Sixties Relics

My father once told me that Exxon had had a red star for their logo, but in the climate of the Cold War they changed it. When the Soviet Union fell, he bought me one of their flags as a memento of history. He had explained tyranny when I was small, and the desolate vision of the police state stayed with me. All my life this flag had been the symbol of the terrible enemy; now it was suddenly the sad remnant of a dream of millions.

I was born after it, but I find I can’t entirely escape the sixties. Many who grew up then won’t let it go, and many did grow up then. In my early memories of the seventies are echoes of that time: relatives in a back-to-the land commune, tie-dyed t-shirts, brutal buildings.

When I was in Lausanne, I discovered an architectural relic of sixties idealism. It was a strange concrete structure, all curves and ramps, with a domed roof over a lecture hall open to the air, complete with a carpet and wooden seats and doors. Of course it hadn’t worked: the weather attacked the wood, and the theater was abandoned. Outside was an old concrete pond overrun with algae and scum. The only area open to me was the ramp on the roof which passed above all of this, so I could see down through the fences and barbed wire since added to protect the public. Like the Soviet flag, it was a relic of an obsolete dream.

Yet this ruin was a popular place. Families and old folks walked up the ramp to a flower garden beyond. On the roof of the building, kids zoomed past on rollerblades: the ramp, built for the wrong reasons, had evolved into the best rollerblading spot in town.

So when Cindy and I watched Harold and Maude recently, she complained it was boring. But I didn’t cringe at the painfully earnest idealism of a past age or at the betrayal of the self-centered characters. Like other melancholy relics, it’s a historical document.

2005-08-17

Foundation and Prophecy

Much of the successful fantasy that I have read is obsessed with prophecy. Perhaps it makes sense: it harkens back to the old idea of cyclic time, the reassurance that what was will be again. But I don’t get it. Prophecy robs the characters of agency; it turns them into puppets. Yet it comes up again and again in the most successful fantasy—and science fiction.

Two examples from fantasy will suffice: The Belgariad, which I loved when I was twelve, and The Wheel of Time, which was diverting (though with an infuriatingly childish view of the differences between the sexes) but rapidly became tedious. Both are about young men born into simple farming communities, unaware of their magical potential (echoes of Star Wars). Both replay events of ages past; both are foretold in prophecies. The Wheel of Time tells explicitly of repeating cycles, as its title indicates. The first book of The Belgariad is Pawn of Prophecy.

It is an old pattern. Achilles was fated to live to an old age, or to die young, a hero; Cassandra fortells Agamemnon’s murder—half fasting, half eating, half bathing, half dry1; Oedipus to kill his father and marry his mother. But in these stories the prophecy creates tension: Oedipus’s father, in trying to cheat fate, becomes trapped by it. Cassandra’s curse is that no-one will believe her. Achilles makes a choice.

In these newer fantasies, heroism is a birthright: it is like being born with money. The fate of these characters seems unearned. On the one hand, these stories seem to say, anyone could be born a hero or a prince, even a poor farm boy. On the other, heroism is in the hero’s blood, not in his actions. It is a terribly romantic attitude.

How strange then to find it in Isaac Asimov’s rationalist Foundation.

Foundation is about the fall of an empire and the rise of its successor. One man, Hari Seldon, predicts the collapse. He sees that the empire will fall; he sees too that it will be followed by thirty thousand years of barbarism. But Seldon is a scientist: a genius of psychohistory. This discipline applies scientific reason to predict the behaviors of large populations. Seldon uses his psychohistory to chart an alternate course for human development, one which will shorten the dark age to a mere millennium. He plants two Foundations and sets them on courses which will control humanity to bring about his shorter dark age (though reading the books, I wonder what characteristic of the dark age makes it dark: the fallen empire seems as flawed as the fragmentation that follows).

Asimov’s Seldon Plan is no less a prophecy for being based on scientific mumbo-jumbo. The naive faith that reason could predict so much is somewhat charming for its obsolescence; like the old Star Trek it makes me wonder that people really thought that way. But it too denies agency to its characters; they are cut-outs whose actions only reveal the power — and justice — of the prophecy. The image of Seldon reappears from time to time to demonstrate the truth of his prediction and underscore the control his science has over humanity. This all strikes me as profoundly anti-human (Wikipedia says paternalistic), and little different from the romances I might expect his rationalism would oppose.

What about the greatest commercial successes — Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings?

Star Wars lacks the explicit prophecy, but the story of Luke echoes both the fantasies I mentioned and the history of his father. More importantly, he too is born a hero: his Force is in his blood.

