Thursday, May 31, 2007

Monday, May 28, 2007

Piracy: It's a CRIME!

If you'd be thinking that I was talking about internet piracy...

Ya be mistaken. I be talking "Yo-ho-ho, a Pirate's life for me"—for last night I went to see Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, the final episode in the trilogy.

If you be thinking now that I'm going to do a review with lots of spoilers....

I say, there be far too many reviews of it already—and why add another drop to the ocean, another grain of sand to a desert, another breath to the hurricane, another spark to the fire, another pirate to crew of the Flying Dutchman? Suffice to say, that I thoroughly enjoyed it, its dark undertone and the ironic symmetries. Really, it wasn't for kids, but more for young adults, by which I mean adults young at heart.

Went to see it in the evening, at 1930h. It clocked in at about three hours, which meant it wasn't done until 2230h. Three hours of incessant action and movement, images and sounds. When I came out of it, into a quiet 2230h Dunedin Monday night—it gets kinda quiet on Mondays at that time—it had a surreal quality about it. The reasons came to me immediately, and they had to do not only with the fact of the almost sudden quietness, but also with two important visual dissonances between movie world and urban reality world.

For in the movie there wasn't really a straight line in sight—except in a few instances, when it actually stood out. Nor was most motion smooth and even—again, except in a few instances where it stood out. But in the quiet evening of Dunedin, despite the trees on the Octagon, just about everything consisted of shapes delimited by straight lines, with maybe a few rounded corners and that was that. And the traffic flowed smoothly, and besides, cars on paved roads/streets tend to be confined at least in one dimension to what approximates a straight line closely enough. In addition, the view was clear enough, as it often is in Western style cities, and straight lines were visible over sufficient stretches, if you will, to make them the most prominent feature aspects of environmental design.

The same went for the sounds. Hans Zimmer et al's unrelenting film score contrasted with the comparatively even, you might say predictable to the brink of 'boringly so', sounds of a basically sleepy small city.

And there was something else, something more subtle and not directly visual, and it had to do with...well, 'order'; the following of some kind of authority's dictates—in this case the authority of Dunedin's civilized everydayness, and the prescriptions of how things should proceed 'normally'.

Pirates, whoever and whatever they were—and in some places of the world still are, namely thieves, robbers and often murderers—in many ways epitomize anarchy, and therefore just the opposite to what I confronted when stepping outside the cinema. The irony is, of course, that as a society and within their own groupings, pirates are just as authority-ridden as anybody; only the rules are different and enforced in ways not usually applied in 'civilized society'; though one could argue that point, I guess. In PotC (all of them) there was 'The Code', variously interpreted as either just a system of 'guidelines', or else as something of supreme compulsion; depending on how whim and circumstances dictated.

Still, by and large, 'Pirates' are all about thumbing their noses at or actively trying to subvert a system or systems of comparative and usually well-established and often complacent order. Which is, of course, a lot of the attraction of PotC, because the contrast is enhanced and constantly held up for everyone to see. For some of us this is exhilarating. For the likes of me, who always had and continues to have severe 'issues' with any kind of imposed authority—and especially the kind that appears to have little or no or at best contrived merit—it's about the best fun I can have.

Authority is a strange animal, and it's no accident that those who sent Mac and the boys to Tethys were called 'The Authority'. Thin disguise, I know, but so sue me. Every now and then I like to hold things up on placards. But it's always riled me, because from my youngest days—at least those I can recall—my resistance to being told stuff was profound; although I often did do as told, because that tended to lull whatever 'authority' there was into a false sense of security where they would just leave me alone to do things on the sly.

Probably the daftest thing I remember being told when young—and it's even dafter looking at it today—was something that strikes me as archetypically German: In order to issue orders you first have to learn to obey them. If that isn't the most sweeping blanket justification for bossing people around ever, I don't know what is. Maybe 'because God says so' comes close. Maybe. For there are only these basic reasons to follow orders: because a) they are given by someone whose judgment one has reason to trust, b) they are given by someone who will punish you in some way if you don't, c) one has for whatever reason agreed to allow someone to issue orders over oneself, or d) whatever is ordered makes good sense to begin with in one's own judgment.

I have never yet met a person, entitled to actually order me about, to whom (a) applies—except maybe in a very limited context, like when training at the dojo; and even then I have been known to decline compliance with instructions that I thought would, for example, be detrimental in some way to me or others. In normal life, there are shitloads of the (b) type around, from the tax department to employers. The (c) kind is usually found in 'authority' situations, where there are agreed-upon and established command structures that one either volunteers for or gets drafted into; or even if one, say, gets onto a ship or plane, where a procedural command structure is implicitly agreed upon. The (d)-type is just a formality, really; as well as, for some folks, an issue of ego and pride, which sometimes makes them do stupid things when they really know better, just because someone told them what they would have quite sensibly done anyway. Ahh, yes, human nature and all that.

In order to issue orders you first have to learn to obey them.

You know, what really puzzles me about this, is not the issue of its 'validity'. The proposition makes no sense from beginning to end and whichever angle you look at it from. What I do wonder about though are the thought processes and the sets of assumptions required to make someone believe this. Of course, one could just dismiss it as self-serving nonsense. However, I'd like to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume that they actually believe what they're saying and that there's some kind of logical framework behind all this.

Or maybe there really isn't. Maybe why something is being said in this instance really is the determining factor for why it is being believed.


A few days ago, in the streets of Dunedin, I chanced upon someone I've known for a few years now, but hadn't spoken to for quite a while. 30-ish, married recently. He and his wife have started working for an upstart and apparently thriving enterprise engaged in what amounts to data mining and helping those peddling over the internet peddle better and to more people with more efficiency.

To travel about selling (wares): peddling goods from door to door.
To engage in the illicit sale of (narcotics).
To seek to disseminate; give out: peddling lies.
Hawk, huckster, vend, deal (in), handle, market, merchandise, merchant, retail, sell, trade (in), vend, push (e.g. drugs).

Peddling is arguably, together with prostitution, soldiering and story-telling one of the oldest 'professions'. Sometimes I wonder how it started—or when? Does it make any sense thinking about a 'start'? How does one think about these things?

Here's the image. So there's caveman Trog, after being thrown our of his comfy hideout by his mate Trogga, who's trying to nurse a litter of twins, plus trying to stop the first born male offspring from killing his siblings, and finally, with grunts and clicks kicks him out so he can get them a decent feed. There he strolls along, trying to find the spoor of some innocuous animal he can kill without exposing himself to the dangers of dealing with something serious like a wolf or large feline.

Ah, but what is this? A shiny bauble among the roots of a bush. Trog pauses, peers around to see if anybody or anything is watching and picks it up. He rubs off the dirt and ends up with something even shinier. He tries to bite it, to see if it's edible, but it's just a rock, albeit a pretty one. Fascinated with the trinket, Trog doesn't see or hear the rabbit scurrying past within easy reach of his primitive spear. Instead he peers around, to see if there are more of these things. Finding none, he digs and scrapes around with his spear and finally finds some more under the roots of the bush and nearby.

He accumulates a whole bunch of these things, but finally remembers what he was supposed to do. So, being the clever Trog he is, he digs a hole and hides all but one in there, marking the place in his memory for reference and then leaves to continue his interrupted pursuit.

In the distance appears another hunter: a certain 'Grunt', who lives with a small clan of two other males and a bunch of eleven females in a cave system nearby. Grunt's lifestyle and social environment both fascinates and repels Trog, who finds the prospect of copulating with a lot of females very attractive, but also realizes that the almost 4:1 ratio of females over males, together with the even more overwhelming number of offspring, makes for a potentially much more work-work-work lifestyle, and also means a lot of competition for status.

Still, when Trog and Grunt meet, as they sometimes do on their extended forays, both tend to behave, because it's one-on-one and who knows who'll win? If Trog had the misfortune to meet Grunt with his mates, the situation might well be different. They'd kill Trog in a thrice, find Trogga and his offspring, kill and eat the latter and add the former to their collection of females. That's, after all, how they got the other ones: by scouting out solitaries like Trog and socializing them into their system.

