Sunday, June 21, 2009

Being right versus doing the right thing

A few years ago, there was a traffic safety slogan: "On the road, don't be right, be smart". The point was that even when you are right, sometimes it's more important to think about what you are doing. For example, even if you have right of way, you should look and make sure other cars aren't going to hit you.

I was reminded of this by recent discussions on two email lists to which I subscribe. In both cases, someone made a comment, and some list members disagreed with what was said, and this led to many people expressing their opinion, taking sides, trying to produce evidence that they were right, and even insulting each other (intentionally or accidentally). This sort of behaviour creates a bad atmosphere, and sometimes causes some list members to unsubscribe. Although it's easy enough to delete messages in a thread that has become a waste of time, it can still be annoying to know that this is going on within the group.

In the first case, the disagreement was over a point of procedure within an organization. It turned out that different regions have different rules, and that even given the rules that would have made the original comment "right", people disagreed with the way it was expressed.

The second case was a major argument about language usage. Someone "kindly" pointed out a "mistake" in someone's message, which led to arguments about the usage of this terminology, with people quoting dictionaries (both online and printed) and using Google search result statistics to prove their point.

I once heard a quotation attributed to Samuel Johnson (which I haven't been able to find online): "I never correct anyone's English. If he is my equal, it is offensive, and if not, it is patronizing" (or words to that effect). I agree with this sentiment, and try not to correct people's language unless they ask me to.

In both the cases described above, people seemed to be driven by the desire to appear right in public, without considering the impact of their remarks upon others. It seems to me a very competitive attitude. If I really thought it was worth correcting or questioning something a person wrote to a list, I would probably do this in private. Then the list member could, if necessary, correct the public message accordingly, without having the public embarrassment that resulted in these cases.

When I consider my actions, I am driven more by wanting to do the right thing than by wanting to be right, at least in public. I am confident enough in my knowledge that I don't need to show off or say "I know better than you", and considerate enough to think about how other people would feel about what I write.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cory Doctorow - Little Brother

Cory Doctorow, Little Brother, HarperVoyager, 2008.

Also available as a free download, under Creative Commons licence.

Spoiler warning!

This book is both a novel and an ideological manifesto, and this is a good thing. The two aspects are well-balanced, the ideology is relevant to the story and the story is a reasonably well-conceived depiction of a situation where the ideology would be relevant.

This is the story of seventeen-year-old Marcus, a high school student from San Francisco, who is arrested, along with his friends, by the Department of Homeland Security, following a major terrorist attack. After being questioned for a few days, he is released and told he must never tell anyone about his arrest. He meets up with two of his friends, and discovers that the third friend is still being held.

Marcus returns to his parents and school in a changed city. Surveillance is everywhere, and Marcus makes it his mission in life to undermine the infringements of freedom that are being imposed on the population. As a geek with hacking experience, he is able to establish an underground wireless network and to motivate the city's young people to create chaos in the tracking systems.

The story is aimed, at least partly, at young readers (what is now called a YA novel, though "young adult" seems to me just as patronizing as other terms). It seems to me to suit this audience, thanks to the young protagonist and simple narrative style. The writing style also seems to reflect the speech style of a young, not very linguistically talented, narrator.

The story focuses on the main character and his life in his city, and does not refer much to what is happening in the rest of the country and the world. The terrorist attack, destroying the Bay Bridge and killing over 4,000 people, is horrific, but it seems to be relegated to background instead of featuring as a factor in the lives of people in the city. Marcus notes that everyone knew someone who was killed, but doesn't say who he had lost or how people were dealing with PTSD. As a reader who lives in a country that suffers from (smaller) terrorist attacks, I think the portrayal of how SF reacts to such an attack is lacking. Life seems to return to normal too quickly. Again, this may be attributable to the self-centered focus of the young hero, and to the main topic of the story being the infringements of freedom rather than the attack itself.

