Saturday, April 28, 2012

Mahatma Teaching

One of the words I’ve loved ever since I first learned its meaning is “magnanimous.” The word is based on the Latin roots “magnus” and “animus” and means “big soul.” The cognate in Sanskrit is “mahatma,” from the roots “maha” and “atman,” and means roughly the same thing.1 So then, what is a great soul? What qualities apply to the attribute? The whole subject remains artfully undefined in both languages.2 But I’ll take a crack at a definition.


I believe the first quality would be generosity. You can’t be a mahatma if you’re a miser, a hoarder, a grasper after advantage, whether in the form of coins or property or a paid-up lifetime address on Easy Street. The prudent man provides for his own future and that of his family, so that they may not suffer and become a burden on society—and there’s nothing against a mahatma being prudent. But prudence extended toward infinity becomes obsessive accumulation, which tends to exclude the interests of others.

The mahatma is generous with more than wealth and resources. He3 also gives freely of his time and attention. You can’t be a mahatma if you don’t occasionally volunteer your services for the benefit of a cause greater than yourself, pay attention to the world around you and heed its voice, and listen when others are talking.

At the root of this generosity of both resources and time lies a personal realization: nothing last forever. The mahatma knows that you cannot hold on to time. You cannot make it your own. You cannot accumulate it, preserve it, bank it—and thereby expect to increase it. You can only spend time, and how you spend your daily allotment of time is a mark of your character. If put it to productive use—building or making something, improving your knowledge and skills, helping others—you expand the possibilities of the world around you. If put your time to frivolous use—seeking pleasure, wasting resources, living thoughtlessly—you decrease those possibilities.

Just as he knows a human being cannot make or hold on to time, the mahatma has also come to the personal realization that neither can you hold on to things. Whether your taste runs to acres of property, a garage full of sleek automobiles, a stable of fast race horses, gold and diamonds, rare paintings, or clever investments—you can’t really make them part of yourself.4 These things will always stand outside of your actual life and have a cycle of their own: erosion and spoilage of the land, depreciation of the car’s value, decline and death of the animal, theft of jewels and damage to art, final payout or failure of even the most careful investment.

The best that we can hope for, in relation to the things in our lives, is to be good shepherds and gardeners; knowledgeable appreciators, supporters, and teachers of beauty; constructive users of a craftsman’s tools and materials; and conservators of value. We can make the land bloom or preserve it as wilderness. We can take care of the automobile or the horse or the artwork and appreciate them for their utility or beauty along the way. We can build something that we ourselves and others can use and enjoy and share. We can manage our investments as a matter of prudence. But in the end we all die as naked and unadorned as the day we were born, and the mahatma knows this. Even the right we earn from ownership that lets us say how these things will be managed and distributed after our deaths is illusory. Wills are broken, courts fail to interpret them as we would wish, benevolent foundations forget their sponsor’s charter, children seldom share our enthusiasms, and the lawyers always take their percentage.5

Compassionate and Just

The mahatma treats others with compassion and seeks justice. To be compassionate is to be aware of their situation; sense when they are in distress; and work to alleviate it. To seek justice is to be aware of the balance between advantage and disadvantage among acts of aggression, omission, and preservation; sense when that balance has become lost; and work to restore it.

It is popular these days to advocate for compassion and justice as applied to whole classes and groups of people, and the mahatma is mindful of these widely distributed cases. But it is possible to care deeply in the abstract and ignore the suffering on your own doorstep. The mahatma is most aware of the suffering and injustice of those closest to him and works to improve his own neighborhood. The personal is more deeply felt and appreciated than the abstract.

Compassion and justice are not bred of some kind of goopy sentimentality, the preserve of those with more feeling that brains. They arise instead from the clear-eyed realization that life is impermanent, that every life has its ups and downs. Those who are well off today should be mindful of others in a different situation, for who knows what tomorrow will bring? A reversal in the stock market, a wasting disease, or a false accusation can bring down the most secure person. Anyone who thinks deeply about his own situation must suspect that one day he might be in need of another’s help, concern, and support. Compassion and justice are born of awareness of the wider human condition and the fact that none of us is born to a higher or more secure plane of existence.

True compassion and justice do not smother the needs of the individual. Being aware of his own problematic place in the greater scheme of things and of what he himself might wish for, hope, and expect, the mahatma values personal freedom and the right to choose. He does not limit his compassion to providing the kind of support he would value but extends the kind that allows the recipient to grow, develop, and flourish according to that person’s own desires and goals. The mahatma values education and training over maintenance and support as the way to elevate people (“Teach a man to fish …”). Provide support at first, so that the basics of life are met, but provide education ultimately, so that the individual may have the knowledge and skills to facilitate his or her own choices. The mahatma values each person’s right to control his or her own sphere of action.

Far Sighted

While the mahatma tries to be immediate in his effects—relieving suffering, creating understanding, celebrating beauty—he is mindful of the future and its changeable nature. While the future cannot be predicted or controlled, it can be planned for. The mahatma knows that a good thing is made greater by being prolonged. So, while he works for today, he tries to provide the support and planning that will help carry today’s good over into tomorrow.

Thus, while the mahatma is kind to old people, whose time of growth and development has passed and whose future is closing down, he is most caring of children and the young, who still have potential, choices, growth, and possible good fortune ahead of them. Increasing their health, skills, and happiness is a greater and more enduring good than prolonging old age and tending to the passing of the sick and dying. Both need attention, but the needs of the young are more important.


In the longest of views, however, the mahatma knows that all things ultimately end. The sea reclaims the land, and then the ice descends. Fire burns away the forest, and then the sun explodes. Whatever we have built will one day be forgotten, devalued, and allowed to decay. The people we loved and protected, nurtured and supported, will still go their own way and eventually die. Nothing lasts forever.

The mahatma knows this impermanence to be both the secret of life and the feature that makes life so precious. It is the blazing truth of evolution: the universe is in flux; everything within it is subject to change; no successful form or practice endures forever;6 concepts like “growth,” “success,” and “happiness” depend on adapting to change and becoming fit to survive in current circumstances. A small soul might become bitter at these prospects, but the mahatma cherishes them and is glad to open his hand to the future.

