Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Guest Blog on Milford 2

Click here to go to my second Guest Blog for Milford Science Fiction Writers. This one's about keeping the joy in your writing as you develop a professional career. I hope it helps budding authors!

Monday, 29 May 2017

Cambridge Trip

May 25th/26th.
Went up to Cambridge on Thursday to see a writer friend and give her a hand campaigning for the Labour Party. On the train, I read Man of God, Chinua Achebe's Nigerian novel about the impact of British colonialism on traditional culture, told from the viewpoint of an Igbo high priest. The culture seems more alien to me that that featured in many sf stories, and the colonial British come across as obnoxious.

The fens are pretty at this time of year, very green, with plenty of cows and water birds. Ely Cathedral and environs are especially noteworthy on the Cambridge run.

At Ely, too, there was a minute's silence because of the Manchester  bombing.

When I arrived in Cambridge, the weather was still very fine and I saw lots of Labour and Lib dem banners in people's gardens. This is a refreshing change from Lincolnshire's unremitting conservatism, but Cambridge is a bit of a bubble.

When I arrived, Kari told me that Labour had suspended campaigning because of Manchester and anyway, she had a cold. We had a good long chat about politics and the science fiction scene.  This was morale boosting for both of us. I've been feeling very depressed and powerless lately, and it's just good to catch up with someone who is on the same wavelength.

Later that afternoon, Liz Williams and Trevor arrived from Glastonbury. Our simultaneous visit was pretty much a coincidence, and a pleasant surprise. I know Liz from Brighton, and we rarely see each other these days. Trevor I have got to know via the Milford writer's conferences, which Liz helps run. She normally brings Trevor and several dogs along to the conference, including the infamous postmodern artist Lilypup.

Liz competed her doctorate at Cambridge a while back, and was there for Friday night's annual dinner. Trevor, who has membership number 12 at CAMRA, just wanted to go the beer festival.

So we went to the beer festival, queued and got mildly pissed on good quality booze. This was fun and I bought a cowboy hat for professional reasons.

We also met up with some more friends of Liz, Trevor and Kari,  and I got chatting to a pair of guys, one of whom was doing a doctorate in wheat and the other who did programming for a special effects company. Cambridge is a bit like this. It's a hub for interesting (and frighteningly clever) people.

Later, we had the compulsory curry and Kari's partner also joined us.

The next day, not feeling too rough, we continued chats about life in Glastonbury, etc. Liz and Trevor are big on the pagan /occult scene there and run a witchcraft supply shop, a little like the one in Buffy.

This has resulted in the hilarious Diary of a Witchcraft Shop.  I'm currently midway through volume two which has various anecdotes about witty/psychotic/delusional employees and witty/psychotic/delusional customers, as well as stories about the town and their interesting life there.

Partly inspired by this,  I'm planning to make this blog less of a lecture and more of a diary. Although my life is generally less eventful than Liz and Trevor's sounds, it will be more fun for me and the wild Hebridean and his goat who form my readership. (I'm especially grateful to the goat!)

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The Argonauts of the Air

King's Lynn
Flying, for me, is an almost shamanic experience. My occasional flights on commercial airliners have often brought home to me the tiny scale of our globe. In 2014, for example, I flew from England to Egypt, via the Mediterranean. The experience of flying over the vast patchwork of continental Europe, the Alps, the Albanian and Greek coasts, and the Greek Islands triggered a shift to a wider consciousness. I fully understand, then, why so many astronauts experience what Frank White terms an 'overview effect,' or cognitive shift in awareness that comes from seeing the whole Earth in space.

This April, I was lucky enough to be taken up in a Cessna for a more modest flight, by a friend who's just received his pilot's license. The flight was from Rutland to Norfolk, but it was enough to get the same sense of this shift in consciousness. I hope that the accompanying photographs are enough to convey some of the wonder of the experience.
The plane

Our flight path was over Spalding, Wisbech, King's Lynn and the Norfolk coast, to Wells-Next-the-Sea. Wells was once the home of my Grandparents, and very familiar to me from childhood holidays. It's a different experience from the Air.
King's Lynn


The Norfolk beaches are wide, and fringed by mudflats that have many arterial river channels carved in them, and they go on for miles.

