Thursday, November 23, 2006

Sossusvlei, Namibia

20041217 Sossusvlei, Namibia 078
Originally uploaded by gakout.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The verdict on science fiction

Why do I think (some) science fiction is worth while?

Put simply, imagining a utopian or dystopian future is a necessary requisite to approaching or avoiding it.

One of the things that sets us apart from other animals is the ability to anticipate future events logically. We know, from careful observation, that the regular flooding of the Nile coincides with the seasons. At some point some Egyptian dude put his imagination to work, hatched a hypothesis and set off to prove it. His mode of imagining could have been superstitious (Ra is punishing us by flooding the Nile - must sacrifice more virgins) or logical (maybe the summer rains play a role).

Science fiction is simply a literary extension of that logical modality of thought. As if to prove its utility consider some of the predictions made by HG Wells around 1899: air conditioning, TV & Video, gas warfare, electronic billboards, "pleasure cities to placate the masses"! An oft cited example is Arthur C Clarke who first proposed the geo-stationary satellite.

However SF is not about predicting the future. Instead it uses the future as an altered frame of reference in which to test novel ideas or simply to ask new questions.

The science fiction I'm most interested in deals with imaginary possibilities of the biological, religious, political, psychological, ethical, philosophical etc. What and why are we, why did we evolve and on which path is our evolution headed, what are the potential future outcomes of current trends (thereby informing us about *the present*), what ethics would apply during extra-terrestrial contact, how human are human rights and who/what should they apply to, what is the nature and basis of intelligence, how far to take pleasure seeking, why do civilizations fail, what are the limits of automation, what are the most stable political forms, what is the aim and outcome of industrial development. To me these are, like, The Questions.

Why do others belittle science fiction?

'Tis true: I know otherwise intelligent people who dislike science fiction. Vehemently. What are they missing? Or should I ask, what am I missing?!! ...

Regrettably most non-print science fiction is pretty poor we'd probably agree. Mass pulp like latter Star Trek and Star Wars, where special effects take centre stage papering over flimsy plot lines and wafer thin character development, detract from a genre otherwise adorned by the likes of Bladerunner, Solaris and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (it qualifies).

Plenty sci-fi betrays an infantile escapism by placing sole emphasis on "he's from planet X" otherworldliness, reducing human interest to the padding between explosions & cool hardware.

So that kinda deals with the bad by saying "people think it's bad because it usually is". What about good SF? There are some greats in the genre: Stanislav Lem, Philip K Dick, Larry Niven, Vernor Vinge, Arthur C Clarke, George Orwell (1984 anyone?), William Gibson to name but a few. Why is it that many (most?) intelligent, scientifically literate folk see science fiction as nothing more than escapism for grown-up boys? This attitude is too wide-spread to be a mere matter of taste.

One possibility is that science fiction is, like medieval art, didactic . I read somewhere (?) that science is to science fiction as religion was to medieval art. In the age of the individual perhaps most people just aren't ready to be in a sense 'preached' to.

I prefer the explanation that good science fiction takes getting into. The realm conjured by the author is frequently detailed and complex, bending or dispensing with the rules we take for granted and take comfort in. It can be taxing and scary to do away with such unshakeable constraints and replace them with new & bendy ones.

...or maybe these pesky detractors simply haven't read any good science fiction lately!

Review: A Scanner Darkly

Yesterday Gerrie, Les and I saw Richard Linklater's film adaptation of Philip K Dick's novel "A Scanner Darkly". I saw it and wanted to write this before reading reviews.

In case you were wondering, it is not science fiction in any real sense of the word. The basic idea is (skip this para if you plan to see/read it!) the main character, played by Reeves, is so deep undercover as a narcotic agent in a post war-on-drugs world he is tasked to keep watch on his friends, his girlfriend and himself, all of whom are 'Substance D' addicts. He falls victim to the drug's addictive and mentally destructive properties which is what he is supposed to combat, ends up in rehab and finds out he is actually farming the selfsame drugs during his 'recovery'. This is signature Philip K Dick twist-upon-twist material.

