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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Seems legit.......

Just Couldn’t Finish Reading: Stars and Stripes Forever by Harry Harrison (FP: 1998)

As my regular readership will know it’s a rare thing indeed that I don’t finish a book once started. After 40+ years of I’ve normally weeded out anything that I don’t think I’d read long before it appears in my hand. Not so in this case. On the face of things it was going to be at least readable. It’s by a famous (and actually very good) classic SF author. It’s about an Alternate US Civil War and it’s the first book in a trilogy published over 10 years ago. So, it should be fine……

It’d actually been on my shelf for a bit because I’d heard rumours that it wasn’t very good, but as I was reading a whole bunch of alt-history stuff I thought why not. It certainly had a fairly interesting idea behind it. US Civil War starts, Britain backs the South, British ship is bordered by a US warship, diplomatic row ensues, row goes deeper, and war breaks out between US and British Empire.

I started having misgivings from early on. The characterisation was pretty lame for one thing. The Southerners where either stupid or evil or stupid and evil whilst the Northerners where honourable, wise if a bit na├»ve and too nice for their own good. The British where arrogant fools full of their own self-importance who were too short sighted and selfish (to say nothing of money grabbing) to see the North’s cause as a just a true one. You see where I’m going with this….? The icing on the cake which transformed itself into the nail in the coffin was the portrait of Queen Victoria as a raving nut-job and deeply hysterical woman. Now I’d be the first to admit that I’m not an expert on this period of British history but most of it appeared less than true to the facts. Reading about the series once I abandoned this book I must say that I am so grateful that I hadn’t wasted the money on the next two books. I think that reading how the plucky United States took on and defeated the combined forces of the Confederacy, the French and the British Empire would have probably had me tearing my hair out and foaming at the mouth! Fortunately my sanity survived by throwing the book on the floor in disgust around page 70.

Taking into account that this was by one of my favourite SF authors who was partially responsible for getting me into the genre in the first place this was a huge disappointment. Save your money, time and sanity by avoiding this junk.  

Monday, July 28, 2014

Thinking About: The Way Things Are

I’m just coming to the end of reading a bunch of Alternate History books (one in the review pile, surprisingly unfinished, and one more to finish off in the next few days). Alt-History is a sub-genre of SF dealing with the possibility of historical events happening differently which usually produces a radically different ‘present’ often with historical figures we recognise in very different situations. It’s always good for speculation and, as you should know by now, I do love to speculate about things. But this time I’m not going to think about what might have been but what was and, more importantly, what is. The question is: Why are things the way they are? Or why is the world the way it is rather than some other way?

Let’s start by eliminating things so we can hone in on the nub of the issue. Does the world have to be this way? Could it have been any different? I think the obvious answer to that is yes it could have been different. If different things had happened in the past, battles won or lost, people living or dying or never being born, things could have been very different. That’s certainly one thing that alt-history (and the supposedly more academic Counterfactual Studies) shows us. If things had happened differently in the past then the present would have been different. So much is obvious. I think it follows therefore that the present is not the result of a Plan nor is it the result of Destiny or Historical Inevitability. History flows but it does not flow in prescribed paths. Like a river it meanders, crosses its own path, doubles back, and basically flows both where it can and where it will. History is a force but, like Evolution, it is an unguided force. Those in the past (and the present no doubt) who try to personally force History into a certain path are usually crushed by that particular juggernaut unless they give up in understandable frustration beforehand. Things can change, don’t misunderstand me on that point, but you could probably count the number of individuals who radically changed the course of history on the fingers of both hands. Influence is certainly possible (actually inevitable) but that level of change is a rare beast I think and, actually, that’s probably a good thing considering the effects of grand historical changes! So, if things can be different, why are things the way they are? To put it bluntly, why aren’t things better than they are? Why do we still have wars, genocides, death and destruction on a frightening scale? Why do we still have poverty, disease, disorder, crime? Why are things that are out of control not under control? If things are not as they must be then why are they not as they could be? I think there are four main factors in play here: Geography, Accident, Mistake and Choice.

By Geography I mean the base physical level we have to deal with – the world we are born into. There are places with abundant natural resources and those with few or none. Some places are prone to floods, droughts, hurricanes, earthquakes whilst some are quiescent. Some places, known throughout history because battles are continually fought there, are on choke points or natural avenues of invasion. The Chinese would, no doubt, call them ‘interesting’ places. Others seem as if nature has conspired to make them difficult in extreme to take by force. All of these factors and more deeply affect the histories of the people in these places. Accidents of geography and accidents of birth are difficult to overcome, sometimes very difficult.

Accidents happen. Some are predictable, some are avoidable, some can be mitigated against and some just have to be lived with. We can reduce the effect of them once they happen. We can try and reduce their incidence through training, awareness and flexible thinking but I doubt if they can ever be eliminated. Some points of history pivot on accidents where some take advantage of a sudden unexpected occurrence where others are stumped or react far too slowly if at all. Wars have been won and lost, empires have fallen and people’s lives changed forever because of accidents. It is always something that should be kept in mind.

