distract the KGB, and then the KGB mistook a real person for that agent. But once you established the crazy “What If”, you can't just add other bits of craziness to get your hero out of tricky situations. Though this is madness, yet there is method in it, and Reynolds is the absolute master of the form. What else? Ah yes. It’s oversaturated with all kind of fancy stuff.

domingo, abril 22, 2018

Sortes Vergilianae: "The Inferno of Dante" by Dante Alighieri, Robert Pinsky (trans.)

What I love about Dante is how he doesn't invoke the Muses, unlike Homer, or Virgil, and that he goes straight to the heart of the matter, and straight in to the poem, i.e. "In the midway of this our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray, gone from the path direct". In the middle of his life Dante is lost in a dark wood, the man he most admires, a fellow poet, takes him by the hand and leads him through hell and purgatory, but when they reach the entry for Paradise, Virgil must give way to Beatrice, love is greater than wisdom, Dante's love for Beatrice, his desire for wisdom, what follows is exquisite poetry, and both Botticelli and Dali make an effort to capture the genius that resides there, as words, Virgil's trade, and Dante's, cede to inner knowing, as they ascend, then transcend, life, and reach beyond star and sun into the vast blue. TS Eliot wrote that Dante and Shakespeare "divide the world between them-there is no third." But is it exquisite poetry in English translation? I very much doubt it. The 1970s Penguin verse translation I read by Mark Susa was rubbish. Now I listened to an Audiobook with a translation by Robert Pinsky. Think I'll take T.S. Eliot's advice: use a prose translation if you must but learn Italian if you're serious about getting anything out of Dante's poetry (Portuguese and Italian both came from the same mold, Latin, but they're two very different languages).

Dante is unafraid to sing the praises of the great Virgil "That well-spring from which such copious floods of eloquence have issued", nor the other greats of Latin verse, such as Ovid and Lucan. Likewise, Milton's description of "Death grinn'd horrible, a ghastly smile" in "Paradise Lost" is borrowed from Dante's description of Minos in Canto V of Inferno "There Minos stands, grinning with ghastly features". Virgil had been acceptable throughout the Middle Ages although his works were usually glossed with the alibi that they prefigured Christianity in variously dubious ways.....

Virgil did write a Messianic Eclogue ("Now, a great new age is coming", etc.), but that could be about Augustus. It was hijacked by the Christians, but then, too, was something known as the Sortes Vergilianae, which was the deployment of Virgil in the same way as the Bible. The pagan bits were, however, glossed over, or excised.

I have often wondered why the great writers such as Joyce, Beckett, Eliot, etc. were so enthralled with Dante. I recall in "Damned to Fame" Beckett's biography the author James Knowlson mentioning Sam read "The Divine Comedy" in its original language and this volume was one of his most treasured possessions. I have read The Comedy many years ago (not really rolling in the aisles). Dante while including some Popes in the circles (but not all) must have been popular with some of the religious firebrands who feel his description (XI in particular) of the circles as "damned"...including those who were fraudsters, flatters, "...set their honest as pawn, ...such vile scum as these!" I recall thinking if these are all in Hell then Heaven must be a pretty sparsely populated spot! Is Dante's poetry that good to attract all the admiration... it certainly can't be the moral of his tale? But I guess the same could be said of some of Milton's works, another firebrand if one was to judge form his content.

I'm not the most theologically accurate of persons. I'm still learning a lot from my Friend João Cláudio. As far as I'm aware, it is not the greatness of the act it is the attitude which one has towards it which matters. The most terrible of sins can be forgiven, through the merits of Jesus Christ, if repented. Heaven may have greater sinners in it than hell does but only hell has unrepentant sinners.

Bottom-Line: Anyone who thinks that Dante didn't believe in forgiveness or grace hasn't understood the first thing about the Comedy, or about medieval catholic theology in general (I'm catholic; so I'm probably biased). The narrator's vision is the result of pure, undeserved grace which brings him through hell and purgatory to the vision of God, causing him to be reconcilled to God - and to the memory of Beatrice. The point about the people in Hell is that they refused forgiveness and grace. Unlike later thinkers (such as Calvin) Dante held that God always responded to people who wanted forgiveness, and "Purgatory" and "Paradise" are full of people who did dreadful things, some of them only repenting at the moment of death. It's essentially a long narrative about love, not about torture and damnation.