Grunt carries with him five huge rabbit carcasses. Trog only has one shiny rock bauble in his hand to show for his wasted time. The two greet each other with weary politeness, with Grunt wondering how come that Trog hasn't got any prey. But he notes the shiny bauble in Trogs fist, and he wonders about a certain Gruntenda, back in the cave, who squeaks like nobody's business when she's being serviced and has more offspring than any of them. Males at that. Gruntenda also has a small collection of odd rocks and things, which she keeps on a ledge and guards jealously. This thing in Trog's hand...she might like it. She might even end up making Grunt her main mate, in preference over Drock, who's been doing his best to keep her for himself.

For a brief moment Grunt considers the possibility of taking the bauble off Trog, but then decides that it isn't worth it. Trog, on the other hand, notes the look of interest and suddenly thinks of a plan so cunning, you could pin a tail on it and call it a weasel.

Sometime later, Grunt leaves, with a mere four rabbits and the bauble clutched in his hand, thinking of how he's going to get Gruntenda to sneak off behind a ledge and give her the bauble; making it quite clear that nothing's free and he wants payment in kind and if she squeaks he wants her to do it with him on top. Trog goes back with a fat rabbit slung over his back. He's thinking that he's got more of these baubles stashed away under that bush, and that if he plays things right, maybe there's a better way to feed his offspring and keep Trogga quiet than spending all his time actually hunting.

And so it goes. In due course others take note of Trog's ur-peddling (proto-peddling, crypto-pedding) activities and in yet more due course emulation become inevitable. The peddler's trade is about to be unleashed on the nascent humanity.

Hey, don't knock it. It's a possible scenario—as likely at any rate as any a historian might contrive. Of course, the names may need adjustment; if names existed at that time at all. And maybe the start of the profession wasn't as benign either. Quite possibly peddlerdom didn't start with randomly found useless trinkets, but stuff taken from the corpses of victims presently roasting and sizzling over a fire. In Seladiënna, in the land of Seladiënna, there's a whole caste of people, called 'scavengi', who dispose of the dead and in turn for rendering the service are allowed to avail themselves of the stuff found on the corpses. And what do they do with them? Peddle them in the local markets of course.

Peddlerdom has risen from it Trog-roots to what may be argued is the mainstay of the economies of most countries in the world. Of course, someone still has to produce the goods that are being peddled, but this is becoming almost incidental. The activity of peddling has extended to grotesque proportions into areas where peddlers actually peddle things that don't actually exist and can only be said with an extreme stretch of twisted imagination to actually having being 'produced'. This goes both for actual 'goods' as well as that vast industry concerned with what's generally called 'services'.

By the way, and let me very clear about this, not everybody who sells something is a peddler, with all the implicitly derogatory intent behind that description. I know a lot of people who sell stuff and who are not 'peddlers'. The line between an honest 'salesperson' and a 'peddler' is something very fine, but it exists.

For example, some years back, my daughter and I walked into a camera store in Dunedin to buy her a digital camera. We wanted to know what was available, at what price and what serve her purposes with the best combination of features and economy. The salesman had two ways to handle this. He could act as a consultant and help us buy her a camera from this store. Or he could try to sell her a camera from this store.

The difference between the two is subtle, I know, but real nonetheless. In the event, the guy didn't just try to sell us a camera from the store, but tried to push a particular camera and actually got kind-of huffy when we wanted to look seriously at alternative brands and models. He wasn't a camera salesman but a peddler, who would probably happily pushed a brand of washing power, model car or butcher's knife with the same vigor he used to try and sell us that particular camera.

We ended up going somewhere else, where the salesman was of the kind who seemed to understand the strange paradox that exists in the 'salesperson' universe, and which is that you actually sell better of you're truly trying to help the people you sell to, rather than yourself. Which is, of course, the essential difference between 'peddler' and 'salesperson': the motive at the time of interaction.

Of course, the basic motive is always to make a living. This is an egocentric motivation, or possibly one born out of the need to fulfill provider's responsibilities toward others, like family. But the motive is born out of necessity and always was. Nothing to fault anyone about. Nothing to fault anybody about being a peddler at all, actually—not unless one peddles unsavory wares like, say, addictive drugs or religion. There is nothing wrong with peddling per se, and I am just making some almost judgment-free observations.

But it occurred to me, when talking to this guy the other day, that peddlerdom has indeed not only become an industry with so many levels of peddling-peddler-services-to-peddlers that it's becoming quite Kafkaesque. And, furthermore, the dependency of the economies of many a 'developed' country—and some lesser 'developed' ones; together with yet others that take the activity to an extreme that can only be called 'grotesque'—on the revenue created in so many ways by what amounts to essentially unproductive peddling-for-peddling's-sake, has become so strong that removing or even reducing the activity is basically unthinkable. It may well be that this increasing dependency is by and large what may well end up defining who and what we are. And what troubles me is the observation that few people seems to find anything wrong with it.

All of which makes it a suitable candidate for exposure in fiction, and, with almost two thousand words of Bodies having been written in the few moments of idle time I had last weekend, it is becoming clear that indeed peddlerdom engaged in the trade of human spare parts provides what may well be the best suitable image to make us think about what it is that drives our economies and creates our good lives. I know it is a bit out on the fringe of the socially acceptable, but its results for those who benefit from it—and I'm not talking about the peddlers, but the recipients of the goods being peddled, or 'traded' as the peddlers would no doubt prefer it to be called—are sufficiently benign to make us wonder yet again about the complicated and difficult ethical tradeoffs we spent our lives having to make.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Lovers, Family, Friends—and the Rest.

So you may ask—following on from the themes of the last blog—why do some men and women, some of them very intelligent and indeed knowledgeable, with 'knowledge' of all the relevant things, commit themselves and their lives and actions to the 'service' of 'nation' or 'country', and subordinate themselves to the commands of people and a power-structure they know damn well is ultimately flawed and possibly profoundly corrupt; people who have little or no sense of 'honor' of whatever kind, are self-serving bastards by and large; who will, given the chance, send those serving under them to destruction and death if only it served their purposes; people who, let's face it, are egomaniacs, opportunists, liars, cheats, hypocrites, cowards, plus think up your own invectives.

I think that should cover most of human 'leadership', from royalty and dictators to your common garden 'politician' of the 'democratic' persuasion; as well as any military man or other 'public servant' engaged in activities that involve decisions over others' lives and deaths. And, yes, I needed to get that out of my system—again.

A friend of mine suggested that the best way to prevent wars would be to establish a simple rule: the top N (N>10) leaders of the nation declaring or initiating a real or de-facto war on another will be executed immediately upon having completed the act of initiation. The war can still go ahead, but it'll have to be under the guidance of whoever succeeds them.

Ridiculous as it sounds, I've thought about this. The person making the suggestion was, of course, an American who is opposed to the Iraq war, or any others the US fights. That's cool, and especially in this case, because the guy can at least claim that he's actually been in a war, namely in Vietnam. So that kind of gives him a vast ethical edge in saying such things over your common garden neighborhood peacenik, who just hates soldiers and thinks he's got the edge on what human life is all about and what works and what doesn't.

Not, I hasten to add, that having been a soldier in 'Nam needs to be a certificate of valor and judgmental competence. I mean, remember John Kerry? Or there's there's McCain, about whom Reason magazine had an article that disabused me of some notions created by other media presentations of the guy. Or there was JFK, who nearly led us into a nuclear war when he was measuring dicks with Nikita-man. So, no, having 'been in a war' doesn't make you an authority on the issue of 'war'. It just makes you somewhat more credible than someone whose most dangerous experience was almost being hit by a car—if that. Getting so drunk that one's brain almost got seriously damaged is a more likely scenario.

However, the person I'm talking about can think with reasonable clarity, which is a demonstrable fact, and so I thought I'd pay some attention to this crazy proposition he came up with. Not that he would think it would ever happen. But it's a nice thought.

Unfortunately it's also unimplementable, even if the nations of the world went on to establish such a scheme. The reasons for its utter impracticality lies both in the scheme's technicalities as well as the fact that it is to be imposed on human beings. The latter are obvious. As to the former, I ask just one question: What is 'war'? The can of worms that question opens is the main reason why the scheme would never be workable, even on a purely legalistic/procedural level.

