Archive for the ‘books’ Category
(Image courtesy of Mingle2‘s Blog Rating Tool.)
Why? They’re doing some keyword matching, and the reason given was:
- bomb (4x)
- dangerous (2x)
- drugs (1x)
All the “bomb” references must be those in my recent post slagging off the bombers, which was about another plot to bomb London, after the July 2005 bombings. Indeed, the front page (today) has two uses of the word “dangerous”: the first examining the risks of capture that terrorists expose themselves to, in their drive to publicise their acts; the other was regarding the religious indoctrination of children.
The drugs? Well, if I’ve passed all the tests, I will be engaged in a trial of a new Multiple Sclerosis therapy, FTY720 (fingolimod). I also have some other plans in the pipeline, but (like the trial) it’s too soon to talk about them here.
The trial is an unnecessary risk, strictly speaking, as are my other plans; way to live dangerously, dude! I don’t believe I say anything here that is unsuitable for kids, but then I wasn’t brought up in the USA, where kids would grow up totally unprepared for the real world, if their parents had their way. (Not that they always do – YouTube has many examples of failures of parental control.)
No, I’m British, from a previous generation, and all is not lost there, either. This year, the winner of the prestigious Galaxy Book Of The Year Prize was The Dangerous Book for Boys; designed to get them out from behind their computer games and out in to the world, climbing trees, fighting battles, falling into streams, and generally acting like healthy boys should. The book has just been released in the USA, with some modifications: baseball instead of cricket, General Grant instead of Lord Nelson, etcetera.
Can you tie a Reef knot? I can, but that’s about all I remember about knots. A Bowline was about as far as I got, and (I recall) the Sheepshank defeated me utterly. Granny knots, on the other hand, are not a problem.
I’m back from London, a trip that finally allowed me to finish The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Airport lounges and the flights themselves were enough for me to put a major dent in it, with only a little left to finish this morning.
The book got a little heavy-going around the middle, but opened up nicely after that, and far more of it is positive and practical than the iconoclastic title would have you believe. It is more of a personal statement by the author than his previous scientific books, but I knew that going in, so the occasional lump of loaded langauge was to be expected.
The heading on this post is my attempt to summarise my position on religion in to a pithy soundbite – a take on “Think Global – Act Local”. I found myself fully in agreement the Isaac Asimov quote that I used here before, which says what I have been saying for years, but more effectively. Prof. Dawkins touches on this in the GD book, under “The Poverty of Agnosticism”: the way I see it, Agnosticism is acceptable as a philosophical proposition, but it just doesn’t cut the mustard in today’s world, where taking a neutral position is seen as passivity, a sign of weakness, a chink in the armour to be exploited by those with strong theocratic agendas they can enact without opposition.
The metaphorical door that could lead to belief in a God or Gods is closed, but not locked. It won’t be falling open by itself, no matter how hard the wind blows. If some agent is intelligent enough to figure out the handle, I will welcome it in for a cup of tea and a chat, but I’m not going to hang around waiting. I have things to do, and I’m going to get on with them.
However, there are dogs at the door: their howling is annoying, they are crapping on my doorstep, attacking my cats and stealing my chickens. I would like to be left alone, but I’m not being allowed to do my work. So: they should not be surprised when I open the door with a shotgun in my hand, and pepper them with rock salt.
I’ve seen some highly complex epistemological arguments about all the relationship between the concepts of Agnosticism and Atheism, but if we’re going to make any impact on the general population, the ones who don’t read Newsweek or The Grauniad, we need a Tabloid headline. I concede that Think Agnostic – Act Atheist might be a bit much, since it assumes people understand those respective concepts, but it’s something..?
Ever since my last boyfriend tried to kill himself, robbed a store, and shot at a guy, before disappearing off the face of the earth, (Mom) wants to meet everyone I date.
Claire Fisher, in Six Feet Under, inviting her new boyfriend to Christmas dinner. I’m halfway through Series 2, and eventually expect to see it through to the end, in Series 5. I already know how it will end but, as a self-professed connoisseur of Black Humour, I have to say this is about as good as it gets on TV. It helps that it was made by HBO, the cable-only TV channel in the US, who don’t have to answer to the FCC Broadcast regulations, any more than they did with Sex and the City.