The good
The cooky, acid-wavy, not-quite-comic-book visual style (I think it's highly posterized film footage or somesuch - not animation).
Woody Harrelson - reminded me of Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys
Robert Downey Jnr - a slick, sick fucker

The bad
There's a listlessness that prevented me from really empathizing with any of the characters. Several times I caught myself thinking this is not quite working, or "when will this flick come to life", "whats the point". Maybe I've seen too many slacker movies.
The whole theme of drug induced corporate paranoia is a bit passe

The indifferent
Keanu Reeves is ok but uninspired as usual. Still playing himself after all these years.
A somewhat clueless Winona Ryder.

A redeeming thing to say is I felt the same indifference towards the book (I much preferred his A Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which Bladerunner was based on of course).

In all I think it deserves a so-so 6/10 but it's mandatory viewing if you're into Philip K Dick or novel cinematic style.

Reminder to self: explore why almost everyone I know is religiously prejudiced against all sci-fi...

The Guardian, Times, Independent and FT all give it 6/10.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Mental health warning - the news is fake

Ok perhaps that should read "some of the news" and perhaps even "some of the US news". Regardless, allow me to introduce the latest innovation in mass media concentration: Video News Releases, i.e. fake news items produced by PR firms for clients corporate and governmental and aired by TV networks as real news.

From Sourcewatch:

Video news releases (VNRs, often referred to as fake TV news) are video clips that are indistinguishable from traditional news clips and are sometimes screened unedited by television stations without the identification of the original producers or sponsors, who are commonly corporations, government agencies, or non-governmental organizations.

The Centre for for Media and Democracy has published a report into the phenomenon with examples and analysis:

To reach this audience—and to add a veneer of credibility to clients' messages—the public relations industry uses video news releases (VNRs). VNRs are pre-packaged "news" segments and additional footage created by broadcast PR firms, or by publicists within corporations or government agencies. VNRs are designed to be seamlessly integrated into newscasts, and are freely provided to TV stations. Although the accompanying information sent to TV stations identifies the clients behind the VNRs, nothing in the material for broadcast does. Without strong disclosure requirements and the attention and action of TV station personnel, viewers cannot know when the news segment they're watching was bought and paid for by the very subjects of that "report."

It has been said (in a 1960s song by Gil Scot-Herron) that the revolution will not be televised. Evidently the counter-revolution will!

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Salafist totalitarianism; causes and treatment

This is a fascinating review of what must be a really great book by Peter Beinart entitled "The Good Fight: Why Liberals–And only Liberals–Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again". He argues in favour of a *massive* injection of aid into the Muslim world on the vast scale of the Marshall Plan after WWII, because...

...for Beinart, "salafist totalitarianism" is what the Cold War liberal Walt W. Rostow called communism–"a disease of the transition to modernization."
The reviewer goes on to counter:

He ignores the explanation provided by French scholar Olivier Roy, who has argued that jihadism is not a result of poverty or repression in the Muslim world, but rather of an identity crisis on the part of elite Muslims like Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta, who have been exposed to Western modernity.
Now this is fascinating:
Robert A. Pape of the University of Chicago, in an exhaustive study, has shown that suicide-bombing is a tactic used by populations under real or perceived occupation against occupying powers with democratic governments susceptible to public opinion, including Israel and the United States. If Roy is right, then the center of gravity of the struggle is Europe, not the Muslim world; and if Pape is right, the United States can somewhat reduce the appeal of jihadism by withdrawing from Iraq and limiting the American military presence in other Muslim countries.

(italics mine)

More at www.democracyjournal.or...

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Who is to blame: Israel or Hezbollah?

Of course things are not as simple as a silly dichotomous blamegame, despite the rhetoric from both sides. But you're defenceless to that very propaganda unless you have some historical context to explain what went before.