But of course my friend knows that only too well. What he really wanted to suggest was a way to hold those who make decisions accountable for these decisions; make them bear the consequences, so that when they decide on such things, they will not just have to live with the consequences in some waffly moralistic way, but they'll actually have to put their lives on the line, just as they do with every soldier they send into combat. That doesn't just go for leaders at the top—nowadays mostly of the 'elected' kind—but everyone in the chain of command. Everybody would be rotated through service in the real danger-zone of 'life-and-death consequence'. Every damn general, no matter how many stars he's got on his epaulets or decoration on his chest. Nor should it matter how old he is, or how unfit or whatever.

The basic rule should be this: if you can't serve in combat, you cannot send others into combat; and if you do send others into battle and conduct said battles from behind the lines, you must spend an equivalent amount of time in the front-lines, together with the gun-fodder—and not just in some distant future, but right away. You order the invasion. You lead the charge.

I know this would exclude some seriously talented tacticians and strategists from being in command, but it would not exclude them from acting in advisory, but strictly non-decision-making, positions. I also know that it would create serious logistic problems for the whole conduct of war, but that's the way the cookie crumbles. War isn't supposed to be easy for those who are in the 'conducting it' roles. It certainly isn't easy for those actually fighting them or being subject to their effects. Why should it for be 'leaders'?

As for combat-fitness...Well, remember the (Greeks and) Romans: Mens Sana In Corpore Sano. Healthy mind in healthy body. If you're sick or decrepit you may be good for a lot of things, but deciding on matters of war and peace and the lives of others...sorry, but let's find someone else. I know that's 'discrimination', but discriminate it we must. For another take on the phrase from The Unit, quoted in my last blog: You want to carry it, you pick it up yourself. If you can't, well too bad. Others can.

Equal opportunity. Certainly. But not everybody can do everything—and not everybody should be permitted to do everything; and isn't.

Of course, this scheme of mine isn't going to be implemented either—not in a month of Sundays or anytime before the Sun goes nova; or even afterwards, either because mankind will be wiped out, or because the rest of our descendants, distributed across the galaxy, are still waiting for that month of Sundays.

In the old days...

Nahh! Of course it wasn't much different in the 'old days'—except that there were instances where it was, notably so. The notion of the 'leader' being a 'leader' in all regards, and not just someone who gives orders and has a power structure of flunkies underneath him implement them...that idea is basically dead nowadays. In the structure of military command—which itself is meant to be subordinate, at least in democracies, to the power of politicians and therefore the 'people'; and please don't laugh at this, but that is how it is supposed to be!—the instances where 'leaders' still 'lead' and put themselves into the same harm's way as those under their command, are confined to those ranks that do not necessarily imply 'desk' type activity; meaning operation in safety.

But let's face it, the notion of a king riding at the head of his army to do whatever he's wanting to do...well, that has a kind of nobility-appeal. None of this "you die for the fatherland, while I figure out how to make you die most profitably" crap. To have the courage of one's convictions has become a very rare occurrence among men.

Let me preempt the inevitable "but what about suicide bombers?"—who do seem to have that courage—by pointing out that it's a very different thing to believe one risks one's life, quite possibly without any upcoming resurrection, for one's 'own' ("me and mine") as opposed to doing it so one can get eternal priapic delights in paradise. And let me also point out that by the logic of the above and in the matters considered here, the only real difference between a suicide bomber who expects rewards in the afterlife and some self-serving politician or general who expects rewards in this life, is that the latter may well get some of them, while the former just dies. Both do what they do from essentially egomaniacal considerations.

However, it is true that the suicide bomber does have the courage of his convictions—but that just goes to show that said courage per se is not necessarily a virtue. However I'd say that its absence from a person's ethical makeup definitely does bespeak of what you might call a 'personality flaw'. Still, the 'wordly' opportunist definitely has the edge on getting some goodies out of his machinations, far more likely to benefit than the extremely stupid I-die-for-God-and-glory suicide bomber, or the 'I-die-for-the-Fatherland' dimwit. Same animal.

And, no, there is no fanatic that's ever yelled I live for God/Fatherland/Glory/Whatever! This isn't as odd as it appears at first sight. Just think about it for a little.

Otake Risuke once said, and I paraphrase only slightly, that next to the obligation to die for reasons of honor there are also those that oblige one to live; to face consequences of a mess one has made and even better to help clean it up. The rigid system of Samurai obligation and honor, which compelled those who 'failed' in a assigned or imagined duty or task to commit ritual suicide, is a prime example of a code of living swinging off its hinges—and hearing a major exponent of one of the oldest martial arts schools in Japan saying this may be surprising.

But 'honor' is an abstract thing; as abstract as any concept, even that of, say, a 'fatherland' and, of course, 'God'—who is real only to 'believers' and really-real only to those to whom he speaks. But, as House MD observes, "Those who speak to God are eccentric. Those to hear God speaking to them are psychotic."

Doesn't mean these abstract things do not compel people to act in particular ways. But, taken to excess, do they not invariably take their adherents to act blindly and to the detriment of others—or oneself, as in the case of ritual suicide for example? But that is the nature of the 'abstract' in all human activity.

Consider, on the other hand, actions motivated by what one might call the 'concrete', the less encompassing and 'general, that which continually grounds one and ties one to the world and the people around—either directly or through sequences of reasoning, understanding or simple action-cause-and-effect. It is the grounding—a process paralleling symbol grounding—that keeps one honest, so to speak.

The process has a parallel in the context of what we do at our dojo. A lot of what we practice has to do with (sword) 'style'; movements and positions prescribed by tradition, as seen through the eyes of this 'headmaster' or that; who is understood to be the guardian of said 'style'; though he, in practice, invariably changes it, even if only minutely, thus actually modifying the tradition he is supposed to continue. I'm not saying this is a bad thing. It just is as it is. Information theory in action. But the pretense is that there is an essentially undiluted original style; or that at the very least, the current headmaster carries, within him, an understanding of the style that is akin to the understanding a religious initiate has of his god(s).

The positions and movements of the kata assume supreme importance, for they carry the information about said 'style' and what it is. The joke is, of course, that they thereby ultimately actually define it. Within a certain context and mindset, 'style' ultimately becomes its own justification. Practitioners become its servants. One does something because it is an element of the 'style', and one does not do another thing because it is not. There is a lot of 'learn this, but don't learn that'. This is the direct consequence of subjecting oneself to the rule of the abstract, the principle, the ideal. Things work the same way with every kind and flavor of 'ideology'.

So, if that's the way things are, why do intelligent, thinking people become soldiers? Because there are such folks; even though I suspect that for each of them there at least ten who do the job because they either aren't thinking at all and think soldiering is cool, or because they are of the mindless fervor I-have-but-one-life-to-give kind, or for a list of other reasons I invite you to think about, but all of which the person in question is probably not aware of.

But what about the ones who know that they are being used by those who order them to do this or that? What about the ones who fall into the category of the 'highly-educated'; who have studied extensively; who are, in many ways, the closest thing you'll get to a 'scholar-warrior'? The kind, come to think about it, represented by 'Mac', the leader of the team that landed on Tethys in Fontaine and went out to do some serious fighting for the place in Tethys. And there's Caitlan, of course, who's been with the 'Tethys' series since Keaen and at the end of Tethys provides us with the answer. Which means that those who've read the books will know—or so I would hope. Those who haven't...well, let me use this opportunity to do what this blog was originally designed to do: shamelessly promote my books!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Hurt no man except the man who hurts you and yours.

I'm just in the final stages of reading Point of Impact, which is the Stephen Hunter novel on which the movie Shooter is based. Overall, the book is sufficiently different and 'deeper', if you will, from the movie so that reading it isn't at all like reading 'the-book-to-the-movie'; which is usually a letdown, because you might as well watch the damn movie instead. That's the way with novels and movies; just make sure the novel came first, because then it isn't just an extended plot summary + screenplay.

PoI is a good read, and I'm glad I discovered Stephen Hunter. My good friend Joel in the USofA—where it's all happenin', folks; including Michael Moore stoking the conspiracy-publicity fires to promote his latest I-hate-the-US flick, with the media retards of the US and the world licking up and duly spreading every syllable he drools—sent me on some more Stephen Hunter novels, procured second-hand, and I'll no doubt plough my way through them soon.