If everything tended to continue unchanging, then you might be fearful that any one thing you valued could become damaged or lost. If some things were eternal and others ephemeral, then you might regret the things that will change. But since even the stars will eventually go black and the universe will end, you can only be happy in and celebrate what this day brings, what the next season promises.

My mother used to call this “being philosophical.” The Buddha taught it as refraining from desire—the human tendency to cling to people and things. In either case, it is simply acknowledging that the universe is bigger than any one of us, and eventually it will want back those atoms and energy that currently compose our bodies and minds—which we never really bought and paid for in the first place.

1. In India, a person of great spirit and worthiness is addressed as “Mahatma,” of which the most familiar example is Mohandas Gandhi. The concept is also part of the yoga tradition and is referred to as “great self.”

2. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography, we know it when we see it.

3. Or she, for of course there are great-souled women. However, their loving and giving are often hidden within their roles as mothers, nurturers, and caregivers. Generosity and sacrifice are too often presumed in a woman’s life, where they are celebrated in a man’s. But wherever I use the non-specific “he” in this discourse, read “she” as well.

4. The one exception is food. You can consume and thereby control and make into part of your physical self the richest and most delicate foods. But the trap here is that they change from a delight to the eye and the tongue into mere gelatinous fuel for the body and, ultimately, noxious wastes. An hour after eating or drinking, all you can have is the memory of the experience and the hunger and thirst for more. The Romans, with their vomitoriums, tried to extend the pleasures of the table into hours of continued gluttony, but I can’t say that the necessity of seeing it all come back up added to the beauty of the experience.

5. Of course, one sure way that a person can make almost anything exclusively and peculiarly “his” is by defacing and destroying it, denying its usefulness or beauty to others. But that is the way of a small and incompetent soul, not a great one. There is no grandeur in becoming Shiva’s personal representative on Earth.

6. Indeed, concepts like “forever,” “eternity,” “absolute,” and “unchanging” are fantasies. They are words that humans use to console themselves when they begin to suspect that life is short and happiness fleeting.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Writing for Point of View

The canon of what constitutes good writing changes over time. What might have been considered good technique for an Alexandre Dumas, Mark Twain, or Ernest Hemingway might not survive in today’s marketplace. Part of the evolution—familiar to any teacher of high-school English—derives from changes in popular vocabulary, word meanings, social infrastructure, and the dominant mores, aside from any obvious differences in scientific knowledge and available technology.1 But part also derives from simply how a story might be told, and here the biggest change seems to be in handling character point of view.

Early storytelling—at least in the European tradition—was shaped by wandering poets like Homer, the bards of Celtic myth and religion, and the creators of the Scandinavian sagas. Reflecting the single voice of the poet, who pretended to be recounting what he had seen or heard, or knew through his culture’s myth-memory, these stories took the point of view of an omniscient narrator who effectively sat in the sky above the story’s action and observed the characters as distant figures.

When storytelling moved into the Greek theater in the fifth century BC, the nature of the stage reinforced this omniscient viewpoint. The audience sat apart, watching an open floor surrounded by the proscenium—or “front of the building”—where the actors moved and talked. In Greek theater, the chorus—composed of everyman figures such as the Theban elders in Antigone or female captives in The Trojan Women—spoke as a group to guide the play. They would set the place and time, offer background information, react to the play’s action as a form of social conscience, and interpret the main actor’s thoughts, hopes, and fears, which might seem inappropriate coming directly from the character’s mouth.2

From the omniscient viewpoint, the story’s recipient—the listener, audience, or reader—might then choose to follow more closely the one or two characters or actors who are prominent in the story, whose decisions and actions appear to be moving it along, and who become the focus of what happens. The reader will likely identify thoughts, emotions, and actions from his or her own experience that parallel what the main characters are thinking, feeling, and doing. But this identification is the reader’s or audience’s own choice to make. Nothing forces the person receiving the story to side with one character or another except the skill of the author in manipulating the overall situation. In an inept story or play, the audience might decide it likes the villain, or the butler, better than the hero or heroine.

An author working from the viewpoint of the omniscient narrator has the freedom to tell the story in any way he finds convenient. He can introduce background material with whole paragraphs of simple prose. He can devote large amounts of the story to “telling” about the character’s history, personality, and motives rather than “showing” these elements through choice and action. He can play out a dialogue through the statement and response, action and reaction, canto and respondu of two characters simultaneously. Thus, Alphonse states what he knows to be a lie but presents as the truth in one line, and Beatrice pretends to accept the truth but suspects it might be a lie in the next line. Alphonse smiles and Beatrice sees the grin of deceit, then Beatrice nods and Alphonse is satisfied his lie has worked. Everything happens at once, as on a stage. The author flits from one character’s head to the other, like a parakeet perching briefly on each shoulder.3

That sort of omniscient storytelling will still work today, but it annoys some readers. They have become accustomed to working the story more deeply, from within the head and behind the eyes of one character or another, adopting a single point of view almost completely. This sense of identification, I believe, arose most strongly in the twentieth century, with developing techniques in cinematography.

Early motion pictures were like filmed plays. The camera sat outside the proscenium arch and “watched” the action on the sound stage—as a human audience does. Then directors began varying the shots and camera angles, sometimes in full frame and sometimes in closeup, sometimes from slightly above or below the actors. In the earliest and simplest form of camerawork, a closeup shows the audience one character’s face from the viewpoint of another.

With time, the camera’s “eye” has become the moving viewpoint of the audience, and often it follows the situation and view of the main character. If the actor stands on the edge of a cliff, the camera does not simply stand beside him or watch him from behind. It takes his place entirely and looks down over the edge—then it draws back in reaction to what the character is supposed to have seen.4 If the character has crashed a car and hangs upside down in the seat belt, the camera looks out from a low angle through the broken windshield to the upside-down activity of the world outside. The camera may still show a split-second overall shot of the actor on the cliff or the car lying on its roof, but these only establish the story line. More and more, our eyes are the camera, and they travel with the character’s viewpoint.

