13 February 2011

Egypt, Ends and Means

Congratulations to the Egyptian people on a wonderful, courageous revolution. I hope it spreads!

In light of recent events, I'd like to revisit a theme I have addressed many times: ends and means, and why Realpolitik isn't just immoral, but fundamentally irrational and counter-productive.

In 2005, I wrote, "[Successfully redefining our foreign policy] also means being honest with ourselves about the nature of the regimes in our so-called allied countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan and Egypt, regimes that are little better than that of Saddam [Hussein's former regime in Iraq] and, for our own interests, perhaps even worse."

And in 2003, "At least since the moment the morally depraved philosophy of foreign policy espoused by Henry Kissinger became our guidebook for dealing with the world, we have marched from one blunder to another. Why is it so hard for us to learn our lessons? We supported the repressive South Vietnamese regime simply because they weren't the communist North Vietnamese. We put the brutal dictator Pinochet into power just because he wasn't the socialist Allende. We supported the right-wing forces of dos Santos just because they weren't the left-leaning UNITA. We helped create the monster Saddam because he wasn't the Ayatollah. We supported the fundamentalist Mujahideen, the precursors of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, simply because they were fighting our communist enemies. And on and on and on, right down to our current tolerance of brutal Afghan warlords. This is the legacy of Kissinger's...[American brand of] Realpolitik: we consistently abandon moral principles in favor of short-term expediency."

In short, I suppose I could live with Henry Kissinger and his ilk, with their smug, self-satisfied contempt for decency in foreign policy and their ends-justify-the-means philosophy, if their policies EVER actually worked EVEN ONE SINGLE SOLITARY TIME. But these guys just never seem to get tired of being wrong. And for reasons I will never understand, every foreign policy 'expert' in every American administration (and from both parties) seems to agree with them, despite no one EVER seeing evidence to suggest they are justified in their confidence. This month, with the collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, they have been proven wrong (and hypocritical) yet again, and Obama was left standing red-faced next to (but supportive of!) a dictator one moment, asking him to leave the next! So just how many more examples do we need to burn through before we accept that there is nothing realistic or practical about Realpolitik? It turns out that letting decency and morality guide your foreign policy is also actually the logical, rational, reasonable thing to do. Why is that so hard to accept? Is it because people are afraid of being thought naive, gullible or foolish? But if the old way of doing things fails repeatedly and consistently, isn't sticking to Realpolitik the naive, gullible and foolish thing to do?

So here's a wild idea. Let's adopt a foreign policy that is consistent with the best ideals of democracy and decency. Let's stop propping up the bad guys, even when it's convenient for us in the short term. Let's stop selling weapons to thugs and sadists. Let's stop funding one terrorist to fight another. I'm not saying we ride in and play hero: as we saw in Egypt, revolutions work best when the heroes are homegrown. But if we behave in a manner consistent with our own values, at least we won't look so hypocritical when we try to stand next to those heroes once they've beaten beaten the villains; and at least those defeated villains won't have been our friends.

03 February 2011

Great Books, Part I of ∞ : An Optimist's Tour of the Future

I've no experience at all with book reviews. Giving my opinion is hardly problematic, as I warned in my inaugural post. But summarizing is not my forte. If anything, I tend to do the opposite of summarizing: give me a paragraph and I will give you a book. When trying to review an entire book, then, well....I just hope blogspot doesn't charge by the word.

Nevertheless, here I am trying to do a book review. Why? Because I am suffering from an embarrassment of riches of late. I have come across so many wonderful books in the last couple of years that I am bursting to share them all. I haven't come across such a wealth of wonderful reading since I was a very young man*, back when ALL wonderful literature was new to me. So, over the coming months, I will share some of these titles and my thoughts on their content and worth.

Among the most recent is Mark Stevenson's An Optimist's Tour of the Future, an insightful and inspiring (if occasionally mildly terrifying) book about the latest trends in all the technologies and ideas that will shape the world to come. I was fortunate enough to read an advance copy of the book, which is being released in the US on 3 February 2011. After I read it, I began a correspondence with the author, who is one of the most genuinely kind people I have had the pleasure to 'e-meet', the electronic nature of our acquaintanceship notwithstanding. I mention this only in the interest of full disclosure: I am reviewing a book of a person whom I have come to know (albeit to a necessarily very limited extent). But to be clear, reading and admiring the book came first and my reflections are thus free of any bias: I would not have reached out to the author had I not already respected his work. So with all the disclosures out of the way...

Think back over the past few years and think about the books you've read on the current state of the world and/or its fast-approaching fate. Then, when you get back from the pharmacy and take your copious amounts of anti-depressants needed to cope with those books, pick up a copy of this book and throw out the pills. Amid all the doom and gloom, here's a blossom of hope. Mind you, Mr. Stevenson is no naïf in rose-colored glasses: he approaches his subjects - among them some of the world's most brilliant people - with an intelligent skepticism, challenging their assumptions and never letting them off the hook when they try to wiggle out of the tough questions.

To get a sense of Stevenson's style and approach in this book, think about the motivations behind "What Are You Optimistic About?: Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better", combine it with the probing intelligence and never-say-die quest for creative answers behind "Freakonomics", then dash in the wit and wisdom of a Bill Bryson.