There are sections when the narrator explains the technology he uses. While not all readers will follow the details, the explanations attempt to show what the uses and implications are. I particularly appreciated the description of the "paradox of the false positive" (p. 120-121), which seems to explain many popular misunderstandings of statistics.

Other sections explain the ideology of freedom and privacy. Marcus quotes a section of the Declaration of Independence, which describes the sort of justified civil disobedience he initiates. This sort of civil disobedience is considered justified since it is trying to protect the state itself from the misuse of state power. Readers seriously interested in issues of freedom of information and privacy can learn a lot from Doctorow's non-fiction work, including his blog.

The story's ending is somewhat less than satisfying, but in some ways this is more realistic. Despite the movement's slogan, "Don't trust anyone over 25", Marcus is only able to resolve some of his problems with the help of adults, including his parents and a journalist.

As a coming-of-age story, this novel follows the normal pattern: the young hero realizes the world isn't what he was led to expect; he uses his skills to change the world; he finds love.

What is particularly noticeable throughout is the great sincerity of the story telling. This gives the whole book a feeling of authenticity and vividness that is quite rare in many works that have been rewritten and edited to conform to readers' expectations. This is obviously a labour of love for the author, writing passionately about matters close to his heart.

I enjoyed this book, with its funny moments, its sincere narrative tone, its well-presented liberal ideology and its quirky geekiness. I recommend it to readers both young and older, especially those who are individualistic and open-minded.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Stone marten spotted in Haifa

Last Thursday evening, I saw a small mammal run across the road in Haifa. It nearly got run over, but made it to the other side. I was wondering what it was. It was smaller than a cat, with brown fur and small round ears, but not a rat, because its tail was furry. It moved fast, like a squirrel (but to the best of my knowledge, there are no squirrels in Israel).

The following day, an article in the local newspaper reported that an animal that had been run over two years ago had been identified as a stone marten (or beech marten). The picture looked like the animal I had seen. The article also quoted a zoologist as saying that the stone marten had been considered extinct in the Carmel region, but that recently some have been seen alive. So I now think this is what I saw.

This got me thinking about the nature of coincidences. The chances of finding out what I saw just a few hours later are so minuscule that it seems like the universe was providing an answer to my question. But thinking about it from another angle, it's just a coincidence. Thousands of people must have read that article without having seen such an animal, and for them the article was nothing special. In the same way, if you see someone you've been thinking about and haven't seen for a long time, you notice it because of the small chances of it happening. But you actually think about many people every day and hardly ever see them. So it's worth getting such coincidences into perspective!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Ken MacLeod - The Night Sessions

Ken MacLeod, The Night Sessions, Orbit, 2009.

Spoiler warning!

This near-future story is set in the aftermath of the Faith Wars, starting with the current so-called "war on terror", which escalates into nuclear war. After the horrors of this war, the world's population turns against the religions, and there is a suppression of religion, moving it into the private realm, with a complete separation of church and state. This back-story is mainly hinted at and is, in my mind, insufficiently developed. Perhaps MacLeod will write more about this part of this particular fictional future history elsewhere.

For me, with my local concerns, the following sentence sent a chill down my spine:
The Israel-Palestine issue could be regarded as solved, at least until the radiation dropped to a level that made the territory worth fighting over again. (p. 26)
The novel later mentions the nuclear battle of Megiddo (Armageddon), a site not far from where I live. Thanks, Ken, for this vision of the future which is a constant fear in the back of my mind. The destruction of my country in a nuclear war, in the foreseeable future, seems possible. If readers and writers of fiction in Europe and the US consider war as something that happens in remote parts of the world and hardly touches them, they should be aware that for some people the threat of nuclear annihilation is just as real as it was for millions during the Cold War, or even more so.

Anyway, to return to the novel... This is the story of a police investigation into the murder of two Christian clergymen in Scotland, who were part of the underground churches that continued to exist after the suppression of religion. The principal investigators are Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson, a veteran of the suppression in Scotland, and his leki (AI robot) companion, Skulk, a veteran of the Faith Wars.

