Who is the real Zo Boone? A new Koan is born

This is my final post in the A to Z Challenge for 2012…a few days late, but better late than never.

Zo Boone is one of the POV character’s in the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. She is the granddaughter of John Boone; the first man on Mars, and (spoiler alert) was killed in a human flying accident. But in the Twenty-second  Century humans can “back themselves up” and she features again later in the series. But…is it truly her?

There are quite a few passages in Hugo and Nebula award winning author Kim Stanley Robinson’s books that have “the stench of Zen”. The one below was a particularly enlightening one for me, it “stank” of the following “popularised” Zen Koan:

  • What is the sound of one hand clapping
  • If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there, does it make a sound

A  little bit of exposition:

  • The scene is set on Miranda, a moon of Uranus, where Zo is on a Twenty-second  Century Eco-Holiday. An early theory about the formation of Miranda suggested it was formed by the collision of two planetesimal bodies melding to form a single moon.

After that they hiked down the spine of the buttress in silence. Over the course of the day they descended to Bottoms Landing. Now they were a kilometre below the rims of the chasm, and the sky was a starry band overhead; Uranus fat in the middle of it, the sun a blazing jewel just to one side. Under this gorgeous array the depth of the rift was sublime, astonishing; again Zo felt herself to be flying.

“You’ve located intrinsic worth in the wrong place,” she said to all of them… “It’s like a rainbow. Without an observer at a twenty three degree angle to the light being reflected off a cloud of spherical droplets, there is no rainbow. The whole universe is like that. Our spirits stand at a twenty three degree angle to the universe. There is some new thing created at the contact of photon and retina, some space created between rock and mind. Without mind there is no intrinsic worth.” – Blue Mars (Pages 435-436).

This rainbow analogy pays forward in so many ways and is reminiscent of many Aikido teachings of Koichi Tohei‘s:

The Mind leads the body

Aikido: The Art of Self Defense by Koichi Tohe...

Aikido: The Art of Self Defense by Koichi Tohei (1976) (Photo credit: daninofal)

Do not think that the power you have is only the power you ordinarily use and moan that you have little strength. The power you ordinarily use is like the small visible segment of an iceberg. When we unify our  mind and body and become one with the universe, we can use the great power that is naturally ours. – Koichi Tohei

and merging it with the rainbow analogy:

A greater thing is formed at the intersection of mind and body.

Post Singularity, who am I?

Returning to the character Zo, the capability to back up and retrieve ourselves that Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts will be possible this century raises the question of identity to another level.

What if you are thought to be dead, and a recent backup copy is used to retrieve you, and then months or years later you are found alive and there are now two of you?

Who is you? Is the retrieved you, who has lived and grown as a separate entity, now terminated? I think the technological advances approaching us will shatter our society if we do not begin to address them in the near future.

So is this Zo Boone that went on an Eco-Holiday to Miranda the real Zo? Does she have the same rights?

This is doing my head in, and a new modern-day Koan is born:

Who is the real Zo Boone?

“Z” is for Zo Boone

Where does Nationalism end and Xenophobia begin?

"Fight racism!" - Campaign against Racism and Xenophobia - 1997

Theorists are divided on whether nationalism is a result of our evolutionary tendency to live in communities or tribes, or it is a more recent behaviour caused by the way modern society is structured. Either way ethnicity tends to incorporate itself in some manner, whereby you may live in the nation from a geographically extent but are excluded from “nationhood” as a result of ethnic, cultural, religious reasons.

Then there is xenophobia. Dictionary.com defines this as:

“an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange.”

This human trait manifests itself in sport too. Sometimes this is acceptable for example a cross town rivalry between teams, or old nation “friendly” competitions between nations such as cricket’s “Ashes” battles between England and Australia. In these though there is a at least a small commonality; either a shared heritage or at least a common love of a particular sport.

Why do we need to have “our” team though?

The Brisbane Lions win their first premiership in 2001

A couple of years back I wrote a short, sharp post “The rising sun as an analogy for nationalism” to highlight its absurdity:

The notion of a rising sun is a misnomer. The sun itself does not rise or set. If I am on the east coast of Australia and see the sun rising over the Pacific Ocean, it is the same sun a person in the United States would see at midday. The difference between my “rising sun” and that observed by my American cousins depends solely on the location on the surface of the planet on which we stand. To an observer out in space, looking at our pale blue planet, the concept of a rising sun is absurd; it is rooted in our past when we believed we were the centre of the universe.

Nationalism is like this; it only exists when we allow our perception to be limited by our location. If we let go of this outdated notion, our minds can break free from their terrestrial bonds, allowing us to focus on solving the real issues of our time.

It turns out that both nationalism and xenophobia are key themes of the novel I’m writing so I’m trying to come to terms with the subtle differences.

