Sunday, 29 January 2012

Life Of Pi

It's been too long since I posted here, having been seduced by the demands of my daily life, mynew married life in particular, plus the opportunity to do Facebook status updates and notes. I suppose it gives some insight into how my brain works that I choose to write about "Life Of Pi" on a blog called "Tangentville".

In any event, I'm back, having just finished the novel by Yann Martel. As usual, my main purpose in writing is to find out what I think, so this is neither a book review, nor an account of the novel.

If you haven't read the book, and want some clue what I'm talking about, or if you need a memory refresh and some background information, there's a good Wikipedia article here.

To judge from my last Tangentville post, I'm preoccupied by certainty - it's impossibility or dangers for us humans. "Life Of Pi" fed into this preoccupation as I read it. We don't know what is true; we only think we know what is true. To find ourselves worrying about what is true within a work of fiction is absurd anyway. We may have limits set by what we think is plausible, or too implausible to be tolerated, but everyone's tipping point will be different. For me, my implausibility threshhold is more likely to be triggered by behaviour that I find too unbelievable, rather than by events. I like a "believable" response to circumstances, however extraordinary those circumstances might be.

In the book, the central figure tells another version of his story to 2 Japanese officials, attempting to find the cause of the sinking of a cargo ship in mid Pacific on which Pi and his family were passengers. He retells his story in another form because they don't like the first one, finding it too incredible. Unfortunately, they likehis second version even less, because it's concerned with brutal homicide and cannibalism in a lifeboat, including the murder of Pi's mother. In other words, as it struck me, we go for the version of "truth" that suits us.

Interestingly, extreme adversity strengthens Pi's religious faith rather than destroying it. The worse things get, the more he turns to God. God, for him, is the result of his having been born a Hindu, and studied Christianity and Islam when a serious and studious 14 year old (his ordeal lasts for 227 days, and occurs when he is 16). His Hindu roots give him the good sense to draw strength from the different aspects of God which he finds in these 3 major religions. He is appalled when 3 priests from 3 religions find his multi-theological approach unacceptable to any of them. All three of them think that they are the exclusive repository of religious truth.

Even our deepest convictions are based on assumptions. As a totally blind person, I leap out of bed in the morning, confident in my belief that the floor beside the bed will still be there. Fortunately, so far, I have not been swallowed by an infinite chasm which mysteriously opened during the night, but the existence of the floor in the morning remains an assumption. A necessary assumption of course.

There are all kinds of other tangents sparked in my head by this story. The fact that Pi's name, a self-invented nickname in fact, is also a constantly recurring decimal number, at curious odds with his character, which likes order and neatness. This prompts a non-mathematician like me to wonder how something as precisely measurable as a circle's diameter and circumference can be defined by a constant that can't be precisely defined numerically. Maybe that expresses humanity's inability to see things in their real terms. Maybe we're not defining a constant correctly because of our limited tools. If we can't define Pi, what chance to we have with God, seen through a glass darkly?

As Pi says: "And so it goes with God".

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Certainty and expertise

Once again, Dr McGrath hits the spot with this post.

It really is what draws me to the Quakers' self-reliance when it comes to questions of faith.

We cannot look to the professed certainties of others to compensate for our own lack of conviction.

It is in fact remarkable that Quakers agree about anything. My own faith derives from the existence of core values of "love in action" associated with whatever the individual derives from their own "light". Improbable agreement plucked from the jaws of diversity.

To be able to live with this level of uncertainty may be intolerable to some but, in Addition to what Dr McGrath says about the true expert who knows his/her limitations, versus the certainty conferred by ignorance, any level of vagueness is surely preferrable to a certainty which would have us going forth to reek havoc against Christians, Moslems, or Jews, or anyone else we might identify as a pariah.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

"Virtual Light"

This post is my thoughts on a book I just read, not a blind person's belated April Fool joke.

William Gibson's 1993 book uses a definition of "virtual light" meaning information conveyed to the brain via the eyes and optic nerves, without the use of photons. But like any good novel, the quality derives from the plot and characters rather than from their imaginary technological context. I have never studied literature academically, so my definition of the novel in terms of plot and fictional characters is a personal one. It's relevant here, because I think there can be good Science Fiction which doesn't seek to be judged by the criteria which might impress me when reading John Irving for example. Isac Azimov is an author whose main preoccupations seem to be philosophical, as in the relation between humans and the machines they create, like "Multibank".

William Gibson's main interest seems to be in his extrapolation of an imaginary future, but he does have a gift for plot and character and, although "Virtual light" is essentially a good cop/bad cop story, it's a good thriller, in which a human instinct for justice and kindness is allowed to show itself among the many other less admirable human instincts, and the very powerful and very greedy are shown not to be invulnerable, which is fortunately and manifestly true.