In my own fiction writing, I have tried to adopt this limited point of view exclusively.5 My style might best be described as “first person told in third person” rather than as third-person narrative. That is, to the best of my ability, there is no “omniscient narrator.” What the reader sees, hears, experiences, and knows about is from the viewpoint and through the eyes and other senses of the character we ride in with. If I go to a second character, it’s always in the context of a new scene or chapter. (Only once, in The Mask of Loki with Roger Zelazny, did I change viewpoints during a single scene. And then the reader’s perspective traveled on the tip of a knife, from a person who is dying to the person who assassinated him.)

In this style, a point-of-view (POV) character might suppose or guess what another is thinking or intending, but such suppositions and guesses must be clearly shown as such. The POV character might recall details from earlier action, or offer as reflection things the reader needs to know about the setting and past relationships, but only if he or she experienced or heard about them firsthand. The POV character can’t know about the gun in someone else’s pocket without first seeing a bulge in the cloth, or know someone is standing behind the door without hearing a scuffle or a whisper. I would never use a construction like “What Max did not know is that Caroline had already returned home” or “Fred would never guess that, while he was talking to Max, Caroline was listening on the other side of the door.” If the POV character cannot know it, it does not happen or become reader knowledge in that scene.

This is a hard way to write, a self-imposed straitjacket. But it’s also, for me, a compass needle that always points north. I have to plan my stories to accommodate point of view, sometimes taking the action apart in order to put it in several different but contemporaneous scenes. I have to constantly question the details I reveal to make sure they don’t violate character knowledge.

But there are advantages to accepting this restriction on my work. I love to create multi-character books, where the reader may know and understand things—because he or she has been “inside” several different heads at different times—that are hidden from any one character. This leverage gives me a built-in pattern for weaving webs and creating surprise. Limited character knowledge was a key element in the plot of The Judge’s Daughter and played well between the two first-person narrators in First Citizen. Such rules, like the lines of perspective in a painting, limit your art but also give it strength.

Any book with multiple viewpoint characters, I believe, really benefits from strong viewpoint control. If a writer is new to the technique, the simplest way to achieve it is to start with the narrative in first person: “I came … I found … I learned …” Getting everything right in first person will naturally show up any errors that might get by the writer if the passage was originally in third person and covered things the viewpoint character doesn’t, can’t, or wouldn’t know about or experience. This technique also places the writer firmly inside the head and viewpoint of the character, making it easy to identify the necessary feelings, reactions, and conclusions that would be natural to the person doing the experiencing. Once the story is fixed correctly in first-person, the writer simply changes all the “I’s” to the name of the character or to the appropriate “he” or “she,” turning first-person narrative to third person but from the first-person point of view.

For me, this technique makes the reader’s experience richer, more personally involving, and more of a “show” than a “tell.”

1. Consider how the plot of Romeo and Juliet might have changed—with the tragic end disappearing entirely—in the age of cell phones. For that matter, consider how the remake of the movie classic Dial M for Murder did have to change in a world full of cell phones.

2. Shakespeare handled this problem with the “aside”: the player speaking directly to the audience behind the back of his hand.

3. The exception to this, of course, is those stories told in first person. There the narrator simply cannot flit from viewpoint to viewpoint without circuitous constructions like “I could tell that Beatrice didn’t believe me by the way she narrowed her eyes.” But the first-person narrator never actually gets inside Beatrice’s head to learn or confirm what she actually believes. First-person storytelling goes back at least as far as Dickens and David Copperfield in the nineteenth century. In fact, the first of the modern English novels, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded, published in the eighteenth century, was told through a series of letters, which are by nature in the first person.

4. Think of Jimmy Stewart reacting to the height of the bell tower in Vertigo.

5. From this point on, the discussion derives from my email exchange on writing with Kate Campbell, author of the forthcoming novel Adrift in the Sound. Our correspondence while editing her book is captured in Between the Sheets: An Intimate Exchange About Writing, Editing, and Publishing.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Listening for ET

We’ve been listening to the skies with privately and publicly funded radio telescope projects for more than 30 years now. These have included the early, 100-channel Search for Extraterrestrial Radio Emissions from Nearby Developed Intelligent Populations (SERENDIP), the Megachannel Extra-Terrestrial Assay (META), the Billion-channel Extra-Terrestrial Assay (BETA), the Microwave Observing Program (MOP), and generations of successors. I’ve been following this all with some interest and, for a time during the early 2000s, even joined SETI@Home. This project set up people’s home computers to use spare processing power, sent them packets of radio recordings from the Arecibo Observatory for analysis, and then gathered up the results. I thought (secretly, hopefully, naïvely) that my little Pentium PC might be the first to interpret ET’s messages, but no such luck. Not for me or anyone else.

In all this time, with all this effort, we haven’t heard anything meaningful. No pi in the sky, no thundering prime numbers, no coded instructions for building transdimensional machinery. Nothing but static and the monotonous pulses from radio stars. So, with a universe that must be crawling with life—unless this whole glorious shebang of a hundred billion galaxies, each filled with a hundred billion stars, is wasted on our puny intelligence—why haven’t we heard from ET?

My bet is that, for all of our intelligence and imagination, we may be listening with too narrow a mindset.

Inverse Square Law and Powerful Star Voices

Many people involved in the search have reasoned that we are due to receive a signal because we’ve been manipulating and broadcasting radio waves for about 100 years. That would put us at the center of an ever-expanding sphere—now about 200 light years across—in which alien intelligences and their listening devices can hear and pinpoint us. We’ve been calling out, so ET should be calling back soon.1

The trouble with this line of thinking is the inverse square law. The law, based on simple geometry, describes the way that electromagnetic radiations like light and radio waves grow weaker as they radiate outward from a central point.2 All of the radio and television signals we’ve sent—with the exception of microwave transmissions narrow-beamed from dish to dish across the Earth’s surface—have been broadcast in all directions. So a 50,000-watt television station broadcasting outside Topeka might be received just fine, signal strength S, just a couple of dozen miles away or even a thousand miles above the Earth’s surface (where line of sight issues and the horizon don’t interfere with reception). But at 2,000 miles, that same signal is going to be one-quarter as strong. And at 3,000 miles, one-ninth. What about a million miles away? Or a light year?