Compelling reading. Makes me itch, again, to tackle non-scifi, for which the already-mentioned concept of Bodies is an ideal vehicle and substrate. Also, my daughter Aynia's recent blog occasioned some more thoughts on the matter—in both directions, pro and con the whole messy and utterly unresolvable issue of what we do with our technology. But that's the way things are. As the inventor of 'EDI'—a.k.a. 'Eddie'—in the movie Stealth told the military man who didn't want 'shit like this' to happen—'shit' referring to the 'learning' machine learning stuff it shouldn't, and with it not knowing what was real and/or true and what wasn't, or what mattered and what didn't: "It doesn't work like that. You can't say 'Learn this, but don't learn that'!"

An open box is an open box. You look inside and you get what you get. Period. If you don't want to get what you get, leave the box closed. Don't try to übelpeek. It isn't going to get you anywhere. By the time you see the stuff lurking inside, it's too late. The crap's already on the way to the fan, to be sprayed all over you and creation. Or, as The Unit's Bob tells his wife on the Season 2 finale: "You picked it up. You carry it." More on The Unit in a moment.

The hero of PoI confesses that he really has only two 'stars to steer by'. One is 'hurt no man except the man who hurts you and yours', and the other 'do your duty as you understand it'.

Behind that apparently simplistic philosophy, which will no doubt attract derision from intellectuals, lurks a vast complexity and basically everything that defines our humanity and anything we might call 'ethics' and not forgetting that this is always social—for there is no such thing as non-social ethics. The maxims delineated above represent a fundamental decision about what one might call 'a way to act' or a constraint on one's decisions or decision-making process.

But in all of this one has to perform very complex judgments, all of which are not subject to 'reason', but what amounts to gut-level or pre-cognitive/pre-reflective decision-making. For what of the motives of the man who hurts you? Are they of the nature of intent-to-hurt? And if so, then how and why? And what if the 'other' does not see what he does as 'hurt', but merely as normal competition-of-life? Does that change anything? And what is a 'man' anyway? A single individual? A nation? And is preparation-to-hurt a legitimate target for what amounts to a motivation of self-defense? And who are those you call 'yours'? Your family? Your friends? Your nation? Those who share and support a way of life you consider worthwhile maintaining? The generically labeled 'innocent'? Who is 'innocent'? And why should 'innocence' make a difference? Who decided that? And remember that there are a lot of folks around who, for reasons perfectly sensible to themselves and those around them don't give a shit about 'innocents' and for whom nobody actually is 'innocent'. We can start right at home with this, remembering that most Western societies are based on a religious doctrine in which the notion that humankind are sinners from the word go, just by being who they are, figures prominently.

When it comes to 'duty' the matter becomes even more complex; for the proviso was, very intelligently 'as I understand it'. For everybody understands things differently. For some 'duty' includes the entirely imagined 'duty' to some entirely imagined deity; or, in the case of the various breeds of a-thesists an even less real and even more bizarrely contrived 'idea', 'ideas' or 'ideals'. This is, let's face it, an expression of a psychosis afflicting such vast tracts of humankind that it's very ubiquity is often taken to prove the 'normality' and maybe even the existential necessity of the psychosis.

However, there is nothing in PoI to suggest such deranged motivations. Bob Lee Swagger's 'duty' is socially motivated—whether it be for friends, lovers or country. No deity in sight. Good for him.

The same goes for 'Bob' in Ep 0223 of The Unit, who, when pressed by his justifiably concerned wife, tells her:

"I can't betray my friends. I can't! What would that teach our children? You know a better question, tell it to me."

Yep, it's all about questions, ain't it?

The Unit went out for this season on a bang and a cliffhanger and with a strong theme of the value of friend- and comradeship, emphasizing the strange paradox that exists here, between a service performed with apparent subordination to command by those who often appear to be unqualifed to command--and yet true loyalty is only rendered to a small group of people, who appear to provide the true focus and motivation for an individual's actions.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Crosseyed Love

Some years back, in my early 20s, I went through one of those phases that people tend to go through. Don't know anymore what kind of phase it was, but I'm sure it must have been. A phase that makes one more sensitive to things. Or maybe 'perceptive'. Or maybe one just projects things onto one's perceptions that one usually doesn't. Perceptions about people mainly, and the different kinds one comes across. As is usual during the Sturm-und-Drang period of one's life at that age--well, it's not just 'that age', but for most people it kinda ends by 30 at the latest; poor bastards--these perceptions about people weren't on the whole positive. By and large they still aren't, but at that age it bothered me more than it does today.

In those days I mostly wrote what qualifies as 'vignettes' on life. They weren't really stories, but ruminations across the inner landscape of 'me'. Some of them were a few hundred words long; others got up to 3000, I suppose. And, yes, they were all written in English, with me still experimenting with the language. Very stilted at times. Afraid to write as I spoke or thought.

Anyway, one day I got onto a bus--I lived in Brisbane then--and sat down and looked around me, and my the tenor of my perception of the other people there was pretty dismal. All except for one, a girl probably in her mid-teens in the inevitable high-school uniform of some Brisbane school. Dark haired. Quite pretty. Quiet. Oval face. Remarkable dark brown eyes, which were just slightly crosseyed. The kind of face that one never forgets, especially given the circumstances, though I suppose over time my memory of it has become modified, as tends to happen. Still, without claiming to be able to actually visualize it, I still have a notion that I actually remember it. Particularly since I went home and immediately sat down and wrote this little 'vignette' on life, external and internal-to-me, called Crosseyed Love. And as I wrote it, it was one of those things that makes you realize stuff about what it is you perceive. This is one of the great things about writing things down, especially if you actually like doing it. You find out about things and about yourself seeing things, and little details that otherwise you would probably either never or else much later have been able to become aware of.

In this instance it was about the effect people have on one another. In the little story the girl was surrounded by aliens who stole away the lives of those they came into contact with. They did this by distorting time--for when you looked at them, time all of a sudden seemed to slow to an agonizing crawl. Not in a good way, mind you, but one of those really boring crawls. Boredom multiplied by a gazillion. Every heartbeat is tedium. Every breath is an immense effort and you wish you didn't have to last through it all.

And they were standing around her--and around me for that matter--and sucking the lives out of us. And so on it went.

What brought this up was a...well, call it 'perception'...I had recently. This one was more positive. This is unsurprising, because one grows out of the phases of easily descending doom and gloom. (Or does one? I know I have, but maybe the phenomenon isn't as widespread and common as I something would like to think.)

In Dunedin, which is a small town, anybody who's lived there for a while and has a reasonably outgoing personality, will have a very loose network of people one 'knows' in some way. Most of them one 'knows' only very loosely--to the extent that one doesn't even know their names, but one sees their faces again and again, and they end up seeing one's own, and so is established an 'acquaintance' of sort, even if it's only a smile-and-nod as you pass by each other. This kind of contact is quite age and gender independent; at least in this town, where when someone smiles at you it doesn't instantly causes an attack of potential-stalker anxiety, as it might in another place. It's one of the very attractive aspects of living here; at least for me, because I quite like not having to struggle each time to establish something more than a cold professional contact with people, and I do like poking through that damn skin of "and how are you today?" There's people on the other side of that barrier and I'd rather talk to the person behind the professional mask.

The other day I realized just how acute my perception had been, that day on the bus in Brisbane. For there is a whole spectrum of people you come across, and at the ends of the middle range, best labeled as 'reaction-indifferent', there are, on one side, really those life-suckers. You look at them and you wish you hadn't. It's not because you know something about them that makes you dislike them. Far from it. You know diddly-squat about these poor blighters, who might be perfectly nice people, but for you they're just treacle-time triggerers.

On the other side are people that actually make you feel nice. Positively so. You're glad you happen to chance across them, and when your gazes cross you smile, and so do they, and there's little doubt they mean it, just like you do. Nothing more than that fleeting contact, but that's enough. If you started to talk to them it would conceivably turn out that you have nothing at all in common and that all you can ever talk about is the weather or other ineffable platitudes. But it doesn't really matter, because this 'sympathy' thing is far more fundamental than 'commonalities'.

I don't quite understand how this works, though I've been trying to find some system underlying it all. It's got to have something to do with faces, of course, because faces are the mirrors of our souls; and through faces we 'connect' with others more so than through any other medium, at least across distance; though in proximity other factors such as the sound of a voice as well as scents become increasingly important. I'm sure that careful analysis of the faces that have this effect or that will reveal commonalities that might well explain one's reactions, I've yet to figure out just which features cause what kind of reaction. The effect definitely transcends barriers of age or gender, which makes it all the more interesting and puzzling.

