Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Checks and balances

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About a third of the way through my upcoming book, while discussing the May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, I include the sentence: “The issue also featured Heinlein’s “Universe,” which was based on Campbell’s premise about a lost generation starship.” My copy editor amended this to “a lost-generation starship,” to which I replied: “This isn’t a ‘lost-generation’ starship, but a generation starship that happens to be lost.” And the exchange gave me a pretty good idea for a story that I’ll probably never write. (I don’t really have a plot for it yet, but it would be about Hemingway and Fitzgerald on a trip to Alpha Centauri, and it would be called The Double Sun Also Rises.) But it also reminded me of one of the benefits of a copy edit, which is its unparalleled combination of intense scrutiny and total detachment. I sent drafts of the manuscript to some of the world’s greatest nitpickers, who saved me from horrendous mistakes, and the result wouldn’t be nearly as good without their advice. But there’s also something to be said for engaging the services of a diligent reader who doesn’t have any connection to the subject. I deliberately sought out feedback from a few people who weren’t science fiction fans, just to make sure that it remained accessible to a wider audience. And the ultimate example is the copy editor, who is retained to provide an impartial consideration of every semicolon without any preconceived notions outside the text. It’s what Heinlein might have had in mind when he invented the Fair Witness, who said when asked about the color of a nearby house: “It’s white on this side.”

But copy editors are human beings, not machines, and they occasionally get their moment in the spotlight. Recently, their primary platform has been The New Yorker, which has been quietly highlighting the work of its copy editors and fact checkers over the last few years. We can trace this tendency back to Between You & Me, a memoir by Mary Norris that drew overdue attention to the craft of copy editing. In “Holy Writ,” a delightful excerpt in the magazine, Norris writes of the supposed objectivity and rigor of her profession: “The popular image of the copy editor is of someone who favors rigid consistency. I don’t usually think of myself that way. But, when pressed, I do find I have strong views about commas.” And she says of their famous detachment:

There is a fancy word for “going beyond your province”: “ultracrepidate.” So much of copy editing is about not going beyond your province. Anti-ultracrepidationism. Writers might think we’re applying rules and sticking it to their prose in order to make it fit some standard, but just as often we’re backing off, making exceptions, or at least trying to find a balance between doing too much and doing too little. A lot of the decisions you have to make as a copy editor are subjective. For instance, an issue that comes up all the time, whether to use “that” or “which,” depends on what the writer means. It’s interpretive, not mechanical—though the answer often boils down to an implicit understanding of commas.

In order to be truly objective, in other words, you have to be a little subjective. Which equally true of writing as a whole.

You could say much the same of the fact checker, who resembles the copy editor’s equally obsessive cousin. As a rule, books aren’t fact-checked, which is a point that we only seem to remember when the system breaks down. (Astounding was given a legal read, but I was mostly on my own when it came to everything else, and I’m grateful that some of the most potentially contentious material—about L. Ron Hubbard’s writing career—drew on an earlier article that was brilliantly checked by Matthew Giles of Longreads.) As John McPhee recently wrote of the profession:

Any error is everlasting. As Sara [Lippincott] told the journalism students, once an error gets into print it “will live on and on in libraries carefully catalogued, scrupulously indexed…silicon-chipped, deceiving researcher after researcher down through the ages, all of whom will make new errors on the strength of the original errors, and so on and on into an exponential explosion of errata.” With drawn sword, the fact-checker stands at the near end of this bridge. It is, in part, why the job exists and why, in Sara’s words, a publication will believe in “turning a pack of professional skeptics loose on its own galley proofs.”

McPhee continues: “Book publishers prefer to regard fact-checking as the responsibility of authors, which, contractually, comes down to a simple matter of who doesn’t pay for what. If material that has appeared in a fact-checked magazine reappears in a book, the author is not the only beneficiary of the checker’s work. The book publisher has won a free ticket to factual respectability.” And its absence from the publishing process feels like an odd evolutionary vestige of the book industry that ought to be fixed.

