Not writing a novel month (NoWriNoMo)

Seeing all the recent posts that many bloggers have devoted to the trials and tribulations of NaNoMoJo…WiFi, ah whatever, month, I was reminded of my own agonizing attempts at novel writing, before I realized I’d rather write a good short story than a bad novel.

So, being something of an expert at not writing a novel, I’d like to present by far the best piece of writing I came up during that period.

‘The Novel’.

They say that everyone contains one novel,

Right, let’s have a go at writing mine.

Perhaps I’d better start tomorrow,

Trouble is, finding the time.

Have a coffee, read the paper,

Then get straight on down to work.

Watch TV for inspiration,

Peruse the contents of the ‘fridge,

Friends phone up: it’s someone’s birthday,

Down the pub, a celebration,

“Happy Birthday! Mine’s a pint,

I’m a novelist, you know,

Lot’s of projects in the pipeline,

Always something on the go.

No, no, no. I’ve nothing published:

Couldn’t prostitute my art.

I’ll let you read it when it’s finished,

Oh, yeah, cheers. I’ll have a half.”

Later, back at home, alone,

I wonder if the muse has come.

I sidle over to the table,

Take a look and there it is,

Still lying there, all white and perfect,

Unsullied and unblemished. Still,

Can’t start now, it’s far too late,

Better sleep on it, I think,

Inspiration in the morning,

When I’m feeling in the pink.

Now off to bed and dreams of fame:

“My book’s made me a household name!”

My epitaph I guess you’ve heard:

“He never wrote a bloody word!”

(ValisUmbra, 2001).


Writing: quality versus quantity?

“The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” – Albert Camus.

Camus obviously had no doubts about the importance of writing. His determination to ask big philosophical questions is everywhere in his work. Not surprising for a man who was active in the French resistance.

“If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.” – George Orwell.

Orwell was another writer perfectly ready to fight and die for what he believed in, as witnessed by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. His concerns about the control of language are echoed in this quote from Philip K Dick:

The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.” – Philip K Dick.

What would these great writers have made of the effectively endless blizzard of words online, where new writers are encouraged to maintain a constant presence in the form of an endless stream of posts, tweets, likes and shares.

In this constant push for ‘content’, is there any time for thought?

“Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions.” – Joseph Conrad

Some time before the First World War, E M Forster wrote a short science fiction story called ‘The Machine Stops’, set in a far future where humans live in individual underground cells with all their physical needs catered for by ‘The Machine’, a sort of intrusive, steampunk version of the internet. They only communicate through ‘The Machine’ and have a horror of direct experience of the outside world, preferring instead to spend their days re-examining and re-interpreting the thoughts and opinions of endless chains of others. How ridiculous.

Please re-blog, re-tweet and share this if you like it.

Thinking about thinking.

Last week the BBC repeated an episode of the science programme Horizon, subtitled ‘How You Really make Decisions’, originally shown in 2014. It caught my attention because it dealt in depth with one of the issues I touched on in my essay ‘Victims of Success (posted 19.11.17).

It focussed on how much of our thinking is fast, intuitive ‘type one’ thinking as opposed to slow, rational ‘type two’ thinking and how this leads to ‘cognitive biases’ that can seriously impair our ability to make good decisions. Over a hundred and fifty cognitive biases have been identified including over-confidence, risk aversion, loss aversion and, in my opinion the most serious, confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is our tendency to accept information that confirms what we already believe and reject information that disproves our existing beliefs. The programme illustrated the strength of this bias in a training exercise taken by a group of defence and security analysts in which only one out of twelve correctly identified the extremist group responsible for a simulated attack. What hope for the rest of us if such highly trained and supposedly logical people can’t overcome these biases? Can we overcome these problems if we are aware of them? Rhesus monkeys were also shown to exhibit biases like loss aversion, which would seem to indicate that this kind of thinking has been hard-wired into us for at least thirty-five million years.

The more we learn about the human mind, the more the apparent chaos of the modern world becomes understandable and the more inadequate our current social, economic and political structures appear. A good understanding of psychology is essential for civilized societies.

Disaster capitalists (via science fictional @ wordpress)

“The wealthy and powerful may in fact take climate change seriously: not as a demand to modify their behaviour or question the fossil-fuel driven global economy that has made it possible, but as the biggest opportunity yet to realize their dreams of unfettered accumulation and consumption. The disaster capitalists behind Eko Atlantic have seized on […]

via Disaster Capitalists — science fictional

Victims of Success

This is a mystery and a scare story. But it isn’t fiction.

S.E.T.I. (or Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) projects have been operation in one form or another since the nineteen-sixties to look for any signs of intelligent life beyond our planet. Far from being the result of wishful thinking, they are based on mathematical probabilities, summed up in the 1961 ‘Drake Equation’ of Cornell University astronomer, Frank Drake.