While Lord of the Rings shares some of the qualities of the other fantasies (the unlikely small-town heroes, the weight of the past on the present), it is not as guilty of predetermining the fates of its characters. While I am convinced that the true subject of the story is technology2, in Lord of the Rings it is race that dictates fate. Body and spirit are split into dwarves and elves. Orcs are fallen elves, echoes of Lucifer. Hobbits embody the romantic values of rural society beloved of Tolkien. Only humans are ambiguous, and they are not central.

The stories are without prophecy, but that doesn’t mean the characters are in command of their futures. What I don’t understand is the popularity of these stories in which heroes do not choose their fate, it chooses them. Do we like to think we are not in control? Do we believe that the only way we can achieve greatness is to have it forced on us? Perhaps we are sensible, like Tolkien’s hobbits, and don’t really want it at all. Though that’s not the choice Achilles would have made.

Notes

1 This is how I recall Agamemnon’s death and Cassandra’s prophecy; however, a short search online hasn’t turned up support for this version. There are apparently several variants of the story.

2 Several years ago, an article in the New Yorker explained Tolkien’s romanticism and his objection even to the first automobile in his town.

2005-07-06

The Banana is Big, but the Skin is Bigger

This isn’t about sex or the Asian experience in Canada (that sentence may draw a few confused Google visitors). At some point in high school, one of my English teachers told a story about the danger of drugs. A writer – perhaps Coleridge? – was high on opium. In his trance, a sudden a flash of insight revealed to him the truth of reality: of life, the universe, and everything. He wrote it down, and when he recovered from his trance, he read what he had written:

“The banana is big, but the skin is bigger.”

So, the teacher said, here endeth the lesson. Drugs are bad, m’kay?

I didn’t say a word, but I thought he was wrong. Now I think I can explain why.

“The banana is big, but the skin is bigger.” It’s obvious, but it’s not a tautology. The world is big, complex, unimaginable. The banana is one tiny grain of truth, but it doesn’t stand alone. It’s a truth connected to all of the other truths. It’s a Rosetta Stone for reality. For that one sentence to make sense, so much else must obtain.

A banana grows on a tree, which is a plant, with genes and sunlight and soil. For the skin to be bigger, it must have size, shape, dimension, physics; there must be a concept of skin and a concept of bigger.

We understand all of this in an instant, unconsciously. We think it’s trivial: it is not. How many computers understand the skin of a banana? How many animals? This is why computer programming is hard; why artificial intelligence is harder. To understand the skin of bananas, you must understand 95% of the world. The insight of the banana skin is that the world is complex and interconnected, that our understanding of it is subconscious.

The skin of the banana is an insight worthy of Freud. Maybe it is about sex after all.

2005-03-19

Lovecraft and Civilization

I just finished Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s book Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature. At first he captured my attention with his description of an ice-bound culture in which “dogs . . . were leaders of men” (44). But he details so many civilizations it started to read like a catalog: this kind of vivid material became too rare in the few pages of material accorded each civilization.

One thing did intrigue me: he quoted six lines from H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, and he did it right when I was thinking of the same thing. He surprised me again in the epilogue. He writes of an AIDS victim who built a memorial garden of decayed flotsam and jetsam on a desolate beach beneath a power station:

Civilization, we expect, will end on the beach. . . . Between the power station and the sea – symbol of human pollution and agent of revengeful nature – the garden, if not already dead, was made to die. Yet, as with so many civilized works, its very vulnerability is part of what makes it a monument of civilization: an act of defiance of the environment, a step in an unequal struggle.

I remember my first encounter with the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game was a review of Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, which compared the chance for player success to that of a group of ants attempting to derail a steam locomotive. Like the ants, Fernández-Armesto, doubts that human beings are “better than the rest of nature”. This man’s view of civilization is Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. Here’s the Call of Cthulhu RPG (d20 edition – I don’t think it misrepresents Lovecraft, for whom I cannot so easily find a quote):

Investigators . . . are not willing to surrender to destiny. Like Tolstoy, who in the face of poverty roamed the streets to give away all his money; or Dylan Thomas, who urged us not to go gentle into that good night, but rage against the dying of the light; or the man who stood before the tanks in Tienanmen Square, certain of defeat, but refusing to compromise.

The sentiment is universal. I just didn’t expect to find it in such a clear echo of Lovecraft at the conclusion of a book of history. How would Lovecraft react to his otherworldly vision of horror becoming so mundane?

2005-01-04

Imperial Defamation

I’ve had it up to here with being lied to by politicians. I’m through with being cheated by businesses. I’m fed up with being shut out of the conversation. My generation has been betrayed. We won’t be treated like second-class citizens anymore. It’s time this country lived up to its obligations.

It’s metric or nothing.