As a result of such tributes, the copy editors and fact checkers of The New Yorker have become cultural icons in themselves, and when an error does make it through, it can be mildly shocking. (Last month, the original version of a review by Adam Gopnik casually stated that Andrew Lloyd Webber was the composer of Chess, and although I knew perfectly well that this was wrong, I had to look it up to make sure that I hadn’t strayed over into a parallel universe.) And their emergence at this particular moment may not be an accident. The first installment of “Holy Writ” appeared on February 23, 2015, just a few months before Donald Trump announced that he was running for president, plunging us all into world in which good grammar and factual accuracy can seem less like matters of common decency than obstacles to be obliterated. Even though the timing was a coincidence, it’s tempting to read our growing appreciation for these unsung heroes as a statement about the importance of the truth itself. As Alyssa Rosenberg writes in the Washington Post:

It’s not surprising that one of the persistent jokes from the Trump era is the suggestion that we’re living in a bad piece of fiction…Pretending we’re all minor characters in a work of fiction can be a way of distancing ourselves from the seeming horror of our time or emphasizing our own feelings of powerlessness, and pointing to “the writers” often helps us deny any responsibility we may have for Trump, whether as voters or as journalists who covered the election. But whatever else we’re doing when we joke about Trump and the swirl of chaos around him as fiction, we’re expressing a wish that this moment will resolve in a narratively and morally comprehensible fashion.

Perhaps we’re also hoping that reality itself will have a fact checker after all, and that the result will make a difference. We don’t know if it will yet. But I’m hopeful that we’ll survive the exponential explosion of errata.

Hubbard and the Empress

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One afternoon in the early forties, the pulp writer Arthur J. Burks was seated in the lobby of a publishing firm in New York when he ran into his friend L. Ron Hubbard. The two authors had been close for years—Burks had seen Hubbard’s unpublished manuscript Excalibur, a work on the mind that he later called “the strangest book I ever read”—and their interests ran along similar lines. With the help of his wife and a second woman, Burks had been experimenting with spiritualism, and the three enthusiasts believed that they were in contact with a number of “monitors,” or spirit guides, who spoke by rapping on a table or through automatic writing. When Burks brought Hubbard home that day, it soon became clear that he was a promising addition to their group. In his occult memoir Monitors, Burks recalls of the man whom he calls “Redhead”:

Almost before we were able to explain anything that was happening to us, [Hubbard] told us this: “I was the first flier in the United States to gain a glider pilot’s license. I loved gliders. But sometimes I took too great chances and found myself in difficulties. I shortly learned, though, that when I was in danger, ‘someone’ looked after me. If I was trying to find the ground through the heart of a thunderstorm, and feared a fatal crash, and looked out to see a smiling woman sitting on one of my wings, I knew I would come through. She was always there, and visible, when I knew myself in great trouble.”

The others exchanged meaningful looks, and one of their “monitors” indicated that he had something to say. When Burks’s spiritual partner finished writing the message, it read: “His monitor is a saint. She was a woman. Tell him what has happened so far.”

According to Burks, they spoke with the spirit world for hours, with another guide providing “the name of Redhead’s monitor, together with historical data about her.” When they were unable to find the name in a dictionary, the monitor told one of the women to leaf through the volume with a pencil, which led to this dramatic moment:

Suddenly she stabbed down the pencil, holding several pages. The topmost page told the story. But the name indicated was an entirely different one! It was indeed the name of a saint, about whom much appeared in the big book. And at the very end of the biographical material appeared this line: “Also called…” And that name was that which had been given us, its middle letter holed by the lead pencil point.

Even if we don’t take Burks’s account at face value, we can add it to our limited stock of information about Hubbard’s guardian spirit. Years later, in the secret autobiographical document known as the “Affirmations,” Hubbard provided a few other details, including her name:

The most thrilling thing in your life is your love and consciousness of your Guardian. She materializes for you. You have no doubts of her. She is real. She is always with you. You love her very much. You trust her. You see and hear her. She is not your master. You have a mighty spiritual will of your own. She is an advisor and as such is respected by you. She is wise and worthy and never changes shape…She has copper red hair, long braids, a lovely Venusian face, a white gown belted with jade squares. She wears gold slippers. Thus you see her…Only Flavia Julia and then the All Powerful have opinions worth inclining toward.