More black humour arrived yesterday in the form of a book, Blood, Sweat & Tea, created from the author’s blog, Random Acts Of Reality. It’s quite hair-raising stuff, based on the author’s daily work as an Emergency Medical Technician in Newham, London. I’m only about 1/5 of the way through it, and the author has already had a HIV-positive patient blow chunks in to his mouth, necessitating two months of “prophylaxis”. So far it appears that most ambulance calls are the result of age, alcohol, and a surprising number of people in diabetic shock, possibly due to being overweight.
Back in the Fisher family funeral home, meanwhile, Christmas dinner is a non-starter: besides Mrs. Fisher’s employer Nikolai, stuck there with two broken legs and a lot of painkillers, there’s a biker funeral that threatens to go on all night, complete with airbrushed casket and cases of JD. What else? Oh yes, it’s the anniversary of the death of Nathaniel Fisher, the first of many cadavers we meet, who refuses to stay down where they put him. Why should he, when there’s so much happening to his family up top? Rest in Peace? Like Hell.
A quote I vaguely remembered, on the importance of imagination, which I finally found the time to look up:
‘Anne and Paul both knew
“How fair the realm
Imagination opens to the view,”
and both knew the way to that happy land. There the rose of joy bloomed immortal by dale and stream; clouds never darkened the sunny sky; sweet bells never jangled out of tune; and kindred spirits abounded. The knowledge of that land’s geography… “east o’ the sun, west o’ the moon”… is priceless lore, not to be bought in any market place. It must be the gift of the good fairies at birth and the years can never deface it or take it away. It is better to possess it, living in a garret, than to be the inhabitant of palaces without it.’
– Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea
OK, it hardly seems my style, but I read most of the series years ago, and have not forgotten it. Readers focus on the first book, Anne of Green Gables, because of its popularity with girls, but the series follows Anne through adult life, faithfully documenting the late Victorian and Edwardian eras in eastern Canada. At times it touches on real-world politics and changes in society, and even World War I. Two of Anne’s sons go, and only one comes back, the other remaining on the Flanders fields.
As Anne liked to say: there’s scope for imagination in there.
I was asked, today, what I thought of the first Narnia film, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I read the book many years ago, and remember finding it bizarre and clumsy. What was the problem? Isn’t it a classic? I only figured it out recently, in the publicity haze surrounding the film release. I haven’t seen the film, and have no intention of doing so now – the book was enough.
The book is based on some fairly explicit Christian imagery, and was written by a devout Christian. CS Lewis, the author, found Christianity after talks with his friend JRR Tolkien, who went on to write The Lord Of The Rings. Yet Tolkien disapproved of what Lewis was doing in his books: why? The problem as I understand it, was that Tolkien objected to the clumsily explicit Christian references and that Lewis targeted his books at children. I’m fully in agreement with this, and strongly believe that children should not be exposed to religion until they are old enough to understand what they are getting in to. I’ve seen no indication that the film reverses this – quite the contrary.
I’m aware that Lewis said that that was not the intention when he started writing – see Wikipedia – but he did not fight his impulse to evangelise as he went on, in my opinion. Today, fundamentalist Christians, especially in the USA, see the film as an opportunity to “spread the word”. References: here, here, here, here. That didn’t really happen with other films that used bits of Christian mythology – for example, the “One” references in The Matrix were never taken as seriously as this is being taken, and The Lord Of The Rings has few clear references evangelists to hang their hats on, despite Book 3 being named The Return Of The King. I could mention Star Wars too – Anakin Skywalker was a “virgin birth” for all the good that did him in the end.
But I’m not alone in being annoyed at all this: see here, here, here. I know several religious people, and I don’t mind using words like “God”, “Christian” and “Christmas” in the relevant context – but I’m saddened when they drag kids to church/mosque/temple before they are old enough to decide for themselves what is believable, and what is fantasy.
I could not let this “backdoor evangelism” happen without remarking on it. I consider Narnia backdoor evangelism in sugar-coated form, just like the Turkish Delight that was the price paid for Aslan’s life in the book.
In case there was any doubt about CS Lewis’ intentions, here’s a quote from his authorised biographer George Sayer , from the following CBN article:
But the author almost certainly did not want his readers to notice the resemblance of the Narnian theology to the Christian story. His idea, as he once explained to me, was to make it easier for children to accept Christianity when they met it later in life. He hoped that they would be vaguely reminded of the somewhat similar stories that they had read and enjoyed years before. “I am aiming at a sort of pre-baptism of the child’s imagination.”