Broadcasts of I Love Lucy might theoretically make it out to 100 lightyears from the Sol system, but at that distance they will be so weakened that the clanging of two atoms in interstellar space will drown them out. And those broadcasts have much more than atomic collisions to contend with, because just 93 million miles from Topeka is the Sun, whose own atmosphere is putting up a banshee wail of electromagnetic noise. At interstellar distances, the signal carrying I Love Lucy becomes a mouse fart in a hurricane—easily overlooked by ET’s antennas.

The only way to make yourself heard in this situation is to beam your radio waves rather than broadcast them. Think of those microwave dishes on masts and mountaintops sending signals to each other across the Earth. Of course, to beam a signal, you have to know in which direction to point the dish. We haven’t picked a likely star yet and beamed our messages. No star out there knows where to beam back a reply. And we’ve only been in the radio business for about 100 years. Before that, it was dinosaurs, great apes, and Victorian gentlemen with steam locomotives and telegraph wires. Ours has for too long been the Mute Planet, as far as potential ETs are concerned.

Listening on the Wrong Frequency

We assume that, because radio waves and their near neighbors on the electromagnetic spectrum have been so useful in sending messages through our atmosphere and out to our extraplanetary space missions, that ET will use this part of the spectrum for his/her/their/its communications. Well, you have to start someplace.

For reasons given above related to the inverse square law, an interstellar civilization will probably use beamed communications rather than broadcast to link their colonies and talk to their ships in transit.3 Why waste energy polluting the neighborhood with excess radio waves.

Of course, there’s nothing that says you can’t modulate and send messages by x-rays or gamma rays, either. We find these frequencies difficult and dangerous to work with, because they too easily penetrate the light metals used to make our sensing equipment, and they damage the tissues in our own fragile bodies. But advanced civilizations may be old hands with higher frequencies, just as the old German dirigible crews knew how to handle their potentially explosive hydrogen. Other civilizations might use lead and uranium for their sending devices, which would be designed to handle these intense frequencies. The creatures themselves might not be made of delicate, protein-based membranes or not carry their genetic information on fragile strands of DNA, and so they might not be concerned about the effects of ionizing radiation.

Perhaps those mysterious gamma ray bursts that frequently pass through the Sol System—and which astronomers link to the deaths of massive stars in other galaxies—are coded messages from one civilization to another. Perhaps, considering the distances that separate such civilizations, they need to sacrifice a local star or two in order to make their messages carry across barren space and empty star systems.

The problem of dealing with unknown intelligences is that we cannot know what needs they might have, what powers they might have developed, or what priorities they might place on the intactness of the space around them. Remember that up until the last century, humans hunted whales for lighting and lubricating oil, and some still hunt them today for meat and sometimes even for pet food.

Living on the Wrong Time Scale

We assume that, because our brains developed in a certain way in relation to events on our local planet, that everyone in the universe will live with sixty seconds to the minute, sixty minutes to the hour, or some not-too-detached equivalent in terms of time’s actual passage. We have attention spans measured in seconds or minutes, sometimes hours. We have projects lasting through a year or two of funding, or a lifetime of intellectual pursuit—but again broken up into so many hours per day and days per year. We are closely tied to time in particularly human measurements.

If we were sequoia trees or bristlecone pines, we would have a much longer attention span—two to four thousand years, in fact. Working with such great amounts of time, years would pass like days and days like seconds. Such civilizations might use extremely long waves of electromagnetic energy to send messages that become intelligible only by listening over a span of years.4 Humans just don’t have the patience for this kind of communication. And if such aliens could intercept our broadcasts of I Love Lucy, a whole episode would pass by their brains in a squealing blur.5

Conversely, intelligent mayflies who passed their entire lives in a matter of hours would have immensely compressed attention spans. They might lose interest and move on before a human could rumble out a simple “Hello, how are you, fine thanks, and you?” For them, a single episode of I Love Lucy would be as tedious as the Thirty Years War.

Consider also that the messages passed among interstellar civilizations may not even be in the form of single messages. There was a time on Earth, not so long ago, when if you wanted to make a telephone call from San Francisco to New York, the phone system had to switch long-distance circuits into a single connected wire from one place to the other, which would then carry your conversation as a continuous stream of electronic pulses out and pulses back. That was one reason why “long-distance calls” were so expensive: they tied up the circuits that other people were waiting to use.

No phone system anymore deals in analog pulses that replicate the timing of a human voice. With digital systems—where the voice is reinterpreted from amplitude modulations into a series of zeroes and ones—the conversation is chopped into packets with special coding that heads up the encapsulated information. The packets are sent off over the network in bursts timed to fill available bandwidth in the system. Routers and the receiving station on the other end of the conversation catch those packets with a certain header and assemble them into the original communication stream. It all happens so fast that it sounds like you’re holding an actual conversation in real time. But your voice is being shunted all over the place in disconnected grunts, squeals, and hisses.

If ET is in the communications business, his civilization may be using such a system or something even more complicated. Pity the poor humans, listening on a certain frequency, trying to catch a whole conversation, when it may indeed be flying by our heads in a series of squeaks and barks.

Using the Wrong Language

Even if we detected regular signals—but not too regular, or else they could be the content-free pulses of spinning radio stars—we might not be able to interpret their modulations into meanings. We would lack knowledge of both the code and the language that lay behind it.

Consider that we share the Earth with at least three species of mammals which we believe to be intelligent. Chimpanzees and the other potentially intelligent great apes lack vocal chords, so we can’t detect and interpret a spoken language that might become radio signals—although we can fairly effectively interpret their body language. Various species of dolphins and whales are presumed to be intelligent and they vocalize all the time with complex vibrations, squeaks, and clicks. No one has ever interpreted these languages, though many have worked a lifetime at it. Certainly, there’s a Nobel prize waiting for whoever is first to communicate verbally with a non-primate species.

