Thursday, March 25, 2010

a word about a word... and about apples

By the way... the title of the previous post refers to an example of one of the many things that I loved about the book Anathem. Stephenson has the most elegant gift for politely drawing the reader's attention to the etymologies of words that we use without a second thought. Data is one of these. Frequently throughout the story, as characters engage in philosophical or scientific discussions, they refer to the "the givens" -- that is the pieces of raw information on which further arguments may be based. At one point in the story a character refers to the discipline of Datonomy and the person with whom he is conversing recognizes this as the naming of "the givens." When I read that my mind went wild, started racing, knowing that I knew the connection but couldn't quite access it. "Data, datum, dat, date, dato, da..." and there it was: dar! The Spanish verb meaning to give.
In all of my years of education, studying sciences, statistics, even a bit of the philosophy of science, I'd been using the word data every day without even considering its root. And that insignificant little passage in Anathem was what finally brought it all home. Data (singular, datum) must be derived from the same root word as dar, hence a datum is a gift.
It puts a whole new spin on the language of basic scientific investigation. Data, which so often is seen as the raw output of an experiment -- the stuff that needs to be analyzed and refined before it assumes the far more noble and desirable status of information is, in its essence, the gift given to the investigator... and like all gifts (if they are truly given freely), it is up to the investigator to decide how best to use (or abuse) them. The gift itself is neither good nor bad. It is raw material that is waiting to be utilized. Like all gifts, data is sometimes deserved and sometimes not, and it is up to the recipient of the gift to recognize the value of the data... or not. There are many examples of seemingly serendipitous scientific discoveries. Careful examination of these tales will usually reveal that the hero had spent years (even decades) working hard, slogging away at a problem, and without that preparation, would not likely have been in the necessary frame of mind to recognize the value of the discovery. All the same... Fleming's agar plates did grow mold (an accident -- a gift), leading to the discovery of penicillin; Röntgen's cardboard barrier turned out not to be as opaque as he'd assumed (an accident -- a gift), leading to the discovery of X-rays; Jenner happened to pay attention to the wive's tale (another gift) about milk maids not getting smallpox, leading to the development of all subsequent vaccines; and maybe... just maybe... an apple fell on Newton's head.
OK... so most don't believe that a falling apple had much (if anything) to do with Newton's descriptions of this revolutionary force called gravity. All the same, it's become the symbol of serendipitous scientific discovery. Interesting that it's also the symbol of something else: sin. Or is it? Not really... the "apple" that Eve takes from the tree isn't the sin. The sin is the fact that she's taking it when told not to, and that is entirely beside the point (for now). The apple is the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That's right... knowledge!!! The tree is the source of the knowledge. Just like data -- the raw pieces of stuff that are turned into information -- are the source of human knowledge -- the gift. Yeah... I'm stretching a bit now and I hope you'll all pounce with criticism, but still, the symbolism is just begging to be seen. And I'm certainly not the first to see it. Check out Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials! That tree of knowledge is the ultimate gift, the datum from which comes information -- information that accumulates to become knowledge and knowledge that is necessary to build a meaningful understanding of one the world in which we live. And remind me... who was it that told Eve not to eat of the fruit of that tree? Oh yeah... him again.

A datum from Neal Stephenson

A few days ago I finished reading Neal Stephenson's Anathem. It was one of the most enjoyable and satisfying books that I've ever read. As I told a friend when I was only a quarter of the way through it, reading Anathem felt like drinking a very rich, full-bodied wine (thinkAmorone or Barolo). It's an incredibly complex book that is still delightfully accessible. It's got layers upon layers of physic, philosophy, cosmology, culture and humor all tied up in a damn fine story. The book to which I'd be most likely to compare it is Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. The above mentioned friend, George, who is something of an expert on many of the topics covered by the book—a professional, in fact (he's a professor of philosophy)—wrote a review of Anathem that I encourage you all to read (don't worry -- it won't ruin the story if you read the review first!). George's review does more justice to the book than I ever could, so I'll conclude by saying that if you don't read Anathem you're denying yourself one of the finest literary treats to be had, and although the 1000-ish-pagedness of the tome turned me off for almost a year, by the time I'd read 100 pages, I was wishing the book was at least 3000!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Brazil, East Berlin and the End of the World

I recently watched two movies back to back. The first was Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others); the second was Brazil. Friend and fellow blogger Areophany of Martian Utopia Cafe was present for the first of these and wrote a short review of it, complete with links to the trailer, music and other reviews.