NB: Apparently, hell has three rooms: one is full of fire, the other full of ice and the other full of shit. Of course, most people choose the room of shit because you at least get to stand there with a warm cup of coffee under your nose. That is until coffee break is over and it is back on your heads.

sábado, abril 21, 2018

Mundane Fiction in Disguise: “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

“Lovers are fun, but kind of stupid, too. They say stupid things to each other and they ignore all their friends because they’re too busy staring, and they get jealous, and they have fights over dumb shit like who did the dishes last or why they can’t fold their fucking socks, and maybe the sex gets bad, or maybe they stop finding each other interesting, and then somebody bangs someone else, and everyone cries, and they see each other years later, and that person you once shared everything with is a total stranger you don’t even want to be around because it’s awkward.”

In “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers
(No, I didn’t get the quote wrong; it’s really in the book ipsis verbis)

Should all speculative fiction be written in a fantastical, hyper-imagined future where everything is new and shiny and different?

Having a rich panoply of characters make 'walk on' appearances engages the reader and helps them to develop a richness, texture and depth to a work. The reader can determine whether or not one of these 'extras' connects to the story-line elsewhere - and an impressionistic sketch of these characters and their activities actually requires that the reader puts in some effort in constructing the world in which the characters operate. Roger Zelazny used this device quite well, and I enjoyed it: discontinuities were everywhere, and hints and ephemera enhanced the story. I didn't want to see everything in a well-lit room. I tried Larkin when I was twelve, then when I was sixteen (yay for required reading as part of my British Council English education.) Much preferred Tennyson and then I was in my late twenties. Each and every time it was like Dorothy Parker was sitting reading over my shoulder: "this isn't a poet to be read lightly, he should be hurled with great force". No wonder my school loved him - his poetry could suck the life out of a lemon. Prior to permitting an external creative agent (an author) to characterize the parameters of a conceptual context (a story), the human imagination, through its own self-awareness, provides the experiential appreciation of limitlessness. Stories feed the appetite of those who elect not to revel in the limitlessness that defines human imagination. It is true that among the authors there are those who excel at the artistry of storytelling. But in the end confining oneself to the structured context established by another individual's imagination is never more than a trivial pursuit. And yet we're flooded with prancing, mincing, romance stereotypes ala Gail Carriger's novels. The only difference here is that they take place in space.

Where precisely are the limitations of human imagination? Where is the edge of my mind; the edge of consciousness; the edge of creativity? Most writers and artist who are any good (and some that are not) do feel that they are in some ways experimenting (testing out ideas), and when we read or see or hear works of art and imagination that impress us we do, often, have a sense of having learned something about the world - our understanding/perception of the world has been enlarged or clarified in some way. 

Bottom-line: If I want a Cozy Space Opera depicting the spectrum of relationships depicted on spaceship, from romantic partners to casual lovers to loyal companions to people who put up with each other because they have to…. and every kind of friendship in between, I’ll watch a well-lit “Neighbours” room on TV where everything must be taken at face value.

quinta-feira, abril 19, 2018

Hippocrates 2.0 or On How to Put People into Boxes:"The Right—and Wrong—Stuff - How Brilliant Careers Are Made and Unmade" by Caster Cast

Presumably there are four types of persons in the world. To wit:

Those who believe there are four types;
Those who believe there are fewer than four types;
Those who believe there are more than four types;
Those who think the whole idea is cobblers;
Those who don't care (like me).

* Note for pedants.
The list has five elements. This is known as a "joke". I have left you some grammar errors as well to give you something useless to do.

** Note for mathematicians.
We could usefully consider the fifth element as a description of the null set in this context. Feel free to discuss whether the presence of a null set invalidates the claim that dividing a set into four subsets covers all parts of the original set.

Seriously. Really. Strikes me as unlikely that we fit into five professional "categories": Captain Fantastic, the Solo Flyer, Version 1.0, the One-Trick Pony, and the Whirling Dervish (I like the names though). Is there here something really new? Nah, Cast nicked the idea off Hippocrates. This has been around since ancient times when the four types were choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine. Truly there is nothing new under the sun. Speaking for myself I was never one to believe we could be pigeonholed. Aye right, “there is no one-size-fits-all solution" - but four (or five according to Cast) sizes? Yep, that just about covers the entire human population.