Some people believe that dolphins and whales might not be speaking in a language of symbols, where sounds equate to concepts, but in a language of mimicry, where sounds reconstruct the sonar image of the referenced object. An alien intelligence might also follow this pattern, with suitable paraphrasing to cover theoretical concepts and emotional states. In trying to think like a dolphin, once we guess that a certain sonar-equivalent pattern means “ball” or “shark,” we can begin to test our hypothesis immediately. But with sonar-mimicking aliens it would be impossible to interpret meaning from an isolated radio wave, because we would not have the referents from their planet and culture with which to compare the sounds.

The language of an alien species will not only be more complicated and bizarre than we have experienced here on Earth—it will be more bizarre that we can imagine.

To work around the language problem, we assume that mathematics will be the universal language and that ET will try to get our attention by reciting sequences of Fibonacci numbers6 or primes. Of course, if we’re just eavesdropping on a galaxy full of conversations back and forth, the speakers will probably not be spending much time trading around prime numbers on the off-chance that newcomers, who only learned to send radio signals in the last hundred years or so, might be listening in and trying to interpret. If you listened in on our telephone network, how many of the conversations would consist of teaching primes to retarded apes?

Further, while we assume mathematics is universal, we forget that it has taken human civilization a couple of thousand years to assemble our particular view of mathematics from the earlier work of the Sumerians, Greeks, Arabs, Italians, and other cultures. We assume that the function of addition (and therefore the existence of the Fibonacci sequence) or multiplication (and therefore prime numbers) is universal. But these relationships depend on the existence in our mathematics of what we call “whole numbers” or “integers” and their having some importance apart from fractions. Aliens might have an entirely different view of numbers and relationships. They might easily put emphasis in different areas of what we probably should call the “mathematical enterprise,” and that might lead them to discoveries and concepts we humans have not yet learned—or even suspect they exist.7

ET Might Not Be Talking

The galaxy may indeed be full of ETs, but many of them might simply have little interest or ability to communicate across the vastness of space. Up until 100 years ago, we humans barely understood that our galaxy of full stars was not the entire universe, and we understood even less about its size and complexity. Other cultures might be sea-based, like the dolphins and whales, and so physically unable to work with electricity and other forces we consider essential to modern physics. Or they might be hive-based or intensely internally competitive, so that they don’t have the time or energy to look up at the sky and wonder what’s out there.

But all of this reasoning is, again, based on human concepts and referents from the planet Earth. When we finally do make contact, or go and visit, we’re going to discover how truly bizarre and wonderful existence can be.

1. Or—worse, to my way of thinking—coming for a visit. They just might be gentle explorers, intent merely on gathering knowledge. But if they are anything as benign as missionaries, bent solely on improving our lives and our catechism, we’re in a heap of trouble. Rome intended to civilize the neighboring cultures they visited. The Spanish missionaries intended to bring the New World natives closer to God. Bad for the neighbors, bad for the natives.

2. Think of the inside surface of a globe with a light bulb or other source at the center. Given the radius of the globe, r, a patch on its surface with a certain area, a, receives a certain amount of light intensity, i. If you double the size of the sphere, you double the radius or distance to the patch but you increase the patch area by the square of the radius. So on a sphere with radius 2r, the patch size is 4a, and on a sphere with a radius 3r, the patch size is 9a. The same amount of light is still shining outward from the center, so on the 4a patch, the intensity i is cut to one-quarter of what it was on the original a patch, and on a 9a patch, the light i is only one-ninth as bright. This is why you can’t turn on a light across the room and use it for reading in the same way as when you’re sitting next to it.

3. If you know where a ship’s going and how fast it’s moving, you can track it and lead it, the same way a duck hunter leads his bird with a shotgun blast.

4. I’m reminded of a musical composition—for which I now can’t find an internet reference—that was intended to be played over several decades on a church organ in a remote village. The opening notes were going to be sustained for a year or more. Sequoia music.

5. Which, of course, for many people here on Earth, the episodes actually do.

6. The Fibonacci sequence is a string of numbers where any two consecutive numbers are followed immediately by their sum. So: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 … and on to infinity.

7. For comparison, consider the Romans, who used a cumbersome system of the letters I, V, X, L, C, D, and M for numbers. Their counting system was simply stringing these letters together in complex ways in, roughly, base 10. They had a system of fractions, but in base 12 and using another set of letters (or sometimes arrangements of dots, like the pips on the face of a die). They had no concept of zero and little use for negative numbers except in the immediate operation of subtraction. Western civilization didn’t get the zero—which came from the Arabs—until the late Middle Ages, and only then did our mathematics really take off.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Supply and Demand in a Digital Market

A tenet of free markets says that the value of any good or service—and therefore its price in the marketplace—is set by the mechanism of supply and demand. If the supply of something is limited and the demand for it among potential buyers is great, then the price goes up. If the supply is great and the demand is limited, the price goes down. This may not be exactly what producers and consumers want to hear at any one point in time, but it’s pretty much the way things work.1

Why are diamonds so expensive? Because, in addition to being pretty and desirable, they are also rare, being formed under extreme geological conditions that don’t occur very often. Everyone who wants a diamond has to bid against others who want one too, in a market with relatively few diamonds available.

Rareness by itself does not automatically confer high value, however. Surviving, functioning Model A Fords are relatively rare, too. There were only so many produced—about 4,300,000 all told—between 1927 and 1931. In the market composed of antique automobile aficionados, they command a good but not a spectacular price. A deluxe model in excellent restored condition will fetch up to about $17,0002—equivalent to a small, inexpensive, bottom-of-the-line car in today’s market. That’s because Model A’s are not very practical to drive as cars and are bought mainly as love objects for a certain kind of romantic or fanatic.

