Monthly Archives: November 2017

A Story of Cognitive Bias, or simple Delusion?

There has been a growing amount of coverage on the fringe group of people claiming the Earth is, in fact, flat.
bOINGbOING have been having fun at their expense for a while, and Neil deGrasse Tyson rather infamously clashed with the rapper B.o.B. on the subject, leading to…whatever this is. Following the first Flat Earth International Conference, the BBC have gotten in on the act.

Don’t let Big Science lead you astray! We know the truth of the (Disc)World!

What with the current state of international politics and some of the more choice world-leaders at the moment, it’s clear that mass-delusion is the flavour of the day, but, really? Following the lead of Feyerabend and Kuhn, I’m no big fan of Scientism, but even I draw the line at some point. What is going on with these folks?

I came across an article recently, which may have been courtesy of 3QuarksDaily, which could shed some light. Unfortunately, my google-fu is proving unusually weak, and I can’t for the life of me find the piece in question. What I recall of it was roughly thus – Religion, so the argument went, is not really an irrational position to take for those who are born into it. There seems to be foible of our cognitive architecture that makes it difficult for us to question the coherent narrative we are provided with – e.g., if we are raised in a community where everyone we know, everyone we trust, says that a) the sun will rise tomorrow b) water is wet and c) the son of an obstreperous sky-god was born human and resurrected himself from death for our sins 2000-odd years ago, it all sort of hangs together. Each premise, the way we’ve come to them and the authority with which they’ve been invested provides mutual support for the next.  While, consciously, we might realise that some of these things don’t sync up, the fact that we exist in a community that is at peace with the contradictions prevents us from feeling the fractious nature ourselves. Or so the argument goes.

Now, something like faith in Science(tm) can be a bit of an ask – as most of the arguments from your mates in the Flat Earth crowd go, the idea that the Earth is an oblate spheroid of immense proportion is, well, contrary to common sense. Shit looks flat, right? But then, what about the fact that we’ve all been raised in a society that is steeped in truSt and respect for the our good priests the Scientists? Shouldn’t that, according to the argument, bridge the gap?

That’s aside from one of the more redeemable aspects of science, that, assuming you have the materials and finances, you should be able to replicate any experiments under your own steam (putting aside the cascading issue of non-reproducibility amongst all streams of science…). And oh the experiments you can do. I’m not exactly “overly-proficient” when it comes to maths, but I can appreciate that the proof of the world’s roundness is pretty standard geometry – which is why it was figured out 2500 years ago.

That Peter Goras, not just good with the Triangles!

Beyond the fairly basic maths, there’s also the various other proofs – satellites, circumnavigation going back hundreds of years, literal photos of the planet from space. GRAVITY. How do you look at all these and deny them? What alternative story do you tell?

A story of epicycles within epicycles, that’s what. The assumption of a world-wide conspiracy which would require the involvement of millions for generations beggars rational belief. The alternative idea, a disc ringed by walls of ice preventing everything dropping off the edge, has just got be beyond anyone’s willing preference. Also, in case you were curious, the sun has a diameter of 32 miles and is located – approximately – 3000 miles above the surface of Earth. So that’s a thing.

Gee willickers, look at the distance between Britain and Australia! No wonder that flight took so long!

As much fun as it is to poke fun at these people, I do have to reiterate my complete confusion behind the whole thing. I suspect there are a fair few people involved simply for the lolz, but it can’t be the whole of them, can it? What’s the appeal? How do you sustain the contradictions?

Hopefully the intrepid explorer that is Mad Mike Hughes will be able to provide answers on these questions and more, using nothing but his home-made, steam powered rocket. To fly. To space. To see the Flat Earth. This Saturday.

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Zombie Culcha

Repeat celebrity deaths this week, yoked one to the another by more than just the end of the life, but, in some ways, the defining aspect of it. I’m talking, of course, of David Cassidy and Charles Manson, and the year 1969. For Manson, ’69 saw the infamous murders he would later be imprisoned for masterminding. For Cassidy, this is the year he got his start on the Partridge family, launching him into the hearts of thousands if not millions of young women across the globe. Together, they are a Janus figure – Manson the twisted, long-suppressed thanatos of the era, Cassidy the commercialised, sugary optimism. Fitting, then, that they should shuffle off together.

Do you feel blame? Are you mad? Uh, do you feel like wolf kabob roth vantage? Gefrannis booj pooch boo jujube; bear-ramage. Jigiji geeji geeja geeble google. Begep flagaggle vaggle veditch-waggle bagga?

Does this signal a tide-shift, then? With these mobile archetypes finally gone, can society slough off the fetters of a long-past era? I doubt it.