I was tempted to buy the book, but the "Solo-Flyer' part of my personality convinced me that I already knew what Cast was trying to tell me. In addition, the "Captain Fantastic' part of my personality made me ask why someone would be an authority on fitting people into categories? The 'Whirling Dervish' part of my personality doesn't understand how a book could make my life any happier anyway, while the 'One-Trick-Pony' part of me says that the cash would be better spent on alcohol. I finally decided to to compromise and read the Audio version of the book instead...

Until we can study the physical science of the brain more effectively, making 'laws' of this kind of thing is really just guesswork and not even guesswork in the sense that philosophical principles are developed by logic but just literally guessing. It has been my observation from having worked in at least 10 different places (Consultant, Project Manager, 2nd line Manager, IT Ops Officer, Operational Manager, and Service Manager) that the most compliant workers are usually the most miserable.

You see, there are two things that tend to screw the compliant:

A) There are assholes everywhere (not that many, but usually one or two), and it's usually the compliant that they prey upon;
B) Plenty of people in this world make assertive and assured statements on things they know little (sometimes nothing) about and the compliant types will follow their advice just as readily as anybody else's, often with horrible results.

I say this because I've seen more than once the more compliant people be repeatedly bullied by assholes and/or sent down the wrong path by those whose low self-confidence doesn't allow them to publicly admit that they do not know something well. Sadly I lack the personal equilibrium to endure incompetence, especially from top management.

Whatever happened to "Be yourself" or "Create your own principles"?

It is possible that we adopt different tendencies in different contexts and the truly worked out person knows which tendency to use in any one context. Ever since the Greeks recommended 'Know yourself' that has been an important aspect of well- being but to be told in advance that you must be one tendency or another is very limiting. This seems a personal approach not based on any scientific analysis of personalities. Remember the days when we were either extrovert or introvert and no other options seem relevant. This seems the same. Personality is too rich and individual to fit into categories.

Were I to interview a number of 'gurus' who had written books on how to take stress out of your life and I'd probably found them all incredibly stressed in their actual lives!

This is the reason I never cared much for self-help books. Should we all aspire to be compliant workers and bright-eyed leaders? Nope. I've been on both sides of the barricade (consultant and later on as a 2nd line manager of a SAP Business Unit). If only Van Gogh had been a bit more upbeat he might have been a better team member and wouldn't have wasted his time on all those depressing paintings. Why do publishers peddle this vapid tripe aimed at refashioning a more productive liberal-democratic-professional 'you'?

My own contribution for a future managerial self-help book entitled "The Five Tendencies". What sort of people would buy "The Five Tendencies" you ask? My suggestion:

- those who will purchase the printed version of The Five Tendencies;
- those who will purchase the digital version of The Five Tendencies;
- those who will purchase the digital audio version of The Five Tendencies;
- those who will read The Five Tendencies without purchasing it,
- those who don't give a flying fart about The Five Tendencies.

The author will surely perceive the first three only as the happy ones.

All the self-help books I have read are full of unattributed anecdotes, followed by pseudo psychological nonsense. Any real advice would usually fill a few paragraphs, and is often the same thing dressed up in different ways. Get more exercise, challenge yourself, declutter your life, put yourself first!" There!

NB: 3 stars for the funny category names and professional reminiscences. I liked them. Colourful, aren't they?

terça-feira, abril 17, 2018

Walking Ahead into the Darkness: "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin

“There's a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”

InThe Dispossessed” by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Thank you, Ursula k. Le Guin, for encouraging me to celebrate my peculiarities. The short story about 'Omelas' is as insightful a demolition of utilitarianism I've ever read. Well, I didn't mean refutation, I meant demolish the underlying rationale. If we're all OK with someone perfectly innocent being lumped with all misery so we can be happy, then it's for the greater good, no? If we're not happy with that trade, and I doubt any society that isn't made of psychos would be, then for the utilitarianism is obviously undesirable as second order moral justification.

Utilitarianism is supposed to be a way to be good, by maximizing happiness. But if maximizing happiness above all else leads to evil, then it's a bit of a non-starter. If you bring in rules and regulations to stop leading to an Omelas type scenario, then these are meta rules that aren't justified by utilitarianism, and so you're leaning on something else, or shorter, you've stopped justifying your acts by utilitarianism and at best it's become are process within the framework. In real life, we can't know what maximizes happiness, and so it's all a bit philosopher’s armchair. The story cuts through that, and lets us know what it might mean to maximize happiness and what it might cost. I see a pretty obvious answer if you value treating people fairly, and that's eschewing maximizing happiness.
Anyway, enough of my half-remembered ideas on philosophy...