The second film, Brazil is not set in the country of that name. Its title refers to the song Aquarela do Brazil, known in Anglophone lands simply as Brazil. According to legend, director and co-writer Terry Gilliam was inspired to create the film when he encountered a man listening to the song on a portable radio while sitting all alone on an overcast day in the middle of a desolate coal-strewn beach somewhere in the UK. The contrast between the upbeat sunny cheer of the music and the oppressive tenor of the surroundings moved Gilliam to reflect on humanity in the face of adversity and out of these reflections was born one of the finest films of the last century.
Since watching the two films, I have found myself pondering their commonalities and the relative positions and motivations of their principle characters. There are two important characters in The Lives of Others: Gerd Wiesler, the high ranking secret police officer and Georg Dreyman, the playwright to whose life Wiesler listens with great interest (and ill intent). There is really only one central character in Brazil, the protagonist Sam Lowry. He is a nobody, a simple cog in the huge Orwellian complex of government ministries (Information Adjustment, Information Dispersal, Information Retrieval, etc.) that ostensibly protect the populace from a terrorist campaign of bombings that is well into its second decade ("beginners luck" as a high ranking official jovially pronounces).
The worlds of Brazil and The Lives of Others are both governed by oppressive authoritarian structures that thrive on media censorship, pro-state propaganda and invasive surveillance of their citizens. In both worlds the a range of responses is exhibited by the citizens to their state: complicity, cowed cooperation, sneaky little low-risk rebellions (watching old movies on work time) and premeditated covert actions that would be considered criminal by the state. There are plenty of movies and books about heroes rising from such environments -- people recognizing that the systems under which they live are intolerable and unjustifiable and then taking action (small or large) against said systems. Some of these stories are inspiring, some depressing, many both. The best ones are those that get me thinking hard about my own life, culture, government, media and the threats, real or imagined, that face me today or in the future.
My fantasies tend to spin out of control. In one possible future I see an intrusive Big Brother looking over my shoulder at every turn and me living in constant fear that any little unpatriotic turn of phrase or anomalous facial expression will provoke a bag over my head and a quick trip in an windowless panel wagon to a dank interrogation cell. Another scenario is largely inspired by a recent visit to the top floor of the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., where I gained a new appreciation for how easily a desperate, scared and adequately uneducated people can be led to tolerate and even support utter atrocity through calculated use of well designed media campaigns. I extrapolate from the currently vague and intermittent alignment of the modern media giants and the military industrial complex to a vast empire of multinational corporations that entirely supplant traditional government as such and control the flow of information to the masses so thoroughly and artfully that while everyone believes that the media is free, unfettered and honest, in fact every bit of information consumed is a carefully engineered fabrication, custom designed for each consumer, resulting in a population that can be controlled and directed to the finest degree without inspiring more than the most fleeting impressions of invasion or oppression. There are innumerable variations on the fantasy futures that play through my mind, but they all come down to the same basics: a corrupt and powerful few dictating the activities of the people by means of force, fear, deceit and manipulation.
In watching these two films back to back, rather than feeling the usual dread and nausea in the pit of my stomach, I found myself feeling impatient. Hardly a day goes by that I don't hear or read of another outrageous assault on freedom, humanity, civil rights or information and yet despite it all, my life goes on as usual. I eat the same good food, sleep in the same warm bed, receive the same monthly direct deposit paycheck and fumble, as usual, through my tax return. When is all the shit going to finally hit the fan? When is the horror going to come to my door? When do I get the chance to find out what I'm really made of? Am I a Sam Lowry, content to roll along with the tide of a depraved culture until it becomes so screwed up and insane that I'm forced to react? Am I Georg Dreyman, cognitive of the problems that surround me, fully aware of the corruption at the top and of the helplessness of those at the bottom, maybe a little bit smug in my superior understanding and occasionally trying to express myself (without risking too much) through some carefully crafted work of art? Or am I a Gerd Wiesler? Will I be a servant of the regime until some especially poignant ray of humanity illuminates my world, allows me to clearly see how vile I have become and inspires me to change, even if it means suffering the frightful consequences of spurning the powers at the top? Or maybe that ray will never shine through and I'll just keep doing as I'm told until I die, always relatively comfortable, relatively secure, relatively guilty, relatively damned.