A work in progress, I suppose. Maybe one day some aspects of this puzzle will become clearer. Right now I confess that I'm stumped, and 'reason' fails to explain why I welcome a crossed gaze and smile from one person but do my best to avoid a similar contact with someone else.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Dangers of Near-Future Science Fiction.

Yep, facts yet again catch up with prediction. It's happened to me before, in the realm of mobile GPS, where technology has overtaken my predictions with a vengeance, and at about the time conjectured in the story. This time we're talking about personal armor. The fabric I called 'Inertialite' in the original version of System Crash—written ten years or more ago and so-far-unpublished and requiring major re-writing—was an extension of a technology based on similar design principles; only I used ceramic-type nano fibers rather than a liquid-based technology. I still think that in the end we'll be using more like something I conjectured, or maybe a mix of the two; and I think radiation-protecting suiting will probably also be developed from this kind of materials-technology thinking.

Still, technology has caught up with me, and the name I had given to the material—'inertialite'—has also been stolen as a .com domain name. So I'm inventing another, which means I'll have to do a global search-and-replace in Fontaine and Tethys as well, because it's used there, too—in its distant future version. Meaning another edition for those. Grrrr... More delays for the publishing process. That'll learn me to check the damn internet for names first. Grrrrrrrrrr...

Spilt milk. Water down the river. Humpty Dumpty on the ground. Lesson learned. Bygones. Time to find an alternative. I've been wracking my brain, searching for alternatives. Lots came to mind, but none flowed as nicely as 'Inertialite'. The drawback with that name was it's obvious connection to current-day US spelling. There is, of course, the option of the other spelling, 'Inertialight', but that never did it for me.

So I did some looking around for names. Do you know how difficult it is to find a name that sounds good, makes sense and isn't hogged by someone as a domain name? I considered not going for a new name at all then. How about 'classical' names from mythology and legend. Achilles. Siegfried. Those two had been endowed with skins impervious to penetration, even though both had what you might call 'soft spots'.

The names, however, didn't 'work' for me. I was looking for 'product' names that would fly and persist for a long time. Come to think about it, 'Inertialite' really wasn't one of those either; so maybe having it nuked by contingency wasn't such a bad thing. The worst aspect of this is 'inconvenience', because I have to create a new edition of my books again.

So what about the name though? In the end the solution came with some more browsing and saying words out aloud and seeing what they looked like. Also, a non-existing domain name would be useful. No need to tread on someone's toes. And so I finally chanced upon 'Dragon Skin', which is a registered trademark for a kind of advanced body armor that's been in the news in the last year and more—'news' for those who are into that kind of thing. Seemed like a nice option, but it's never a good idea to go up against potentially litigious situations here; not even for a writer of fiction. So I tried the Latin version. 'Dragon'='draco'. 'Skin'='dermis'. 'Dragon-skin'='dermis-draconis'. Ahh, not quite.

So how about 'dracoderm'? Ha! No domain name in sight for that one, and it sounds kinda cool and in a way more timeless, if you will, than does the English version.

Henceforth then, 'Inertialite' will become 'Dracoderm'. Search-and-replace coming up. Should be a straightforward job. Actually, Fate, I didn't write what you think I just wrote. I know you're easily tempted and that nothing is ever 'straightforward'. So please, pretty please, do not feel tempted. And the folks at Pinnacle Armor should love me for the free plug of their product.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Emotion and Reason.

Last night, for too long a period and before I got out of the discussion as well as I could without appearing rude or overly disdainful, I got dragged into a verbal interchange that reminded me clearly why I don't have philosophical or political discussions with people, whose views differ greatly from mine. The reason is that, by and large, there is no point to such discussions—not at least insofar as it pertains to any effort to ascertain what may be 'true' and what may not be.

These discussions are useful to determine what the content of a particular person's opinions are, of course, and as such they have what you might call 'personal' value; providing elements contributing to understanding another person's motives and getting some notion of what drives them to do what they do and say what they say. But as for 'the determination of truth' about the issues being discussed these exchanges are next to useless; for people seldom look for truth, but usually want validation of something they've already decided is true. Last night's discussion proved that with limpid clarity, and reminded me why, if you want to communicate anything to anybody who doesn't agree with you, the best thing is to slip it in under the radar in a good narrative.

Last night's discussion also confronted me yet once again with an exponent of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, a decrepit system of thought known as 'Objectivism'. When you strip all the mummery and rhetoric from this philosophy you end up with a system of thought based on the premise that its is possible, in principle and realizable action, to determine, using something called 'reason', what is 'right' and 'wrong'—as applied to life in general, as well as any given situation one might encounter in said life. Hence 'Objectivism', expressing the notion that there is a way, over and above purely subjective judgment, to determine what amounts to 'truth'. Within that framework the individual, if s/he is to lead a worthy and valuable life, must use his or her 'reason' to determine said 'right' and 'wrong' and decide to act accordingly.

Objectivism thus exhorts 'reason' and decision making, and is, at least superficially, diametrically opposed to 'collective' thinking, representing as it were, the opposite end of the political spectrum—the extremists on the other side, so to speak. For the decision have to be made by an individual and an individual alone; thus making Objectivism into the ultimate philosophy extolling the virtues of individualism and free choice—based on 'reason', of course, and let's not forget that.

Free, informed choice with the 'right' decisions following. The wet dream of every misty-eyed utopian.

Free choice? Hmmff. Only if we ignore the fact that Objectivism is, at its core, profoundly authoritarian. In fact, you couldn't get it much worse, not even in your average religion.

How can I say that? Especially I, who spends a lot of time and effort in my novels extolling the virtues of individual decision making and its essential nobility?

Well, just because the words and the grammar are the same, it doesn't mean the semantics is. And just because Objectivism seems to share some aspects of what it considers valuable with, for example, Libertarianism, it doesn't mean it's the same thing, or even related. Libertarians, like the good folks at Reason magazine, don't actually understand that, since they, too, confuse the map (words) with the territory (that which words describe). A common failing, which is a chink in the shiny armor of Libertarianism, proving yet again that political philosophies are always flawed, possibly because they are political philosophies. Ayn Rand once delivered a rant (pun intended) against Libertarianism—in an essay the source of which I don't have the time to find right now, but feel free to find it yourself; otherwise take my word for it. This showed clearly that she at least was aware just how much Libertarian philosophy was opposed to Objectivism. That Reason editors and contributors should continue to conflate Objectivism and Libertarianism demonstrates only their philosophical naivety.

However, I digress. Why, I asked to begin with, would I label a philosophy extolling the nobility of individual choice as 'authoritarian'? Why indeed would I go even further, as I do, and call it 'ideology'?

Among the less logically stringent are these. It is an extremist philosophy, and all extremist philosophies are inherently authoritarian because of their position in the political spectrum. Also all of them are grounded in an 'idea'—some notion about what is or should be, and which cannot be assaulted, this being, if you will, the 'Garbage In' part of 'GIGO'— which ultimately is used to explain whatever else the philosophy propounds. Objectivism's basic philosophical premise has the status of such an 'idea'. 'Authority' within any such framework derives from the degree to which any given individual has a status, through his thinking and/or actions, that derive in some way from his or her relationship to the central idea and whatever flows from it. Thus Ayn Rand would, no doubt, always have considered herself the ultimate 'authority' on her particular philosophy. If she ever disclaimed it, I would like to suggest that said negation was almost certainly disingenuous.

The label 'authoritarian' also applies because by asserting that there is an 'objective' way to determine...well, let's just call it 'truth', because that's what it's ultimately all about...more authority automatically is assigned to those individuals whose thought processes have more access to or resonance with this 'objective' way of figuring out what's what. Hence—as my discussion partner tried to assert again and again—a suitable application of 'reason' would actually tell me if any given choice I might be making would be 'right' or 'wrong', on any scale that happens to be applicable at the time.

Those individuals who have such access to the objective truth are clearly superior in some way to those who don't. Those who have said access and make decisions commensurate with the 'right' and 'wrong' choices at decision time, are clearly the most superior of all.