It goes almost without saying that humans make mistakes – to err is very much to be human. Some mistakes are simple others more complex. Mistakes happen because of lack of attention, distraction, poor or no information, haste, stupidity, ideological blindness and a hundred other reasons. History is full of minor and monumental mistakes that have shaped the times we live in. Imagine if some of the mistakes you know of, or those you have made yourself or seen others make, had not happened. Without them we might be living in a very different world.

Finally we come to choice. As Neo said to the Architect in The Matrix Reloaded the problem is choice. It seems to be that choice is at the heart of the question of why the world is this way. Without a Plan, without Destiny we are left with choice. Basic geography does not determine history, accidents influence history but do not drive it, mistakes likewise impact on histories flow but do not govern it. The force behind history, as far as I can tell, is choice. The world is the way it is because of our choices. Each day billions of people make choices in their lives. Most are minor, some are major, and some affect history much more than others. People with more influence, in effect more power, have a greater impact on things with the choices they make. But when it comes down to it the world is this way because we choose it to be this way. The world is like this because we, as a species, want it to be like this. In the end it’s all about choice.

Can the world be different? Of course it can. Can the world be a better place? Of course it can. Can we eliminate war, poverty, disease, ignorance, crime and the seemingly numberless problems we are beset with on this small blue dot? Of course we can. These things do not exist by fate and are not here because they are destined to be here. Some exist because of accidents but accidents can be coped with. Some are here because of mistakes but mistakes can be avoided or rectified. Most I think are here by choice. We choose to do something or choose not to. Sometimes we make bad choices or choices with poor or misleading information. Sometimes we are forced into making choices between the lesser of two evils and sometimes we are simply too tired, too distracted or too angry to make good choices and so choose badly. If we want a better world for ourselves and our children we need to make much better choices. It’s really as simple and as complex as that. Our choices have made the world the way it is and our choices can, if we choose well, make a better world too. Choose wisely.      

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Thinking About: Rationality

I was reading a BBC Magazine article a few days ago where a famous contrarian philosopher stated that not only are humans a deeply irrational species but that the idea of us being another other than irrational is deeply irrational in itself. Whilst I agree with his proposition – that humans are, pretty much by definition, irrational I do not agree with his conclusion.

It is hard to argue with the demonstrable fact that humans do things, say things and propose things that are irrational. We only have to pick up a newspaper, watch the news or observe people around us to understand that. But let’s think about that brute fact a bit more before we write ourselves off. Are, for instance, all people equally irrational? Are they simply irrational in different ways or are there actually individual differences in levels of rationality (how you would accurately measure something like that is beyond me). Now it’s pretty obviously that there are a small number of people who are very, very irrational. We normally label these people bat-shit crazy. One the other end of the scale are a very small number of people who are seemingly very, very rational. We normally also label these people bat-shit crazy, just in a different way. The word Sociopath comes to mind here. But beyond these two extremes live the rest of us distributed along a graph from barely rational (but not crazy) to barely irrational (but not crazy). The majority of people will fit somewhere in the middle with a good mixture of both rational and irrational elements. I like to think of myself, of course, on the more rational side of the graph but readily recognise that I’ve done plenty of irrational things in my time and will probably do plenty more given the opportunity. I do, however, try to be as rational as I can be. I’ll let others judge how successful I am in that regard!

I’m confident that you’ll agree that some people are, generally speaking, more rational than others. I also think that even the most irrational amongst us (outside of the crazy groups) can have rational episodes lasting minutes, hours or even days at a time. Of course those at the other end of the spectrum can have irrational episodes too. In fact it’s arguable that a completely rational (but not crazy) creature would struggle to be labelled human. At least that’s my impression. Irrationality does, at least in some sense, helps define our humanity in often interesting ways. But if we, as a species, are inherently irrational, does that mean we are designed that way by our very DNA? Is that why, not matter how we try to train our minds to be more rational we still act irrationally from time to time. Is it because our genes tell us to act irrationally? Until very recently that would have been the end of the argument. Genes trump minds QED. That was then, this is now.

We’ve been interfering with Natural Selection long before recorded history through selective breeding of plant and animal species. It was always a rather hit and miss process until the actual mechanism of inheritance was discovered, increasingly understood and now, rather crudely so far, manipulated to a much higher degree than our ancestors could have imagined. Today in the early 21st Century we are not too far away from manipulating our own species genome with confidence. With that being the case then isn’t it in our grasp (sooner rather than later) to discover the combination of genes that, apparently, build in irrationality and modify or even eliminate them? Could we get to a point where we could design babies that are appreciably, significantly, more rational than their parents and can pass on this extra rationality to their offspring. Over the generations it’s entirely possible that the general level of rationality in our species would slowly increase. As our power in the genetics lab increases with our understanding we could fine-tune human rationality to its optimum level, not too much but enough to get over our more irrational impulses. Would that make it a better world? I have no idea. Views of better or worse are often deeply subjective (or irrational). From our own perspective a much more rational world might seem like a soulless nightmare. From the perspective of its future inhabitants it might seem like perfection.