Neither does desirability itself command value. People desire wheat as a staple ingredient to all kinds of food—bread, pasta, cakes, pastries. Every person has to eat regularly, which makes a basic food item like wheat one of the most desirable objects on the planet. But wheat is not rare or hard to grow. Only when supplies are disrupted by drought, disease, or some other mechanism does the price tend to rise. And it can just as quickly fall back to the previous “market level.”

Producers and consumers have tried to get around the free market and the principle of supply and demand for years, probably forever. Cartels of producers have formed to limit supply and drive up the price. The most notable recent example is the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in the 1970s. They drove the price of oil up for a while, but then greed always sets in, and several producer decided they could sell more than their allotted share by dropping the price a bit. They broke ranks, and consumers flocked to their pipelines. And then the high prices spurred new exploration in difficult fields and new technical developments—like processing tar sands and shale oil for liquid petroleum—and the oil supply rose, driving prices down to a new equilibrium

Consumers also lobby their government to set the price of a good or service at a “reasonable” level. During the same OPEC rise in oil prices, the U.S. government stepped in and tried to control the price of gasoline. Refiners, caught between a high cost of their basic input and relatively lower price for their basic output, went idle rather than produce at a loss. Then everyone blamed them for wanting to make “windfall profits.” Whenever a government has tried to set a “reasonable” price on a commodity that is in limited supply but has high demand—whether you’re talking about gasoline, wheat, or two-bedroom apartments—the result has always been scarcity. Not because oil producers, farmers, or landlords are basically greedy, but because they won’t have their pockets picked. And no one has successfully nailed their feet to the floor so that they have to stand still for the picking.

But what happens when something desirable is available in unlimited supply? How is the price set then? That is the situation the market for digital media is facing right now—whether you’re talking about songs in MP3 format, streaming movies in MPEG-4, or novels as epubs—and, so far, no one has a good answer.

Not everyone who owns an iPod, iPhone, or iPad wants the latest Lady Gaga song, the latest Leonardo DiCaprio movie, or the latest Elmore Leonard novel. But if they did, there would be no question of limited supply in the available electronic formats. Bits and bytes are infinitely copyable. If a billion Chinese peasants each owned an iPad and each wanted the latest movie by streaming video, the only problem would be the bandwidth to deliver it. Replicating the data itself into a million memory chips would never be an issue.

So why aren’t all these digital products virtually free? That would make a lot of consumers happy. That would also please the Electronic Frontier Foundation people, who oppose patents and copyrights and other systems that limit access to intellectual property. All those bits and bytes want to go to a new home on your iPad. Where’s the problem?

One of the issues is that supply is limited by an entry barrier. Although the bits and bytes that constitute a digital song, movie, or book are not rare, they don’t exist in nature like diamonds or beach sand. Someone has to write the song, make an appointment with Lady Gaga to sing it, hire and pay a band to back her, set up a recording studio, and make the event come together so that sound can be captured as bytes. Someone has to hire actors, a couple of cameras, a sound stage—or work with a group of computer graphic artists—to make the images that will be captured in the movie. Someone has to think up the words and the press down the keys in order to create the book text. These are entry levels of effort, so many hours of time put in by performers, artists, and writers, before the finished product is ready for encoding.

After that, the bytes may be free in infinite amounts. But until that effort goes in, there are no worthwhile bytes to download.3

Another issue is that, in today’s media marketplace, consumers want variability and novelty. They don’t just want any Lady Gaga song, but the latest song. Yes, people may still buy and download the old Beatles albums out of nostalgia or because they are young, new to the market, and discovering the Beatles for the first time. That’s how classical music has remained popular, even though Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms haven’t written anything new in a hundred years or more. But the mass market is driven by novelty, not nostalgia. Nobody’s iPad has all the songs, movies, books they ever expect to enjoy. We all anticipate finding new favorite performers, actors, and authors tomorrow, next year, or a decade from now.

Pricing a song, a movie, or an ebook download under these conditions can be difficult. First, how to establish the worth of the creator or performer? Based on popularity, the time an Elmore Leonard spends pushing down all those keys required to create a novel is worth a lot more than the comparable amount time that a Tom Thomas spends on the writing process. More people are interested in and eager to read Leonard’s books than care about mine. But does some kind of threshold apply? What is Leonard’s price to write a book? He certainly won’t drive himself to the appropriate level of creative energy and investment for a return of only $10 or $100. How about $10,000, or $100,000? At some point it becomes worth his while to sit down, write, and finish a book.

Conversely, there are some writers—especially those whose books are not highly valued in the marketplace—who will find that creative energy simply for the love of writing. They will produce books even if there is no return. In fact, they will put up money from their day jobs to facilitate writing and producing a book.4

Once we establish a threshold cost, how should it be apportioned among the buyers, who are actually paying for a string of infinitely reproducible bits? First come, first served? That is, the first buyers will pay some fraction of that threshold expense, and later buyers get the bytes for free? If so, how many first buyers? What fraction of the expense? The devil is in those details. Or is it possible to wait until we can identify everyone who might want to buy the book—perhaps through some kind of pre-sale signup—and then divide the threshold cost by the number of buyers? But then, what about people who come later, learn about the book from friends, and also want a copy?

In the world of physically printed books, this early-adopter/later-adopter situation is covered by the publisher establishing a press run for the first edition. First editions become rare items. Hardcover editions eventually sell out and are replaced by later editions in paperback. Still, at no time does the availability of printed books, though they might be plentiful, become “virtually unlimited.” And after all the printing presses have stopped, there are only a finite number of printed copies in the world, just as there was a finite production run of Model A Fords.

The issue of novelty has traditionally been handled—although, admittedly, not very well—by the mechanism of copyright. Copyright used to be some fixed number of years, based upon the then-current law. For example, works published before 1978 were covered for 28 years and then, with a renewal, for another 28 years before entering public domain. Now copyright extends to 70 years after the author’s death, or 95 years after the date of publication, or 120 years after the date of creation. Since no author, or his or her immediate family, really has to worry about losing control of the work for the foreseeable future, copyright is not a good mechanism for valuing works against the churn of public taste and desire for novelty.