George Monbiot obviously has a certain (in my view perfectly tolerable) slant usually but this decent analysis of the recent history really opened my eyes:
  • The Israelis have been harassing the Lebanese in the south for years with low-flying supersonic flights over their populated territory.
  • There is a history going back to 2000 of shooting, kidnapping and casualties across the border from both sides.
  • Hezbollah's firing of rockets didn't start out of the blue in Jul 2006.
  • Mossad (Israeli intelligence) is thought to have been involved in covert black ops in Lebanon prior to the war.
  • Just as Hezbollah holds Israeli prisoners captive, Israel holds Hezbollah prisoners.
I am not trying to say the Israelis or Hezbollah are to blame. Just that there is a background to the war going back further than July 12 2006. As Monbiot says Hezbollah's actions were stupid and none of this changes that.

The claims about Israel's prior intentions to invade and distroy Hezbollah are obviously a bit bold but they're pretty well substantiated.

More at

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

South African crime: selected facts

I'm not going to pontificate, just state some indisputable facts:

  1. According to the United Nations, South Africa has the highest rate of gun-related crime in the world after Columbia(a).
  2. The South African murder rate is 51 per day (c). In Iraq on average 22 people have died per day in the last 12 months (b). The world frets about the dangers of post-Saddam Iraq.
  3. South Africa has 260 policemen per 100,000 people against a world average of 380 (a). So we are under-policed by a third. A THIRD.
  4. The South African Revenue Service is an amazingly efficient government department, regularly surprising the government and the markets with its larger than expected tax take. The fiscal deficit is considered modest and healthy. In other words there is money to spend on things like, say, policing.
  5. The Minister of Safety and Security Charles Nqakula recently said, in Parliament, people who "whinge" (sic) about crime should leave the country (d).
  6. As of this writing the government's own "programme of action" section on its own website is a month old.
  7. South Africa's world Human Development Index rank has slipped from 95th in 1995 to 120th in 2005, falling gradually each consecutive year (e).
The purpose of the state is, first and foremost, to protect its citizens. If it fails at this most basic level it can accurately be described as a Failed State.

a. According to The Economist
b. This is using the higher estimate given by
c. South African Police stats for 2004/2005 at the Institute for Security Studies
d. Well Mr Nqakula we get the message loud and clear. You're incompetent and you don't care.
e. Source.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Hypocrites unite!

George Meyer invites all hypocrites and "total nutjobs" to join the environmental movement in a spot-on hilarious article at the beeb:

True, when you go for a stroll on a Sunday afternoon, nothing seems amiss.

But as we know from horror movies, that's exactly when the giant alien embryos come blasting out of the sidewalk.

We're melting the ice caps, ripping up the rain forest, and vacuuming the oceans of everything that wriggles.

Are we really gonna wreck the whole planet? 'Cause that's a big move. That's like something a crazy stripper would do.

I know, plenty of people aren't worried.

Technology will bail us out. Nothing a few pollution-eating nanobots can't fix.

And if the ecosystem does collapse, we can always load ourselves into enormous rockets, and make a fresh start on Jupiter.

But here's the thing: I don't want to move to Jupiter. I don't even want to move across town.

Precious knick-knacks would get broken; I'd have to order new stationery.

Let's be real: even a well-planned move to Jupiter would be stressful, and tough on relationships. For this reason alone, we should not turn the earth into an apocalyptic hellscape.

That said, if we did turn the earth into an apocalyptic hellscape, a sick part of me would find it thrilling.

I would enjoy watching dazed stockbrokers and ad men clawing at the dirt for edible roots. I'd remind them that they'd been warned of their folly, right here on the BBC website.

And they'd all grunt ruefully, and make me their king.

I have often thought the right to hypocrisy is a basic human one. To opine is easy, to align actions with opinion is most certainly not. So perhaps I am just after an easy life or perhaps we need that easy fluidity to experiment with fresh ideas, to try on new opinions and test for fit without unpleasant consequences (such as the annoyance of life without jet flight and beef steak).

That doesn't mean one should stop trying not to be a hypocrite... you can always offset your carbon airmiles using something like climatecare and write sentimentally about the environment on your blog...