Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Books You Should Read : Anathem

Posted in books, religion, science by Andrew Hickey on December 30, 2008

One of the better Xmas presents I got this year was Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Anathem. I’m only around 500 pages into it (it’s 900 pages + long) but I can already enthusiastically recommend it as the best new book I’ve read all year.

Stephenson is someone whose work I admire intensely (although I’m ashamed to say I’ve still not finished his huge, 3000 page Baroque Cycle trilogy – it’s so dense that without reading it uninterrupted I can’t keep track of the many threads, and lose the plot somewhere around the 1800-page mark and have to go back to the beginning. I plan to take a week off next year and spend it just reading those books).

After the technothriller-of-sorts Cryptonomicon and the historical novel that is the Baroque Trilogy, Anathem sees Stephenson’s return to science fiction, the genre in which he made his early impact. But rather than the cyberpunk of The Diamond Age or Snow Crash, this is hard Campbellian SF with some slight fantasy-esque worldbuilding – it reminds me more than anything of Arthur C Clarke’s work, but with a much better prose style and more ideas.

Science fiction fans often defend SF as ‘the real literature of ideas’, and to an extent that’s true. Good science fiction relies more than any other genre on new ideas. Unfortunately, the ideas themselves are often relatively trivial ones – often solutions to hypothetical engineering problems. One could come up with a pretty good traditional SF plot by, for example, constructing a race that evolved on the outside of a Dyson sphere by feeding off the black body radiation it emits, working out their biology and society, then having them discover that their world has an inside.

Something like this happens in Stephenson’s novel – he has a meticulously worked out pseudo-monastical order of mathematicians (which reminded me of Logopolis, especially in their rejection of computers, but is far more well-conceived than the Doctor Who story) on a fairly detailed world coming into contact with aliens who (at the point I’ve reached) are unknowable in almost every way. So far, so ordinary.

But Stephenson is one of the few novelists I know of who is *really interested* in ideas of all sorts – cultural, political, economic, scientific and so on. Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Trilogy were linked not only by one recurring supporting character, but by the ideas Stephenson was working out (about information flow being the same as flow of value, about to what extent it is possible to represent the world symbolically, about truth and deception, about the creation of modern capitalism, and about looking at history not as a struggle between ‘great men’ but between great ideas). His other novels were similarly based around Big Ideas – and not just one per novel, but several interacting.

In this regard Stephenson reminds me of Grant Morrison, but Stephenson is the better prose stylist and has the space to work the ideas out more thoroughly (Stephenson also appears to be far more instinctually conservative than Morrison – while Morrison’s rebellion against Baby Boomer generation immediately before him tends to be in the form of fetishising youth and youth culture, Stephenson seems to wish the old hippies would just grow up and get over themselves). While Anathem presents itself as a science fiction story, the plot is merely a convenient hook on which to hang a complex net of ideas.

In this case, these start with a fairly simple neo-Platonist world view (that mathematical concepts have an existence separate from human perception, in some other level of existence), which Stephenson links with the many-worlds hypothesis in quantum physics, and with Penrose’s idea that the brain must work on a quantum level, and with mathematical concepts of phase space, to postulate a multiverse with information flow from ‘lower’ to ‘higher’ levels, and with brains acting as quantum computers. In this model, our understanding of what is within the range of the possible – our mapping of the phase space – (for example the way we ‘intuitively’ know that a lead weight is more likely to fall to the floor than float in the air) comes from interference with the copies of our brains in close parallel universes.

Now, I happen to think this world view is almost certainly wrong (Platonism makes little sense to me, and Penrose strikes me as the same kind of half-bright person as Dawkins, his argument being little more than “I don’t understand thought, and I don’t understand quantum physics, so they must be the same thing”), but the way Stephenson jams the ideas together – and the many, many other ideas he throws out – is beautiful. During the action sequences I keep finding myself thinking “Oh,enough with the being rescued from a lynch mob by shaolin monks – get back to the discussion of the objective reality of Plato’s forms!”