I’ve just taken part in the WritersWeekly.com’s 24-Hour Short Story Contest, writing just under 1,000 words on the topic listed on that page. I may post my story to this site once the judging is over, which should take about a month.
Since I’m studying Japanese language and culture, I tried to follow the “write what you know” idea: the topic sent me to a beach on Okinawa, a popular holiday destination that was once a war zone. An average granny takes a dip in the ocean one sunny morning, only to find her buried past reaching out for her.
I found myself staying relatively close to the prescribed topic, which should be a good thing; I suspect other entrants might get a little frustrated with its restrictions and stray too far from it, trying to be excessively clever. I would have done the same years ago, but this time I hope I found an emotional connection with the topic, and created one decent character from it, a grandmother with a past she kept from her own family.
A couple of very unproductive days later, much of it spent reading Teeth Of The Tiger by Tom Clancy. Now I’ve finished it, it’s clear that it’s only the first part of what will be a longer saga, involving Jack Ryan Jr., the son of the main character of most of Clancy’s previous books. In Executive Orders, Ryan Sr. had promulgated the Ryan Doctrine, which indicated that the enemies of the USA will not be safe anywhere in the world, and underlined that with a missile strike on an Iraqi cleric. Teeth Of The Tiger is the continuation of the same policy, but by other means entirely, in the form of a “black” organization operating without congressional or presidential oversight. Set up by Ryan Sr just before leaving office, its existence is unknown to the current president. They are party to the intelligence gathered by other agencies, and use that to fund their operations, but the downside is that they can not call on any other material resources.
If anything, the events of the past few years must seem liberating to an author like Clancy; it’s now a decade since he suggested that an airliner can become a weapon of mass destruction – you have to wonder just who was paying attention to the fictional ending to Debt Of Honor – but reality has since blown past many of his maddest ideas.. The Cold War is over, the enemies of the USA don’t play by any civilized rules, so the gloves are off. It’s not all gung-ho, however, and Teeth Of The Tiger is replete with philosophical musings on the legality and morality of the path followed by the new black organization. At one point Jack Jr. even has the sense to ask “what if I become like them?“, and doesn’t have a neat answer to that question. Does he finds out later? We’ll see.
I spent too long in and around London today, so I got to the hotel later, and more tired, than I would have liked to. I decided to skip the Terry Pratchett Fan Meet, which would have been a bit much to tackle without a chance to rest first. Now I’m on the Docklands Light Railway heading back into London, for a little late-night shopping.
Besides, I was having second thoughts about the Meet. Gatherings of strangers can be incredibly awkward, even with a common discussion topic, and I’m always aware that I’m not actually needed there. It can be difficult for an outsider to participate in some tightly-focused groups at all, when conversations are founded on a common subtext or back-story that you are not privy to. I’ve been guilty of doing that on occasion, when the subjects relate to computers and/or music.
I did get a chance to play with the Alesis Micron today, and I think I will probably pick one up on Monday. It’s small but well-built, the user interface is the best I’ve seen on a synthesizer anywhere near this tiny, and I have only enjoyed a small taste of the sonic potential so far. This is also one of the rare occasions when the staff in the store – Brixton Exchange Mart, Hammersmith branch – helped me make a purchasing decision: they could hardly have been nicer and more helpful, even pre-empting some questions, and happy to chat away about music in general.
I couldn’t count how many times I’ve come back from work, angry at other peoples’ screwups, needing to explain to myself and anyone else who will listen just why I’m so angry and upset. I understand, and so it was my pleasure to help out one of the folks I share a house with, just by being there and listening. It was the kind of preventable snafu that sounds all-too-familiar to me, an example of why I’m considering a move into Management: the realization that I really could do better, despite my lack of formal management training.
On a related topic: last weekend I read Terry Pratchett’s latest book, Going Postal. It concerns a thief and con-man who is appointed to the position of Postmaster General of Ankh-Morpork by a scheming Patrician. He’s only the fifth Postmaster General to hold the post in as many weeks, the previous incumbents suffering mysterious demises. The new PG, who goes by the unfortunate name of Moist von Lipwig, takes over as manager of the Ankh-Morpork Central Post Office and its motley crew, watched over by his Golem parole officer, whose motto is “You Can’t Run And You Can’t Hide”.
Much of the story is allegorical and loosely related to real-world events, mostly questions of corporate scandals and privatization in the UK. I didn’t find it quite as absorbing and resonant as Night Watch, which I read last year, but still excellent overall. One to read again, for sure.