The Kantian will say it is never acceptable to treat anyone merely as a means to the ends of others -- which the society of Omelas does. But consider: Save for one wretched child, Omelas is the absolute best society one could imagine. (If you don't like my sketch of this utopia, says Le Guin in the story, tweak it to match your ideal of perfection.) In practice, every society has many individuals living wretched lives. Omelas has more real happiness and less misery than we will ever achieve this side of paradise. To free the child or to walk away would accomplish what -- give one a feeling of personal virtue perhaps, but at what cost to others?

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. They place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Bottom-lineI think the last paragraph of "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" one of the most perfectly judged, achingly evocative things ever. It speaks to so many of us.

sábado, abril 14, 2018

Brontosaurus Shit: "On Bullshit" by Harry G. Frankfurt

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share."

In “On Bullshit” by Harry G. Frankfurt

"’a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to take the context as well, so far as need requires. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberate than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the 'bullshit artist'"

In “On Bullshit” by Harry G. Frankfurt

The current state-of-affairs (I won't name any more names) is not b... s... It is elephant shit! Or is it chicken shit? I know! It's Brontosaurus shit! Let's start by dropping the euphemisms. Not bullshit, not alternative facts, nor post-truth - but lies. Lies, lies, lies, lies. That's all we know how to do. The difference is important between a liar and a bullshitter. All politicians for instance, bend or interpret their own version of the truth but it is possible for us to take a view on their reasoning and motives. Bullshitters like Trump, Farage, and Socrates (a former Portuguese Prime-Minister) literally couldn't care less and will say absolutely anything to anyone to get what they want and pivot 180 º in an instant. Whatever it is you wish to measure, intelligence or other key parameters, half the population is below average. Yes, I know the difference between mean and median. Many are simply not capable of the intellectual rigor required to analyze carefully the output of our former Prime-Minister Socrates. Like Trump, they are at the mercy of the last thing they heard that appealed to their prejudices or their emotions. It used to be, in the US, in Portugal, that party higher-ups would limit the choices faced in general elections to two candidates who were not too far from the middle ideologically, and not terribly incompetent, in general. That system has broken down, and wealthy individuals who buy themselves a place in the spotlight can overcome party leadership and wrest the nomination away from party regulars. I read a story a day or two ago pitting Donald Trump against The Rock in a presidential preference poll. I better retire to a desert island then, because the phenomenon I accurately describe above, is not going anywhere. At least not unless and until the population wakes up. Which is unlikely, as long as all they do is watch TV all night.

I don't know what the fix is, but if it doesn't come soon, Trump and Socrates could be the tip of the iceberg. Mass and social media are competing with each other to feed the monster. I am not optimistic.

Most of the problem is short attention spans and poor education. People can't be bothered doing the laborious reading to find out the facts. Part of it is the fall in the quality of journalism. When did you last read an in-depth article in a journal on the one thousand-year history of relations between Ukraine and Russia? Or a comparison of those relations to those between Scotland and England, for instance? When did you see an analysis of the vital importance of Sevastopol in Russian history? Without that kind of detailed historical background no intelligent judgments can be made about current events. Nobody apparently has time for it, not even journalists who are paid to do it. A tiny handful of academics are privy to the facts, most other people are wallowing in ignorance. The other major problem is the need to simplify in order to get your argument across within very limited space. This means making a selection of facts, and leaving other facts out. Almost all arguments are between two people adducing different sets of facts to support their case. The facts may all be correct. But there are in a sense two "alternative sets of facts." Each person is emphasizing the facts that support their case. Nobody is lying. They are merely leaving things out. They are not giving the whole picture. This degradation of the level of journalism and political argument is simply the consequence of the world we live in: no time, no appetite for reading in depth, too much distraction, and who cares? Nobody can be bothered reading a ten-page refutation of a politician's stupid argument: so why not just insult him instead? It's quicker. It gets more hits and likes. More people understand it. It gives instant satisfaction. That's the age we live in. Heinlein used to say: “What are the facts? Again and again and again – what are the facts? […] Get the facts!” In this day and age, the question is not how to get the facts, but to get the “right” facts…

Bottom-Line: I am going to try to give up bullshit now. But first I must quit bullshitting.