Even allowing that for life to develop a planet must be in the so-called ‘Goldilocks Zone’ (just the right distance from its star to allow liquid water, and gravitationally stable and sheltered enough to let intelligent life evolve), the  sheer number of solar systems* should mean that a huge number have intelligent life and, of these, many should have developed the technology to communicate across space. {*Our own galaxy is estimated to have between one hundred and four hundred billion stars, and ultra deep field observations by the Hubble space telescope led to the estimated number of galaxies in the observable universe being revised up to two trillion in October 2016}.

All of the different SETI projects duly went about trying to detect any sign of these technological intelligences in the form of regular looking patterns of signals anywhere on the electromagnetic spectrum, coming from deep space. Over the years the size, power and range of the telescopes has increased dramatically, as has the computing power used in analysing the results.

Decades later they have found absolutely nothing. Apart from being frustrating for those searching, many observers have found this strange, given the apparent probability of extra-terrestrial life (in the 1950’s, the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi asked the question ‘Where are they?’, leading to the lack of evidence for alien intelligence being called ‘The Fermi Paradox’).

Why has nothing been found? One of the elements of the drake equation is how long a civilisation lasts, and in a universe 13.8 billion years old this is an important question. Even if we imagine a technological civilization lasting as long as our entire recorded history of ten thousand years, that is the blink of an eye in the life of the universe. But once a civilization has achieved space travel, surely it should be able to foresee and avoid such calamities as meteor and asteroid impacts, or even the death of its own star, after all, our own scientists are already theorizing about such possibilities.  In trying to answer the question ‘Where are they?’ it seems that all we really have to go on is the example of our own evolution and history.

Perhaps we are unfairly biased in viewing our intelligence as a long term survival tool. The most useful adaptations, like eyes, have evolved independently in many different animals because they are good answers to common survival problems in most of earths environments, but only one out of the estimated five billion species that have ever lived here has evolved high intelligence. Yes the human brain is unique (the most complex natural object in the known universe), but the history of evolution is littered with extinct species with unique mutations.

Human dominance is the result of us being omnivorous, opportunistic hunter-gatherers, evolving large brains to cope with the problem solving necessary for that way of life. This ability has enabled us to adapt to changing circumstances as required: exploiting new food sources and whole new environments in a way that no other animal has been able to, making us a unique global super-predator.

Human language developed as part of our problem solving ability, allowing a level of communication that let humans co-operate to hunt larger, more dangerous prey and pool their resources for survival in general. Somewhere in pre-history (the archeology  seems to suggest around forty thousand years ago, judging by the sudden jump in sophistication of objects found from that point onwards), our ability to form and communicate ideas underwent a change as we went from just being able to make a few sounds to represent physical things we saw in the world around us to developing true language with the grammatical ideas of past and future. This let us form abstract thoughts: to remember the past and plan for the future in ways not previously possible.

Historically, and understandably, we have always seen our unique intelligence as a good thing: when your survival depends on it you’re not likely to think otherwise. But for most other life on earth, increasing human dominance has been catastrophic. Most of the largest creatures that lived alongside our distant ancestors were annihilated thousands of years ago. In the present ‘Holocene’ period the scale of plant and animal extinctions due to human activity has become so huge that many scientists want to rename the period from the industrial revolution onwards the Anthropocene period, with an extinction rate somewhere between a hundred and a thousand times the natural, ‘background’ level (with estimates of up to 140,000 species now disappearing every year).  It is only in the last thirty to forty years that we have begun to realize how much we can damage the delicate balance of complex natural systems that have evolved over millions of years by, for instance, killing the natural apex predators that might compete with us in some way.

It is understandable that our distant ancestors worshipped a natural world that seemed limitless to them. It’s also understandable that later people looked at the abundance around them and thought that our ability to exploit it must God-given. Modern people don’t have the luxury of those illusions. From the late ‘sixties when the first Apollo missions looked back and saw the earth we have all known just how small and fragile it really is: the ‘pale blue dot’, hanging in the dark infinity of space.

When agriculture began, around ten thousand years ago, the global human population is estimated to have been about five million. As the philosopher John Grey wrote in his 2002 book, ‘Straw Dogs’,

“The shift to farming did not have a single source. But wherever it happened it was both an effect and a cause of growth in human numbers. Farming became indispensable because of the larger population it made possible. From that point onwards there was no turning back.

History is a treadmill turned by rising human numbers. Today GM crops are being marketed as the only means of avoiding mass starvation. They are unlikely to improve the lives of peasant farmers; but they may well enable them to survive in greater numbers.”

The wealth and luxury that many people in developed countries enjoy today are proofs of human intelligence and technical ability, but much of humanity has been left behind. The sweatshop workers in poorer countries, who spend their days churning out goods that they can’t afford themselves, do not enjoy lives much better than those of our distant ancestors. Is this progress? Is this civilization?

In 2017 there are nearly seven and a half billion people in the world, all with the same problems, hopes and fears that people have always had.