The setting for the book is pure Gibson, and certainly has a ring of truth about it too. In this version of a not too distant future, anything we might call a middle class has vanished, and society seems broadly divided between those with conspicuous wealth, derived from a toxic cocktail of finance and security, and the rest, typified by hustlers trying to make a buck, while the trappings of our service economy have fallen into decay. The euro has "imploded", and the individual states of the USA havebecome more and more separate, while the have nots can no longer afford consumerism, and the great malls stand derelict. Tokyo has been destroyed by a massive earthquake, while San Francisco has been hit by a smaller one, "The Little Grande". this latter quake has destroyed the access tunnels to the Golden Gate bridge, rendering it inaccessible to traffic. Immediately, its massive structure is occupied by those looking for somewhere to live, and a whole community of random individuals grows up in a completely unplanned way, with people making use of whatever comes to hand, plywood, steel, even a stained glass window from a church, all worked into the cables, or lashed to the towers. Something of its spirit reminded me of Christiania in Copenhagen. It's a community whose only unifying factor is the need to protect itself; and the best way of doing that is for people to look out for one another. The best way to insure that someone will watch your back is their need for you to watch theirs.

This De Facto community is born out of individual necessity, and one of its original members is Skinner, who takes in a fever stricken girl, Chevette Washington, and nurses her back to health. The symbiotic relationship of the old man and the young girl embodies the ethos of "the Bridge". Skinner's increasing physical infirmity means that he needs a messenger to take various items which he has scavenged over the years down to the swarms of buyers and sellers on the bridge who will provide them with money to buy food from other sellers. In the process, Chevette gains from Skinner's long and invaluable experience and, because of the respect in which the old man is held, she remains safe while learning. In this version of our future, humanity's talent for adapting and surviving makes the stuff which used to be completely disposable now reusable, collectable, and tradable; the currency of those who have nothing else.

Eventually, Chevette gets a job as a bike messenger "pulling tags", delivering high value packages to the rich. These rich, taking refuge from the dispossessed in their gated communities, need private security companies like Intensecure to guard them. The story's good cop, Berry Riddall, finds himself working for Intensecure, being one of those people to whom things just happen, whose best instincts often run counter to the official line.

The disparate elements in this tale all converge on a pair of "Virtual Light" glasses, which Chevette steals from an obnoxious drunk at a party into which she wanders, being totally ignorant of what it is she has stolen, and how important it is to those who have lost it, believing the theft to have been planned.

These glasses, the latest and greatest model, give the wearer access to any data associated with the object being viewed - the ultimate espionage tool. So, anyone who knows what they're looking at can tell, by looking at the Sunflower Corporation building, that there is a plan to redevelop San Francisco from the ground up, as has already been done with Tokyo, without any view to the wishes or welfare of the current inhabitants. The corporate alliances behind this plan will stop at nothing to stop such sensitive information becoming public; and the gradual realisation of the "little guy" protagonists in the novel of what they have inadvertently got themselves into, and their attempts to survive, and to thwart the unbridled power of concentrated wealth, form the substance of the "thriller" part of this narrative.

Inevitably, some suspension of disbelief is required, but it's a story, and there's probably no more of it involved than there is in thinking that coincidences can happen which make things go "right" as well as "wrong".

I think William Gibson is to be congratulated for managing to make a thought provoking, and excitingly entertaining story from the treatment of themes such as what happens when mass consumerism fails, and wealth becomes concentrated into increasingly few hands. Among those whose principal concern is survival, the way in which the potential "love interest" story between Chevette and Berry is handled is particularly well done. Sexual thoughts are fleeting and tangential. This world is brutal, but not without warmth.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Duty and vows; failure and success

For better or worse, this post feels like the spirit of Tangentville, whatever that is.

It started with Edward Sturton's excellent interview with Tom Hooper, director of "The King's Speech".

Hooper depicts George V as a man driven by a sense of duty to do a job which he did not want, and by which he was terrified. That legacy has been passed down, and lies at the heart of what our current queen regards as the discharging of her role as head of state. An overwhelming sense of duty can give human beings tunnel vision, and can lead people into dark places. We may succeed in doing what we see as our duty or we may fail. Thus Diana, late Princess Of Wales, found herself caught up in others' sense of duty, the politics of royal marriage and the need for clear succession to the throne, while her husband, having discharged his duty to his family and country, clearly fell short of his obligations to a woman who loved him - obligations he had freely taken on. This is to say nothing more than sometimes we succeed, with good results, and sometimes we fail, with tragic results. Our success or failure may result from conflicting personal priorities, or from some endemic personal weakness.

Being lately married myself, I'm bound to think of the vows I have recently made, and previous vows I had to break in order to make them. All the individual can do is to follow his/her conscience. Every set of circumstances is unique. Past failure doesn't guarantee future failure, as those fond of making blanket judgments might say. And we may find that tendency in ourselves in different areas. For instance, it strikes me that the Roman Catholic church's monumental mishandling of the sexual abuse of children by priests has tended to make me hostile to priests who have done absolutely nothing to deserve hostility. Celibacy may be too risky for the Church hierarchy to insist upon it, but that doesn't mean it can never work for some people. As I say, sometimes we fail, sometimes we succeed, and only we can know the most likely outcome, based on previous experience and self-knowledge. It would seem that charles failed Diana because, God help them both, he did not love her enough. On an individual level, love certainly seems to be a better basis for human action than duty.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Marriage - what's new?