NB: I think there is only one solution to this problem: make sure a sufficient number of the population receive an education in enlightenment values. Including such novel things as:

- Absolute truth exists;
- Striving for the truth has intrinsic (and perhaps ultimate) moral virtue;
- Lying & deception is bad;
- Discourse & debate is how to resolve problems;

And I'd add for good measure:

- Life doesn't revolve around politics, go out and have fun.

That's the only way to do this without falling back to some sort of explicit class system which denies the "little people" from political engagement or visibility in the press. We quite correctly realised a wee while ago that such an authoritarian measure is unacceptable. Post-modernism has a lot to answer for.

sexta-feira, abril 13, 2018

We're Trillions of Light-Years from Home: "Lost in Space" (2018) by Netflix

"We're trillions of light-years from home!"

In "Lost in Space" (2018 version)

I've just watched the first episode, but neither this first take nor some misguided people will persuade me that there’ll be much to engage an adult. It looks to me like they passed the show through the usual J.J. Abram Makeover Machine, particularly the robot, who resembles a character from an anime inspired PS4 game. If too many of the scenes are similarly generated in the series, with a constantly floating from point to point camera and the cast digitally comped in to say a few breathy lines whenever we zoom through a window, then I’ll keep getting that feeling I get with many a Netflix original SF creation - that I need to keep my controller to hand for when these overly long and confusing cut scenes end and the Benfica vs. Porto football game starts next Sunday. Yeah, I’ve not got high hopes for it, but it’s not like the original campy nonsense was highly regarded as gritty SF as well. I think the camp/kitsch aspect is what made the original series so popular. Removing that seems like removing the entire soul of the series. It was (after the black&white first series) completely camp and completely kitsch at the time - that was the whole idea. The monster in one of the episodes was a giant carrot for goodness' sake. The mid-60s (1966 to be precise) is well documented as when the mainstream suddenly cottoned on to the idea of camp (Susan Sontag having been the first to pin down what it was in her "Notes on Camp" a couple of years before). "Batman" led the way and is (along with the increasingly outlandish "Avengers") the best and funniest example, but other shows like "Lost in Space" seized on the sudden popularity of "so bad it's good" as an excuse to not even try to be good when they could attract millions of viewers by being conspicuously terrible.

What about this 2018 foray? All that future technology and they're still lost? Obviously didn't get 'lifetime maps'. Fortunately Zuckerberg knows where they are... This show doesn't look like it's going to contribute anything new - it's just trading on the name of the original while throwing out everything that was unique and great about it. The original was made at roughly the same time as Star Trek and could certainly have looked more convincing / high tech than it did - there was a conscious decision to give it a B-movie aesthetic (with most of the weekly monsters being actors in funny outfits) and the robot may look cheaply made but it was actually beautiful (particularly in the black and white seasons), not something that can be said of the new 'robot'. And the original had a member of the Robinson family who had been a member of the von Trapp family in the Sound of Music for crissake!! I know which of the two shows people will be watching on You Tube or its equivalent in thirty years time (clue: not the re-boot).

Bottom-line: This is not SF!! It's "Neighbours in Space". Do the robots have children together ? Do they survive on minimum wage working as cleaners? Rather a robot than another Tom Cruise clone...I reckon we won't properly explore space until we've really fucked up this planet and then we (as in wealthy people) need to escape in a spaceship leaving a sweet robot to clean up the planet of course who listens to old Louis Armstrong songs and falls in love with another robot. That's my original idea. Nobody better steal it.

Bottom-line II: In the trailer the mother, presumably a scientist, yells, "We're trillions of light-years from home!" WTF?? The entire visible universe has a diameter of roughly 34 billion (with a "b") light-years. If one could, somehow, travel trillions of light-years from Earth one would be in an alternate universe, one in which the laws of physics as we know them would most likely not apply (being outside the smoothing effect of the inflationary period which gave us uniform physics). How can I watch a show which would make such an egregious error? And right after Hawking died! Insult to injury. But someone from the audience reading this post exclaims: "It's okay Manuel; in the next episode it's revealed that the mother in fact suffers from a speech impediment which causes her to substitute a 't' for a 'b' ". The show is set very far in the future. Presumably the set of accepted 'scientific facts' at that time will be at least as widely divergent from the current set of accepted scientific facts as the current set is from the set in existence about 200 years ago. But if you can't agree with this, then fuck it: it's really just a stupid TV programme meant to entertain some people. Don't get too hung up on trainspotter ephemera." Of course this person from the audience said "scientific facts," which is much broader than physics. I used to have a biology textbook from the early 20th century. It was full of interesting "facts" like masturbation being a cause of insanity. One can feel superior reading things like that, but that book made me think about how people hundreds of years from now might read science textbooks from the early 21st century and shake their heads and laugh...Oh well...