All my life, Western culture has been dominated by a nostalgia for that period, 1965-75, and it has warped the production of just about everything around its own, particular focus. It makes a certain sort of sense – this was a period where the economy had been on an upward trajectory for some time, the people coming of age here more materially wealthy, collectively, than any the species had seen. The economic turmoil in the late 70’s, multiple crises in the 80’s and 90’s, not to even start into the morass that has been the first decades of the 21st century, only makes that time look all the lovelier in the child-like gaze of memory.
Nostalgia isn’t new, of course – even the ancients had a conception of it – but there was, is, something new about the duration and monetisation of nostalgia for this time. It’s uncontroversial that every generation will look back on their formative years as something special, but it seems like that period in the 60s/70s has been distinct thus far – the first time we’ve this mass media apparatus – the technical ability to keep near-perfect records, coupled with the commercial impulse to reproduce the simulacra, again and again and again. The cohort that ushered it in are still with us, if starting to look a bit ragged, and more importantly, still call the shots from the heights to which they’ve climbed. Not for nothing are millenials disempowered and cash-poor. These are the fruits born of that twisted tree: Eagles international tour 2018, with James Taylor supporting. For this year. And next. And forevermore.

The cultural landscape produced by this autonomic reproduction is no doubt what led to the outsize impact of the Great Celebrity Cull of 2016. Statistically, last year was in line with the usual expiration of famous people, but, because we are now into the period where Baby Boomers will drop off with greater regularity, and the fact that the last 3 decades have been spent deifying this slice of the population, these deaths packed a heavier punch. There was a collective feeling of personal loss, because, in a real way, the individual celebrities had been woven into the fabric of our lives. This will continue.

Growing up, I didn’t really have a sense of how dense this agglomeration had become – the fish doesn’t see the water in which it swims, of course – and it is only since my own childhood has been hooked up, in a much lesser degree, to the industrialised nostalgia machine that I’ve taken notice. Taken notice I have, though. I remember, maybe a couple months back, going in to the local Fopp (a subsidiary of HMV, for you none British-types; cynically triangulated towards a more indie, art-house crowd than the flagship shop, though similarly struggling economically) and taking a moment to soak up the space. The ‘new’ release wall was riddled with the latest offerings from legacy acts, slumming to pay their alimony. Stacks of Kerouac and Hunter S. could be seen beyond that, acid crisp in new edition. Oh, for sure there was something genuinely fresh buried underneath the detritus, like some sort of fungal growth feeding off the rot, but like a pig you had to sift to find it. Clammy, near-lifeless hands hanging on doggedly to the throat of the consumer was the impression.
And, to whom does our own nostalgia really play to? We of the 80’s delude ourselves, saying the like of Stranger Things is for us – but is it really aimed at the people who emerged from it, or is it a sop to those who lived it the first time through? It straddles a weird spot for me, between myself and my parents, but it’s only by way of the life-long inculcation of their media, their stories, their situation, that I derive as much pleasure from it as I do.

Bob Newby, vampire of the emotions

So, with the accelerating removal of the physical embodiments of this era, shuffling about in their  well-tanned agedness, are we likely to see new vistas open before us? I don’t hold my breath. The machine has been brought up to speed, and it’s too late to change course now. Too many people of my own age have been reared on this stuff to warrant an abrupt course change, or, heavens forfend, an actual shut down. There’s money to be made, and what’s the real difference anyway between a mostly-dead and an actually-dead Keith Richards?

Basically none.

Dull Days at Work

I forget precisely what it was that prompted the line of thought, which is irritating because it would have made a bit more sense of the whole thing, but I found myself wondering idly about counterfactuals yesterday, whilst at work. It was likely overhearing another conversation around me, but could be just as much a result of the larger milieu – centenary of the October Rev, Remembrance Day, these ultra-Nationalist marches in Poland – that had me thinking on these lines. Perhaps my memory will be jogged through writing this all out.

Because I’m in a rather tedious spell at the moment with the admin I’m doing, data entry not really occupying the mind very thoroughly, I have little games that I play to stave off boredom. Planning pieces to write, figuring out what to make for supper, playing out dialogues – common things that most everyone likely turns to, in one version or another. Feels a bit precious to even mention it, really, and certainly to think the fruits are worthy of attention, but, in this instance, there might be something instrumental in all the fluff.

Any rate, from what I recall, the thrust of the whole thing went something like this – I know, with a fair degree of assurance, where I’d be if it were 100 years back. Assuming I was living a similar life as my ancestors, I’d be stuck on the farm, or down a mine shaft. Furthermore, if I held the beliefs I do now (which is more of a stretch – though there is a definite chain of left-leaning attitudes in my family, my own positions are inextricably linked to the information I’ve had access to and the life I’ve led. Almost like they’re based in the material circumstances of my existence or something…), I’d probably already be dead, or banged up in jail for treason. I’ve got plenty of time on my hands, so I developed both possibilities a bit further.