I don’t know what a Farenheit is. I’ve never met a gallon, although I know there are at least two kinds. My doctor records my height in meters and my mass in kilograms. Temperature is degrees centigrade, speed is clicks, and mileage is kilometers. I buy my salmon in grams and my mangos in kilos.

This is what we were taught in school. This is what we grew up with. The people I meet every day are from metric countries: China, Japan, Switzerland, Germany, South Africa, Australia, Iran. Even America, ever the last country to accept modernity, made metric official over a hundred years ago. The old fogies here who insist on imperial measures truly are that – imperial. They dream of forcing their idiosyncratic traditions on a world that has moved on.

At one time, so that customers could fairly compare prices, governments instituted standard weights and measures for goods sold in stores. Today, cheese and deli meat are sold in grams – usually. Fruit and vegetables and fish and other meat are sold in kilos in some places, pounds in others. What is cheaper – salmon at 5.89 a pound or 13.99 a kilo? How much does it cost to list metric on every sign? How much does it cost to build a satellite which misses?

This is my country. It is an international country. A cosmopolitan country. A metric country. There is only one response to the imperialists in our midst. If French Quebec can do it, we can too. Until there is metric on every sign, we will fight. Support the Imperial Defamation League. You have nothing to lose but your pounds.

A friend suggested doing something comic but serious about the metric situation in Canada, something like Adbusters. We would call it the Imperial Defamation League.

2004-07-28

Fear

I just read this story. Someone phoned the police because a student was photographing locks in Washington State. They were afraid he was a terrorist. He’s definitely a photography student.

Last week in Vancouver I was stuck in traffic for an hour on Georgia Street. It was shut down by police because of a suspicious package at the post office. There where wires sticking out, and a note inside explaining they were for cooling apparatus for sensitive crystals. This turned out to be true.

At the building where I live the door screeches if it is left over for four seconds or longer. Doors from the parking garage from the building are locked – in both directions.

People are afraid. Since 9/11 they are even more afraid. There are many things in the world to be afraid of, but there are hardly more now than three years ago. I won’t repeat the famous quote, but the world will always be scary. Fear is the problem.

Since the fall of the twin towers many people have become afraid of planes, afraid of foreigners, of biological material. With last year’s SARS outbreak they were afraid of people who cough. Since Columbine they have been afraid of students in black, who write, who don’t like school or who prefer computers to sports.

I am afraid too. I’m afraid there will be a wold pandemic of a new virus, or of an old disease with new resistance. I’m afraid of the stuff in my food and the increased rates of cancer, asthma, attention deficit disorder. I’m afraid that global climate change will produce mass migrations of population and destabilize everywhere. I’m afraid in this small world that the next war will be too big for humanity after all. I’m afraid – no, convinced – that someday there will be a nuclear attack on a major world city, using material from the decayed military of the Soviet Union. I’m afraid of the earthquake. I’m afraid of death.

One of my classmates in high school told me had he spent his whole life in fear of the coming nuclear holocaust. The mushroom cloud loomed over his shoulder; it kept him awake at night. I laughed at him: What do you have to worry about? We live in Ottawa. Surly the Russians can afford at least one nuke for the capital of Canada. We’ll never know what hit us – what is there to be afraid of?

There’s enough fear to go around. There always has been: the Moriori were wiped out by invasion. The Huron were wiped out by smallpox and war. Whole cities were razed to the ground by the Mongolian hordes. These people never know what was coming or what hit them. If fear is coming to us, will we really see it before hand?

These fears eat us up. They distract us from the lives we have and from the good we can do. They make us give up our freedoms and give up our joys. They make us watch each other suspiciously and shut down a city when we see white dust. They make us suppress our writers and our artists and our culture. They make us keep our children indoors. They simultaneously bring inaction where we could improve the future – thinking: what can we do? – and action which damages what we have. They do these things because we let them.

The world is truly no scarier than it has ever been. Sure, someday we may follow the dinosaurs. But we are luckier, we are healthier, we are longer-lived than the generations who came before. Remember how hard they had it, and then remember that history is written by the survivors. There was a time when whole nations were suddenly wiped from the face of the earth without warning. And yet in those times humanity struggled and slowly, somehow built what we have today. We must fight for something, not react against our fears, and strive for better.

2004-07-14

The Taste for Complexity

Once, I reveled in complexity. I studied the baroque rules of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and other complicated games. I knew the C programming language back-to-front: I delighted in the stringizing and token-pasting operators (# and ##) and gloried in the perversity of C’s declaration syntax. When I encountered a new system, whether it was a VCR, programming language, game, or what have you, I began by reading the manual cover to cover. Browsing Fidonet (similar to usenet) I thought how wonderful it would be to be overwhelmed by cascades of information.