If this philosophy ever became the foundation of a political system, it would, I dare say, be an authoritarian system that would make 'collectivism' look like paradise. It would possibly look like a benign utopia, but it would easily be the most spiritually oppressive system humanity has ever devised. Hence the grim irony of hearing a Russian sing the praises of Ayn Rand and describing her as the 'greatest novelist that ever lived' definitely wasn't lost on me. She was a lousy philosopher and and even worse novelist.

Last, but not least, Objectivism is counterfactual, as most ideologies are—meaning that they either have no basis in scientific evidence or that such evidence as exists only 'works' because it is used in a highly selective fashion and by excluding evidence that doesn't fit on the basis of reasoning deriving not from what one might call a 'scientific method' approach but from the ideologies core 'ideas'. Evidence that 'fits' is cool and relevant. That which doesn't fit either doesn't exist; is irrelevant and/or misleading; or in the case of conspiracy-theory ideologies, fabricated by said ideologies' opponents or detractors. Objectivism fits fully within that framework. Everything we actually 'know' in a scientific sense, and especially in the context of 'cognitive science', contradicts the notion of there being anything 'objective' about any judgment about 'truth' whatsoever. That would include the late Ayn Rand, I guess.

And, to hammer a firm final nail into the coffin, Objectivism ends here. The decisions by the rational individual are it. Whatever comes as a result of it is basically epiphenomenal. The process itself is the virtue and be-all and end-all. Which means, Objectivism isn't just authoritarian, but also essentially egomaniacal.

Enough said.

To add a positive and hopefully enlightening note to a blog dealing with a dismal philosophy...

During the discussion last night the person asked me (I paraphrase somewhat): "So, when you write your novels, what do you write them with? What do you use?"

And I answered, "I write them with my heart."

"Rubbish!" he exclaimed. "You write them with your reason. You make up the story and the plot and the characters and the logic of the situation [etc etc]."

"Yes," I agreed, "but I still write them with my heart."

At which point I realized that here possibly lay the crux of the misunderstanding and the irresolvable confusion inflicting almost everybody who thinks about 'reason'—as opposed, usually, to 'emotion' I guess. And I thought about In Defense of Sentimentality, which I discussed here. Robert Solomon, too, got lost in trying to find a way in which to understand reason and its relationship to emotion.

But it looks to me like the reason-emotion debate lends itself to a simple metaphor that not only describes it aptly and clearly, even to philosophical and scientific lay people, but which can also be mapped onto the inner working of our brains; and which generally provides a shitload of useful imagery to understand the emotion-reason interaction and dependency relationship.

It is this:

Think of water flowing downhill. 'Emotion' is the force of gravity that makes it flow. 'Reason' is the structure of the terrain through which it flows and which thus guides its movements.

By the way, this notion probably isn't original or ground-breaking, though I haven't actually heard it phrased like that or even closely so. But someone will almost certainly have figured this out before me. I apologize to whoever did that I cannot give him or her the appropriate credit or attribution. In the event, I did come up with it on my own. At least I think so. Who knows what I read or heard wherever and whenever that eventually coalesced into this.

I could discuss the metaphor at length, but this is a blog, not a place for a philosophical essay. I invite you, however, to map the imagery into the world of the human brain, where you will find fascinating correspondences. I also invite you investigate the ramifications of the imagery. The effect of the slope of the incline or the force of gravity. The influences of appropriate channeling of the cascading water into different configurations of constraints and what the results of that might be. And so on.

You may find these thoughts useful. However, they must be yours.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Youth Ghettos.

Harking back to this and making some connections...

A few years back I read a novel by Terry England, called Rewind. It's long out of print and more's the pity. Judging from the reviews that you'll find on Amazon and in other places, not many people shared my unabashed liking of the book, and few would have agreed with my somewhat pithy review of it, the main sentence of which is 'Wish I had written it.' Some years on from writing that review I stand by it; if anything even more so than I ever have. The criticisms leveled against it are nuncupatory. They relate mostly to the reaction of the various elements of society to the event of having a bunch of seventeen adults regressed into bodies of 9 year olds, but with the memories and capabilities of their former adult selves. Way I see it, England was being very clearsighted, and while he drew things maybe somewhat sharply it's all pretty much on the mark. The reactions by media, politicians, religioids and scientists are pretty much what I'd expect would happen, with the dumb-witted public following suit as they usually do.

In relation to that article The Myth of the Teen Brain, the book appears particularly topical and to the point. And thinking about these things, and remembering my school days, most of which I thought were a waste of time then, and I've not really changed my mind about that today either, it occurred to me that school is possibly the greatest single factor in the process of keeping young people in a state that Germans might label Hörigkeit. The word translates into something like 'dependency', physical and otherwise, usually of the 'imposed' kind, though screwed-up minds might willingly enter into such a state for whatever obscure 'reasons' they happen to have.

To see what I mean by saying that school is a vehicle for producing, asserting and maintaining Hörigkeit, let us step back and look at what happens at 'school'. Let us ignore all the good things we want to think about 'education' for a moment and control our knee-jerk reactions to any notion, expressed by anybody, that it could be anything but beneficial.

In school, at all levels, and reaching even into first years of academic 'schooling', people usually labeled 'adults' tells others what they should do, how they should spend their time, what they should learn, what their work is worth, how they should think (remember "We don't tell you what to think, just how." from Serenity?) and for how long they should do all this. In particular we tell them what's good for them, and then even take the patronizing a few steps further by 'helping' them with making 'career' choices; after, of course, having spent years on conditioning the victims into becoming good and conforming citizens. Yes, they are being pushed toward conformance! It doesn't matter, really, what the standards are to which they are supposed to conform. Coercion is coercion.

The implied message of schooling is that adults know better than non-adults what's good for the latter and that therefore these latter people need to be taught stuff.

Of course, there is some truth in that. The growing human being requires a body of knowledge to equip him or her to become an adult capable of functioning in whatever social circumstances happen to be extant. In order to reach that stage they need a certain skill-set. Writing, reading and mathematics are probably a good start, plus a number of other things, depending on the circumstances. History might be good, as is geography, plus some basic science.

But, and here I will probably run afoul of just about every educator in the world, everything a human being needs to be 'taught', as opposed to 'needs to learn' which is a completely different thing, can be taught to a child of average intelligence between the age of 6 and, say, 13; and possibly it doesn't even take that long. And they'll probably enjoy learning it, with the only requirement being that it is taught in an appropriate manner. (Yeah, I know; what is 'appropriate'? Who defines it? Well, This is not the place to discuss so complex a subject. However, I am convinced that it is doable, and I'm waving my hands about saying, "of course it can be done; just because it hasn't been that doesn't prove anything!")

Can't be done? Kids won't be able to cope? Bullshit. Children are, by and large, at least twice as intelligent as adults think they are, and probably even more. That is, unless they're being made un-intelligent through the neglect inflicted upon them by adults during their early years of development.

Children are compulsive learners. While adults learn only if they've had a passion for it drummed into them when they were at a receptive age, children don't need a 'passion': they are compelled to learn by biology. 'Passion' for learning is a phenomenon that appears, or not, in later life. All the 'schooling' process needs to do is make use of the child's period of learning-compulsion, which is quite limited, flattening out rapidly by mid-teens. If by that time 'passion' has not been ignited, it's basically too late.

But does school make use of the best period? Hardly. This is the time when kids will learn at breakneck pace whatever is presented to them. And what does school do? They apply all kinds of methods to 'stimulate' a process that requires no stimulation, and take things slowly when it would be the ideal time to go full-bore. And the process is extended far beyond its use-by date with a 'curriculum' crammed full of stuff nobody really needs. And you know what the reaction of students tends to be: do just what is absolutely necessary to scrape by with the best marks producible under the circumstances. Just how good these are depends on the student, but this is the bottom line. I remember the technique and using it to its fullest.

As an aside, schooling systems in other political systems do make best use of the most impressionable ages. Religious and ideological indoctrination of obscene proportions is commonplace and produces the terrifying results it does and will continue to do. Of course, one might say the same thing about a lot of 'Sunday Schools'.

The results of our school systems are that a) students don't learn what they need to know when it would be optimal for them to learn it, b) students are bombarded with stuff that's so obviously useless and contrived for the purpose of keeping them at school and filling up the compulsory schooling years that by and large they regard it with barely-concealed contempt, c) students are kept in a state of Hörigkeit, explicit and implicit, to adults, who have immense control over their future lives, for a ridiculously long time, and d) students spend most of their time in the company of other students and therefore these become their peer group, and that translates into a lot of those issues which the aforementioned article discusses.

