Thursday, May 26, 2011


I love theories about ancient aliens and lost civilizations. I'd love to believe them. The world would be so cool if the ancient skies were filled with spaceships, and the Pyramids really were some kind of power plant or spaceport.

However, I just keep wanting to throw things at the pseudo-archaeologists whose overblown claims make it impossible to take them seriously. For example, I just watched someone talking about Pumapunku in Bolivia. It's an amazing site, including one stone weighing well over 100 tons. That's a big puzzle for archaeologists. But then the guy went on to make the following statements:

  • The edges of the blocks are so perfectly straight they look like they were cut with lasers, and they're accurate to within a couple of microns, more accurate than we could do today.
  • The designs on the blocks are cut absolutely identically, as if they had been moulded.
  • The edges are so sharp that if you touch them, you will cut your finger.
  • The blocks fit together so tightly you can't get a razor blade between them.
  • There is no sign of weathering or damage on any of the blocks, they're as pristine as the day they were cut.
So take a look at this photograph of a few blocks from Pumapunku. (Click on it and see it really big to get all the detail.)

It's immediately obvious that every one of the above statements is total and utter crap.

It's incredible work, and very precise, no doubt about it. And it's a mystery how 5th century South Americans created them. But they're simply not micron-perfect. You could touch those edges quite safely. And they're sure as hell not pristine.

If I can prove he's talking bollocks after spending fifteen seconds on Google, then no serious archaeologist is going to take any notice of him whatsoever. There are certainly anomalies to be explained, and maybe aliens did visit Earth, but I'd rather hear from people who don't make their facts up.

No shit, Sherlock!

I recently watched Sherlock, the recent BBC modern era take on the Great Detective. It was a lot of fun, and I'm looking forward to the next series. One thing that bugged me, though, was that Holmes's apparently incredible deductions are so often completely fallacious. (Mind you, the same was true when Conan Doyle wrote Holmes, so nothing new there.)

Here's an example. Holmes deduces that a dead man cannot have shot himself. He has a bullet wound in his right temple. However, everything in his home suggests that he is left-handed: he places his coffee on the left of his chair, he slices his bread from the left, his pen is on the left of his notepad, and so on. Consequently, if he had shot himself, he'd have used his left hand, and the wound would be on the left of his head, ergo someone else shot him. Genius!

Well, sorry, I call bullshit.

I'm left-handed. I slice my bread to the left. I place my pen on the left. I generally drink coffee with my left hand - but frankly, I'll put my coffee whichever side of the chair is more convenient. But, Mr Smarty-Pants Holmes, I fire a gun with my right hand, as shown below. As, indeed, do many left-handers. I also play guitar and violin right-handed, shoot a bow right-handed, and use a computer mouse right-handed.

Yes, Holmes turned out to be right, but for the wrong reasons, and in spite of his faulty logic.

I so often find that Holmes writers must be like people who design IQ tests. Holmes puts forward a logical theory based on what he observes, but that doesn't mean it's the correct one. For example, he deduces that Watson has returned from Afghanistan or Iraq, based on his posture and the fact that he has a suntan on his hands, and therefore he must be a soldier who has just served in a hot climate and got wounded. Again, Holmes turns out to be right.

But Watson could equally well have been serving in Belize, or an embassy in the Far East. Or have left the service some time ago and been working in a office abroad for a few months. And he could have been injured in an accident, not necessarily a combat wound. But we don't think of those possibilities when we're watching the show, we're too busy being dazzled by Holmes's cleverness.

Yes, I know they're just stories and I should just sit back and enjoy it, but that's not the way my brain works. I keep looking for other explanations of the data and alternative hypotheses. That's why I have so many problems with the aforementioned IQ tests - I can usually think of half a dozen equally logical different answers to the same question, and it turns into a guessing game as to which one the questioner had in mind.

Q: London, Munich, Moscow, Miami. Which is the odd one out?

Well, obviously London, as it's the only one that doesn't start with M. Or Miami, as it's the only one with only five letters. Or maybe Munich, as it's the only one without a repeated vowel. No, of course, it's Miami after all, as it's the only one not in Europe. Hang on, it's got to be Moscow - that's the only one that's both a city and a river. No, dammit, it is Miami. It's the only city that was founded by a woman. And it's the only one that's also a county. And the only one that's also a tribe, and a language. And the only one with a beach.

See what I mean? Just pick one: you've got a one in four chance of being right.

That's how Holmes feels to me. He's brilliant at unerringly picking the right answer out of all the possible ones, and annoyingly, he's right even when he's totally wrong. Just like these guys figuring out where the Riddler is going to strike next.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Game of Tropes

Last week I read Game of Thrones, seeing as people are talking about it, and I have no idea when the HBO series will be coming to Netflix. A few hundred pages in, it struck me just what an unpleasant world he was describing. And it’s not just George R. R. Martin – a world based on medieval feudalism is common to the vast majority of fantasy literature. The chivalric values these worlds espouse are usually held up to be heroic, noble, and something we should aspire to. But they’re not. They’re inherently fascist, racist, and backward-looking.