I’d love to hear what you think about them?

“X” is for xenophobia

The Universe…the tyranny of distance and time

I came across this image through erdilielsfavourites‘s blog post “Hubble’s Greatest Hits“, on the twenty-second anniversary of the Hubble Telescope.

The image shows “a delicate cosmic dance is taking place between two galaxies known together as ARP 273. The larger galaxy is an off-kilter spiral, suggesting that the smaller one has actually passed through it. Given the titanic forces that can be released when galaxies merge, these two are lucky to be in the healthy shape they are.” - TIME magazine

Contemplating the physical and temporal scale of the two galaxies passing through each other made me almost physically sick.

I couldn’t help but tink of an intelligent species evolving in some non-distinct solar system and emerging as a star faring civilisation just as the galaxies begin to collide and then wiped out with no hope of escape. There would have been warning too but no chance of survival; not just of one planet lost but entire regions of the galaxy, billions of species lost to the universe.

But then, maybe as a result of the collision, a new species of intelligent life emerges from the shattered star stuff.

It was the same sick, frustrated feeling I remember from a reoccurring dream I had when I was young:

I had to get to the other side of the world to be with someone and travelled there on an ocean liner, taking six months, only to find they’d left to come back to me. I would jump back on the ship but then discover they had done the same. In desperation I would leave a note telling them to stay where they are but then find the same note to me when I arrived.

SS Normandie

SS Normandie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whenever I stayed they did too, and whenever I travelled they would too; always…frustrated by the tyranny of distance and time.

“U” is for the Universe

Looking through the wrong end of a Telescope and other Analogies for Time

We look at the past  through the wrong end of a telescope, he thought one day; eventually the things we can see in there become simply too small to hurt us. (Character: Peter Clayborne) – Kim Stanley Robinson, The Martians Pg. 316

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series the expected lifespan for humans is extended by a “longevity treatment” to at least several hundred years if not thousands of years. Through this he is able to explore issues and limitations of the human brain for storing and retrieving memories. In one scene, Maya Toitovna is now around 150 years old  has returned to live in a city she had previously lived in 70 or more years before.

Maya found herself trapped in a déjà vu of a déjà vu, Where was she?

It wouldn’t come back to her. It wouldn’t come. A horrible sense of tip-of-the-toungeism made her dizzy, then sick, as if she would get it out by vomiting. She sat down on the steps. On the tip of the tongue, her whole life! Her whole life! She groaned aloud, and some kids throwing pebbles at gulls stared at her.

It hadn’t really been gone; just a momentary lapse in her thinking, while her attention had wandered elsewhere. To another life.

A strong memory had its own integrity, its own dangers, just as much as a weak memory did. It was only the result of thinking that the past was more interesting than the present. Which is many ways was true. But still…

Later Maya saw her daughter Jackie, who she… lets say despised, sailboard on the open oceans of Mars:

Events would soon be washing by her, the way they did everyone else; history was a wave that moved through time slightly faster than an individual life did, so that even when people had lived only to seventy or eighty they had been behind the wave by the time they died; and how much more so now [when they lived for at least several hundred years]. No sailboard would keep you up with that wave… - Kim Stanley Robinson, Blue Mars.

A word of caution here, Maya suffered from severe depression so don’t get drawn too deeply into her neurosis.

“T” is for Time, and for Telescope

Carl Sagan, and the Baloney Detection Kit

When asked to cite the most influential person to the way I perceive the universe I have no hesitation to say that it is Carl Sagan.

The first time I heard about Carl Sagan was in a Physics Lecture in year twelve at school. Our teacher had recorded the opening episode of Cosmos and from not too far into it my world view expanded and I’ve never looked at things the same way again. The original Cosmos television series from the 1980s is where Sagan entered most of our lives but for many it was through his academic works or the leading role he played in the American space program.

NASA gave Sagan three weeks to design a message to be engraved on two twenty three centimetre wide aluminium plaques attached to the Pioneer Deep Space Probes.

As well as his work in the scientific community Sagan also wrote fiction – I’ve found most of the best scientific minds also have a highly developed imagination.

He wrote the book Contact,  and in 1997  was made into a Hollywood movie staring Jodie Foster. At the end of this book (spoiler alert) the main character is labeled as a fraud and even begins to doubt her memory. She goes on to search for deeper meanings eventually in the last passage discovers the pattern of a perfect circle encrypted in the decimal places for the mathematical constant Pi. The gist of this revelation being that the shape of a circle, and if so, the universe was designed and did not simply spring into existence.

Initially I found this an odd inclusion for probably the world’s most famous atheist. But later reading his work The Demon Haunted World this is the sort of evidence that would pass all of the tests in his well publicised Baloney Detection Kit.