Viewing the Holkham estate from the air was also a novel experience, very different from the beach and pinewood rambles of my childhood. Afterwards, we followed the Norfolk coast, over the wildlife reserves and past the RAF bombing range over the North Sea.
Wells channel showing the caravan park,
pinewoods and beach.

The Lifeboat station at Wells
Holkham Hall
Boats
Mud flats and meanders

It's so easy to take the technological miracles with which we are surrounded for granted. Powered flight, invented less than 120 years ago, has long ago been relegated to the unconscious background of our lives, and yet, for me, in a way, it's a more amazing achievement than the most fancy smartphone. Flying like birds was a wild fantasy for millennia, and it took centuries of serious work to make it happen.

Flight is a nice example of what philosopher Mario Costa called the 'technological sublime.' Suddenly, you're working on a larger scale, as the houses, fields, woods, streets, towns and roads below dwindle in scale and individual people become almost invisible. Because of your increased speed, the cars and trucks on the roads crawl along at a much slower pace, almost as if you're on a relativistic flight.

It's so easy, living inland in England, to forget that you're living on a tiny island in the Atlantic. I think that the wider value of flight is to remind us, subtly, of the larger background on which our little lives play out, of which we are still largely unconscious.


Monday, 24 April 2017

The Voting Dilemma

Like a lot of people, I'm feeling extremely politically fatigued, and when Teresa May called an election last Tuesday, I had a fit of horrors. I generally come out as a Left-Wing Libertarian on the political compass, and the thought of a post-EU UK under a possibly perpetual Right Wing Authoritarian government fills me with horror.

It also feels humiliating having to vote in an election when the result almost feels rigged in advance.

So, voting.

I have long had grave doubts about the extent to which elections in the UK can be considered truly 'democratic.' I’ve a lot of sympathy for Rousseau’s caustic comments in The Social Contract:

“The people of England deceive themselves when they fancy they are free; they are so in fact only during the election of members of parliament; for, as soon as a new one is elected, they are again in chains and are nothing. And thus by the use they make of their brief moments of freedom, they deserve to lose it.”

I'm also aware of political philosopher Gordon Graham's arguments that the idea that voting represents the collective 'will of the people' is wrong. 

Graham argues that mass voting dilutes the power of any individual to such a great extent that the will of the individual is never going to be represented in the result.

Elections, Graham claims, only create the illusion of popular power, for the following reason. Some things, like public lighting, will benefit ever wider numbers of people as their use spreads. Democratic power, Graham claims, is not like that.

It’s more like slicing a cake an ever increasing amount of times. The more you slice the cake, the less the recipients benefit from the results. This means that

"the distribution of political power ever more widely results in its annihilation, and the move from autocracy to aristocracy to democracy is not the extension of power that it seems." (quote from the Case Against a Democratic State).

What this implies is that a single voter, in a mass system, has no political power at all. So how to account for electoral results? Graham sees it as a sort of emergent property, but not one that has anything to do with people’s will or intentions. This is because an election result will ‘depend upon a large number of uncoordinated individual choices.’ So the claim that elections are a superior form of government because they allow people to exercise their 'will' to decide who governs them is null and void.

These arguments aside, I'm feeling quite a bit of emotional resistance to voting. This is because I feel damned if I do and damned if I don't. If I don't I'm fated to have to listen to people sneer that if I don't like my current government, then I should have voted. If I do decide to vote, then it's in the knowledge that I live in a Tory safe seat, and so it feels like a futile gesture.

At this moment, I'm probably going to take Bruce Levine's advice. Levine is aware of the dilemma involved in voting and suggests that:

“...voting for Tweedledum simply because one loathes Tweedledee harms individual self-respect, and is dispiriting and bad for democracy." (Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, energizing the defeated and Battling the Corporate Elite).