Who was Flavia Julia, and what did she mean to Hubbard? There have been a number of efforts to fill in the blanks, beginning with a letter that the author’s friend Jack Parsons wrote to Aleister Crowley: “[Hubbard] describes his Angel as a beautiful winged woman with red hair whom he calls the Empress and who has guided him through his life and saved him many times.” Hubbard’s estranged son later claimed that his father referred to her as Hathor, while the biographer Jon Atack shrewdly associates her with the goddess Diana, whose name had a special significance to Hubbard. (He named his daughter after her, along with one of his yachts, and Atack even suggests that she also inspired the term “dianetics,” which was officially derived from the Greek roots meaning “through the mind.”) But I think that the one who comes the closest is the journalist Lawrence Wright, who writes in a note in Going Clear:

In the “Affirmations,” Hubbard explicitly names his Guardian Flavia Julia. He may have been referring to Flavia Julia Titi, daughter of the Roman Emperor Titus; or, perhaps more likely, to the Empress Flavia Julia Helena Augustus, also known as Saint Helen, mother of Constantine the Great, who is credited with finding the “True Cross.”

In fact, the association with Saint Helena seems exceptionally convincing. Her full name includes “Flavia Julia”; she’s often depicted in art as a beautiful young woman, although she was at an advanced age when her son converted to Christinaity; and she’s one of the few Roman Catholic saints who could be accurately described as an Empress.

And the clincher is hiding in plain sight. Hubbard spent much of his childhood in Helena, Montana, of which Russell Miller writes in the biography Bare-Faced Messiah:

Helena in 1913 was a pleasant city of Victorian brick and stone buildings encircled by the Rocky Mountains, whose snow-dusted peaks stippled with pines provided a scenic backdrop in every direction. The Capital Building, with its massive copper dome and fluted doric columns, eloquently proclaimed its status as the first city of Montana, as did the construction of the neo-Gothic St. Helena Cathedral, which was nearing completion on Warren Street.

The italics are mine. A few pages later, Miller adds: “Ron was enrolled at the kindergarten at Central School on Warren Street, just across from the new cathedral which, with its twin spires and gray stone facade, towered reprovingly over the city. Most days he was walked to school by his aunts, Marnie and June, who were at Helena High, opposite Central School.” A glance at Google Street View reveals that, even today, if you stand at the entrance of the old Central School and look northeast, you’ll be facing the cathedral’s twin spires, and the most direct route between Hubbard’s house and school would have taken him right by it. Hubbard, in short, spent much of his boyhood—from 1914 to 1921—in the shadow of a cathedral named for Saint Helena. He would have walked past it nearly every day, and if he ever ventured inside, he would have seen the Empress herself depicted in the stained glass window in the north transept. We don’t know why he was so drawn to her, but Saint Helena was best known for her search for relics in the Holy Land, and the story of the vision that led her to the True Cross may well have appealed to a man who would spend years looking for treasure that he had buried in past lives. Hubbard seems to have genuinely believed that she was his guide and protector, and from his point of view, he was perfectly right. She was the patron saint of new discoveries.

Written by nevalalee

April 19, 2018 at 9:47 am

The kitsch of survival

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Bomb Shelter

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on February 7, 2017.

Last year, The New Yorker published a fascinating article by Evan Osnos on the growing survivalist movement among the very wealthy. Osnos quotes an unnamed source who estimates that fifty percent of Silicon Valley billionaires have some kind of survival plan in place—an estimate that actually strikes me as a little too low. And it may well have grown in the meantime. (As one hedge fund manager is supposed to have said: “What’s the percentage chance that Trump is actually a fascist dictator? Maybe it’s low, but the expected value of having an escape hatch is pretty high.”) Osnos also pays a visit to the Survival Condo Project, a former missile silo near Wichita that has been converted into a luxury underground bunker. It includes twelve apartments, all of which have already been sold, that prospective residents can decorate to their personal tastes:

We stopped in a condo. Nine-foot ceilings, Wolf range, gas fireplace. “This guy wanted to have a fireplace from his home state”—Connecticut—“so he shipped me the granite,” [developer Larry] Hall said. Another owner, with a home in Bermuda, ordered the walls of his bunker-condo painted in island pastels—orange, green, yellow—but, in close quarters, he found it oppressive. His decorator had to come fix it.