One common criticism of this book has been the large number of words Stephenson has made up, but this is completely invalid. In a world with no Socrates or William of Ockham or Pythagoras, you can hardly have characters talking about Socratic dialogue or Occam’s razor or Pythagoras’ theorem. Many of his new coinages are very, very witty, and there’s the additional fun of dictionary entries studded throughout the text (the entry for ‘bulshytt’ is particularly worth reading).

Not that the book is perfect – the sequences where the plot is advanced through action don’t work nearly as well as those where the plot is advanced through dialogue, and Stephenson also chooses to depart from his normal method of having several viewpoint characters in interweaving plot threads, instead giving us a single first-person narrator throughout the story. While the reasons for this make a lot of sense (the readers only get hints of the big picture in tiny drips, and this is accentuated by the fact that the main character is, while hugely intelligent, a 19 year-old who’s spent almost all his life in a monastery), one of Stephenson’s biggest strengths is his ability with character. He’s particularly good at writing about a few different masculine types of personality (very non-verbal military men and introverted, logical, mathematician types) and showing the commonalities in their perceptions of the world. By showing everyone through the lens of one character’s perception, he has removed this particular string from his bow, so there are (at least in the first half) no scenes like Randy’s Cap’n Crunch-eating techniques or Laurence’s ‘fucking Mary’ plan from Cryptonomicon – where in his earlier books one comes away thinking about the ideas and about individual character moments, here what sticks in the mind isn’t so much the characters as the world – I have only a dim idea of the characters of any of the individuals in the story, but a very clear mental picture of the great Clocks, and how the doors open for Apert, and of the spaceship with its geometrical proof.

If you’re at all interested in the nature of consciousness, the nature of reality, mathematics, the possibility of contact with alien life, the possibility of parallel universes or just a good story, Anathem will set your mind ablaze in a way very few novels will.

I Aten’t Dead

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on December 27, 2008

Just a quick note to let people know that I just got back to the UK after spending most of the last day travelling, hence the lack of response to comments to my most recent posts – I appreciate the way that the libertarian side have been very reasonable and friendly, given the rather nasty way I spoke about them. I’m also very glad that my friend Hexar has been posting responses that are substantially the same as I would have posted (I’ll *HAVE* to come and visit you and Leighann some time next year, if (as seems likely) you can’t get over here, Hexar).

For those who are interested, it’s been reposted over at Liberal Conspiracy (albeit with a couple of edits) and there’s some more discussion going on over there.

I go sleep now.

Why I Am Not A Libertarian

Posted in politics by Andrew Hickey on December 25, 2008

Recently, there appears (and ‘appears’ is the word – it’s almost certainly an artefact of looking over a few blogs and reading more into tone than into content, but this is something that has been remarked on by people other than myself) to have been an influx into the Liberal Democrats of Libertarians. This is typified by the members of ‘Liberal Vision‘, which is in turn part of a Tory organisation called ‘progressive voice’ (essentially a bunch of Objectivists).

Now, in many ways I agree with libertarians on many subjects – which is, of course, why we can be in the same party – I am all for more personal freedom, for a lack of government interference in people’s lives, for the restoration of recently-lost civil liberties and so on. But libertarians seem, to me, to have two big holes in their thinking, both of which are summed up by some recent comments by ‘Nick’ in this thread on Liberal Conspiracy (scroll down).

‘Nick’ may or may not be a self-described libertarian (or indeed liberal) but he’s following the libertarian ‘party line’ almost exactly. The government should not interfere with the workings of the market when companies are failing. Not only should they not spend any money bailing out the companies (a reasonable, debatable position) or on retraining the workers so they can get jobs elsewhere (a much less reasonable position in my view) – they should not even pay unemployment benefit to the people who lose their jobs, because the money would be better allocated by the market.

Now, there are two distinct errors here. The first, and less important, is the one that pretty much every ‘free market’ advocating politician of whatever stripe for the last thirty years has fallen into – the belief that markets will always guarantee the most efficient allocation of resources.

People who know a little about economics can fall into this trap, because free-market economists define ‘efficiency’, tautologically, as the state where everyone has the maximum possible without anyone else having any of their property taken from them – in other words, as ‘that state which a market will produce’.