He also suggests that a free choice on whether to vote or not is okay. So if voting makes you feel empowered, you should do it, whereas if it makes you feel more disempowered than you were before, then you should avoid it.

He also reminds us that the voting versus nonvoting issue is a just narrow part of democracy, something that Right-Wing Authoritarians like May would probably prefer that most of us forget....

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Guest Blogging for UKSRN


Click here to view my guest blog on the UK SETI research Network Site. Have Zombie Aliens Conquered the Universe? We should be Told....

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Two and a Half Minutes to Midnight


Being a Cassandra is a risky business. Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam, was a prophet who was considered insane, so although she prophesied true things, she was not believed.

Modern day prophets can run the risk of both dismissal and insanity. One of the most sobering books I've read recently is the Utopia Experiment, by an academic named Dylan Evans. The book concerns a disastrous attempt to set up a survivalist community in Scotland. Evans, a specialist in the philosophy of Artificial Intelligence, became convinced that civilization was highly likely to collapse soon.

As a result, he sold his house and scuppered his academic career in order to start an experiment in simple living. This was to prepare for the inevitable hardships that would come after civilization fell.

The experiment did not end well: the book opens with Evans interned in a psychiatric ward. As a result of these experiences, Evans ended up highly critical of those who believe that disaster is imminent, and strongly supportive of a high-tech civilization.

On top of all this, there have been end of the world prophets throughout history, who have invariably been wrong. However, most of those prophets were acting from personal revelation: today's tend to base their conclusions on a more empirical basis.

In January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the dial of the Doomsday Clock to two and a half minutes to midnight. The Doomsday Clock has been produced each year since 1947, and indicates the probability of a technologically or environmentally produced disaster.

Two and a half minutes is the closest setting to disaster since the early nineteen-eighties, when there was a significant war scare. It's also only thirty seconds away from the record two minutes, which was set in 1953 when the US and the Soviet Union exploded their first thermonuclear devices within months of one another.



Image:Wikipedia, Fastfission.

With the end of the Cold War, the dial moved significantly away from midnight; in 1991, it was at 17 minutes. However, over the next twenty years, it sauntered ever closer to twelve. This has largely been for two reasons: the beginning of a second age of nuclear confrontation, as many nations have gained a capability to strike with atom bombs, and in response to unfolding environmental disasters like global warming.

It should be obvious why the scientists decided to move the clock closer to midnight this January, but it's worth quoting from the report. The full statement can be read here.

"On the big topics that concern the board, world leaders made too little progress in the face of continuing turbulence. In addition to the existential threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change, new global realities emerged, as trusted sources of information came under attack, fake news was on the rise, and words were used in cavalier and often reckless ways."

A number of political trouble spots make nuclear war more likely, so it's surprising that this issue isn't commanding more attention in the media. The board notes that the "climate change outlook was somewhat less dismal—but only somewhat." This is because some action has been taken, and because carbon dioxide emissions remained essentially flat in 2016. However, this is no reason for complacency:

"Keeping future temperatures at less-than-catastrophic levels requires reductions in greenhouse gas emissions far beyond those agreed to in Paris—yet little appetite for additional cuts was in evidence at the November climate conference in Marrakech."

Against this background, the rise of what they term 'strident nationalism' is very worrying. Donald Trump's election is especially concerning because of his commitment to nuclear weapons, and his denial of climate change. I'd include Brexit as a further manifestation.

Nationalism, as Yuval Noah Harari suggested recently, offers no solutions for global problems. In fact, it's making things a lot worse because it's promoting discord between nations. In my view, its resurgence represents a significant failure of governance. As the board noted:

"Last year, and the year before, we warned that world leaders were failing to act with the speed and on the scale required to protect citizens from the extreme danger posed by climate change and nuclear war. During the past year, the need for leadership only intensifed—yet inaction and brinksmanship have continued, endangering every person, everywhere on Earth (my emphasis)."