It's no secret, I've been married before - 3 times. It's also no secret that, last Saturday I got married for a fourth time. I don't look on the first 3 marriages as total failures but, to the extent that they were failures, I'm bound to ask myself why someone with my matrimonial track record finds himself embarking on a fourth marriage, with all those solemn undertakings, some of which I have previously failed to live by.

Previously, I thought I meant those undertakings, particularly in the case of my last marriage. Given that even I wouldn't be stupid enough to knowingly drag someone else or myself through the same gradual realisation that the necessary commitment was absent, What's New"? Last Saturday was the culmination of 2 years, during which Ann and I have wrestled with our differences and the pain we would visit upon others. During that time, love has emerged for me as much less of a balance sheet, concerned with how many planks of the dream platform might be present. Mysteriously, getting in touch with Ann via her blog (see blog roll) marked a rekindling of my interest in religion, and the extent to which my feelings about the reality of a spiritual dimension might amount to something I could call faith. At the same time, and prompted by Ann's lucidly written struggles with her own persistent faith, I've joined my local Quaker meeting, which suits me very well.

And so to what's new. Since we're both currently in the American Mid-West, last Saturday evening, I was prompted to fancifully observe that we had "Hitched our wagon to the power of transformative action". And that's the point this time. "Love In Action" is a big thing for the Quakers, and it seems to me like a major reason for believing in anything. To me, there's no point in professing something if it makes no difference to our aspirations and our lives. So, as I contemplate this fourth marriage to a woman who has already made great changes in my life, neither of us stands alone. If we try to be the best we can be, we believe that help and support is available. I hope and pray I now have a better understanding of what commitment means, and I, perhaps pointlessly, regret the suffering caused by my earlier failure to grasp it. Last Saturday, I made that commitment, not only to Ann and our family and friends, present and absent, but the Divine, "The Light", call it what you will, is now involved. This I believe, and that's "What's New".

Monday, 18 October 2010

Our craving for certainty

Certainty, and people who are certain, keep coming up. Once again, I'm reminded of one of its side effect by another MOI post.

The face value of certainty is obvious. We all want a simple life, in which X is true and Y is not. How are we ever to get anything done if we're always hedging our bets against the possibility we may be wrong, or to placate others? But these "others" may have their own certainties, opposed to ours. Does this mean I must face passivity and abject surrender? No it does not, because opinions and our view of what is right is much less the problem than is certainty itself.

The best science is the elucidation of uncertainty, by presenting a better approximation of what the truth may be.

A small example might be my personal take on religion. I believe in something which I call God, and very vague, but very marvellous it is. I feel my beliefs to be true but, even in so doing, I have to acknowledge the fact that my sense of god as some kind of distillation of the best of which we are capable, may simply be an externalised version of my conscience on a good day. I have no means of proving this not to be true. This makes a crucial difference to my attitude to my own version of truth.

Certainty is the enemy of humility, and without humility, the various ideological log jams which currently bedevil humanity can never be broken. Even the smartest human being is a creature of finite intelligence. In some measure therefore, we all possess the potential to be wrong. If our disagreements are born of the uncertainty inescapably part of the human condition, can we not take common cause in the preservation of the planet for all its people, and the future welfare of our grandchildren? If we can't be certain of the disease, let's start by treating the symptoms. You never know, we might all get along better in the process.

Friday, 10 September 2010

"The Other Woman"

To put it briefly, the other woman is routinely cast as the villain in instances of marital break up, and I think this is neither fair nor reasonable.

It has been suggested to me that a woman, especially a self-proclaimed feminist, has a duty of care towards her married sisters, which should oblige her to keep her nose - or anything else - out of their marriages. As a male, it is tempting to be offered a way of avoiding some of the responsibility for one's own actions, but it really won't wash. Even if a man is a stereotypically spineless creep, driven by his own poorly understood sexual urges, nobody except him is compelling him to act in this way. He cannot hide behind Eve like Adam and say "She made me do it".

I am not a student of Feminism, but from my understanding of it, on a point of ideology, feminists believe that men exercise disproportionate patriarchal power. This surely doesn't sit well with a view of women which would ascribe to them the power to act as the guardians of other people's marriages.

No, I'm afraid, men or women, those of us who have been instrumental in breaking up our marriages must take responsibility for having done it. I cannot hide behind the skirts of the other woman.

The impulse to blame a third party is understandable and touching; the refuge of love for those who cannot easily hate us. We are shielded from the full force of our former partner's rage by the luckless third party who gets it, in my view, undeservedly, or certainly disproportionately.

Now nobody would advocate the deliberate undermining of another's marriage. To deliberately disrupt a relationship by stirring things up, or to put pressure on someone to go beyond their own inclinations, would constitute unacceptable interference. Simply to find oneself in a relationship with someone, leaving them to decide what the consequences of that might be, is not interference at all. Undue interference is engaged in by other men as well as other women, and it is an issue completely separate from some imagined female duty to safeguard the sanctity of marriage.