It occurs to me that a lot of what you might call the 'teen revolt' period is caused directly by being kept at school in Hörigkeit when everything in the growing person is screaming to become 'adult', to be acknowledged as someone who can assume responsibility, be entrusted with difficult tasks that matter, whose opinions are valid and have weight. But to have a teacher tell one that some opinion, passionately or seriously held for whatever reason that might involve a significant amount of cogency, is just held because one 'doesn't know better' or something like that, no matter how that response is phrased or disguised under a veneer of condescending waffle, and to have that teacher's opinion matter sufficiently so that it can translate into marks which might influence the manner in which society, employers, universities might view one as a result...that, you must admit, is a humiliating and disempowering experience. And this is, let's face it, the essence of the 'schooling' process, and not just in Western society.

By the way, I'm not suggesting that we work to change the system as it exists. I am not, because of two reasons. The first is that I have a notion that this is quite simply the price we must pay for 'education' and the benefits deriving from it. There's always a price, and this one's pretty steep; but pay it we must I guess. The second reason is that it cannot be changed. The 'educational' system is deeply enmeshed into our societal structure, as it is progressively so into that of other societies who are following our lead, even if they hate us otherwise. There is simply no way in which it can be changed; just as much as it's simply impossible, except at the risk of destroying ourselves completely, to change the course on which civilization on this planet has set itself. Think of it as a conflagration that has to run its course. We need to try and salvage as much out of it as we can, and put the energy of the fire to the best use possible.

But run its course it must. The situation lamented in The Myth of the Teen Brain will only get worse, for a while at least. But every fire will eventually run its course, and this one will, too. I wish it were different, but it isn't.

Saturday, May 12, 2007


So this is it, folks: a milestone in history. The introduction of a word the world has never seen before, or at least I would think not, given that, until now, a google search would not return a result. A new verbal meme is born, this one out of the strange dreams of...well, me. For in a dream it was born, uttered by someone else, and I turned to the person beside me, in my dream that is, and said "Űbelpeeking?? There's no such word. What's he talking about?"

Ahh, yes, the weird stuff we do in our dreams. I have no idea where this one came from, but come it did.

Thing is, the word actually has content. 'Űbel' is, of course, the German word for 'Evil' and 'peek' means all sorts of things, but they all involve looking or peering at or into something in a sneaky or furtive kind of way. So űbelpeeking is basically the act of looking for (or at?) something evil in a furtive kind of way. Like you find religioids űbelpeeking around in perfectly innocuous acts of their fellow men. Or maybe you can űbelpeek in a medical scan for abnormalities. The latter may not be 'furtive' of course, but why not extend the concept a tad?

Invariably the word lends itself to modifications. Religious fanatics might be labeled
űberűbelpeekers because they look for evil everywhere; but, as is common with agglutinate neologisms, the questions now is whether we're talking about űberűbel-peekers or űber-űbelpeekers. That's a tough one and may have to become an issue of context. Then there's űbelpeekery and űbelpeekerdom, as well as űbelpeekish. And so on, I'll leave it to your imagination and the usage of the meme as it inserts itself into the English language. Or not.

As for me, I shall freak out my sword-students by telling them to be aware that I am űbelpeeking on their swordwork, as a good teacher should do.

Meanwhile, to spread the meme, feel free to use it as liberally and frequently as you please, and if anybody asks "what the..." just ask them to google it. Right now, there should only this blog's reference for the term; once it filters through to google's search engine, that is. I'm hoping that will change in due course and that the word will not just infest cyberspace but all places where English is spoken.

For google-reference here are the variations of the term:


I guess I should consider creating a wikipedia entry, but I really have more important things to do.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Fish and the Glory

Dunedin is a seaside town, and every now and then one gets reminded of it in ways that can be a bit odd. Like was the case when I paused at a pedestrian crossing near the place I work, looked down and saw this:

How it got there will probably remain among those things I'll never know. I guess it was dropped there, because neither 'flying' nor 'swimming' are likely candidates for explanation and 'walking and collapsing from exhaustion' isn't either.

On the other hand, from the 'whoa' department, we're right now in a yearly phase with lots of amazing dawns.

Nobody Is Immune.

People's ways of performing that process known as 'reasoning' occasionally leave me...well, let's call it 'perplexed'. I had an example the other day when discussing the Firefly series with someone who bought the DVDs recently, but then gave up on them because he basically just didn't 'get' the sci-fi/western mix, together with what is basically absurdist theater. He subsequently stated that someone else could have done better with all that money, doing a 'proper' sci-fi series, but that wouldn't have been something to please US network TV execs.

Even ignoring the typically New Zealand snobbish-arrogant dig at everything American—a favorite and embarrassing past-time in this country, as it is in many others—the statement made little sense, since it was precisely because Firefly wasn't adhering to singe-genre conventions that it was mangled and pushed and prodded by the network in question and ultimately destroyed after a mere 11 episodes shown, because these retards just didn't 'get' it either. Nonetheless, this person, who otherwise has what qualifies as a 'methodical' disposition, seemed to be unable to come to term with the process of 'reasoning' outside the context in which he usually functions quite superbly.

As often happens after one of these episodes of witnessing the limited reasoning capabilities of others—and despite knowing damn well that I shouldn't do this because it's really not a good thing!—I left the discussion feeling slightly...well, 'superior'. This kind of thing is a common human failing. Nothing to lift one's self-esteem quite like watching somebody else who otherwise appears quite competent and even superior make an ass of themselves and never knowing it. The same kind of emotional logic, if you will, underlies the glee felt—and expressed by the media around here—whenever there's additional evidence or pseudo-evidence of some aspect of the real or perceived the inferiority of a nation that I have experienced as being, by and large, the most generous and open-hearted I've lived in so far.

Knowing all this I really should have restrained even a twitch of feeling of superiority, but, alas I didn't. Bad me! Now, while usually these things go unpunished, this time...well, it was like one of those hands-of-God drawn by the artist Mordillo (here's a nice collection of cartoons by Mordillo) reaching down from the sky through a cloud and waving a big fat admonishing finger at some poor little benighted blighter standing there looking terrified.

Just a day later I came across this (PDF link) article in the latest issue of Scientific American: Mind. It gave me more than pause and indeed had me acutely embarrassed. The article is titled The Myth of the Teen Brain and it begins like this:

It’s not only in newspaper headlines—it’s even on magazine covers. TIME, U.S. News & World Report and even Scientific American Mind have all run cover stories proclaiming that an incompletely developed brain accounts for the emotional problems and irresponsible behavior of teenagers. The assertion is driven by various studies of brain activity and anatomy in teens. Imaging studies sometimes show, for example, that teens and adults use their brains somewhat differently when performing certain tasks.

And from there on it's mostly deconstruction of what the author calls a 'myth'—and if he is right, which I think he might well be, then it is a myth, and a damaging one at that. Together with a whole plethora of long-term studies of the effects, social and physiological, of people growing up, from the day of their birth and possibly before that, in environments such as those provided by the societies of the technologically developed 'West' and the consequences for our lifestyles and body and brain development of those 'consumer' technologies...

Anyway, do yourself a favor and read the article. I found it instructive in a personal sense as well, because it taught me, in one fell swoop that I, too, can become locked into what, for lack of a better term, one might call 'sciento-fashions', that being fashions of thought which apparently have scientific support, but really are just the result of—what else is new?—people asking the wrong questions about the context of whatever facts they're presented with.

I guess the lesson is that it's probably always a good time to get off the roller coaster. Thing is, it's so hard to know sometimes when one is on a roller coaster to begin with.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Novel or screenplay? Decisions, decisions. Damn, damn, damn!

Harking back to this blog ('Bodies', May 7), I went back and re-read the partial screenplay, all 54 pages of it. It's dismaying, really how quickly one can go through a screenplay that took one several days to write and basically re-read it in less than an hour, or less, if one 'skims'. A bit like reading a 'graphic novel', really—in more ways than one, since that kind of lit is basically like a story-board for a movie, extended with speech-bubbles, indications of sound effects and background annotations.