Let's spice up the pot and add another story to the mix: V for Vendetta. The movie or the graphic novel, take your pick, they're both excellent. Here we're given a few more kinds of responses to a very 1984-esque civilization. In addition to an almost Gerd Wiesler type in policeman Dominic Stone, we've got the titular character, V, a victim of state sanctioned human experimentation who has become a masked vigilante, out to destroy the evil government. Evey Hammond is a young woman working for the government's media arm, a Sam Lowry sort of character who undergoes a thorough transformation, eventually taking up V's mantle as the righteous champion of truth and freedom. V's character raises the idea of outright and even violent rebellion that leads to massive revolution. So in any of my envisioned dystopic futures, what is the chance of such a hero emerging? What is the chance that I could be him or at least his next Evey Hammond?
But there's another future that I consider to be far more plausible than any of the above -- one that is eloquently sampled at multiple time points in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. This book, which reads with a sensuous fluidity of phrase that is almost poetry, is a series of nested stories, each told in a different voice and a very different style. Each story is, in one way or another, linked to the previous, and together they span a period of time beginning in the mid-19th century and ending in an undefined future -- probably around 2150, give or take. In that future civilization has crumbled in ruin. Humans still exist, but they have reverted to a primitive tribal existence in which artifacts of (our) modern technology are curiosities, day-to-day survival is a struggle and human lifespans have dwindled back to the preindustrial standards of 20-50 years. In the book this future has followed a peak in technological and industrial progress that is just a little beyond our current state and that is accompanied by a system of governments and media that seems only a little more authoritarian and propagandist, respectively, than our own. The specific sequence of events that leads humanity from their advanced state of civilization to near ruin is not described in detail, but there are plenty of hints, many of which point to the all too real effects of climate change.
And that brings us to the next segment of this sprawling ramble of a blog post. With increasingly hostile weather on the coasts and droughts inland, the habitable and arable regions of the globe will soon have shrunk to such an extent that there will be widespread famine, which will, in turn, lead to conflict. The vectors that carry infectious diseases will converge on these same geographic areas and with increased temperature and humidity, they will thrive and fueling monstrous epidemics of death and suffering. As material and energy resources fail and looting of all types of productive facilities becomes rampant antibiotics and other simple medications will become unavailable. Those with guns and the will to use them will maintain their way of life for a little longer than others, but in doing so will have already sacrificed some part of their humanity. A few isolated groups may succeed in eking out a decent existence, at least for as long as they can remain undiscovered by the ever increasing numbers of desperately looting hoards. Science, art, music, literature -- much of what we love and enjoy in life will disappear as the struggle for survival comes to dominate all motivations.
It's a bleak future. I don't like it, but I think it's quite probable. I probably won't survive to see it achieve such extremes, but unless I die young, I'm sure that I'll see the beginnings of the fall. I expect to see costs of food, land, housing, health care and transportation rise to the point that those of us now living comfortable middle class lives will be making due in small apartments on very simple diets, farming every scrap of yard we can find and celebrating once or twice a year with a bottle of wine. I expect that after a relative peak in intrusive policing and surveillance and mind-directing media campaigns, a resource strained government will discover that its population is so focused on the basics of survival that such high-tech control measures are no longer necessary and that a few token food handouts along with occasional shows of force are more than adequate to maintain a semblance of order (think Soylent Green)... until everything falls apart completely and anarchy (so long idealized in the setting of adequate resources) shows its ugly side.