Osnos adds: “The condo walls are fitted with L.E.D. ‘windows’ that show a live video of the prairie above the silo. Owners can opt instead for pine forests or other vistas. One prospective resident from New York City wanted video of Central Park.”

As I read the article’s description of tastefully appointed bunkers with fake windows, it occurred to me that there’s a word that perfectly sums up most forms of survivalism, from the backwoods prepper to the wealthy venture capitalist with a retreat in New Zealand. It’s kitsch. We tend to associate the concept of kitsch with cheapness or tackiness, but on a deeper level, it’s really about providing a superficial emotional release while closing off the possibility of meaningful thought. It offers us sentimental illusions, built on clichés, in the place of real feeling. As the philosopher Roger Scruton has said: “Kitsch is fake art, expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking he feels something deep and serious.” Even more relevant is Milan Kundera’s unforgettable exploration of the subject in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which he observes that kitsch is the defining art form of the totalitarian state. He concludes: “Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” This might seem like an odd way to characterize survivalism, which is supposedly a confrontation with the unthinkable, but it’s actually a perfect description. The underling premise of survivalism is that by stocking up on beans and bullets, you can make your existence after the collapse of civilization more tolerable, even pleasant, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. It’s a denial of shit on the most fundamental level, in which a nuclear war causing the incendiary deaths of millions is sentimentalized into a playground for the competent man. And, like all kitsch, it provides a comforting daydream that allows its adherents to avoid more important questions of collective survival.

Family Fallout Shelter

Survivalism has often been dismissed as a form of consumerism, an excuse to play Rambo with expensive guns and toys, but it also embodies a perverse form of nostalgia. The survivalist mindset is usually traced back to the Cold War, in which schoolchildren were trained to duck and cover in their classrooms while the government encouraged their parents to build fallout shelters, and it came into its own as a movement during the hyperinflation and oil shortages of the seventies. In fact, the impulse goes back at least to the days after Pearl Harbor, when an attack on the East or West Coast seemed like a genuine possibility, leading to blackout drills, volunteer air wardens, and advice on how to prepare for the worst at home. (I have a letter from John W. Campbell to Robert A. Heinlein dated December 12, 1941, in which he talks about turning his basement into a bomb shelter, complete with porch furniture and a lamp powered by a car battery, and coldly evaluates the odds of an air raid being directed at his neighborhood in New Jersey.) It’s significant that World War II was the last conflict in which the prospect of a conventional invasion of the United States—and the practical measures that one would take to prepare for it—was even halfway plausible. Faced with the possibility of the war coming to American shores, households took precautions that were basically reasonable, even if they amounted to a form of wishful thinking. And it’s a little horrifying to see how quickly these assumptions were channeled toward a nuclear war, an utterly different kind of event that makes total nonsense of individual preparations. Survivalism is a type of kitsch that looks back fondly to the times in which a war in the developed world could be fought on a human scale, rather than as an impersonal cataclysm in which the actions of ordinary men and women were rendered wholly meaningless.

Like most kinds of kitsch, survivalism reaches its nadir of tastelessness among the nouveau riche, who have the resources to indulge themselves in ways that most of us can’t afford. (Paul Fussell, in his wonderful book Class, speculated that the American bathroom is the place where the working classes express the fantasy of “What I’d Do If I Were Really Rich,” and you could say much the same thing about a fallout shelter, which is basically a bathroom with cots and canned goods.) And it makes it possible to postpone an uncomfortable confrontation with the real issues. In his article, Osnos interviews one of my heroes, the Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, who gets at the heart of the problem:

[Brand] sees risks in escapism. As Americans withdraw into smaller circles of experience, we jeopardize the “larger circle of empathy,” he said, the search for solutions to shared problems. “The easy question is, How do I protect me and mine? The more interesting question is, What if civilization actually manages continuity as well as it has managed it for the past few centuries? What do we do if it just keeps on chugging?”

