Archive for January, 2015

SOD2I’ve been very much enjoying listening to Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen’s Science of Discworld series. The first book covers the history of the Earth in some detail, digressing into all sorts of interesting sidebars. The second, which I’m halfway through at the moment, looks at human psychology – discussing how we came to think the way we do. A key factor is our need to explain everything, to make everything into stories, which has developed for all sorts of very good reasons. For instance, if you’ve observed a pride of lions hunting zebras, you’ll have noticed they stampede the herd(?), cut off one or two, and ambush them. Hey presto, dinner for the lions. But if you make this into a story in your head, you can replay it, and add or change aspects. For instance, what if your best hunters happen to be positioned so that some of the stampeding zebras run into their line of fire? Abracadabra, dinner for the humans…

On the Discworld, there is an element which doesn’t exist on our Earth – narrativium. It embodies the law of story. There are rules in stories, and these rules are fundamental laws of the Discworld Universe. The good guys always win in the end, after surmounting almost-insurmountable obstacles. The princess always marries the prince. The eighth son of an eighth son is always a wizard, even if she happens to be a daughter. As we don’t have narrativium, just about anything can happen. The wizards find this difficult to understand when they end up on Roundworld, and it’s only brought home to them how important a distinction it is when they foil an Elvish invasion of prehistoric Earth, leading to a distinct lack of evolution in human psychology. You’d have to read the book to find out why, I don’t have time to explain it here…

So, yesterday, I was driving to work along Wollaton Vale. A number 35 bus was parked at a bus stop, showing no signs of moving on, despite there being no-one waiting to get on or off. Further down the road, at the next few bus stops, people were standing, looking in the direction of the bus. At the last bus stop before Priory Island, a lone man lifted his arm, peeled back his sleeve, and looked at the back of his wrist. I automatically made up a story in my mind to explain these observations: The bus driver was texting his girlfriend to tell her he was sorry for the argument they had before he left for work. The people waiting at the bus stop were impatient because the bus was running late. And the lone man was looking at his watch.

The first of these points is pure imagination. I really had no idea why the bus driver wasn’t moving on. The second is more plausible. Given the time of day (around 8.45am) and the town-ward direction of the bus, it’s likely that many of the people at the bus stops were on their way to work. Some of them might have been going shopping though. One or two might have been on their way home after a one-night stand. And even those on their way to work might not have been impatient. My final invention, the man looking at his watch, is the most likely. But even that is open to question. Perhaps he’d just had a tattoo done, and he was checking how it was healing.

Humans have an automatic and unavoidable need to explain everything – to turn everything into a story. The sun is pushed across the sky by a dung-beetle (well, it can’t just move like that on its own, can it?). Someone having an epileptic fit is possessed by a demon (that’s obvious, surely?). The world was created by an omnipotent being (it’s far too complicated to have simply come into existence and evolved to the state it’s in now). Everyone who looks like a Muslim is a terrorist (better safe than sorry?).

I have nothing against curiosity and imagination. If Newton and Einstein and Pasteur and every scientist that has ever lived didn’t have curiosity and imagination, we’d still be living in trees and chasing those zebras for food. I also have nothing (much) against generalisations and stereotyping, which are also elements of storytelling. It’s vital to observe, categorise and recognise patterns to inform our behaviour. We are unlikely to have perfect knowledge of every single kind of gun in the world, but if someone points something that matches the ‘gun’ pattern at us, we need to be able to react appropriately.

The problem arises with unquestioning acceptance of stories, and over-reliance on generalisations. If no-one had questioned Galen‘s medical teachings, we’d still be treating illnesses according to which humour was out of balance. And if we (Daily Mail readers, for instance) insist on seeing every single Muslim as a terrorist, or every single Catholic priest as a paedophile, or every single woman as a baby-making machine, rather than a person who is different from us but equally important and valuable, how are we ever going to reconcile the human race to itself and stop people killing and torturing each other?