Each section of the book covers a specific topic, with subjects ranging from transhumanism to robotics to the environment to genetic engineering (to name but a few). But more interesting still are the people working at the cutting edge of these fields. In each section, we follow Mr. Stevenson around the world as he visits some of these leading minds of our time, visionaries like Ray Kurzweil, George Church and Vint Cerf. Through wit, charm and intelligence, he elicits a level of frankness that you will not witness in any other interview format. (In that sense, the book is worth the price for the biographical components alone.)

I think the biggest selling point of this book, though, is the way it alters the reader's whole way of looking at an exciting future that is so much closer than most of us might think. Stevenson calls it a 'reboot', and that's a very apt descriptor: the reader finishes the book with a sense of awe (and yes, some trepidation) about a future in which everything we have taken for granted for so long, is suddenly washed away in favor of very new definitions of things as fundamental as success, happiness, relationships, even mortality.

So put down the doom and gloom for a while, turn off the 24/7 parade of dismay and pick up this reason to be optimistic. The future is going to be a wild ride, and Stevenson's book is a good road map.



01 February 2011

Beam me up, Scotty.

I love science fiction. There. I admitted it. Star Trek. Star Wars. Stargate. Star-whatever. I love it all. But I do have an issue with what I call the internal coherence problem.

Internal coherence means that no matter how odd the rules of the game may be - i.e., no matter how fantastic the sci-fi premise is - once those rules are laid out, the plot must adhere to those self-evinced rules once they are set. In other words, the plot must be coherent with respect to whatever rules were used to define its own universe. So make up the rules and make them as crazy as you like, but once they are made, you have to follow them. And if you fail to set out rules, then your plots must adhere to basic logic, even if the rules of physics are set aside for the sake of fun. Let's take some examples.

-Language. No surprise I am starting here! I have no problem with Star Trek's universal translator. It's a clever plot device, the linguistic equivalent to the very convenient transporter technology of that same show. And at least it helps to address the problem of why everyone in space appears to speak perfect English. But it should follow basic logic in its approach. For example, it either works or it doesn't: it is confusing when 90% of the time it is on automatic and translating everything people say, but then suddenly someone can say a word in another language, but that one word isn't translated.

One area where it shouldn't work, no matter how clever these 24th-century programmers are, is with a completely new language. I don't care how advanced your technology is, me saying to you, "Hello, I greet you in peace, and by the way, your starship is double-parked in a handicap zone and is about to be towed" does not provide sufficient information for you to decipher my entire language. You can't deduce "I'd like to order a pepperoni pizza" from someone saying, "Hey, I love your cool starship".

-Space. You'd think one no-brainer area for people writing about stuff happening in space would be, well, space. I guess we're just so accustomed to operating in two dimensions, that we just forget how much space there is in space! For example, sometimes a ship is 'surrounded' by enemies ahead and to their flanks. It's SPACE, not the ocean. Just go 'up' or 'down' instead of forward. (These terms are used loosely, because of course there is no 'up' or 'down' in space...there's no fixed body against which to measure something as 'up' or 'down'....which is sort of the point here.) The other major problem is sound, which can't exist in the vacuum of space; but I give them a pass on this one: you need sound as a dramatic effect.

-Planets: Again, if you're writing about outer space, this should be something you get right pretty frequently, but alas, no. Some oddball things about planets in sci-fi: 1) Why is it that despite these planets often being at least as big as (if not bigger than) Earth, everyone always crash lands in the same place? What are the odds that two ships from space, landing independently at different times and with no predetermined plan, would land in, say, Tuscon, Arizona in the US? Blindingly little chance. 2) Why is is that every planet save ours has a world government with a single capital for the whole planet, and everyone speaks the same language across this world? We have ca. 200 nations and speak over 6000 languages...why do aliens just have the one government and the one language?

-Aliens. Why does everyone is space look human, only with funny noses or foreheads or ears?! Strange as it may seem, this is actually one that doesn't bother me as much as the others due to a variant on the theme of the so-called Law of Mediocrity*: evolution will often find the same answers to the same or similar questions. So, if billions of years of evolution lead to the dominant species being a (relatively) big-brained biped with a nose, two eyes and two ears, then it is not unreasonable to expect a similar model if circumstances are similar elsewhere. And since our definition of intelligent life presupposes an Earth-like planet, it may be reasonable to expect intelligent beings from space to be not entirely different from humans. In theory. Possibly. [Insert your own generic long string of caveats here, because we have no way of testing this idea!]

-Matter matters. For reasons I don't understand, one favorite plot line across many sci-fi universes, is the 'matter-less being' plot. Example: there's an accident (or some crazy device involved) and characters X and Y become invisible to everyone and can pass through walls. Fine...it is sci-fi after all. But then, how do they stay standing on a floor? If gravity and matter are irrelevant to them, what affixes them to the floor even as they can walk through walls? Shouldn't they be able to dive through floors as easily as they walk through walls? Very confusing.

*Sigh* There, I feel better now. Now I can go back to watching more cheesy sci-fi.


*It's not really a law.