Survivalism ignores these questions, and it also makes it possible for someone like Peter Thiel, whose estate and backup citizenship in New Zealand provides him with the ultimate insurance policy, to endorse a social experiment in which millions of the less fortunate face the literal loss of their insurance. And we shouldn’t be surprised. When you look at the measures that many survivalists take, you find that they aren’t afraid of the bomb, but of other Americans—the looters, the rioters, and the leeches whom they expect to descend after the grid goes down. There’s nothing wrong with making rational preparations for disaster. But it’s only a short step from survival kits to survival kitsch.

The Long Good Friday

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Every week, my five-year-old daughter brings home a handout from the children’s class at our local church, which we’ve attended now for several years. I’m agnostic, but my wife and I like the community there, and I make a point of finding out what they’ve been telling Beatrix. Usually, we just talk about it for a minute and then move on, but earlier this month, she showed me a worksheet with the five pictures that I’ve reproduced above, which were scrambled up at random. The instructions said: “The Bible story puzzle pieces are all mixed up! Use your stickers to put them in the correct order.” And if they had simply told the story of, say, Noah’s Ark, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Instead, they presented a series of episodes from the death and resurrection of Jesus—the crucifixion, the sealed tomb, Mary Magdalene in mourning, the appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary, and his meal with his disciples. And it occurred to me that if you weren’t familiar with the source material and were asked to put these scenes back together, you’d probably end up with something very different. Reconstructing the sequence wouldn’t take any special knowledge or narrative sophistication. It would be more like a rudimentary logic problem. In the absence of any other information, a reasonable person would presumably come up with an order much like the one that I’ve reproduced below, which goes from the encounters with Mary and the disciples through crucifixion, mourning, and burial. The final image is one of the tomb. It’s pretty depressing, like a Chris Ware comic, but that’s clearly the last picture. How could it be anything else?

This may not seem like much of an insight, but it stuck in my head, and it took me a while to figure out why. The account presented in the canonical gospels hinges on taking the natural sequence of events and then forcibly rearranging them. You might say that Christians, by one definition, are those people who are given these five pictures as a kind of psychological test—but instead of placing them in the “correct” order, they put them in a totally illogical sequence and insist that this is how it was. (It probably isn’t a coincidence that this occurred to me after I saw the passion narrative depicted in what was essentially a comic strip, or what Will Eisner liked to call “sequential art.” When the panels are out of order, you notice it at once.) It’s a narrative inversion, as much as a religious or philosophical one, and you could push it even further and say that this reversal of expectations is analogous to what little we know about what Jesus actually taught. He told us to love our enemies; that the poor are blessed because of their poverty, not in spite of it; that the first will be last and the last will be first; and that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, or the leaven that a woman hid in fifty pounds of flour. Many of the miracle stories play on similar violations of an expected sequence. People who are on the verge of death generally don’t just get better, and the dead don’t come back to life. And if experience is any indication, many of us evidently find it easier to believe in the raising of Lazarus than in the idea that we’re supposed to sell all of our possessions and give the money to the poor.

But I’m also haunted by the sequence that simply ends with the tomb. Many scholars of the historical Jesus have struggled with it, as well as with the possibility that even this version amounts to wishful thinking. In Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, John Dominic Crossan arrives at an unforgiving conclusion:

What we often forget about crucifixion is the carrion crow and scavenger dog who respectively croak above and growl below the dead or dying body…What actually and historically happened to the body of Jesus can best be judged from watching how later Christian accounts slowly but steadily increased the reverential dignity of their burial accounts…In either case, his body left on the cross or in a shallow grave barely covered with dirt and stones, the dogs were waiting. And his followers, who had fled, would know that, too. Watch, then, how the horror of that brutal truth is sublimated through hope and imagination into its opposite.

Crossan is speaking here of the story of Joseph of Arimathea, who conveniently appears at just the right time to provide a proper burial. But you could easily extend the process of revision to the resurrection itself, which denies the most difficult truth imaginable—that the life of Jesus concluded in unbelievable pain, despair, and death, and that this was the only ending to his ministry that he ever knew.

This is unbearably painful to contemplate, and it might actually be psychologically easier just to rearrange the pieces, in defiance of everything that we think we know about how the world works. But part of me also wants to come to terms with the other version. In the book The Acts of Jesus, the Jesus Seminar is very clear on this point: “The resurrection was not an event that happened on the first Easter Sunday; it was not an event that could have been recorded by a video camera.” But it adds: “Since the earlier strata of the New Testament contain no appearance stories, it does not seem necessary for Christian faith to believe the literal veracity of any of the later narratives.” Many Christians would be unlikely to agree with this. But it’s still worth asking what it would mean to have faith in that message even if the gospels ended there. As Crossan says: “It is a terrible trivialization to imagine that all of Jesus’ followers lost their faith on Good Friday and had it restored by apparitions on Easter Sunday. It is another trivialization to presume that even those who lost their nerve, fled, and hid also lost their faith, love, and hope.” It seems clear that there were early Christians who thought that this story ended with the tomb, and they still believed—which might be the most remarkable fact of all. And I agree with Crossan when he writes:

What happened historically is that those who believed in Jesus before his execution continued to do so afterward. Easter is not about the start of a new faith but about the continuation of an old one. That is the only miracle and the only mystery, and it is more than enough of both.

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2018 at 9:22 am

The dreamlife of engineers

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In 1985, the physicist Freeman J. Dyson delivered a lecture at the semiconductor company Analog Devices in Norwood, Massachusetts, which later became a chapter in his book Infinite in All Directions. He opened the talk, which he called “Engineers’ Dreams,” with these words:

There are two ways to predict the progress of technology. One way is economic forecasting, the other way is science fiction. Economic forecasting makes predictions by extrapolating curves of growth from the past into the future. Science fiction makes a wild guess and leaves the judgment of its plausibility to the reader…For the future beyond ten years ahead, science fiction is a more useful guide than forecasting. But science fiction does not pretend to predict. It tells us only what might happen, not what will happen. It deals in possibilities, not in probabilities. And the most important developments of the future are usually missed both by the forecasters and by the fiction writers. Economic forecasting misses the real future because it has too short a range; fiction misses the future because it has too little imagination.

Dyson took the title of the talk from a book by the science writer and rocket scientist Willy Ley, of which he said wistfully: “The dreams which are recorded in his book are mostly projects of civil engineering, enormous dams, tunnels, bridges, artificial lakes and artificial islands. The interesting thing about them is that they are today totally dead. Nobody would want to build them today even if we could afford it. They are too grandiose, too inflexible, too slow…History passed these dreams by. We do not any longer find it reasonable to think of flooding half of the forests of Zaire in order to provide water for irrigating the deserts of Chad.”

Engineers’ Dreams was one of Dyson’s favorite books, and it pops up elsewhere in his writings. (Notably, it figures prominently in his essay “The Search for Extraterrestrial Technology,” in which he lays out the logic behind the ultimate engineering project—the Dyson Sphere.) As an example of how even a genius can fail to foresee how the history of technology will unfold, he told a story about the mathematician John von Neumann, whom he fondly described as perhaps “the cleverest man in the world.” Speaking of a talk that von Neumman delivered in the early fifties, Dyson said:

Meteorology was the big thing on his horizon…He said, as soon as we have some large computers working, the problems of meteorology will be solved. All processes that are stable we shall predict. All processes that are unstable we shall control. He imagined that we needed only to identify the points in space and time at which unstable processes originated, and then a few airplanes carrying smoke generators could fly to those points and introduce the appropriate small disturbances to make the unstable processes flip into the desired directions. A central committee of computer experts and meteorologists would tell the airplanes where to go in order to make sure that no rain would fall on the Fourth of July picnic. This was John von Neumann’s dream.

“Why was Von Neumann’s dream such a total failure?” Dyson asked. “The dream was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of fluid motions…A chaotic motion is generally neither predictable nor controllable…Von Neumann’s mistake was to imagine that every unstable motion could be nudged into a stable motion by small pushes and pulls applied at the right places. The same mistake is still frequently made by economists and social planners, not to mention Marxist historians.”

Von Neumann’s other mistake, Dyson added, was to think of computers in the future as expensive and rare, rather than cheap and widely available, and to underestimate how technology tends to move away from “big and sluggish” applications. Thirty years later, however, we seem to be talking more urgently about such grandiose projects than ever, at least when it comes to the problem of climate change. Whatever their real merits, such measures as fertilizing the oceans with iron, releasing sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, converting carbon dioxide on a large scale into limestone, or building a solar farm the size of Nigeria would undoubtedly be massive acts of engineering. As Elizabeth Kolbert recently wrote in The New Yorker:

Everyone I spoke with, including the most fervent advocates for carbon removal, stressed the huge challenges of the work, some of them technological, others political and economic. Done on a scale significant enough to make a difference, direct air capture of the sort pursued by Carbon Engineering, in British Columbia, would require an enormous infrastructure, as well as huge supplies of power.

Kolbert quotes the physicist Klaus Lackner, the founder of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions, who wondered why “nobody’s doing these really crazy, big things anymore.” But we’re certainly discussing them today. And one of the most prominent advocates of such measures is Dyson himself, who wrote in the late seventies—before it was fashionable—that atmospheric carbon levels could be controlled by planting a trillion trees. (He later proposed the genetic engineering of special “carbon-eating trees,” of which he conceded: “I suppose it sounds like science fiction.”)

On some level, it’s ridiculous that we’re even contemplating such projects, as David Keith, the founder of the firm Carbon Engineering, observed to Kolbert: “You might say it’s against my self-interest to say it, but I think that, in the near term, talking about carbon removal is silly. Because it almost certainly is cheaper to cut emissions now than to do large-scale carbon removal.” But when it comes to “chaotic motions” of the kind that frustrated von Neumann, politics is worse than the weather, and we’re rapidly reaching a point—if we aren’t there already—when planting billions of carbon-eating trees seems more feasible than changing the minds of a few million voters, or even one hundred elected officials. As Kolbert writes:

One of the peculiarities of climate discussions is that the strongest argument for any given strategy is usually based on the hopelessness of the alternatives: this approach must work, because clearly the others aren’t going to…As a technology of last resort, carbon removal is, almost by its nature, paradoxical. It has become vital without necessarily being viable. It may be impossible to manage and it may also be impossible to manage without.

In his talk, Dyson noted that the “qualitative changes” that emerge from the actions of individuals are what make the future so hard to predict: “Qualitative changes are produced by human cleverness, the invention of pocket calculators destroying the market for slide rules, or by human stupidity, the mistakes of a few people at Three Mile Island destroying the market for nuclear power stations.” From an engineer’s point of view, any solution that depends on the rational persuasion of politicians or entire societies is necessarily vulnerable to failure, so it might be better to avoid the problem entirely. I don’t want to believe this, but we may not have a choice. As Dyson concluded three decades ago: “Neither cleverness nor stupidity is predictable.”

The axioms of behavior

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Earlier this week, Keith Raniere, the founder of an organization known as Nxivm, was arrested in Mexico, to which he had fled last year in the wake of a devastating investigation published in the New York Times. The article described a shady operation that combined aspects of a business seminar, a pyramid scheme, and a sex cult, with public workshops shading into a “secret sisterhood” that required its members to provide nude photographs or other compromising materials and be branded with Raniere’s initials. (In an email obtained by the Times, Raniere reassured one of his followers: “[It was] not originally intended as my initials but they rearranged it slightly for tribute.”) According to the report, about sixteen thousand people have taken the group’s courses, which are marketed as leading to “greater self-fulfillment by eliminating psychological and emotional barriers,” and some went even further. As the journalist Barry Meier wrote:

Most participants take some workshops, like the group’s “Executive Success Programs,” and resume their lives. But other people have become drawn more deeply into Nxivm, giving up careers, friends and families to become followers of its leader, Keith Raniere, who is known within the group as “Vanguard”…Former members have depicted [Raniere] as a man who manipulated his adherents, had sex with them and urged women to follow near-starvation diets to achieve the type of physique he found appealing.