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The Science of DiscworldI’ve just finished reading (OK, listening to) The Science Of Discworld, by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. I love Pratchett’s fiction – I’ve read and listened to the Discworld books over and over again. So funny, so clever. The book includes a story by Pratchett about how, due to yet another high energy magic accident, an infinite universe is created within a snow-globe-like object at Unseen University. After the mandatory Big Bang, matter gets itself sorted and produces a Roundworld, which goes through phases remarkably similar to our Earth’s history. The wizards watch this process (time moves differently on Discworld, you see), and sometimes influence it – not necessarily for the better. This story is interleaved with chapters that talk about the science behind the history of our universe and our world, also with great humour and, sometimes, satire. It’s a great book, and I’ve just started listening to the second in the series, which promises to be just as good.

One of the concepts the book discusses is ‘lies-to-children’. This is the tendency of humans to simplify information to a point where it becomes inaccurate, so that our children, or those who know less than ourselves (or are perhaps less clever), can understand what we’re saying. Of course, this is necessary in a lot of cases. You can’t tell a Year 8 kid all about quantum theory. You have to start with the nucleus and electron shells model of the atom. Otherwise it’s just too complicated. But this assumes that one of two things holds true. Either it doesn’t matter if the Year 8 kid drops sciences and never finds out that electrons are really complex probability fields (or whatever they are), or the Year 8 kid will always go on to find out what is really going on. If it does matter that she knows what’s really happening at a subatomic level, and she is just not interested in science, she might grow up continuing to believe this potentially dangerous lie-to-children.

I’m not saying everyone needs to understand quantum theory. No-one actually understands quantum theory. But I would argue there are some lies-to-children that do need to be clarified later in life. Over-simplification of ideals and facts can lead to possibly fatal misunderstandings. For instance… the bible is the word of the lord, and he influenced man to write the words that he wanted man to write. Therefore every word in the bible is true, therefore everyone must obey every word. No matter that there are contradictions within the bible, no matter that it was written by and for a very different culture. So the lie-to-children is the simple statement: ‘everything in the bible is true’. Perhaps a more progressive reading that would develop after further study would be: ‘the ideas in the bible show us a way we might find god’. The first of these would indicate that adulterers should be stoned to death. The second would imply that adultery is frowned upon and may be punished in some way.

I don’t believe in god, of any description. I just cite that as an example. So now, let’s think about the recent events in Paris, where (we’re told) fundamentalist Islamists killed 12 people at Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that fearlessly and defiantly published satirical cartoons and stories about Islam, among many other groups. I wonder to what extent uncorrected lies-to-children played a role in that action? Worth thinking about.

Some further thoughts I had revolved around the nature and effects of satire. Relevant, as Pratchett is one of the masters of the genre. He even satirises satire itself – see Interesting Times, where he not only satirises modern China, but he also satirises satires of the communist regime. It comes back to free speech. Should people be allowed to say whatever they want? Well, sort of. Yes, they should. But other people then have the right to say ‘You can say that if you like, but you just can’t say it here.’ And groups have the right to say ‘You can say that if you like, but we’re not going to give you a platform to say it.’ And people have the right to say ‘I don’t think your group should give that person a platform to say what they want to say.’ I’m not quite sure whether states or countries should be able to say ‘We won’t permit anyone in this country to give you a platform for your views.’ I’m pretty sure states or countries shouldn’t be allowed to say ‘We won’t allow anyone in this country to hear what you’ve got to say.’ It’s all a bit difficult…

But is it? Surely if hundreds and thousands of people say ‘We don’t want to hear you saying these things,’ that should send a message? And surely no-one has the right to say ‘You can’t say that, it offends me.’ You can say ‘You can’t say that, it’s inciting people to hurt other people,’ but that’s different. To take a hypothetical example based on actual events… That holocaust denial bloke is invited by the student union at your local university to speak. They have the right to do that. The bloke has the right to spout his idiocy. But at the same time, you and I have the right to protest to the student union that they shouldn’t be giving this bloke a platform. And we have the right to disrupt the event in protest. Similarly, the student union has the right to say to the bloke ‘Bugger off, you’re a nutter.’ That’s democracy.

What’s that got to do with satire? Well, satire is basically standing up to someone or some group or some idea and saying ‘Bugger off, you’re a nutter.’ And pointing out, with humour, exactly why you’re a nutter. And to my mind, that’s OK. I have never read Charlie Hebdo, I don’t know the ins and outs of what they poked fun at and how fair or right it was of them. But I don’t care. Whatever they say, whether I agree with it or not, they should be allowed to say it. And they most certainly should not be killed for it.