We have no way to say that songs, movies, or books that are older—by a year or two, or by a decade—than their initial reception should be priced less expensively than the latest releases. Elderly divas, aging movie directors and actors, and flagging authors might choose to bring down the price of their works to maintain an income stream in the face of declining popularity and interest, but that is a personal choice. No supply-and-demand formula works to enforce it in an environment of infinitely replicable bits. And certain old classics—like the Beatles or Brahms—still can command current prices.

The fly in this ointment, of course, is the nature of the digital medium. With no physical disk or binding to represent the inventory of albums, movies, or books, there is no record of how many copies have been taken. Even songs and movies that were originally released on CDs and DVDs, once they are copied onto a hard drive somewhere, become an infinitely replicable stream of bytes. They can be downloaded from the disk—or from the server farms supporting a music-sharing website or a digital pirating operation—without showing an accounting record, making a hole in the physical inventory, or leaving any trace at all.

These days, the value of the bitstream is established by the whim of the publisher in an environment set largely by tradition and customer expectations. And these traditions and expectations are now in flux. People “expect” to pay about $15 for an album CD or a single-movie DVD, and more for a collection or a boxed set. This gives them a physical object that they can own, play as many times and as long as they want, and lend to friends if they wish. Right now, as bitstreams available on iTunes for downloading to their iPads, customers will pay equivalent prices for the bitstream alone. Getting a plastic disk in the bargain doesn’t add significantly to the price. All of this is accepted as traditional and meets the buyer’s expectations—although customers usually can’t loan the bitstream to friends as they can a disk, and in some cases rental arrangements and play limits keep the customer from listening to or viewing the bitstream in perpetuity as if it was on a medium he or she owned.5

In the digital books market, print publishers who control the digital rights to the books they’ve produced are trying to set their ebook prices on a par with the printed books. With hardcover prices remaining somewhere north of $25 per book, that puts the price of the ebook version higher than the paperback. Publishers cling to this model because they still produce expensive, physical books that have to be bound, stored, inventoried, taxed, shipped out, shelved, shipped back, and pulped. They fear that a much less expensive ebook will undercut the price of their print books. And they’re right—not because ebooks are too cheap, but because the list price of a print book at $27 or $35 is unrealistically high. It would drive most readers away if they had to pay that full price, but luckily most booksellers discount the price deeply through sales and store credits.

Where all this will go is anyone’s guess. But in ten years or twenty, when the physical object of limited availability—the CD, DVD, or bound book—has become just a memory, and when songs, movies, and books are generally available as infinitely copyable bitstreams, then the producer’s traditions and customer’s expectations will have to change. And if the law of supply and demand has anything to say about it, the result will be a lower price for the music, the movie, or the reading experience.

After all, even Lady Gaga’s not coughing up diamonds here.

1. It’s called a law, like the law of gravity, and over the long haul it works almost as inflexibly.

2. See the pricing guide on the website “Model A Trader.”

3. So, after all, the consumer is not just downloading bytes, but certain bytes put together in a certain order. Would anyone take the time to download a whole string of zeroes, a null program, naughts? Would anyone download random noise, static, unintelligible garble? You wouldn’t pay for the memory chips to hold white noise or spend the effort to get it and catalogue it.

4. In the old days, this might be an investment on the order of $10,000 to print their books. Now, despite the ease with which book text can be coded as epubs and uploaded on a service like those supporting the Kindle or Nook, there are still costs involved with obtaining cover art, acquiring an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), paying copyright fees, and buying support services.

5. Except for those who believe “data wants to be free” and so resort to piracy.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Bits of Paper and Celluloid

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I love stories. And my definition of “story” is pretty broad: parables, anecdotes, short fiction, books and bits of books, movies with their bits of action and dialogue, even the occasional scene from television. Although I’m a fan of rational thought, it’s a truism that people remember a story or fable far more readily, with all its complex emotional weight, than they can recall a syllogism. All the best religions base their teachings on stories rather than reasoned analysis.

Sometimes I think my entire world view—my philosophy and my reaction to the world—is actually pieced together from bits of paper and celluloid: the fragments of books and movies that have resonated with me. This, of course, is specious. I’m not a hermit crab blindly sticking any old bit of dialogue on my shell for decoration. Before there can be selection, there must be criteria. So I’m finding bits of story that already fit my established—but perhaps not yet fully articulated—world view. I think most people are like that.1 They find in popular culture the attitudes, quips, and canny summations that reflect what they already believe but didn’t actually have the words to say until they saw it in a book or up on the screen.

I’ve already covered some of this ground in my blog about The Dune Ethos. The Frank Herbert series describes a world filled with danger, where people have to be very smart and cunning to stay alive, where human skills and potential trump any form of technology, where loyalty—at least among the Atreides—is the strongest bond, and where all personal power has limits. This is a world I admire. I wouldn’t always want to live in it, especially considering the part about constant danger, but it’s refreshing to immerse yourself in a book full of such thoughts.

This is especially true for most of us who live in a world that is far tamer and yet more complex. In everyday life, our enemies—far from being simply undeclared—are sometimes not even fully aware of their own enmity. They pursue their goals and don’t even recognize that they may have offended or damaged anyone else.2 In everyday life, technology is so massively powerful that humans cannot even begin to compete.3 In everyday life, loyalty is an iffy commodity, masked by a ready smile and cloaked by private reservations-within-reservations. In everyday life, people with personal power over us are backed up by law and tradition, lawyers and the general uncaring of society as a whole, and exhibit none of the vulnerabilities built into the story of the God-Emperor Leto II.

But today I’m not celebrating the entire complex background of one book or another. Rather, I’m celebrating the bits that stick in the mind long after the entire thread of the book or movie may have faded from memory.

When confronted with situations of anger, hurt feelings, mess, and muddle, I think of The Godfather, when Vito Corleone—and I forget the exact scene or context of the remark—looks around at the chaos caused by volatile and uncontrolled human emotions, senseless vendettas, retribution, and aggressive, egotistical behavior that comes to a bad end. “That’s a waste,” he says. The Zen masters or the Dalai Lama, always economical in their use of strong emotion, would agree. Chaos may be emotionally satisfying to the chaos causers, but on the whole and for the bystanders, it’s a waste.