On the bus back to London; the Rush Stalker Tour is already officially over, since the organisers are not with us, they’re heading back north to Yorkshire.
A worthwhile trip overall, plenty of good music and time to think. Now I have two days in London, with the prospect of movies and PC shopping. The city may still be in an uproar after yesterday’s shocking scenes surrounding the Parliament vote on fox-hunting. I don’t plan to go anywhere near Whitehall, of course.
I made what I think is a major breakthrough in the story I’m working on: I can use some of my recent experiences in Dubai to close a glaring hole in the plot, and use Dubai’s unusually critical position to give things an edge. By position I mean more than the physical, but also the political situation. The UAE has many of the hallmarks of a democracy, but is actually a monarchy, where I can get the characters to make major changes “because the Sheikh says so”. This gives my main character a diplomatic challenge to tackle.
When I heard about GMail, the new email service from Google. It didn’t seem that relevant to me, since I moved to the Spamcop service last year, since the spam (spam, spam, spam, spam) on my previous email.com account was totally out of control. (For at least the last year, I had to mark all mail for deletion, then un-mark the few that I might actually want to read. Forwarding all that mail to my work address was totally out of the question.)
Yesterday, on a whim, I put a request up on gmailswap.com, and had a response in a few minutes. I’ve agreed to send a small Irish souvenir to North Carolina. At least, I think it’s North Carolina, since I don’t have my correspondent’s address yet, but she has a publicly accessible website, like mine, complete with a weblog and photos. So I’m happy that I’m dealing with a real person who will keep up her end of the bargain, and she can feel the same about me, since we both have virtual reputations at stake here.
The way GMail has been launched, as an invitation-only public beta test, has revived debate in the USA and elsewhere about the idea of reputation and reliability in the online world. There have been several attempts to codify shch a thing and get a head start, but none have been truly successful so far. I took a look at two on Friday: Friendster and Orkut.
Friendster is a self-registration service: it asks for a bunch of demographic and marketing information from you, and also the names and contact details of friends you wish to register with the service. It supposedly operates on the “friend of a friend” idea, to offer a trail of friendship or reputation that (supposedly) guarantees a bit more than you would get from a total stranger. Orkut, however, is invitation-only, a closed community developed by and named after a Google employee. I only heard about it thanks to a warning on GMailSwap, that Orkut invitations were not permitted for exchange for a GMail invitation. It aims to maintain that elusive aloofness, out of reach of the average wannabe.
In both cases, it is not at all clear what I would get in return for the handing over of valuable personal information that would turn me in to a target market. Even something as simple as my GMAT results have alredy been spread around the world: I have emails asking me to consider taking a MBA in Singapore. So, I won’t be signing up for one of these services, I am already spread thinly enough, thank you. As I’ve noted recently, I don’t need to reach out to internet strangers: I fight to keep them from kicking my front door down.
Cory Doctorow’s novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which you can also download and read, uses a system called “whuffie” as a measure of a person’s worth that has crossed over from the virtual world to the real world. Anyone can “ping your whuffie” and get an instant measure of your worth, a worth not acquired financially, but through good and useful actions. Just how much an action is worth is not specified; it appears to be ad-hoc or collectively bargained. When your whuffie runs out, whether it’s your fault or not, well, that’s where the Down and Out part of the title came from.
The idea of whuffie is attractive, on the one hand, as a more meritocratic measure of worth, one not tied to physical assets directly; indirectly, of course, the greater your physical assets, the better you can help others. The drawback, from my viewpoint, is the way it ties you to other people; not just friends and acquaintances, but random strangers. Like the novel’s protagonist, you can find yourself and your livelihood at the mercy of irrationality and whims, or even political manoeuvring.
I hesitate to mantion Ayn Rand in this blog, in case Google marks it down as another “Randroid” site, but I have to agree with an important point she made about Civilization:
Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.
— The Fountainhead (1943)
Today, rightly or wrongly (a personal value judgement), worldly success is measured financially, and if I had the money, I would live in a penthouse or secluded mansion. People who enjoy that luxury today have largely cut themselves off from society; but not totally. They can decide to go and take part in society, and dictate the terms on which they do so, knowing who their friends really are. I must not be a Socialist, then, since I find that prospect thoroughly appealing, and I have long been making choices about who I associate with, within the limits imposed by my circumstances. (Consider it a compliment – or vice versa!)