Over the course of a few centuries things might recover to some extent. Once industry has ground to a halt and the planet has had a few hundred years to recover from at least a little of the damage we've done, civilization may have a chance to grow again (assuming the human race has not gone extinct). And what would that recovery look like? The best depiction that I've encountered is in the fourth (and final) book of Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution series, The Sky Road. In MacLeod's version of the future civilization hasn't fallen quite so low as I expect it to, so the world of Sky Road may be a little brighter than reality, but it gives a good feel for the struggle to somehow regain a hint of humanity's glory days.
So now I've rambled far from my initial topics and have touched on many more works of film and literature than I'd initially intended. Humor me though, as I introduce another -- one that has aided me in my search for a meaningful response to the horrors and desperation to come. Author Stephen Baxter wrote a story called Last Contact (included in the 2008 collection of The Year's Best Science Fiction. It is an end-of-the-world story. The projected End has nothing to do with climate change, but is due, rather, to a massive cosmological event far beyond any human influence. Destruction of the planet is assured and unavoidable. Reactions vary, but one of the central characters in the story is a member of a team of scientists expending every last ounce of its energies to study the phenomenon that is soon to be its destruction. They do this knowing that it will do them no good, but hoping that just maybe, should another intelligence come afterward and attempt to make sense of what has happened, a faint impression of their work, a shadow of a signature of their research might remain and be of benefit.
The scale of the destruction portrayed in Baxter's story is far in excess of that which I foresee; the emotions evoked are similar though. I see monumental and inevitable doom and gloom ahead. I have spent much of the past year intermittently depressed, wishing that the world would come to its senses in time, change its ways and rescue itself. This wish will not be fulfilled. The end is nigh, as Watchmen's Rorschach's sign reads. There's nothing that I or anyone can do now. The damage is beyond humans' capacity for repair. So now that it's settled, now that I am convinced that the destruction of civilization as we know it is assured, what do I do?
When King David's first son by Bathsheba was sick, David fasted and prayed for a week, pleading for the child's life and making himself generally miserable in his anguish. When the child died, however, "David rose from the ground, washed and anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the LORD and worshiped; he then went to his own house; and when he asked, they set food before him and he ate. Then his servants said to him, 'What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while it was alive; but when the child died, you rose and ate food.' He said, 'While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me, and the child may live. But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again?'" (NRSV)
The horse has left the barn. King David's child is dead. I can stop mourning and wishing and hoping. From here on out I understand that destruction is a foregone conclusion. As horrible and regrettable as this is in the global sense, on a personal level it is a strange relief. Instead of wallowing grief and anguish I can now focus on what can be done. I cannot stop climate change and the four horsemen that will accompany it, but maybe in studying it, studying the human health effects associated with climate change I will be able to contribute some tiny grain of useful information that may survive the dark ages ahead and assist a future human race as it seeks to pull itself from the rubble and slowly rebuild. This is optimistic and ultimately just another fantasy, but it is something and it gives me a reason to go on... some meaning.
It also allows me to focus on how much I love of the life that I currently live. I don't know when the shit will hit the fan, and maybe I'll be lucky enough not to see it, but I know it's coming and this knowledge makes every moment of comfort, beauty and pleasure that I enjoy now all the more valuable. Since coming to terms with the end of the world as I know it, relationships have grown more valuable to me, natural beauty more moving, music sweeter, food tastier, sex more intensely pleasurable, wine more satisfying, books more engaging. Everything I touch and experience today may be taken from me as the world descends into chaos, but the memories that I make now will not desert me and if I am in one of the last generations to enjoy everything good that this civilization has to offer, I'm going to savor every second of it, soak up all of it and be ready to contribute to the oral traditions that may keep a glimmer of humanity alive through the long winter. I'm not likely to have the opportunity to be Sam Lowry, Evey Hammond, Gerd Wiesler, Georg Dreyman or V, as those characters are all products of civilizations, which flawed though they might be, are relatively stable. No, I am more likely to be Sol Roth, the old geezer sharing space in a tiny apartment, pouring over the occasional book and telling the next generation about real food from the good old days.
Then again, the best way to ensure that a particular version of the future never happens exactly as predicted is to foretell it as certainty -- G. K. Chesterton's game of Cheat the Prophet. So maybe even now, as I commit my ideas to this electronic page, I am doing my part to avert one of a thousand possible dismal future. Now for the other nine hundred ninety-nine.