Let’s just look at six common themes in fantasy literature. Sure, there are plenty of counter-examples of fantasy literature that don’t use these tropes, but there are a lot that do. I’m sure you’ll recognize them.

By the way, don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not bashing Game of Thrones. It’s a good book, and I really like a lot of George R. R. Martin’s work. The Armageddon Rag is one of my favourite novels. My concern is with the underlying ideas that appear in a lot of books of this kind, and which we somehow automatically accept as “good” without necessarily thinking them through. I blame the troubadours and the pre-Raphaelites who created this perception of the world of knights in shining armour that still persists into the 21st century.

The rightful heir

Our hero seeks to regain the throne that is his by right. His family was deposed, perhaps many generations ago, so he intends to kill the usurpers and restore the true monarchy.

There is an implicit assumption here that inherited power is fundamentally right. Because our hero’s great-great-grandfather used to run the country, this gives him the right, and indeed the duty, to take charge. Don’t ask whether he’s competent. Don’t ask whether he’s the best person for the job. Just look at the genealogical tables, and that determines who should have the power.

And, furthermore, don’t ask how his family got into power in the first place. So a few generations further back still, our hero’s family conquered the kingdom and seized power? Well, that’s okay. They’re not usurpers. That was legitimate because, well, he’s the hero, right? And if anyone from those days should try and regain power for their family, they’re obviously evil rebels and should be put down, harshly.

Here’s a modern comparison. A descendent of the Duke of Thuringia, who was deposed by Napoleon in the 1780s, decides he’s the rightful heir to the throne of Germany. So he gets a group of loyal Thuringian supporters together, and plots to assassinate the President of Germany and blow up the Parliament, then set himself up as a divinely appointed dictator. By most standards, that would make him a great villain, but in a fantasy world – he’s our hero.

The family

That example leads in perfectly to the next trope, the Noble House. Everything is done out of loyalty to the House. The House is everything. The only people you can trust are members of your own House. The reason for wanting power isn’t for your own selfish ends – that wouldn’t be heroic – it’s to bring glory and honor to your House. And woe betide anyone who insults your House – they clearly have to die. Anything you do in defense of your House is justified. After all, it’s for a noble cause, right?

We have that trope in modern literature too. It’s called The Godfather. The Noble Houses of fantasy worlds are no different to Mafia families jockeying for supremacy, and dealing out death for the slightest imagined slur on their honor.

And relying on your family to do everything, and putting them in positions of power? That’s called nepotism, and it’s one of the most widespread forms of corruption. Here’s an example from Game of Thrones: one of the country’s leading generals dies, and the king replaces him with a highly experienced warrior. The dead guy’s family is insulted, because his son should have followed in his father’s footsteps (see the rightful heir trope above). But the son in question is six years old, sickly, and largely insane. Anyone with half a grain of sense could see that he’s not exactly the ideal candidate for the job, but in a fantasy world, family honor trumps common sense every time.

The pure bloodline

The bloodline is a recurring trope throughout fantasy literature. Everything about a person can be determined by their genetic background. Everyone from this country is shifty and untrustworthy. Everyone from that country is a skilled trader. Everyone from that nomad race is a cruel savage. And in order to preserve that distinction, the cultural norms of every tribe, nation and family dictate that crossing those genetic backgrounds produces half-breeds who are to be treated as outcasts.

In many places in fantasy worlds, people who aren’t of the True Blood, or foreigners, are treated like scum. They’re only fit for lower class jobs, and the city guard can mistreat them with impunity.

It makes me think of slave-owning states in the 18th and 19th century, where white people carefully graded everyone by their degree of blackness: mulattoes, quadroons, octoroons, and so on, and that determined their civil rights. It’s reminiscent of eugenics programs, apartheid, or the segregation of the Jews in ghettoes. But in a fantasy world, that’s okay.

The highborn

Here’s another common trope. Our hero is the son of a blacksmith, but he’s always felt different and special. That’s because he’s really a noble. And so he regains what is rightfully his. (Because he’s the rightful heir, he’s restoring his family and the bloodline is what counts, remember.)

In most fantasy worlds, apparently, nobles really are different to ordinary people. They’re more skilled. They have better morals. They’re more intelligent. And they have a Destiny (say it in your most sonorous Christopher Lee voice, with an echo). They’re highborn, and so they deserve to have the best of everything. And if they have to kill a few people to get it, then fair enough. They’re nobles, after all.