I am not much of a Rand scholar, and have read only bits of her work, but controversy is never far away when you mention her. Part of the confusion, to me, seems to stem from the apparent hypocrisy in putting forth a comprehensive philosophical position, but one that encourages people to think for themselves, even if means rejecting her philosophy. Yet, at one point, her ideas were striking enough to capture the attention of Hollywood, who turned The Fountainhead into a film staring Gary Cooper. I have a book called The Ayn Rand Reader, an anthology of her writing, which I have read only bits of, but in picking it up today, I went straight to the end, to a reply to a fan letter in 1971:
I hope that you will understand and accept my philosophy fully and—if I understand you correctly—that you will never give up the values you had once held.
You ask me about the meaning of the dialogue on page 702 of Atlas Shrugged:
‘We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?’ she whispered.
‘No, we never had to.’
Let me begin by saying that this is perhaps the most important point in the whole book … the conviction that joy, exaltation, beauty, greatness, heroism, all the supreme, uplifting values of man’s existence here on earth, are the meaning of life — not the pain or ugliness he may encounter — that one must live for the sake of such exalted moments as one may be able to achieve or experience, not for the sake of suffering — that happiness matters, but suffering does not — that no matter how much pain one may have to endure, it is never to be taken seriously, that is: never to be taken as the essence and meaning of life — that the essence of life is the achievement of joy, not the escape from pain.
Why does that resonate with me? Because “escape from pain” alone doesn’t actually contribute anything to your life, or the lives of others, does it? I don’t mean physical pain: you can take painkillers for that. But what about existential pain? The feeling that your whole life is in an injured state? The direct escapes from such pain are negative: drugs, alcohol, suicide. But you can work on your pain by looking outside yourself, helping others. Life doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game: we can choose to make more of it, a decision only we, individually, can make. It won’t happen naturally – evolution favours only the best, brightest and most privileged – you must do it your self. Just watch out for those waiting to take advantage of your optimism..!
Looking back at the above model, something else just occurred to me: the original four- or seven-layer models were formulated for computer communication, but they have clearly-defined limits: past the highest layer of abstraction, the assumption is that further computation and communication tasks are handled by people. How valid will this assumption be in the future?
I haven’t gone any deeper into layer eight, asking just what functions the individual performs, since that could fall into the field of psychology, but one factor stands out to me: the ability to ask questions. We people currently define the problems that we use computers to try to solve, but will there be a time when computers fulfil that layer eight function too? This is a factor in much science fiction, of course, the most obvious negative example I can think of right now being The Terminator and sequels. There, when the “SkyNet” computer network becomes self-aware, it takes that question-asking role away from its human masters and defines “The Problem” in its own terms, with disastrous consequences for humankind.
In Dial F for Frankenstein (abridged version here), first published in 1965, Arthur C Clarke toyed with the idea of the world’s phone and network systems forming a self-aware network consciousness, not one with malevolent intent, but one no less dangerous for all that. The idea of a global computer network was hardly new – an obvious application for Clarke’s geosynchronous satellite system – but it’s spooky to see just how comfortable he was with the idea, years before the first Arpanet experiments.
Clarke excelled in framing mind-boggling concepts in down-to-earth ways: in this story, twelve hours after all the phones in the world ring for no reason, and the computer networks go berserk, a group of tired Post Office engineers head for lunch in a greasy spoon cafe, to try to puzzle out what is happening, while the world’s technology falls apart around them. One even hits on the idea of a newly-formed network consciousness, to the scepticism of the others:
‘No-one answered the question I had asked before Jim came in,’ complained Reyner. ‘What would this supermind actually do? Would it be friendly – hostile – indifferent? Would it even know that we exist? Or would it consider the electronic signals it’s handling to be the only reality?’
‘I see you’re beginning to believe me,’ said Williams, with a certain grim satisfaction. ‘I can only answer your question by asking another. What does a newborn baby do? It starts looking for food.’ He glanced up at the flickering lights. ‘My God,’ he said slowly, as if a thought had just struck him. ‘There’s only one food it would need: electricity.’
‘This nonsense has gone far enough,’ said Smith. ‘What the devil’s happened to our lunch? We gave our orders twenty minutes ago.’
Everyone ignored him.
‘And then,’ said Reyner, taking up where Williams had left off, ‘it would start looking around, and stretching its limbs. In fact, it would start to play, like any growing baby.’
‘And babies break things,’ said someone softly.
Clarke’s stories rarely have clichéd happy endings.