I’ve also been guided in life by the Godfather’s observation: “I spent my whole life trying not to be careless. Women and children can afford to be careless, but not men.” In the Sicilian world view, women and children live and act in the sphere of the family, the home, the place made safe by men. Women have their own duties, to bear children, care for them in health, nurse them in sickness, and nurture personal relationships. Children have the leisure of childhood to grow and develop and make mistakes while learning to be adults. Men have the duty to make a secure place where these necessary activities can proceed without intrusion from the harsh outside world.

In our twenty-first century view, where women can participate fully in that outside world if they choose, the quote should probably be: “Children can afford to be careless, but not adults.” Women are fortunate in that they now have the choice to be breadwinners or homebodies, or try to be both. That’s a choice that has never seriously been given to men. My only request is that women who move in that larger sphere not be careless, and that they learn and become adept with all the weapons required to respond to its dangers.

In military matters—and in conflicts in general—I have always treasured this rule of engagement passed along in Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.” That indicates the sort of clear-eyed observation of the situation and willingness to delay retaliation for at least one round of exchange before beating of the war drums.

Fleming had a fund of pithy observations about the world. For example, “Bond always mistrusted short men. They grew up from childhood with an inferiority complex. All their lives they would strive to be big—bigger than the others who had teased them as a child. Napoleon had been short, and Hitler. It was the short men that caused all the trouble in the world.” As a tall person myself, I learned early to move carefully and not to impose my size and strength on those around me. Failure to think of others in this way has always led to hurt feelings, hostility, and sometimes enemy action. And besides, other people seem to break so easily. This is a rule that short people seldom learn.

In my college days, with my first experience of dealing with roommates, and then in the early days of marriage, I often recalled the play, the movie, and finally the television series The Odd Couple. It’s an insightful piece of work. I have found that in every pairing of two people, whether as casual roommates or as lovers and spouses, one is always “Oscar” to the other’s “Felix.” In every pairing, one party is always going to be messier and less organized, more relaxed and congenial, more hang-loose and carefree than the other. The other party is always going to be more orderly, more precise, more socially stiff, and less accommodating than the other. This is a matter of degrees rather than absolutes. Of two bachelors, who might generally fall into the category “bears with furniture,” one is always going to be more bothered by the mess of pizza boxes and beer cans than the other. In that case, the one who complains first also gets to clean up.

As a source of perspective on political developments, I’m a fan of the second Sigourney Weaver epic, Aliens. Good setups and good lines of dialogue abound in that movie. One of my favorites is during Ellen Ripley’s grilling over the loss of the Nostromo and cargo, when she asks, “Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away?” It speaks to the frustration we all feel when the reactions of a roomful of people do not make sense in terms of what we know about objective reality. Another favorite line is her summation on dealing with the hive of aliens: “Nuke them from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure”—because that sentiment is just so bad ass.4

On the question of knowing when to give up and let go, I think of two favorite movies. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch becomes entangled in a confrontation between Sundance and some poker players. Butch tries to reason through the options, but everyone’s heart is set on a fight. He finally gives up and says, “I can’t help you, Sundance.” Sometimes you simply have to acknowledge that people will do what they want.

And then, in The Duellists, Armand D’Hubert is faced with yet another challenge from Feraud, his perpetual antagonist. D’Hubert sighs, “I’m not fanatical enough to persist in this.” In every endeavor, I’ve found, there comes a time when perseverance turns over into perversity and it’s time to reconsider priorities. Fanaticism—“a quarrel pursued for its own sake,” as the Tarot-reading wise woman in the movie phrases it—is simply not healthy.

I’ve also found much to like in the human byplay of the Joss Whedon series Firefly and its culmination in the movie Serenity. In the context of confrontation, Captain Malcolm Reynolds replies to a line of dialogue about killing people in their sleep: “If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.” This quote, on a poster of the captain with a sidearm, has attracted much negative attention on the internet lately. To me, it is simply a pledge of his intentions to play fair.

I think one of the reasons some people are alarmed by the quote and the poster is that Reynolds is not pledging to “play nice.” For some people in this society, the only acceptable resolution to any conflict is negotiated reconciliation and, when differences prove to be irreconcilable, a retreat into passive resistance. Maybe it works at the U.N. But the big world out there beyond polite society is really a dangerous place. Many unfriendly people are prone to attack before you are ready. Violence may ensue, and a sensible person is prepared to counter it.5

The world view of Serenity’s captain is consistently rough and ready, but also fair. I think that would adequately sum up the other heroes I mention here. They are confident of their ability to maneuver in a dangerous world. They are not afraid of risks. They take risks and suffer the consequences if their gambles fail. They are honest with themselves and others. They blame themselves when necessary, and they never complain. They are adults, and not careless.

That’s not such a bad way to live.

1. In this I’m reminded of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok,” where the Enterprise crew encounters a civilization whose language is made up entirely of fragments from myth and story. So the concept of sulking with anger and hurt feelings might be spoken as “Achilles in his tent,” and the moment when a popular misconception is revealed as “Odysseus with the axheads.”

2. Such offhand carelessness is pretty much the basis for all incidents of road rage. For balance, consider the adage about not attributing to malice what can be explained by stupidity—or casual uncaring.

3. Consider the power of something like the social interaction made possible by the telephone and, now, the internet and its social media. Voices and conversations carrying rumor, innuendo, lies, and deceit travel invisibly down the wire or seep through the social ether like water through limestone. A reputation that was solid this morning can be in tatters by lunchtime, and you’ve never heard a word of it. That’s a far cry from past history, where if someone told a lie about you, it traveled in sound waves across the agora or through whispers in the marketplace, where you could possibly hear it and hope to answer. This new communications technology races beyond the power of any human brain cells to cope with or maintain the reflexes to combat.

4. And, yes, I can be distracted by displays of pure attitude.

5. Humans were not the first killers in the prehistoric world, we just became the best at it.