Trust me, no-where near as idyllic as Carmichael portrayed it…

With the first, I was struck by the qualitative difference between my life today, and that of the hypothetical me a century ago. Thinking about the difficulty in trying to eke out a robust artistic life when you got home, dog-tired, from 8 hours of smashing rocks, or trying to form fructive networks when living a life of rural idiocy in a colonial hinterland, really brings home how fortunate I am now, and how petty my concerns can be at times. As much as I might feel a bit drained when I get home, shirking the work that I’d prefer to be doing for something mindless like FB or vidya games, it stands in stark contrast to the fatigue of physical, manual labour, with little hope that circumstances will change the next day or the next month. It’s true that the devices we’ve built for ourselves are being used to squeeze more labour time from us, whether white collar or part of the patchwork economy (a much more apt moniker than ‘gig economy’), where people are expected to be accessible at all hours through their mobiles, or actively internalise the pressure to grab every shift possible to them, but there are hard-won laws in place now (though they are being eroded) and these same devices have changed the jobs we all do.

Cutting back to the point, I’m aware that it’s a bit cheap to have to reach back to an imagined past for this sort of thing. There are literal billions of people alive right now with neither the material security nor the leisure time to pursue the things they wish, so it doesn’t really require a fantastical re-imagining of one’s place to know that you’re very fortunate to even whinge about the whole affair. Still, you draw strength from where you can, and perhaps the more tangible connection, that hypothetical genetic link, plays with the sense of self in a way that mere empathy does not.

Regarding the second hypothetical, it’s, in part, down to the aforementioned hard-won laws, the struggle of previous generations once again, that my situation is different now. We have a (circumscribed) political freedom in many Western countries, and conscientious objection is a more well-understood and societally acceptable position. On the other hand, the fact that I’m able to self-describe in the way that I do, to have conversations and espouse anti-national sentiments without fear of reprisal is also in a big way due to the relative weakness of my position. In the ‘teens and the ‘twenties, international socialism was a force to be reckoned with – labour was organised or organising, and had a sense of the power it could bring to bear. There was no baggage of Stalinist atrocity to live down when it came to branding. And, accordingly, communist groups were treated as the threat they were, deemed illegal across Europe and North America at various points, members and organisers jailed and killed. If ever there were a groundswell of true hard-left support (as opposed to this soc-dem stuff we’re seeing a la Corbyn/Sanders), it’s almost assured that this would happen again. Even now, weak as we are, any self-describing Communist is barred from political office throughout much of the US, whether it be at the highest or most local level – even though this is unconstitutional. In many countries there have been recent denunciations and vilifications of the ideology, wrongfully attributing the crimes committed by individuals to the idea as a whole, and we are seeing calls for more. Obviously, the dredging up of cold war rhetoric is a cynical move to rally the rubes, or, in the case of Canada, a sop to the quasi-fascist pressure groups the government is cosying up to, but it is clear that this is an environment hostile to the possibility of an anti-capitalist way of life.

So, yeah, that’s what I think about when I’m at work. Same as you, I’m sure.
I guess I’ll take what strength I can from thoughts about how my life could have been, while still keeping a clear head about the limitations of the actual affair. Also, still haven’t figured out what prompted the whole thing…

ST:D – A Most Unfortunate Acronym

ST:D – A Most Unfortunate Acronym

Came across this article over at 3:AM yesterday, and its focus on the thematic as grounds for critique of the new Star Trek series struck me as refreshing. I’ve my own gripes, which I’ll probably get to in due course, but they are rather more menial than those detailed in the article.

We get it, you were raised by Vulcans…

In brief, Daniel (article’s author) makes a surey of some of the recent criticism, and praise, for Star Trek: Discovery, highlighting the way in which it differs from previous series on a broad level. Apparently, there has been some approval for the shift to a more politicised approach to the content, unlike the way in which The Next Generation or the Original pursued a very pulled-back, future Utopian-esque feel. Daniel mentions in passing the now-super-cringe-inducing way ST: Enterprise had tried to grapple with current events, and, from what I’ve seen, Discovery has thus far avoided this, I suspect it is waiting in the wings. I appreciate the fact that all SF is really about the era in which is it written, but the plotting of ST:E was so ham-fisted it’s a wonder it lasted for the 4 seasons it did.

The article references the very perestroika-era nature of TNG and Deep Space 9, which lead to the rather smug, Utopian triumphalism on display, and picks up on Bifo Berardi’s recent work detailing the decline of a technologist Utopianism of just this sort. Berardi has been, up to now, someone I didn’t have a lot of time for, Autonomism striking me as one of those theoretical frameworks you get less out of than the effort you have to put in to understand, but the work referenced – After the Future – might be worth taking a look at. The bookends of the techno-Utopian project, that of Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto and the events of 9/11, seemed interesting, not least for the choice of these events in and of themselves.
This is not to say that the piece derogates the Utopian project outright – far from it, in fact. Counterpoised to Berardi’s pessimism for capitalist-technoUtopianism is the idealism of the early days of the Soviet revolution, espoused most particularly by Mayakovksy and the spirit of which is on display in Star Trek at its most succesful and heavy-hitting. Furthermore, there are good arguments that we need a Utopian focus, as it helps pull us through the drudgery of building a more equitable, worthwhile world.

For all its successes in carving its own trajectory, the article correctly upbraids the ST:D for taking the easy route on xenophobia. As was heavily discussed almost immediately, the presentation of the Klingons as religiously anti-Federation is meant to be a comment on the current state of American politics. However, as the 3:AM article points out, this has got the situation completely reversed. Thankfully, the data is coming to bear, and it is clear that the narrative of the ‘angry white working-class’ just doesn’t match the truth that it was affluent voters that allowed Trump his victory. But –

All of this points to the uncomfortable reality that hate and intolerance often emerge from within largely cosmopolitan societies, not from without. Nevertheless, in Discovery, the ideology of racial purity is assigned to an alien enclave entirely foreign to the Federation, suggesting that racism is not the left’s problem to fix.

It’s true that, despite good intentions, the previous series fell short of their “progressive” ideals in one way or another (<<cough>> <<cough>> rampant misogyny <<cough>><<cough>>). This, then, may be ST:Ds Achilles Heel.

Or it could be that the dialogue is wooden, the acting is crappy, the premise is dumb and rehashed, and the prosthetics are debilitating. Column A, column B?

I stopped watching after the 6th ep, back in mid-October, so I can’t really speak to any developments/improvements since. Still, it’s not too much to expect the series to have found its footing more than half-way through, is it?

This is the first I’ve seen of Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays the lead character Michael Burnham in ST:D, and I get that much of the issue lies with the really crap-tastic dialogue she is provided, but the human-acting-as-Vulcan really doesn’t cut it when it comes to building a likeable, engaging main character. Furthermore, can’t we put away this whole trope of “misfit learns to embrace their humanity”? The success of it in the characters of Spock/Data/Odo/SevenOfNine/whatever the fuck they used in ST:E was that they were part of an ensemble cast, and didn’t have to carry the whole of the series. As is, with the more linear narrative (as opposed to the potted episodes of previous series) of ST:D, Burnham is much too much the focus, and the struggle to come to grips with her human/Vulcan duality stretches pretty thin when it is constantly front and centre.

I know that I’m looking back on the previous series through rose-coloured glasses (I was a kid, alright?) and that they were super hammy, and the dialogue was often so stilted as to be somewhere in the stratosphere, but I can’t recall anything so grim as someone interjecting ‘Computer – add roasted tomato salsa. Cooked tomatoes are a great source of lycopene, remember that.’ Like, I get that they are trying to big up Burnham’s logical thrust, but, shit, it’s salsa. What the hell else is it going to be made from? Clunky.

Talking about clunky, can we address the prosthetics they’ve brought in for the Klingons? I’m not terribly down with the aesthetic changes they’ve made, as I’m not sure how you keep continuity (also, is this series meant to be in the same time-line as the other series? is it in the parallel universe of the reboot films? do we even know?) with what we see of  the Klingons later on, but I can appreciate that the show runners wanted to differentiate things a bit.
The problem is, while the visual presentation of the species is striking – or at least, the faces are, costuming is all a bit naff – the actors can barely move inside them, and it leaves the faces rubbery, devoid of emotion. It also undercuts anything they try to say – what used to be an expressive, highly dramatic species is left croaking out lines that are stripped of any impact. And it’s not as if they couldn’t do better – the work on the character of Saru, by comparison, is stellar. I just don’t know why you’d elect to have your major antagonist look as if they have no motor control of their face.

 

I think…he’s trying to smile?

If all this is meant to be in the main timeline, then the writers have done themselves a grave disservice. It irritates me no end when you get some tell-tale leap forward in a novel, some hint about a character’s fate, that completely undercuts any dramatic tension for the rest of the work, and it happens more often than you’d think. Here, if this is part of the same arc as TOS and TNG and all the others, well, we know that nothing actually comes of the Discovery and her crew, because the drive-technology that is so central to the whole series is never referenced in any other canon entity. It’s all moot. It’s bad story-telling, that hobbles itself before it’s even out the gate.

There’s a chance that Star Trek: Discovery will yet sort out its kinks and become a more balanced, interesting series. Sometimes it takes a season or so to hit stride, the start of TNG as a good example. All the same, it can do that on its own time – I don’t reckon I’ll be spending much more of mine on it. The 3:AM article, though, was interesting, and opened up lines of inquiry I hadn’t previously thought about.