Sagan is a famous skeptic and this Baloney Detection Kit  provides a set of tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:

Baloney Detection Kit

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no “authorities”).
  • Spin more than one hypothesis – don’t simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
  • Quantify, wherever possible.
  • If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
  • Occam’s razor – if there are two hypotheses that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.
  • Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” — Carl E. Sagan, professor, Cosmos, 1980

Another of his books that is worth seeking out is The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. It was published on the tenth anniversary of his death and is based on his famous Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology.

The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and there’s no place for it in the endeavor of science. We do not know beforehand where fundamental insights will arise from about our mysterious and lovely solar system.

The history of our study of our solar system shows us clearly that accepted and conventional ideas are often wrong, and that fundamental insights can arise from the most unexpected sources. – Carl Sagan

“S” is for Carl Sagan

Ray Kurzweil…and the singularity

Ray Kurzweil, the Futurist, wrote The Age of Intelligent Machines between 1986 and 1989 and in it he extrapolated existing trends to make many predictions about technology. He predicted that:

by 1998 a computer would beat the world’s best chess player. In fact IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat the World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov.

He also stated that the Internet would explode not only in the number of users but in content as well, eventually granting users access “to international networks of libraries, data bases, and information services”.

Kurzweil wrote that, due to paradigm shifts, a trend of exponential growth will extend Moore’s law from integrated circuits to electromechanical computers. He predicts that the exponential growth will continue, and that in a few decades the computing power of all computers will exceed that of human brains, with superhuman artificial intelligence appearing around the same time.

Moore's Law, The Fifth Paradigm

In his most controversial prediction however Kurzweil postulates a law of accelerating return where by the improvements in technology increase exponetially to a point known as the Technological Singularity where the computer, medical, and material technology (nanotechnology) advances to enable artificial intelligence or amplification of human intelligence.

“The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains … There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine.” Ray Kurzweil The Singularity is Near pg. 9

I have read many descriptions of the Technological Singularity but the most simple is that at this point artificial intelligence can improve itself faster than humans can and thay will do exactly that, effectivly cutting us out of the loop.

Although many technologists do not support the plausibility of a sudden change such as this, the issue is worthy of study by artificial intelligence reserchers.

R is for Ray Kurzweil – the Futurist

1Q84 – Murakami’s cult masterpiece

Haruki Murakami’s epic novel 1Q84 was an instant success in Japan and soon its publishers were in a mad rush to get the work published for the english language market.

Oddly mirroring the plot line in the novel where one of main characters ghost rewrites a story, the publishers of 1Q84 were in such a hurry to get it to market that they enlisted the services of two different writers to translate the work; one for books I and II, and another for book III.

Set it Japan in 1984 the story revolves around two central characters:

  • Aomame (written with the same characters as the word for “green peas” and pronounced Ah-oh-mah-meh); a female fitness instructor and part-time assassin
  • and Tengo, an aspiring novelist and part time editor and maths lecturer

The point of view alternates each chapter with Aomame and Tengo and the reader slowly learns their connection. Murakami enjoys playing with the time period too and takes his time explaining iconic objects of the time.

1Q84 features an immaculate   conception, telekinesis, transmigrating souls and a talking crow. But the   more blatant oddness of Murakami’s plots tends to distract us from their   roots in emotions that are just as unaccountable. A virtue of his writing is   that, carried away, you rarely sense the strain. – Anthony Cummins The Telegraph UK

The title 1Q84 has its roots in a few different places; it is set in 1984, there is of course George Orwell’s novel 1984, and in the story Aomame coins the term for the odd version of the world she finds herself in; it is 1984 but also no longer the same. The name of the letter Q is also the same sound in Japanese as the number nine “Kyu”. And the complexity of this too mirrors that of the storyline in many ways.

…Yes, this is a Haruki Murakami novel, where magical and dreamlike phenomena are deadpanned into existence with the same calm craft that his characters routinely employ in cooking themselves delicious-sounding Japanese meals. – Stephen Poole, The Guardian UK

Murakami has a knack for oddball twists (talking cats, raining fish) and in 1Q84 this continues with terrifying “little people” emerging from the mouths of goats and people and a moss coloured second moon hanging in the sky.

Having Tengo and his editor and co-conspirator discuss the writing and editing process delivers some classic writing advice:

“When you introduce things that readers have never seen before into a piece of fiction, you have to describe them with as much precision and in as much detail as possible. What you eliminate from fiction is the description of things that most readers have seen.”

and on story development:

“Once a gun appears in a story, it will be shot and someone will die”. 

1Q84 is a masterpiece but I am left a little frustrated at having to read the translated story rather than Murakami’s original Japanese work.

Q is for 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami