Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Ringworld, by Larry Niven, a book review

RingworldRingworld by Larry Niven
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Larry Niven wrote Ringworld at a time (1970) when it was considered acceptable and even trendy for artists to disrespect their audience. Having lived through that era and having been battered by dissatisfying endings, by authors and movie directors playing mind games or treating me as if I was a toy for them to manipulate, I am ever-so-glad that fad disappeared quickly.

Ringworld isn't so bad as some.  It has a nicely satisfying ending and it presented a rich well-imagined world.  But the author's style suffered from a the 1970's-haute tendency to treat the reader as an outsider.  Perhaps it was just me.  Maybe hard-core fans of hard-core science fiction at the time had heard of all the myriad of imagined technologies that were mentioned--named--with the assumption that they needed no explanation, as if the reader was supposed to know as much about them as the characters living in that world.

The story is imaginative in the extreme. It throws together four characters - two humans and two aliens with cultural and physical differences designed to keep tension high - and sends them on a quest across the galaxy to a newly discovered artificial world built in the form of a ring that spins about its sun such that centrifugal force creates gravity and keeps its inhabitants pinned to the inner surface along with an atmosphere, oceans, soil, etc. Niven envisioned the ring as being 600 million miles in length (circumference) and a million miles wide. He barely bothers to explain how it might be built and maintained. Since it is always high noon at every point on the habitable inner surface of the ring he decides to suspend (using invisible wire of virtually infinite tensile strength) a series of sunlight-blocking 'shadow squares' between the sun and the ring in order to artificially create a day/night cycle. This is a peculiarly unnecessary complication (except for the fact that Niven's characters would eventually need some of that wire). People could shut their blinds. People live happily in Svalbard with no darkness for 4 months at a time.

The pace of the action is steady and gripping enough to have kept my interest. I enjoyed reading the book, but I did not enjoy the main character, 200 year old Louis Wu. The author uses him as an omniscient explainer of things that he could not possibly have figured out - including history and technology he had never seen, and even the behavior of the other characters. It was simply not believable even in this highly speculative sci-fi setting.

So lets talk about the setting - the technology. It bordered on pure fantasy and supernatural. Niven concocted a major catastrophe at the center of the galaxy which would destroy all life within a few tens of thousands of years. But he had a solution for it. And in fact he had a solution for virtually every physical limitation our real non-catastrophic universe presents us. He has immortality drugs, multiple kinds of stasis/suspended animation, psychic weapons, several technologies to travel and communicate faster than the speed of light, virtually indestructible materials suited to every imaginable need. And he didn't stop there. He assumes that genetic selection for god-like invulnerability (what he calls 'luck') could take place in six generations of breeding. He assumes microbes could evolve to feed on certain specific, plot-convenient, technology-critical materials but on few other easier-to-digest things -- e.g. he exposes his four heroes to all these evolved microbes and they don't get so much as a sniffle. It was all just a little much to take - I felt such a heavy burden of disbelief that in order to suspend it, I, too, needed some of his invisible 'shadow square wire'.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Morality in an uncaring universe

Rihanna.  She has cooperated with established celebrities such as Eminem

What if there is an inherent morality embedded in our reality?  What if it can be shown to appear spontaneously from the primordial Chaos/Paradox and thus provide another sense in which random indifferent Paradox emulates ‘God’?

Well, modern computer studies of some notable paradoxical situations have revealed that this may indeed be the case.  The studies suggest that an individual being’s or a species’ success in any uncontrolled, iterated, competitive evolutionary process is correlated with certain key behaviors and attributes.  The better a living thing performs in following these 'rules,' the more successful it will be (no consciousness required):

  • Be nice. Cooperate with others by default: freely offer trust and respect; never be the first to act selfishly.
  • Be provocable when wronged, but never hateful: react to a selfish act (a sin) with an assertive defense, in like measure but not beyond.  “Eye for an eye.”  A wrong must be made right, not rewarded, not ignored. Respond to the sin, respect the sinner (as per the first rule above and the next one below)
  • Be forgiving: cooperate with a ‘sinner’ who returns to cooperation. Do this generously and immediately.  Do not hold a grudge.
  • Be humble (don't be envious): be fair with those around you. Do not try to out-compete them.  Do not be resentful if they out-compete you.
  • Be honest (don't be too clever/intelligent): Don't try to be tricky, sneaky, scheming, or subtle.  Keep your approach transparent.
As I said, these intrinsic rules for navigating existence apply to all living things equally, and no consciousness is required to obey them.  Noting this provides us with some surprising guidance regarding our relationship with our natural world:
  • Enslave no living thing, animal or vegetable: Gather, hunt, trap, and eat only those things that live wild and free. Yes, gardening is a sin, as is keeping a pet. That cute little kitty sitting in your windowsill next to that potted plant? Bad ideas; both of them sit there yearning to be on the other side of that glass. Agriculture is a pursuit that will ultimately fail us, especially the breeding and keeping of animals in industrial factory farms.
  • We are stewards of our world, not owners:  It is incumbent upon us to manipulate our surroundings as little as possible, and to leave it in as good or better condition than we found it.  In all you do, keep in mind the Seven Generations to follow.
This, to me, is good news - the best I could hope for.  I'll discuss the details in a moment.  But first let me offer the bad news: why Homo sapiens is going to go extinct:

Our current human culture (the species pejoratively called ‘bowlheads’ in my seven-book novel series 'Eden's Womb') fails miserably on nearly every one of the above counts.  We are too selfish and greedy.  We sometimes act hatefully.  Burdened by our self-importance and parochialism we fail to forgive in too many instances — the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is perhaps the most important example of this in human history.  Too often we revert to covetousness and envy and seek ‘schadenfreude.’  And we are just too damn smart for our own good.  “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”  In Eden's Womb, which is set more than half a million years in the future, Homo sapiens had long ago gone extinct.  Replacing them is a species I name Homo phronensis, after the Aristotelian concept of mature, practical wisdom called Phronesis (see his Nicomachean Ethics).

Now, how do those five rules basic emerge from pure indifferent Chaos?  Let's get to the scientific studies - which I'll try to present in simple, easy to understand terms.

Many of you have probably heard of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.”  It's a paradox in decision analysis, but ultimately it is a social interaction exercise.  Two 'players' face one another and have two choices: cooperate with the other player, or betray her/him.

As originally posed, the Prisoner's Dilemma is this: You and a criminal associate have been busted for a crime that you committed together.

Fortunately for you, most of the evidence was shredded, so you are facing only a year in prison on circumstantial evidence. But the prosecutor wants to nail someone.  To do so, he needs your testimony.  So he offers you a deal: if you squeal on your associate – which will result in her/him getting a five year sentence – the prosecutor will see that you go free. Which sounds good, until you learn your associate is being offered the same deal – which would get you five years.

So what do you do? The best that you and your associate can do together is to not squeal: that is, to cooperate (with each other, not the prosecutor!) in a mutual bond of silence, and do your year. But wait: if your associate cooperates (that sucker!), can you do better by squealing ("defecting") and get sprung from jail? It's tempting, but then he's also tempted. And if you both squeal, oh, no, it's five years for both of you. So perhaps you should cooperate – but wait, that's being a sucker yourself, as your associate will undoubtedly squeal, and you'll rot in prison for five years. So what is the best strategy to minimize your incarceration?

In the most generalized version of this game it is the story of real life.  Each 'play' represents a basic ‘unit’ of social interaction that confronts us innumerable times every day.  And with each unit we must choose from two simple alternatives: Act cooperatively/altruistically, or act selfishly.  Broken down to its most basic elements, every action we take becomes a series of binary choices, 'Black vs. White'.

And in countless contests conducted and monitored by experts this fundamental game of social interaction is invariably won by following the five rules listed above - a moral code that not so much emerges from nothing but comes pre-packaged the way mathematics itself does.

So ... the dry, indifferent realm of mathematics points the way to a moral code.  How does the Prisoner's Dilemma and the resulting five rules apply to us in our every day life?  In some surprising ways:

Whether we know it or not, we are constantly playing this game with every other person in the world, including people we've not only never met, but do not even know exist.

Consider this: Very few of us would go out of our way to ‘bad-mouth’ or ‘trash’ a complete stranger.  But most of us would treasure the chance to connect with people that we've never met in order to establish some mutually beneficial relationship.  And what better way to make an impression on them than to do something altruistic.

We all want our cup to 'runneth over' with adoring fans.  So there is an obvious bias toward cooperation.  But the cup can also be viewed as half empty: If we sit at home, in our own little cocoon and don't reach out to our potential fans, then this passive option - inaction - can be considered a negative choice: a selfish act.

Who hasn’t heard that venerable old saying: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”  Even Jesus of Nazareth said that (Matthew 12:30).

Every one of the seven billion strangers that you've neglected to connect with is a failed social bond and a potential enemy left unconverted.  That's a harsh judgment, I know. But it makes a point:

The highest ‘score’ in the social interaction game goes to those who try the hardest.  Think of these examples:  Mother Teresa, the Buddha, Paul of Tarsus, and … yes … young 25-year-old Rihanna: the single most 'liked' individual on Facebook.

Your choice to engage the people around you positively is the winning strategy.  Your choice to remain aloof and not interact with them is the choice that fails.  When I look at things this way, it is utterly transformative!


Now to delve a little more deeply I'm going to get a bit more technical, let's take a look at the math of the Prisoner's Dilemma Game (don't be scared - this is not very complicated):

Let's assign symbols to the various outcomes of the game:

In every decision unit of the game, if you and your partner/opponent cooperate it produces a modest reward, "R", for both players.  If one of you chooses the selfish option but the other participant ‘turns the other cheek’, the immediate result is a large taking “T” for the selfish one and a large suffering “S” for the victim.  If both of you choose your own selfish interests, then both pay a certain Penalty, "P", in the resulting conflict.

In formal mathematical terms, for the individual participant in the Prisoner's Dilemma game, these four outcomes are arranged from largest reward to largest cost thusly:  T > R > P > S, where the symbol > means "greater than".  We'll call this relationship "Inequality (1)".  These relative sizes define the phenomenon, and so are fundamental to it.  Other arrangements don't work.  Some simple thought exercises can confirm this.  In the real-world context the relative 'size' of the four variables, as specified above, makes intuitive sense:

T: Mugging on the street/Warriors pillaging the innocent: "To the victor go the spoils.”  Big payoff for the winner.

R: Peace: "We get no spoils, neither do either of us suffer."  Biggest combined payoff, but never the maximum score.

P: War: "The battle between us will be bloody, so even the winner will suffer losses.”  Rarely as rewarding as Peace and co-operation.

S: Mugging on the street/Warriors pillaging the innocent: "The victim suffers exceedingly.”  The loser endures not just from the physical defeat, but also psychologically.

So Inequality (1) mirrors real life: The Temptation to act selfishly T offers a pay-off greater than the Reward for mutual cooperation, R.  But the Reward for cooperation is better than the Penalty P for always acting selfishly.  And the worst cost, S, is reserved for the "Sucker" who chooses to cooperate, faces a selfish ‘opponent’, and is robbed blind.

Now ... The Prisoner's Dilemma game is most relevant to our reality when it is played over and over among a large and diverse group of players.  This is called the "iterative" version.

In order to be a valid model of reality, the iterative version of the Prisoners Dilemma game also requires that 2R > T + S.  Let's call this Inequality (2).  It means that the combined reward to two players who cooperate must exceed the sum of the benefits achieved by one Sucker and one selfish player:

That might seem like stacking the deck - a rule that fixes the outcome.  But in the natural, very real world of human interactions this stipulation, in the long term, is naturally met without anybody forcing it to be so:

Think of it this way: A mugger on the street will sometimes come away with very little whereas her/his victim will always suffer in some way.  Both players have higher stress levels during and after the encounter than they would have if they agreed to cooperate.  The resulting sum is therefore almost always less than the alternative: ‘Both of us respect each other, keep what we have, and cooperate to get more.”

So in reality, since this inequality (2) does apply.  Nature itself stacks the deck.  Two heads are better than one.  You attract more bees with honey than with vinegar.

Do Nice guys finish last? Only if they ignore another old saying: fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.

Be nice but not gullible, be humble, forgiving, and honest and you'll end up on top of the evolutionary mountain.

And if you find the 'pearly gates' up there ... if there's a caring God there waiting for you ... well, now you know why.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Game of Thrones - a medieval soap opera

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

George R.R. Martin has a writing style that I crave: crisp, vivid, full of rich detail, evocative through all five senses. He's a master at his craft. When I write, I try to achieve this type of style, so in 'Game of Thrones' I have a wonderful 'textbook' full of top-notch examples. Yet as a model for story telling it's not to my taste. More on that later. First, more high praise:

If there was ever an author who deserves the accolades that he has received, Martin is it. He is literally a born writer and a natural story peddler. When he was a kid he gave dramatic readings and sold his monster stories for pennies to neighborhood children. He's been working at his craft ever since. Game of Thrones is no 'overnight success story.'

Yet the story of its beginning is a mercenary tale: Martin knew he wanted to write an epic fantasy, inspired by Tolkien in particular. Yet he had no concept of what he wanted to write. Finally the idea of a set of siblings adopting direwolf pups came to mind, and he was off and running. Still, he sold the story to a publisher with only a quarter of it written.

The result of that premature acceptance was a book without an ending. Game of Thrones is in no way a stand-alone tale. After 800 pages, Martin leaves all of the story lines hanging, largely unresolved ...

... much like a soap opera. Yes, this was my first impression and it persisted to the end. Game of Thrones is not so much a fantasy as it is an elaborate soap opera in a classic medieval setting. And soap operas aren't my cup-o-tea.

When I read a fantasy novel I'm looking for innovative and imaginative settings. What Martin gives me are text-book medieval settings. I want plots involving unusual creatures and metaphysical elements that have not been previously explored – things to send my imagination soaring in new directions. The characters in the story ought to find a significant part of their conflict coming through entanglement with these imaginative new elements - moreso than through getting in each others' faces. Martin seems to prefer the character interplay. He barely dabbles in anything metaphysical and only trots out a few zombies and baby dragons at the very fringes of the story. The rest of it is just historical-style fiction meticulously well researched and well written, but not what I’m after.

The story is written through the limited point of view of eight of the principal characters, all but two of which are members of the immediate family of Ned Stark. Ned is lord of Winterfell - a northern stronghold in an island nation modeled after Great Britain (geographically as well as ethnically). To his north is an ancient wall that is the frontier of civilization, modeled after China's Great Wall. To his south is Ned's good friend the King and an array of ambitious noble families with conflicting interests, full of grudges and entanglements with one another. The plot begins to thicken when the King's Hand (his chief executive) is murdered and Ned is called south to take his place.

And the plot just continues to thicken. As events unfold we are shown great castles of many descriptions, all beautifully realized, we experience jousts and sword-play, betrayals and executions, squalid brothels and grand state dinners, and ultimately war. And everywhere there is blood. Martin seems to find an interesting or unexpected way to make someone bleed profusely in every chapter. Did I mention that he was a Hollywood screen writer before he wrote Game of Thrones?

Okay, all in all a rousing good time if you like that sort of thing. I'm sure I'll be reading on through the rest of the 'Song of Ice and Fire' saga. I'm told there will be seven books in all, possibly even eight, two (or three) not yet finished as of the end of 2013. Martin is sixty-five, barely a month older than I am, and he's been writing one new book in the series about every five years. Let's hope his health and his enthusiasm hold.

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