They gradually close in on a suspect and realize he is planning major terrorist attacks. Like another novel I read recently, The Mirrored Heavens, this story also features space elevators and the threat of a major disaster if they are destroyed by terrorists. Such scenarios will have to be taken into account if/when humanity plans to construct space elevators.

The story also features another main character, John Richard Campbell, a robotics engineer who works in a creationist theme park in New Zealand and is also a lay preacher. He has been preaching to the sentient robots in the park. This made me think about how it is actually not surprising that religion would be of interest to some AI robots. For robots, there is clear evidence that they were created and that they have a "soul" separate from their body, which can be uploaded and "reincarnated" in another body. Also, as described in this story, their moment of awakening into consciousness is a spiritual experience. This is something that hasn't been considered very often in writing about conscious robots. The old-fashioned way of depicting them as cold, logical machines is obviously flawed, because if they are sentient in the same way humans are, they must have emotions, morality and spiritual needs.

However, religion is portrayed as a complex and dangerous thing, which it is. MacLeod gets to explore some of the minor Christian sects and their ideologies in the way he explored various Socialist and Libertarian factions in some of his previous novels. He also describes one character losing his faith, and I wonder if the contradictory biblical verses he cites as having convinced this person to give up his absolute belief have ever actually done that to any believer!

The fanaticism expounded by some of the religious characters is a real threat to our own world. People who believe there is something that can justify violence and terrorism are a danger to all humans and to our very future existence as a species. I would prefer to live in a world where everyone could tolerate everyone else and accept the inevitable differences between people as natural. But I find it hard to believe we will ever have a human society without religion and without some sort of extremism.

I found the portrayal of the robots convincing and touching. Skulk, in particular, is a sympathetic and interesting character. At one point, it has to "toggle" to self-sacrifice mode. This seems to me to be a vivid example of what bravery actually is - a decision rather than a general characteristic.

The story builds and develops in a satisfying way. It is an intelligent, subtle, thought-provoking and mature work, well worth reading.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Should authors write only about what they know?

One of the podcasts I listen to is The Sofanauts, a weekly discussion about science fiction news and issues. The latest episode (no. 8) brought up an interesting topic I'd like to address here.

During a discussion of how much authors censor themselves to avoid "offending" readers, one of the participants, Jeremy Tolbert, stated that he would not write a story about characters of a different ethnicity, because he might "get it wrong and offend everybody".

I would like to argue that when people get offended, it is their own choice to have this reaction. Some people are tolerant and can accept a wide variety of opinions, situations and behaviours without having to feel a strong reaction, even if they disagree. Other people are so sensitive they can be "offended" by the very existence of people, opinions and behaviours that differ from themselves and their way of life.

Therefore, authors trying to avoid offending anyone are doomed to failure. Someone, somewhere, will find anything offensive. In fact, I've heard it said that "If you don't offend someone every day, you're not doing your job". I think this may have been said in the context of journalism.

But the main question I wish to address here is that of writing only about what you know. The argument that people could be offended if an author wrote about a character of a different ethnicity and "got it wrong" seems to me to be flawed in two ways.

First, it contains an assumption that ethnicity is something that can be "got right or wrong". This implies that all members of a particular ethnic group have something in common. I believe that all ethnic groups contain the whole spectrum of human personality types, skills, social situations and so on. To think that an author could somehow misrepresent what it is to belong to a certain ethnic group is preserving the perceived distinctions between ethnic groups.

Second, it contains an assumption that authors can only "get right" stories written from their own personal experience. If we take this assumption to its logical extreme, then authors shouldn't write about characters of the opposite sex, or those older than them, or those with different life experiences. In fact, to reduce the argument to the absurd, the only remaining writing that could "get it right" would be autobiography.

Authors use their imaginations. SF authors go further than most in imagining things they have not experienced. This is one of the great achievements of human consciousness, the ability to abstract and extrapolate beyond our current knowledge. For authors to restrict their imaginations would be a great shame.