However, ‘efficiency’ in this context is merely a local optimum, not an overall optimum. As an example, suppose that you, O Hypothetical Reader, have a pound – a whole shiny pound all to yourself. And I have nothing. Now, assuming you don’t want to just give me your money, that’s the most efficient distribution of the money possible.

But suppose that, while you don’t want to give me your money, you were forced to, and I invested the money and made ten pounds, of which I was forced to give you five. Instantly, we have *both* benefited, substantially, even though this is ‘less efficient’ in market terms.

Now, in this hypothetical situation, you would of course either just give me the money or invest it yourself. But in a real life situation involving billions of pounds in the pockets of millions of people, it can’t be guaranteed that the equivalent would happen.

A market is a very good way of ensuring, not that the economy always gets more efficient or runs at peak efficiency, for the common understanding of the word efficiency as opposed to the economists’ understanding, but rather that the economy *always moves into the most efficient adjacent position in the economic phase space*. These are very similar things, but they can be crucially different.

As an analogy (appropriately Newtonian for today) imagine a ball rolling downhill. Now, normally, that ball will continue down until it reaches the bottom of the hill (a state of maximum gravitational efficiency). But imagine a little dip in the hill halfway down. The ball rests there, because to go any further down it would first have to go up.

That kind of situation, economically, is when it makes sense for government intervention. Sometimes a mass of people acting independently do not come up with the most efficient solution, and a change, even an arbitrary one, needs to be made to free the ball from the rut. As an example, we need laws stating that you should only drive on one side of the road. The choice of which side is arbitrary, but not having those laws would cause infinitely more problems than the tiny amount of personal freedom given up.

I think the main defining characteristic of a liberal – as opposed to a libertarian – is that a liberal recognises the need for such measures but thinks they should be as few and as minimal as possible.

However, I have left the more important error to last, which is simply this – who says ‘efficiency’ of whatever kind is the thing we need most? For a long time the right have predetermined the terms of the debate by talking about ‘economic efficiency’ and ‘modernisation’. These are probably good things, overall, but are they the be-all and end-all? I think not.

Libertarians almost all seem to believe that they have achieved everything in life entirely by themselves, having struggled against mighty odds and overwhelming enemies to become moderately successful computer programmers, despite the horrible disadvantages of being born white, English-speaking heterosexual males in middle-class families. Their thought is ultimately a selfish one – “I did this, so anyone else can, and I had no help so I won’t help anyone else”.

I, on the other hand, have experienced poverty. I’ve never been at the lowest possible point, but the few months when I had to support my now-wife and myself on one person’s benefits were unpleasant, to say the least. So now I’m in a position where I’m working for a well-known company, earning a good income, doing a job I enjoy, I feel not only an obligation to society to pay back what I’ve taken (for I couldn’t have got this job without help both from individuals and from government institutions), but a profound *need* within myself to make sure that no-one else should have to dig around for half an hour to find twenty pence for a pack of custard creme biscuits which will be their only meal of the day…

PEOPLE are inefficient, messy things. There is no possible rational justification for supporting the continued existence of the human race, let alone helping individual members of it. But anyone who would gladly see tens of thousands of people jobless and with no source of income, either in the name of keeping a few extra pence a week in their own pocket or in the name of a heartless ‘efficiency’ has so little compassion in their heart, so little empathy, that I can’t even begin to imagine a common frame of reference for discussion, despite many surface similarities in our philosophies.

The old ones are the best…

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on December 24, 2008

I think we’re all in need of a little Christmas cheer right now (I certainly am, after spending the last few days trying to teach myself more Perl. There’s a reason why perl looks like comic characters swearing. Any language in which ”=~(‘(?{‘.(‘^[).)}'^'.)@@]]’).’”‘.(‘|.@[;*^'^'=@$)^]|’).’,$/})’) is actually a valid executable program has serious problems…) and so here’s my favourite stupid Christmas joke, from the pages of The Making Of The Goodies Disaster Movie…

The Cast List of White Christmas
Emma Dreaming
Arthur White
Chris Muss
Jess Likedy
Juan Sy
Hugh Sterno