In other words, in becoming preoccupied with distracting and resource-hungry projects like Brexit, our leaders are showing a breathtaking, almost suicidal, level of irresponsibility. Governments and populations who act so recklessly are in effect playing Russian roulette with civilisation.

This issue, by the way, goes beyond the usual tired disputes between the 'left' and 'right.' David Brin seems broadly correct when he suggests that the current significant divide is between those who accept and those who deny the realities of our situation.  I can't put it better than the board:

"Wise men and women have said that public policy is never made in the absence of politics. But in this unusual political year, we offer a corollary: Good policy takes account of politics but is never made in the absence of expertise. Facts are indeed stubborn things, and they must be taken into account if the future of humanity is to be preserved, long term."

Maybe we should be listening to Cassandra, after all.

Friday, 7 April 2017

The Never Bloody Ending Selfishness of Human Beings


I've been reading the great biologist Edward O. Wilson's new book, Half Earth, where he suggests leaving half the land surface of the Earth to nature. To me, it's an important and exciting idea, very like George Monbiot's proposal for rewilding. However, one chapter made me actually quite cross.

In chapter 9, 'A Most Dangerous Worldview,' Wilson outlines the view of those who call themselves, with no sense of irony, 'new conservationists' who promote what he terms an 'extreme Anthropocene worldview.'

The Anthropocene is the proposed name for the geological epoch in which we now live, the period during which human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Traditional conservation sees this impact as devastating. Not only are we responsible for things like global heating and ocean acidification, but also for initiating a sixth mass extinction of species that is accelerating in pace.

Apparently, the 'new conservationists' are not too bothered by this, advising those of us who are upset by, I don't know, the mass holocaust of animals and plants, to wake up and smell the coffee.

Wilson describes this view as follows:

'In this vision of life on Earth, wildernesses no longer exist; all parts of the world, even the most remote, have been adulterated to some degree. Living nature, as it evolved before the coming of man, is dead or dying. Perhaps, extreme advocates believe, this outcome was foreordained by the imperatives of history. If so, the destiny of the planet is to be completely overtaken and ruled by humanity -- pole to pole of, by and for us, the only species at the end of the day that really matters.' 

(Half Earth, p. 71).

This is exactly the self-serving attitude, I'm afraid, that I sense in movements like ecomodernism, which claims that it's possible to reconcile our high-tech, urbanised, consumer culture with effective nature conservation. Although this movement has merits, it's plain when you read the movement's works, that most of its advocates are thinking about conservation in entirely anthropocentric terms.


This attitude is also often apparent in discussions about the future. In Oxford last November, I picked up a copy of a debate on ‘Do Humankind's best days lie ahead?’ between Stephen Pinker and Matt Ridley (pro) and Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell (con).

Pinker and Ridley both argued that, despite doomsayers, the metrics of human material wellbeing had improved very significantly over the last few centuries, and continue to do so today. The future, therefore, should be rosy.

Alain de Botton, opposing this, focussed on human alienation in the modern world, and also the relentless, mindless positivity of our culture.

The narrow parameters of the debate, pro and con, were very revealing. The sixth extinction was barely mentioned, and climate change was discussed only in terms of it being a problem for human beings.

It is unacceptable when the mass extinction of other species gets written off as collateral damage, on the race to a capitalist techno-utopia. Ecological destruction, and the death of species should be considered, as the Pope suggested, major sins.

 Rationalizing unfolding environmental  catastrophes as good things strikes me as the worst kind of apologetics. And how dare we judge other species on whether or not they are any 'use' to us? How useful is a human being to a Duck-bill platypus? (Answer: not very).


I'd suggest that we have a moral imperative, not only to future generations of human beings, but to other life on this planet as well. This means that we stop congratulating ourselves on how wonderful we are and actually start thinking about how we can repair the damage for which we're largely responsible. A little more empathy and consideration for non-human lifeforms would also help.

Only then I think, can human beings count themselves as truly civilized.