Anyway, so I read through Bodies, the partial screenplay, and I liked it. The characters were being built up nicely, the story flowed and aimed for something and there were intimations of significant things to come. And at the same time I saw exactly why I left it and did something else. Because it's too damn much for a screenplay.

What I mean by that by page 50-odd, technically I should have been at about the middle of the story—aiming for the ideal of 120 pages @ 1-minute/page, as these things are, very roughly calculated; and ordinarily I'm damn good at that size, with, even if I say so myself, an uncanny instinct for how much I have to tell and how to thematically and action-wise pace it. But I was really just getting started! I was, in effect, writing a novel in screenplay format. That's opposite, by the way, to the technique used by a number of other writers, who basically write screenplays in novel format. Michael Crichton leaps to mind, but Stephen King also does it. They'd be ultraübermega screenplays, but what matters is the format really and the 'feel' of it all. And, let me hasten to add, they wouldn't necessarily be good or riveting screenplays either.

I also realized—looking at Bodies now, from a p.o.v. almost two years to the week after having first laid it to temporary rest—that there is no way to tell this story, and in particular the one I now see emerging after reading that Reason article, and make whatever is being told count, within the confines of a screenplay. A TV miniseries maybe, and I could still aim for that, but not a 2-hour feature film. If I tried the latter I'd have to do exactly what the producers of The Island did, and take the premise and make it into an exciting action flick.

Don't get me wrong, for I love The Island. It was a cool movie, and I've watched it several times and enjoyed it every time. But, as was inevitable, it had a narrow focus for the conflicts, and it had distinctly outlined good and bad guys, plus one ambiguous one. That's what happens when you want to make 2 hour movie; and you've got to pack the subtext and meta-messages all in there somewhere. The Island did that very nicely. But its success was minor. People didn't 'get' it and the promotional focus was all screwed up.

Anybody to reads Who Owns Your Body Parts? will instantly realize that to exploit the full scope, or anything approximating the scope worthy of being explored, of what Bodies, in its background-story might be all about, can't be crammed into such tight focus. The ethical issues alone are so manifold—we're not just dealing with degenerate, easily-demonized 'rich' people exploiting those less well off than themselves—that even a novel might have issues with it and could become a rant against social and other 'evils', rather than, as I like it, a people-focused story that slips in its messages under some snazzy story-telling.

The same goes, by the way, for my planned story about tribal 'resettlement' in the Americas. A simple 'Western' would be unsuitable. But yet another lament on human injustice also would be. Gotta walk a fine line here. I don't want to get into the business of agenda-mongering, and this is always a threat as soon as one tackles 'real'—present or historical—issues. Reminds me why I try to stick to s-f and fantasy. It's so much easier not to get caught in that mill.

Back to Bodies. I'd love to continue with the screenplay. It has the distinct advantage that I could write it up within a few weeks max. From a purely 'writing it down' point of view it's a matter of a few hours. A novel, any novel, and we'd be talking about 'typing' time of days and weeks. About 500 words/hour on the average—taking into account that phenomenon known as 'rolling revisions'—and with a target size of, say 125k words and possibly more, we'd be looking at 250+ hours, that being about 6 weeks of equivalent full-time work. For someone who actually has a full-time job and a life besides that represents a commitment of some scope.

It may sound odd to put it all into those kinds of terms. After all, the usual agonizing is over more basic 'writing'-associated issues, like 'will it work' or 'will it sell' or 'how to structure the story' and a gazillion other related matters. I guess I should be grateful that I'm not concerned about these. I already know that these issues will resolve themselves as they always do. In practical terms my concerns have to do with time, not with 'story'. Screenplay: hours. Novel: weeks, approaching months. The seduction of screenplay is great. On the other hand, you can't really 'publish' a screenplay as you do a novel. Nobody reads it, because it just isn't a 'widely read' medium.

So: novel? And if so, then in what order of priority and temporal sequence? What does it do to the other existing projects, like the 'resettlement' tale and Dance of Tigers?

So much to write; so little time to do it in. Maybe I just stop agonizing and just get started. The first part of the screenplay does, after all, provide me with the framework of story and concrete dialogue already. Writing economy dictates that if existing material is fruitful and usable, then by all means use it.

I guess I will.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The things people do. The things I don't understand.

Imitating my daughter from her blog here, but there are things even I don't understand. Lots of them actually. Like everybody else I understand far less than I think and even then I'm probably 'understanding' it wrongly, or in a limited kind of way. Scrap the 'probably'.

Anyway, among the more mundane things I don't understand is 'fashion'. I mean I 'get' that there are trends of everything in human society, ranging from medical science to what's cool in underwear, but sometimes you come across something that really puzzles you. Puzzles me anyway.

Today's puzzle is women's footwear and specifically the kind currently apparently in vogue around NZ, where you see these...things...on women's feet that might qualify as 'footwear', since they are, in the strictest sense 'worn' on the feet. However, their utility and style eludes me. First of all, with it getting cold now and all you'd expect them to cover just a tad more of the feet the 'wear' is meant to cover; and secondly what is it with the pointy tips?

To quote Aynia: "WTF"? Are these women wearing those things in preparation for some kind of attack by rampaging males—or attack by anything that might be damaged by the suitably-placed impact of a pointy object, even if it isn't steel- or hard-leather-capped?

Or, and here the mind truly boggles, does anybody actually think that this kind of footwear does anything but make the wearer look like...well, a clown maybe? There you have these otherwise perfectly adequately-dressed women of most ages and you look down and there are these ludicrous pointy things on their feet, occasionally curling up like the shoes of a circus dunce.

Ahh, fashion. In some years, people are going to look back on this, like they now do look back at past sins, and shamefully wonder "did I really wear this and think it cool?" If they cringe at the thought, I think this time they deserve it; and if they pretend they never wore these things by disposing of them anonymously to some charity or into the trash, that will not erase the shame and cringe-factor. I really do have a hard time concealing my mirth whenever my gaze alights on one of these pieces of 'footwear'.

Another 'fashion' issue that leaves me with even more incomprehension is 'tarting up'. I don't mean dressing up tastefully and ending up pleasing to look at, but 'tarting'. Women end up looking like...well, tarts; meaning basically prostitutes. Men also practice 'tarting up and usually end up looking just as ridiculous. If you want to see 'tarted up' people without attending the occasions for which people indulge in that kind of hideous disguising, watch your average Academy Awards or Golden Globe ceremony, or maybe Dancing with the Stars. The women's dresses, provided by people called 'designers' who give the profession a really bad name, are usually ludicrous and coarse. The hair's pasted and sprayed and twisted this way and that and carefully mussed up here and there. And the makeup—ahh, the makeup. Back to the old dance-around-the-fire days of strange tribal ceremonies. You're almost waiting for the drums to start up. Dum-um-dum-dee-dumdumdum.

It really makes you wonder "what are they thinking?" Are they thinking? What's happened to their perceptions—of themselves in particular? Why these grotesque deformations of their appearances? Why take a perfectly beautiful face and mess around with it until it looks like a witch's mask?

As for the men, they of course often end up looking like penguins with human heads. Personally I think that a tux should not be worn unless at gunpoint and under imminent threat to one's life. Neither should anything that constricts the neck. Gunpoint! I say. And even then there's got to be a way to wheedle out of it. I've sworn to myself that I will not attend any occasion where I have to wear a tie or bow or where penguin garb is compulsory, unless I did so for the purpose of disguising my true identity or if my life or health were at stake.

End of Things I Don't Understand rant. Only reason this came up was that bizarre piece of footwear I saw a short time ago, which basically consisted of a thin high heel with some even thinner strapping to hold the wearer's heel in place, a thin ridge under the arch of the foot; a lethal looking, curl-up pointy cover for the wearer's toes. And believe you me, this wasn't a good-looking foot either and it would have benefited from careful concealment. Even as it was, the 'footwear' suggested that I was really looking at an alien trying to hide inhuman features of its anatomy under that elongated point. Maybe I was? Are we being invaded by pointy-footed aliens? Am I just being ridiculously paranoid or just an ass with no 'fashion sense'? Ahh, yes, questions, questions...

And lastly, and I just have to say it... People go to work in this?? At least I presume it was work-wear on that alien/human/whatever this morning, since it was the start of a working day and the rest of the person didn't look like a lady-of-the-night but a perfectly ordinary boring lady-of-business.

So... W T ... ???