Bottom-line III: "Lost in Space 2018" seems a bit shopworn.  If you're a seasoned SF reader, do not watch this crap. I trained for films like these by watching Star Trek for the last 30 years. There isn't a SF film out there that can out-technobabble Trek. In shows like "Lost in Space" it seems like there will always be a 'singularity' or a tachyon field to be face every second episode, but at least everything isn't resolved in a 'climax' with a sonic sodding screwdriver...Oh no, they do it much more realistically by "reversing the polarity of the warp coils" and if that fails chuck "dilithium" crystals at the problem...Why do I keep on watching crap like this??? I know. Because deep down I want to believe these new SF TV Shows are bringing something new to the such luck!

SF = Speculative Fiction.

terça-feira, abril 10, 2018

milSF Without Story: "Ironclads" by Adrian Tchaikovsky

As a seasoned SF reader, I've always disagree strongly with the assessment of milSF as glorification of war; "The Forever War", after all, betrays the political strand of extreme dubiousness about war that also exists in science fiction, a strand demonstrated also in novels such as John Scalzi's “Old Man's War”, but that could equally be seen in “Veteran” by Gavin Smith (which contains a number of other left-wing themes) and the aforementioned New Model Army by Adam Roberts, which is deeply entrenched in liberal, democratised thinking about war, glorifying it to some extent but also attacking it. The fact is this: milSF has a certain concern, and that isn't to show war in its grand scale and all its effects, but to show it from the perspective, normally, of the troops. Dan Abnett's “Gaunt's Ghosts” is a great example of a series that does this - a Warhammer 40k spinoff series, I might add - without glorifying war as a whole, beyond the fact that certain characters believe in the glory of war; to deny that soldiers may think war is glorious is to simplify it in the exact opposite way that you accuse milSF of doing, but is just as problematic and perilous. That's all just scratching the surface, without looking at the glorification of war in fantasy such as Terry Brooks' “Sword of Shannara” and Markus Heitz' “The Dwarves”, either. War and milSF are not the same. War has been a topic for Story since forever but the mil SF tends to have more weapon, tactics, etc., stuff, I guess. But the way that conflict is treated varies a lot and is more complex than it's been given credit for. A few things: the "military fantasy" that viewers get drawn into in “Battlestar Galactica” IS the fact that only the military can save humanity (as microbes were the saving grace in Well's “War of the Worlds.”) Yeah, civilian government, yada, yada - except one that is mightily curtailed by the state of martial law that's imposed, figuratively if not actually (would have made a much better story if they'd offed the civilians for purported collaboration with the Cylons, imposed full conscription and then all died in the end, lol). There are, it seems to me, two basic strains of military science fiction: that represented by works such as “Forever War”, “Starship Troopers”, “Old Man's War”, “Hammers Slammers”, King David's Spaceship, “Dorsai” and even “Bill, the Galactic Hero”, and those represented by things like Honor Harrington and much of the Baen 'fleet': that difference being that the former concentrate on the human effects of war - which is usually presented as something that has been unwilling imposed on the race, while the latter seem to glory in the technocracy of war. That former type of "military science fiction" is what I personally prefer to read. Every time I read a milSF novel I remember what Disch wrote in his book "The Stuff Our Dreams Are Made Of": “the vile relationship between commercial SF and the military-industrial complex is well covered therein"; Disch approaches the SF work of (amongst others) Newt Gingrich - a truly depressing experience, enlightened by the anecdote about the American general who demanded, on watching “The Empire Strikes Back”, that his weapon designers build him an army of AT-ATs - only to be told to finish watching the sequence as Luke Skywalker drew attention to their weak spot - string around the legs.

NB: The treatment of warfare in fantasy is also interesting. Martin's “Song of Ice and Fire” shows armies of thousands clashing to satisfying 'honour' and political aims rather than any overwhelming threat to anyone's existence, leaving thousands dead, but Martin doesn't let his characters off the hook in evading responsibility. Even his most ruthless general at one point says, in answer to criticism of an assassination he had ordered, "Why is it better to kill forty thousand men on the battlefield rather than a dozen at dinner?" I sometimes wonder if at least one aspect of the critical response to the fourth novel is that Martin isn't showing the swords clashing and arrows flying any more, but instead is showing the shattered landscape, destroyed villages, abandoned refugees and the other inevitable consequences of war, which is simply not as much 'fun'.