No-one should be killed for anything. By anyone. Full stop. And that’s not a lie-to-children, it’s a fundamental truth. So what the fuck is going on with this world?

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The first chick-lit book I read was Janice Gentle Gets Sexy, by Mavis Cheek. I spotted it in Oxfam, and the combination of the title with the author’s mildly amusing surname persuaded me to shell out a quid or two. I have no idea what the plot was, but I do remember that reading it felt like scoffing a bar of Dairy Milk – sweet and sickly, temporarily satisfying, but leaving a faint aftertaste of something not-quite-right. I’ve read a few more since then, and had pretty much the same reaction. Girl is desperate for bloke (usually the wrong one), girl has lots of hilARious misadventures, girl drinks lots of white wine, girl eventually (often accidentally) falls into arms of right bloke, everyone lives happily ever after. I have so many problems with this type of book, but I have to admit I usually enjoy reading them.

It's Not Me, It's YouI went to the Five Leaves Bookshop writers’ party last month, and had a lovely time. I couldn’t decide what to buy. (Of course I had to buy something, I can’t go into that shop without buying something. It’s a rule.) So I asked Ross for a recommendation – an easy-read novel. I didn’t hold out much hope. Ross doesn’t do fiction often, and doesn’t really do easy-reads either. So I was surprised when he leaped over the counter (no, of course he didn’t) and picked out this gem.

I read it over Christmas, in three greedy chunks. Yes, it’s an easy read, but it’s also clever and funny. Whether or not you’re interested in chick-lit, if you like smart, well-observed mainstream/romantic fiction, you’ll probably enjoy it. The story is about Delia Moss. She proposed to her longtime boyfriend, who then sent a text to his girlfriend saying he didn’t know what to do. Only he sent the text to Delia by mistake. End of relationship… you’d think. Delia spends the rest of the book working out that it wasn’t her fault that Paul was shagging around. Oh, and having hilARious misadventures too. Slightly more chewy than run-of-the-mill chick-lit, and leaving a much more pleasant taste in the mouth.

So. Why am I writing about this book? I guess it’s the title. It’s been racing round my mind for the last week or so. I thought I might share some of my thoughts – and these are thinking-out-loud type thoughts, rather than analysed-and-fully-thought-through thoughts, so might well not represent the final destination of my little whirring brain.

It ought to have been obvious to Delia that it wasn’t her bloody fault her bloody boyfriend was having an affair. She shouldn’t have had to go through all those misadventures to get to that conclusion (although how would she have met the gorgeous but initially irritating journalist otherwise?). It seems to be a common reaction to something going wrong… “What could I have done differently?” … “If only I hadn’t said such-and-such.” … “I shouldn’t have done this-that-or-the-other.” It’s a very self-regarding attitude, in some ways. As if “I” am the only person who could have influenced events, the only person who could (or should) have made a difference. I suppose it’s the opposite of the denial position exemplified by “I’ve done nothing wrong, it’s everyone else who should have behaved differently.” And I suppose it’s a continuum of blame-assignment – somewhere along the line connecting “It’s all my fault” to “It’s all their fault” is the point representing the true state of affairs, the location of which may or may not be easy to determine, or to agree upon.

There are two questions chasing that around inside my skull. First, what if it’s someone else’s fault? or no-one’s fault, just pure chance? And second, what good does it do to assign blame in the first place? Oh, and third… what if it’s all much more complicated than that? What if the blame is not 50-50, but 60-60, or 110-95, depending on your point of view?

I think it’s kind of like trying not to get angry about things you can’t do anything about, because it’s only yourself you’re hurting. Very hard to do, but mostly true. And thinking about it a bit more, the act of blaming someone (yourself, a specific someone else, or the universe in general) for things going wrong is often a significant cause of anger – in my little head, anyway. So perhaps the answer is to avoid trying to assign blame. Or to assess the situation calmly and accept the results. Or at the very least to be self-aware enough to know if you’re a self-blamer or an other-blamer, and to take any conclusions on blame you might come to with the appropriate level of scepticism.

I guess the most healthy response is to simply accept the situation and work out the best way to move on. Which might, of course, involve working out that the bastard man is the one to blame, and getting back together with him is probably not a good idea. There you go, the whole premise of a novel covered in a few hundred words. You’re welcome!

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