I should be careful what I wish for.

One day I realized I had changed. I had stopped reading the manuals first, or at all. When I had to learn something new, I started by doing, not studying. I browsed through an AD&D rulebook and wondered why anyone ever put up with the mess. I became a fan of Piet Mondrian.

It could just be fashion; the nineties saw a resurgence of simplicity in design. It could be a matter of maturity. Maybe the brain fills up as we get older. Maybe there comes a point where we’ve seen it all before. Maybe life becomes busier and time becomes shorter and we haven’t the time or the patience. Maybe it’s all a matter of taste.

Now I am finding I like a little complexity after all. Maybe Mondrian’s look is just a little too simple (though before he died he started to jazz things up). It all reminds me of a quote I clipped from the Globe years ago:

When I was very young, I was disgracefully intolerant but when I passed the thirty mark I prided myself on having learned the beautiful lesson that all things were good, and equally good. That, however, was really laziness. Now, thank goodness, I’ve sorted out what matters and what doesn’t. And I’m beginning to be intolerant again.

- G.B. Stern

2004-05-04

Hitting the Wall

I was trying to explain to someone the other day why a small hack to add a feature to a program just wasn’t worth it. If you push a piece of software too far without going back and revisiting your design, there always comes a point when everything just starts to fall apart. That’s when you hit the wall.

Every piece of software has its wall. When you hit that wall, the cost of further changes and maintenance suddenly increases exponentially. Until that point, as you add features and hacks and fixes, you move ever closer to the wall. Some changes use up a lot of that space, others only a little. But the little changes matter, because any one of them could be that last step closer which forces the next big change to hit the wall.

In fact, the wall isn’t a property of the system, it’s a product of the human mind. The human mind can only encompass so many things and so many relationships. As a system grows, the number and complexity of these relationships increases geometrically, and at some point, they simply exceed the capacity of a single human to comprehend. Some people are talented programmers and can fit more, others can fit less, but in the end the limit is always there. That human limit is the wall.

The only way to move back from the wall is to refactor: if you can hive off one piece of the system from the rest, then you can treat it in isolation. This is how we build big software. As these pieces grow, they in turn must be refactored, and so on. Each piece must always be kept small enough for one person to understand. I think this is why Frederick Brooks says in The Mythical Man Month that you can only have as many programmers as components in your system. If you exceed this limit, the project will actually take longer. If two people are working on the same thing, then almost by definition neither one can keep the system in their head at the same time1. In effect, they’ve deliberately slammed into the wall.

Notes

1 Perhaps this is why pair programming can work in XP – you have two minds together on the same component; maybe there’s a little more space in their brains and hence a bit more leeway before they hit the wall. (I haven’t tried pair programming, so I can’t comment on whether this is true.)

2004-04-24

What do Beauty, Morality, and Fear have in common?

I wonder because these seem to be three important elements of spirituality. It is true that we tend to think that beauty is good – in nature, in people – not only ordinary goodness, but often moral goodness too. Religious art and people who speak of spiritual experiences testify to the bonds between beauty and religion. Fear is clear also – fearing God and fearing death are two powerful motivations present in all religions, and this fear is often explicitly linked to morality. But why are these three things all bundled up together? Is it a historical accident? Couldn’t there be two or three separate drives or institutions? If beauty is connected to morality, and morality to fear, is there a third connection between fear and beauty? Perhaps I have just picked out three arbitrary qualities of spirituality with no correlation beyond coincidence and the flow of the words off my tongue. Beauty, Morality, and Fear.

2004-04-20

Work, Play, and Civilization

In The Hacker Ethic, Pekka Himanen critiques personal development books (Seven Habits of Highly Effective People et. al.), and contrasts the values of the protestant ethic with those of his hacker ethic. One of these protestant1 values is that one should be goal-oriented. It occurs to me that this is the key difference between work and play. If you stop playing half way through, the play is in no sense a failure or not any less valuable. He describes how hackers like to play and experiment. This also makes me think of the old saying that life is about the journey, not the destination. So then life is about the play, not the work. I like that.

For some reason the clarity of this explanation makes me think of Robert Kaplan in The Ends of the Earth, where he suggests that the difference between the first and the third world is maintenance. Switzerland, which maintains everything and is nothing if not civilized, certainly seems to back this up. Sometimes when I see a public building or space here that is still in use but is nevertheless being allowed to decay and go to ruin, I think of this and wonder how soon we may fall from the arms of civilization.

Notes

1 Himanen uses “protestant work ethic” as a label for many of the values of our society; it is no comment on modern religion.

2004-04-17
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