Adrian Tchaikovsky does not bring anything new to milSF. The fact that literary SF (at the book stores) continues to decline in terms of sales and market percentage is a clear indication that almost all has already been invented. So, at the same time people like me cheer the kicking-out of the hoary old conservative white hetero male POV, literary SF on the other hand is gradually becoming a niche academic industry with niche academic marketability. While mainstream SF (in the form of movies, comics, and games) continues to go great guns. Perhaps consumers want to be entertained, more than they want to be sermonized? Perhaps if literary SF molded itself more after “STAR WARS 1977” and stopped being so dreary and dyspeptic, going on and on about social criticism, humanities theory, and contemporary pop-angst navel-gazing, the genre wouldn't be contracting? Bold tales, told boldly. That's the stuff, my friends. 31st century Hornblower swinging into action with a laser blaster and a cutlass, a beautiful damsel (also wielding a laser blaster and cutlass) at his side. All else . . . well, again, not everything written will be to every taste. Just don't be surprised if your dreary dyspeptic social studies sermon (disguised as fiction) doesn't blow the doors off at Barnes & Noble. Any sufficiently elaborate story is a product of its time, society and the politics of its author. Clever (and successful) writers know this; they use imagery, dialogue, character names, situations and subtext to tell bigger stories about human exploration or frailty. The writers who fail are the ones who don't put the effort in to add this depth to their stories and simply allow their own convictions to fall into the text unplanned. And so people with a strong religious conviction (but no discipline or editor) might continually write stories about saviours and sacrifice without realising it, and yet they might miss the religious subtext in, for example, The “Green Mile” or “The Day the Earth Stood Still” because they're "just stories."

It's the way these stories relate to daily life that makes them interesting to me. A story without depth is not a story; it’s a plot.

domingo, abril 08, 2018

The Man Flu: "Five to Twelve" by Edmund Cooper

There are undoubtedly many factors that influence the trends revealed by some statistics - social roles, required sustenance levels, lifestyle, physical conflict, sacrifice, etc, as well as the fact that we already know that men have lower life expectancy. Men and women are different, but equal. It's a sad state of affairs when the idea that men die younger is wheeled out with smugness as some kind of victory, complete with a picture of a jubilant old woman (are we supposed to assume that she is specifically laughing about the death of her husband or a close male relative?). I fully and completely acknowledge that women have been, and are being, subjected to terrible treatment due simply to their gender - however I don't think the way to address that issue is to put the boot on the other foot and start kicking the other way instead. (Is the notion that your own husbands, brothers, sons, are going to die statistically younger really something to be triumphalist about? Does that make them weak?) As nice as it may be to get some payback, and I'm not saying that towards a lot of men it isn't deserved, the real problem in our society is that men and women are taught to be opposing sides and are pitted against each other; we are stuck in a conflict of men vs women. It's true that men have traditionally had the upper hand, but (some variants of) feminism seeks only to level the scores, or to give women the upper hand. What really needs to happen is that we end the ridiculous rivalry and work together to make life better for everyone. Let's end the gender pay gap, stop women being treated like objects, end the shaming of women, have women properly represented in our legislature. Let's also address the issue of why most suicides are men, why the majority of homeless people are men, and let's not make it sound like men dying younger is a victory that proves how weak they are, and can be phrased as such in a respected national newspaper. We can do both. Am I being too idealistic? We are socially equal (and that's a good and normal thing), but not biologically equal. We're complementary, that's even better than equal! And that does not imply any judgment of one is better than the other at this or that. I have heard women claim their superiority all my life, while hearing the same from men that we are superior (less so these days, in the climate of political correctness). There is little to indicate that either are right, but each gender seems to cherry pick its 'facts', and believe it fervently. Such are the common failings in every stripe of humanity, with our ability to deceive ourselves. Cooper's book is a good example. If women live a little longer than men at the very end of a human life span, who cares? It does not add anything to society or humanity, to be able to cling on a little longer. That is a hopeless metric to be claiming superiority on. This has been known for centuries. It is also true of other mammal species; every farmer, every breeder of dogs knows that infant mortality among males is higher than among females. The normal excess of women over men in human populations shows that the same is true of us. There is probably an evolutionary reason, dating from long before civilisation, for the difference. While men are stronger (and need to be to hunt, work and fight for their community; speaking for myself, I never hunted, I work my butt off every single day, and I only fight when the need arises...) they are essentially disposable. No lasting harm will be done to the gene pool or the tribe if many of them are wasted in action. Women need to survive; without that, in a generation there will be no family, no tribe or no nation. Accordingly, they have a different hormonal balance (less testosterone and physical aggression for one thing); less muscle but more fat reserves.