Wendy Treetops-Glissen
Ann Chilled-Wren
Liz Anne
“Two Ears” Laybelle
Cindy Snow

Emma Dreaming
Arthur White
Chris Musswit
Avery Criss
Miss Carr
Dai Wright

Mayor Dazeby
Mary-Ann Bright
Anna-May Hall-York-Rhys
Mrs B White

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He’s Known As Batman, With Robin The Boy Wonder By His Side…

Posted in comics by Andrew Hickey on December 24, 2008

I’m at a disadvantage with this post, because even though I am in the US at the moment, my comic shop isn’t. So everything I am writing right now could be completely contradicted by today’s issue of Batman, and I won’t know for a week or so…
One aspect of Batman’s life that has been left out of Morrison’s “Everything really happened” take on Batman is Jason Todd. Unless I’m forgetting a brief appearance in one of the Resurrection Of Ra’s Al-Ghul crossovers, there has been no mention of Jason Todd in Morrison’s run on the title at all.
Except… there sort of has…

You see, there are three ‘Jason Todds’ in Batman, and have been for a few years now.
One is the character that is currently running around with no narrative purpose, whose very existence in one panel of a comic requires, out of necessity, the whole comic to be perverted into a rationalisation of the most pointless returns from the dead in comic history, and who has no fixed characterisation. This character is an utterly pointless waste of ink, and an example of the artistic bankruptcy of a superhero comics medium that is obsessed with ‘things being like they were when I was 12, but more badass’.

The second is the character that existed from 1988 to 2005, and is still what most comics fans think of first when they think ‘Jason Todd’. The martyr. Good soldier. He Died So That Others Might Live. Young boy at the height of his powers, struck down by the Joker. An illustration of what happens when Batman Goes Too Far and Lets Others Get Hurt. A character that was more interesting in death than he is now in life, Jasonthegoodsoldier was still, unfortunately, just a symbol for everything that was wrong with Batman comics from the moment Dark Knight issue 1 came out…

But there used to be another Jason Todd. One that we in the Silent 73 remember…

This Jason Todd was, as bobsy put it, “a Robin for the burgeoning Dark Age – troubled, angry, rebellious and a natural brawler”. While his intentions were usually good, he was brattish, spoiled, a criminal before becoming Robin (at least in the post-Crisis retconned origin of the character). He would even kill when he thought it necessary for the greater good.

In short, wasn’t he just a slightly more mature Damien?

While fans have generally disliked the character of Damien, the crucial issue 666 (the most important issue so far of Morrison’s run on Batman, which I’m still praying will continue post-Battle For The Cowl, as Rich Johnston suggests it will) shows the same character traits, but in a far more disciplined, resourceful adult Damien:

I spent my first three years as Batman making the job easy for myself. Turning the city itself into a weapon. The victory is in the preparation…I knew I’d never be as good as my dad or Dick Grayson, but I promised I wouldn’t leave Gotham without a Batman. So I specialised in cheating.

Morrison essentially has taken the character of Jason Todd out of the 80s comics and brought him back under a pseudonym. Making him Batman’s biological son is just icing on the cake. Remember, Jason Todd (pre-Crisis) was the son (adoptive, but also, it was hinted, biological), of Nocturna, a villain who had a love-hate relationship with both Batman and Bruce Wayne. Just like Damian with Talia…

Morrison has, intentionally or otherwise, spotted that Batman really needs a Jason Todd figure. Tim Drake is an adequate Robin, but he’d make a lousy Batman – Batman needs an heir as conflicted as himself who will ‘carry on the fight’ when Batman is gone, and he needs a sidekick who will argue with him to provide some kind of narrative tension.

So he’s done the ultimate Silent 73 trick – he’s made it so Jason never died. He’s just called Damien, but otherwise he’s the same character, with the same narrative purpose. So bringing in Jason thedeadmartyr goodsoldiergoodsoldier or the new, pointless version would just confuse matters. He’s got a character who serves the same narrative purpose for which the original was created, and who could be a fascinating source of future Batman stories were it not for the fact that (as with so many of Morrison’s other ideas) no-one else seems to get the point of the character.

Tomorrow – more on this whole FinalRIPsis storyplex, if I can get to the computer.


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