Every day there are an extra two hundred thousand people. That’s about the size of a large town in England.

Two hundred thousand. Every day.

When agriculture began, around ten thousand years ago, the global population was about five million. It now increases by that amount every twenty five days.

Does economics provide an answer to the worlds problems? Hardly. The greatest negative impact on the planet does not come from the fast growing numbers of the worlds poor, but from the relatively small number of the vastly over-consuming rich whose wealth, contrary to what they have been telling us for decades, does not appear to have ‘trickled down’ to solve the problems of wider society. All over the world, in fact, natural resources have been and continue to be exploited for the private profit of the rich while the poor are left with the public, environmental costs. Our global economic system is based on the ideal of continuous growth in production and consumption. That is exponential growth: growth that continues for ever.  All mainstream political parties, economists and business leaders support this as the only sensible model. Yet basic arithmetic tells us that continuous growth of any finite resource is mathematically impossible (for a full explanation see Professor Al Bartlett of Colorado University’s YouTube video, ‘Arithmetic, Population and Energy’).

How about politics? Well, the utopian political dreams of the nineteenth century died in the industrial warfare and totalitarian nightmares of the twentieth, yet still, generations growing up in the cold war of the nineteen seventies and eighties looked forward to the twenty-first century when, surely, war and conflict would be things of the past. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the historian, Francis Fukayama announced ‘the end of history’, as if we had actually reached a new age of reason and peace. Then came ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, then genocide in Rwanda, then 9-11, Afganistan, Iraq, Guantanamo, waterboarding and Syria.

Many people look for hope and salvation in religion, believing that humans are uniquely made in God’s image. Historically, this belief has fostered the idea that humans are somehow above and separate from other living things, an idea that still persists a hundred and fifty years after ‘The Origin of Species’ and ever-growing mountains of evidence to the contrary.  Perhaps the most important thing about religious belief is what it shows us about human psychology: the absolute refusal to accept anything but what we want to believe, regardless of the facts.

Our histories are full of arrogance and folly: recurring cycles of aggressive nation or empire building followed by decadent decline or full dark ages. Knowledge and true civilization (which has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with behaviour) are fragile: easily lost or forgotten within a single generation in the chaos of war or disaster. Instinct and emotion, however, are always with us, always ready to supply quick and easy answers, however wrong.

How is this possible for beings as clever as we think we are?

A few years ago, some major charities, including Oxfam and the World Wide Fund for nature, commissioned a report to find out why their attempts to inform the public about the problems they were fighting were not bringing in more donations. The report, ‘Common Cause’, is an important document, with far wider reaching implications than originally intended.  It urges the charities to stop using the old ‘Enlightenment’ model of human psychology, in which people will always make the right moral and logical choice if given enough accurate information, because this is obviously not how most people think.

“Instead of performing a rational cost-benefit analysis, we accept information which confirms our identity and values, and we reject information that conflicts with them. We mould our thinking around our social identity, protecting it from serious challenge.”

Broadly speaking, our social identity falls somewhere between two poles: intrinsic, in which the dominant concerns are about empathy and community; and extrinsic, in which personal gain is always put first. In psychology, the structures of value systems that we fit new information into in order to make sense of the world are known as deep frames. Studies in nearly seventy countries have consistently found that people are more concerned with defending the views and values already embedded in these frames than with finding objective truth. Once embedded, these views and values become part of how we see ourselves. That’s why we hate being told we’re wrong or mistaken about something: we feel it emotionally as a personal attack that must be aggressively countered rather than reasonably considered.

The ‘deep frame’ values that people hold can be slowly and subtly changed over time with repeated exposure to information and imagery that promotes either intrinsic or extrinsic values. The advertising industry, as well as other parts of the media and some political parties have been using these methods for decades, promoting a culture of ever increasing consumption and obsession with wealth, fame, vanity and escapism that suits the aims of their extrinsic billionaire owners very well., despite all the evidence that this kind of over-consumption is pushing civilization towards disaster. What they have not done is examine their own psychology and motivations in the light of this knowledge.

We  see the same patterns of behaviour repeated throughout history and in the present, because they are driven by the instincts, emotions and immediate needs of individuals, not by concern for the greater good. Both our intelligence  and the technologies we create are just tools we use to get what we want: they do not make us more ethical or more civilized. Reason and logic are more often used to justify our actions after we have made decisions based on prejudice or greed.

We are now racing towards global catastrophe, led by people who are psychologically unable to admit the truth of the situation even to themselves.

In conclusion, I suggest the reason we find no evidence of any other technological intelligence is because, using our history as a model, beings clever enough to create the necessary communication technology will, like us, be the products of millions of years of evolution in which the aggressive, immediate survival instincts of individuals always overcome the powers of reason and logic necessary for the long term survival of the whole species and the wider environment. In short, they destroy themselves before they can transmit much evidence of their existence.

Space, though probably not lifeless, remains worryingly silent.