And, by contrast, peasants are peasants, merchants are merely money-grubbers, and slaves are just slaves. And, of course, they should keep to their station in life. If they have to die in the service of the nobility, then don’t worry. They’re only commoners. In fact, if you have to start a major war to settle a dispute between nobles, then that’s fine too. The joyful populace will cheerfully line up to be slaughtered, just as long as House Hero avenges the insult from House Arrogant.

Let’s just recap one little thing in that last paragraph in case you missed it. Slavery is legal in most fantasy worlds. It’s okay for our hero to own people. Because he’s a noble, right?

The measure of a man (or woman)

Our hero has to acquire many skills, but there’s one that matters above all else. He becomes a real man when he learns to use a sword and kill people. Even women aren’t exempt from this – if she’s not a Xena-esque warrior woman, she learns how to use a weapon in secret. Again from Game of Thrones, we’re supposed to like Arya, the girl who studies swordsmanship, rather than her girly big sister Sansa, who just wants to marry a handsome prince.

Combat is everything – either in the form of vengeance or tournaments, or simply to demonstrate prowess. Rulers who aren’t warriors are usually to be despised, and it’s a matter of personal honor that our hero should regain his throne by killing the evil king himself, thus proving his fitness to rule.

In a fantasy world, violence settles everything. Tombstone and the Wild West were a model of law and order compared to most fantasy worlds. Think Somalia and you’d be about right. Everyone’s armed, and death in a bar brawl is nothing unusual. Power goes to the strongest and most ruthless, and they keep it by inflicting death on anyone who might be a threat to them. In the modern world, that’s a country in chaos. In a fantasy world, that’s how things should be.

A return to the old ways

After our hero regains the throne (at the point of a sword, naturally), he’s going to restore the Old Ways. Once again, everything will be like it was in his father’s day, or a century ago, or a few millennia ago. All you have to do is invoke that trope, and the reader knows implicitly that our hero is doing everything for the best of reasons.

In a fantasy world, there’s no such thing as progress. It was always better back in the old days. The Old Religion was right, and the country will be improved if we get rid of the false priests and put the old ones back.

When that happens in the real world, it’s scary. Margaret Thatcher once proclaimed that she stood for a return to “Victorian values” in Britain. What the Victorians stood for was actually pretty horrific: the belief that white people had the right to conquer everyone else and destroy their culture; the belief that Christians were morally superior to everyone else, and therefore had the right to treat them as they pleased; no votes for women, black people, or peasants; the entire economy and judiciary in the hands of a small hereditary elite; the workhouse for poor people; death for the most trivial offenses; sexual repression (except if you were an aristocrat, in which case you could do as you liked) and so on. Dickens wrote about social injustice for a reason – Victorian society was a far from pleasant place for the majority of people.

Further back in history, look at what happened when the Catholics and Protestants took turns bringing back the Old Ways throughout Europe. Decades of death and terror, and people burned at the stake for following the previous Old Ways. One minute you’re a loyal subject, the next you’re a dangerous heretic in fear of your life.

In the West, there are very few people who think it’s a good thing that Ayatollah Khomeini re-established the Old Ways in Iran. Though we liked it much better when the British, the French and the oil companies got rid of democracy in Iran, and brought back the Other Old Ways in the form of the Shah. And look how well that worked out for the Iranian people.

But in a fantasy world, it’s somehow different. If you bring back the Old Ways, everyone will be happy.

So that’s the world of chivalry in a typical fantasy novel. It’s a violent world ruled by warring mafia families, where your station in life is determined entirely by who your parents are, where commoners exist only for the benefit of the wealthy, and where any attempt at modernization is regarded as treason.

Monday, May 16, 2011

When technology isn't the answer

Whenever I get frustrated with technology that doesn't work as well as it should, I'm always reminded of a documentary I saw about ten or fifteen years ago about the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, the most advanced piece of military technology in the world at the time.

They had a sophisticated computer system running everything, a real novelty in the day. It handled the weapons systems, the stores, even the daily menus. It was a pretty impressive piece of software.


Downstairs in the aircraft hangar, they had a huge magnetic metal table. On it there was a painted plan of the hangar deck, complete with all the bays. They had a box of colored nuts, some red and some blue, with the serial numbers of each aircraft on it, and they simply put them in place on the table to give them an instant view of which planes were where, and which were unserviceable (red) or ready for action (blue).

At flight deck level, in aircaft dispatch, the dispatcher used a chinagraph pencil to write the number of each aircraft on the inside of the plexiglass dome as it took off, and erased it with his thumb as it landed, giving him an instant view which aircraft were in flight.

Despite all the technology, the guys who had to run the place relied on simple, manual systems, because they were easier to maintain, more reliable, and actually gave the people who needed it the information they wanted faster than computer readouts. And - though they never had to test it - more likely to continue working if the ship ever took damage.