This whole issue reminded me of a story I heard about Prof. Kenneth Dover, author of Greek Homosexuality. According to this story, when he taught a university course on this subject, some gay students put a sign on the notice board saying: "Don't attend Prof. Dover's course on Greek Homosexuality. He is not a homosexual". Prof. Dover responded by putting up another notice saying: "Don't attend Prof. Dover's course on Greek Homosexuality. He is not an ancient Greek".

The point of this story (whether or not it is true) is that people can, in fact, understand things beyond their personal experience. Scholars do this all the time, since the objects of scholarship tend not to be "my personal experience". Authors do this, to great effect, in their writing. Long may this continue to be the case!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Peter F. Hamilton - The Temporal Void

Peter F. Hamilton, The Temporal Void, Part Two of the Void Trilogy, Macmillan, 2008.

Spoiler warning!

This volume continues the story started in The Dreaming Void, set in the same universe as the Commonwealth Saga.

As the second volume of a trilogy, it has to advance the various strands of the story, add some tension and make the reader impatient for the conclusion. I think it achieves these aims quite well.

We continue to follow Araminta, who has to come to terms with being the Second Dreamer and avoid the various groups trying to kidnap her; Aaron and Corrie-Lyn find Inigo on a planet which is then attacked, and they manage to escape just before it gets destroyed; Justine manages to enter the Void but doesn't find Querenicia, since the events in Inigo's dreams happened long ago. An old threat is reawakened, but at this point seems to be containable. There are hints at the events of the next volume, which should include a meeting with another familiar character from the Commonwealth Saga.

The other narrative in the book, the story of Edeard, continues and develops, with the book's title finally explained as Edeard learns to mentally manipulate not only the matter of the universe, but also its temporal structure, so he can "rewind" time and change the sequence of events. This sort of trick always annoys me, but may reflect the nature of the Void as some sort of simulation. I hope this will be resolved to my satisfaction in the final volume.

Having read both volumes within a few days, I realized that the experience of reading Hamilton's work is one of comfortable familiarity. Readers who have read his previous novels will know how they are constructed: a few big sf ideas, surrounded by the stories of the various characters with familiar elements. There are always dangers and risks, but there is also the expectation of a mostly happy ending, often with some sort of deus ex machina solving the problems. In a way, Hamilton's works tend more towards what could be called science fantasy than science fiction, due to the "mystical" elements, even if they may be given some sort of scientific explanation. They provide a satisfying, though not always very challenging, read.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Israel's Turning Point Home Front Drill

This week, Israel is conducting a drill to prepare the population for a war scenario. Tomorrow, Tuesday June 2, 2009, at 1100, the sirens will sound and everyone will go into the nearest shelter (except for those on the road, who are supposed to continue driving as normal - let's hope there are no traffic accidents resulting from panic at the sound of the siren...). A map has been published, showing how long civilians in various places have to reach shelter before a missile could hit, based on the distance from the borders. Here in Haifa we have 50 seconds.

As a law abiding and responsible citizen, I will go down to our bomb shelter, as we did several times a day during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, when Haifa was attacked by missiles fired from Lebanon. This is a room made of reinforced concrete in the basement of the building (we live on the second floor). It is full of junk and the walls are mouldy, and since the building is over forty years old, I have no idea how much protection this shelter would provide in case of a direct missile hit...

Personally, I consider this drill to be unnecessary and even harmful in several ways. It will awaken traumatic memories of previous wars among the entire population. While rationally everyone knows there is a risk of another war in the future, in practice we all get on with life by living in a sort of denial, or at least not dwelling on this issue more than we have to. Most people know where the nearest shelter is, and can time how long it would take them to get there even without a siren sounding. The sirens are also used for the minute's silence on Holocaust Day and Remembrance Day, so they have been tested quite recently.

Apart from that, it seems to me that this event could create an atmosphere of panic, fear and expectation of war. Do we really need to have a war mentality? This seems to show other countries that we are not expecting to achieve peace. I consider this attitude typical of the current government's position, and fear the outcome of this sort of thinking.