And it gets even stranger. In 2003, Raniere sued the Cult Education Institute for posting passages from his training materials online. In his deposition for the suit, which was dismissed just last year, Raniere stated:

I discovered I had an exceptional aptitude for mathematics and computers when I was twelve. It was at the age of twelve I read The Second Foundation [sic] by Isaac Asimov and was inspired by the concepts on optimal human communication to start to develop the theory and practice of Rational Inquiry. This practice involves analyzing and optimizing how the mind handles data. It involves mathematical set theory applied in a computer programmatic fashion to processes such as memory and emotion. It also involves a projective methodology that can be used for optimal communication and decision making.

Raniere didn’t mention any specific quotations from Asimov, but they were presumably along the lines of the following, which actually appears in Foundation and Empire, spoken by none other than the Mule:

Intuition or insight or hunch-tendency, whatever you wish to call it, can be treated as an emotion. At least, I can treat it so…The human mind works at low efficiency. Twenty percent is the figure usually given. When, momentarily, there is a flash of greater power it is termed a hunch, or insight, or intuition. I found early that I could induce a continual use of high brain-efficiency. It is a killing process for the person affected, but it is useful.

At this point, one might be tempted to draw parallels to other cults, such as Aum Shinrikyo, that are also said to have taken inspiration from Asimov’s work. In this case, however, the connection to the Foundation series seems tangential at best. A lot of us read science fiction at the golden age of twelve, and while we might be intrigued by psychohistory or mental engineering, few of us take it in the direction that Raniere evidently did. (As one character observes in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum: “People don’t get the idea of going back to burn Troy just because they read Homer.”) In fact, Raniere comes off a lot more like L. Ron Hubbard, at least in the version of himself that he presents in public. In the deposition, he provided an exaggerated account of his accomplishments that will strike those who know Hubbard as familiar:

In 1988, I was accepted into the Mega Society. The requirements to be accepted into the Mega Society were to have a demonstrated IQ of 176…In 1989, I was accepted into the Guinness Book of World Records under the category “Highest IQ.” I also left my position as a Computer Programmer/Analyst and resumed business consulting with the intention to raise money to start the “Life Learning Institute.” At this point in time I became fascinated with how human motivation affected behavior. I started to refine my projective mathematical theory of the human mind to include a motivational behavior equation.

And when Raniere speaks of developing “a set of consistent axioms of how human behavior interfaced with the world,” it’s just a variation on an idea that has been recycled within the genre for decades.

Yet it’s also worth asking why the notion of a “mathematical psychology” appeals to these manipulative personalities, and why many of them have repackaged these ideas so successfully for their followers. You could argue that Raniere—or even Charles Manson—represents the psychotic fringe of an impulse toward transformation that has long been central to science fiction, culminating in the figure of the superman. (It’s probably just a coincidence, but I can’t help noting that two individuals who have been prominently linked with the group, the actresses Kristin Kreuk and Allison Mack, both appeared on Smallville.) And many cults hold out a promise of change for which the genre provides a convenient vocabulary. As Raniere said in his deposition:

In mathematics, all things are proven based on axioms and a step by step systematic construction. Computers work the same way. To program a computer one must first understand the axioms of the computer language, and then the step by step systematic construction of the problem-solution methodology. Finally, one must construct the problem-solution methodology in a step by step fashion using the axioms of the language. I discovered the human mind works the same way and I formalized the process.

This sounds a lot like Hubbard, particularly in the early days of dianetics, in which the influence of cybernetics was particularly strong. But it also represents a limited understanding of what the human mind can be, and it isn’t surprising that it attracts people who see others as objects to be altered, programmed, and controlled. The question of whether such figures as Hubbard or Raniere really buy into their own teachings resists any definitive answer, but one point seems clear enough. Even if they don’t believe it, they obviously wish that it were true.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

March 27, 2018 at 7:30 am

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