In a word: men need to be and to do, and women to do and to be as well.  

I remember reading a long time ago Edmund Cooper's "Five to Twelve", a satire set in the closing years of the 21st Century in which society is controlled by women and men are relegated to servile status. Although comedic, the humour contains serious undertones, especially the division of women into infertile Doms, who govern, and the pitiful Infras, who are little more than baby factories. Written in the late sixties, it is an obvious reaction to the Women's Liberation movement, but I find some of the arguments still resonate today, especially the concept that modern feminism is targeted for the benefit of a certain "class" of women. Of course, it is written by a man, and his sympathies reside mostly with the male protagonist, the Sport Quern, but it is surprisingly empathic towards both the Dom who he is compelled to pleasure, and the Infra who he impregnates so the Dom can have a child. A dystopian future with (some) women "on top"? I can't determine whether it really is anti-feminist or simply a comedic warning of the perils of "wanting it all". I think (given when it was written) it is not anti-feminist as such - but rather uses the inversion to advance women's rights...

NB: Basic genetics lesson. Females have two X chromosomes and males only one. (Note that Y chromosomes barely contain any genes.) This creates the advantage of genetic redundancy. Obviously this means men suffer from more X-chromosome related diseases, like colour blindness. But on a much broader scale, where multiple genes are interacting, it can be expected that two X chromosomes will have other advantages. This means, males by having only one X chromosome, help to strengthen the pool of X chromosomes available to females. This is selection at work. If a male survives birth, becomes strong, healthy and fertile with only one good X chromosome, then it might be worth breeding with him. 

Bottom-line: Men just get on with it. Except for when they have the flu. Exactly WHAT do men 'get on with'? Life. Fucking everything up mainly. The man flu: it's a cold. Women must be stronger because they never seem to get ManFlu either.  It's a condition invented by advertisers to make women think they need to buy Lemsip for their manchild who can't operate a washing machine, cook dinner or change nappies because he's too busy putting his muddy boots on the floor or oily hands on the clean towels.

sexta-feira, abril 06, 2018

Ronaldo's WTF Moment: Overhead Goal - Juventus vs. Real Madrid

(7.8 feet; 4.62 feet)

Can’t believe how high he jumped...As the kids say, it was sick!

There’s been many superlatives to describe Ronaldo’s wonder-goal but the one I coined describes it best..It was a “God-goal” If God scored goals they would be like Ronaldo’s. He jumps about 5 feet in the air and picks out a cross about ten yards out, with his back turned to the goal - And Scores. Outrageous... Obscene... If you put that in a comic book it would be universally rubbished as impossible.... infantile fantasy....But no, this is CR7, the game’s greatest ever player who makes the impossible - reality. He defies description and shames all who came before him (*swoon*)

But it is impossible to like him unless you are a) a Man U fan, b) a Real fan, c) Sporting Fan, d) Portuguese, e) a lover of narcissists or f) hate Messi/Barcelona/Argentina. Anyone see his narcissism-for-the-ages documentary? I was nauseous. And that was his film, he thought it made him look good; g) if you hate the creepy Ronaldo's statue at Madeira airport. Bottom-line: he's so good that it's hard to dislike him despite his narcissism. Yes, he's a pompous so-and-so. Yes, he's an incredibly selfish player. But when he scores goals like that, all is forgiven in my mind. Horrible man, great footballer (*ruffle-his-hair*). You don't have to like him as a person to appreciate and enjoy his talent. The same happens with the some writers. Horrible persons, but wonderful writers (Hamsun, Golding, Ezra Pound, etc.)

NB: It was an insane, wtf moment; remember where you were; goal for the ages. Juve fans’ reaction was sensational and elevated the moment. Ronaldo is a superb goal scorer and possibly the best footballer to score goals ever.

For more wtf moments: