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Science, Fiction, and points in between

Wednesday 31 October 2001

Horror and Halloween

§ Lemony Snicket on telling stories without happy endings, in times like these.

The darker aspects of American culture have been getting a bad rap lately. Dark humor has been deemed unfunny. There are even a handful of towns that have canceled Halloween, because children shouldn't explore scary things in such scary times.

It is unlikely, however, that the story that began Sept. 11 will have a tidy resolution, one longed for by the more smiley-faced aspects of our culture. Although it is understandable that some would like to turn away from this difficult fact, there is a kind of solace offered by stories that show us how endangered orphans or weary detectives go on living. Halloween is here, and it would be a shame to banish all the ghosts and goblins just when we need them most.
New York Times, October 30, 2001

§ Miles Unger on how horror can be healthy, with comments from Peter Straub and discussion of a "Terrors and Wonders" art exhibition at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

New York Times, October 28, 2001

Friday 19 October 2001

This Is Now

§ What were you reading before Sept. 11? Is it still worth reading?

I love escapism and I read my share of junk. But good fiction gives us the only real escape. It gives us pleasure -- joy even -- and it keeps us asking questions and disdaining pat answers. I want to escape into language I don't hear around me every day, into tales and worlds that jolt, ease, thrill and unsettle me.
— Margo Jefferson, New York Times, September 30, 2001

§ Anthony Giardina thinks of classics by Auden, Cheever, St. Augustine.

The worst that could come of the events of that day (well, maybe not the worst) would be a world that has learned nothing from those events of how nations and cultures impinge upon one another, how values clash, how hatred grows, how the world -- not America, the world -- lives and thinks, and why men were willing to die for a belief that seems Iago-like to us, deeply unplumbable, crazy. The best that could come, it seems to me, is that we don't go back to our "wonderful, wonderful" world but proceed to one that will be, alas, immeasurably more difficult.

...In the midst of the bellicose early reaction, the wish to have our problems swiftly and decisively taken care of, let us take a step into deep and careful study. Literature will not tell us, ultimately, what to do, but it will serve as an invaluable guide in teaching us how to think about the immensity that now lies before us.
— Anthony Giardina, San Francisco Chronicle, September 30, 2001

§ There's no mention of the rock band Anthrax, but Michiko Kakutani insists the age of irony isn't over after all.

[T]he belief that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 will lead to kinder, gentler entertainment belies the historical record of reactions to earlier tragedies, wars and social upheavals. Though the Depression did indeed produce a host of diversionary comedies in 1933, five of the Top 10 box-office stars were comedians disturbing historical events have tended to elicit not PG- rated displays of inspirational good taste but darker works of art resonating with a culture's deepest fears and forebodings.

Nuclear fears and cold war qualms were also reflected in Stanley Kubrick's dazzling black comedy, "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964), and three innovative and influential novels that shared a World War II backdrop and an absurdist sense of history: Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" (1961), which suggested that we are living in a world where sanity is madness and madness is sanity; Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1969), which employed satire and science fiction as narrative strategies to recount the horrors of the bombing of Dresden; and Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" (1973), which depicted a nightmarish world in love with death and torn between acute paranoia and fears of random chaos.
— Michiko Kakutani, New York Times, October 8, 2001

§ Has contemporary literature drifted to the margins of culture?

[T]he present crisis does provide an opportunity to remind ourselves of just how far literature has distanced itself from reality, how much it has lapsed into mere navel-gazing instead of facing the world and all its complexities head-on, how preoccupied it so often is with showy (not to mention often meaningless) wordplay and literary games.
— Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post, October 8, 2001

§ The terror attacks raise important issues, but there's much debate about the applicability or even usefulness of words like 'coward' and 'evil' and 'irrational'. Does postmodernism undermine such meanings?

Postmodernism maintains only that there can be no independent standard for determining which of many rival interpretations of an event is the true one. The only thing postmodern thought argues against is the hope of justifying our response to the attacks in universal terms that would be persuasive to everyone, including our enemies. Invoking the abstract notions of justice and truth to support our cause wouldn't be effective anyway because our adversaries lay claim to the same language.

Is this the end of relativism? ... [I]f by relativism one means the practice of putting yourself in your adversary's shoes, not in order to wear them as your own but in order to have some understanding (far short of approval) of why someone else might want to wear them, then relativism will not and should not end, because it is simply another name for serious thought.
— Stanley Fish, New York Times, October 15, 2001

§ Just as Stanley Fish reaffirms his ideas, so does Francis Fukuyama, about the putative end of the end of history.

Modernity is a very powerful freight train that will not be derailed by recent events, however painful and unprecedented. Democracy and free markets will continue to expand over time as the dominant organising principles for much of the world.

All of the anti-American hatred that has been drummed up does not translate into a viable political programme that Muslim societies will be able to follow in the years ahead.
Wall Street Journal, via The Independent, 11 October 2001

§ So the difference between us and them isn't as simplistic as good vs. evil, but something almost as basic, and just as obvious: one side builds, the other merely destroys.

Stalin and Mao killed a lot of their own people, but even these thugs had a plan for their societies. You, bin Laden, are nothing but a hijacker a hijacker of Islam, a hijacker of other people's technology, a hijacker of a vast Arab nation's anger at its own regimes. But you have no vision and no plan for your people.
— Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, October 12, 2001

§ If a social effect of the attacks is increased public surveillance in the US, similar experience in the UK tells Americans what to look forward to. (Paul J. McAuley touches on this theme in an upcoming Locus Magazine interview.)

Instead of being perceived as an Orwellian intrusion, the cameras in Britain proved to be extremely popular. They were hailed as the people's technology, a friendly eye in the sky, not Big Brother at all but a kindly and watchful uncle or aunt.

Perhaps the reason that Britain has embraced the new technologies of surveillance, while America, at least before Sept. 11, had strenuously resisted them, is that British society is far more accepting of social classifications than we are.

The ideal of America has from the beginning been an insistence that your opportunities shouldn't be limited by your background or your database; that no doors should be permanently closed to anyone who has the wrong smart card. If the 21st century proves to be a time when this ideal is abandoned -- a time of surveillance cameras and creepy biometric face scanning in Times Square -- then Osama bin Laden will have inflicted an even more terrible blow than we now imagine.
New York Times Magazine, October 7, 2001

§ The attacks and their aftermath offer a case study in the creation of (urban) myths, the stories we tell ourselves in an attempt to fit the extraordinary into the pattern of the ordinary and the familiar.

The rumors swirling about since the Sept. 11 attack come in all types, offering instant explanations and confirming the most privately held hopes and fears. A few have even turned out to be true. Others, impossible to prove or disprove, have a life and legs all their own. Most, when examined with a cold eye, collapse.
New York Times, September 25, 2001

§ For instance, the infamous "accidental tourist" photo of a man on the observation deck of the WTC, with the approaching jet about to hit the building in view behind him, has spawned an entire genre of historical Kilroy-was-here/Forrest Gump-style digital composites.

Science Corner

§ Stephen Wolfram, creator of the computer program Mathematica, has created "a new kind of science based on simple computer programs rather than equations". A New Kind of Science will be published next January.

For about 300 years, most of science has been dominated by the idea of using mathematical equations to model nature. That worked really well for Newton and friends, figuring out orbits of planets and things, but it's never really worked with more complicated phenomena in physics, such as fluid turbulence. And in biology it's been pretty hopeless.

If equations aren't the right infrastructure for modelling the world, what is?

Simple programs. If you're going to be able to make scientific theories at all, systems in nature had better follow definite rules. But why should those rules be based on the constructs of human mathematics? In the past, there wasn't any framework for thinking about more general kinds of rules. But now you can think of them as being like computer programs.

§ It's not just "creation scientists" and "intelligent design" theorists who compromise principles of empirical science, but some respectable scientists, too: long, incisive two-part essay by Frederick C. Crews.

New York Review of Books, Part I
Part II

September Aether Vibrations

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