Book Review: Profiles Of The Future

Profiles Of The FutureProfiles Of The Future by Arthur C. Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An easy read, but a little dull. It avoided the usual problem of extrapolating and prophesying – being quickly proved wrong – by mainly discussing ideas and concepts Clarke located so far into the future they have still to come to pass. The book was written in the 60s, updated in the 70s, and last printed in the early 80s – so it is of course already old hat, and Clarke knew little about the future development of microprocessors, genetic engineering, and so on. Nonetheless, one of the entertainments of reading old books prognosticating about the future is seeing where, and how soon, projections diverge from reality. By being very vague and long-sighted, both the amusement of bad prophecy and, as somebody with an interest in futurology, the humbling realisation that nearly all prediction (especially about the future) is doomed to failure was denied to me. There is at least, at the back of the book, a table in which Clarke actually does attempt to pin down, with dates, when we would colonize planets, or when there would be a World Brain, or when we would control weather, and so on. At last, I could again be reminded that even those lauded as technological prophets are doomed to prophetic failure.

The main reason for this failure is because, as usual, everything happens too soon. Extrapolations from current technology tend toward exponentiality. For example, it is easy to look at advances in genetics in 1970s and posit replicants in 2019 (Blade Runner). Similarly, for Clarke, the space race of the 1960s iis a harbinger of planetary colonization in the 2020s, and space-mining in the 2030s.

There are occasional hits; the “World Library” by 2010 sounds a lot like Project Gutenberg, or Google, or Wikipedia. However, the mode of delivery is completely different, relying on satellite-based communications rather than the internet. Network-based computing is absent, as are pocket-sized computers. A form of GPS is foreseen, however.

Still, this is an easy enough read. It also contains one of the best explanations I’ve read about how difficult interstellar travel would be in terms of time and communication (even at near light speeds); and how it is likely that, as humans spread among the stars, each area of colonisation would be so remote from Earth it would soon develop independently, and perhaps over time, lose connection with the ancestral planet.

If you are interested in futurology and scientific prophecy, if you see this lying around a second-hand bookshop, it is worth picking up.

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Book Review – Conversations on Truth

Conversations on TruthConversations on Truth by Mick Gordon My rating: 3 of 5 stars This book is a series of conversations (edited into readable format) with various people who have an interest in the idea of “truth” from a variety of viewpoints — such as philosophers, ethicists, journalists and evolutionary psychologists. The conversations were initiated by a pair of journalist/theatre directors who were attempting to find a way into the production of some form of drama through which notions of truth might be explored.

There are fifteen conversations, and although the conversations are edited, and they begin from a set of predefined questions, the interviewers allow the direction of conversation to suggest other directions the conversations might take. Sometimes, this ends up in diversions not necessarily to do with “truth” per se. And as commentators from various fields have been brought into the conversations, there are areas that might be of more interest to readers than others. Certainly, I was much more interested in what philosophers had to say than, say, journalists. And the evolutionary psychologist opened up an interesting area by suggesting that there might be evolutionary benefits to lying. Additionally, given the discursive nature of the conversations, areas in which I wanted more depth were sometimes glossed over – this is not an academic treatise.

The book is, then, something of a curate’s egg — hence the three-star rating. Nonetheless, as an introduction to truth, and the definitional, ethical, philosophical and cultural issues surrounding the concept, I thought this was a very useful book. View all my reviews

Fifty Years of Mystery

This blog has rather been in the doldrums since before Christmas. In part, Christmas can be blamed; but I was also tidying up drafts in preparation for (self-) publishing a new book about the Warminster mystery.

The mystery was 50 years old on Christmas day 2014. Until the 1960s, Warminster had never been famous for much. It is an army town, home to the Land Warfare Centre (formerly the School of Infantry). Salisbury Plain, to the north of the town, is used for military manoeuvres and training, including live firing. Very few luminaries had come from the town, and very little had happened there. In the 1960s, that was to change. Warminster was to become famous – notorious even – for its UFO sightings. These UFOs were described in the books of Arthur Shuttlewood, a local journalist. However, these books can only be found, if at all, second-hand, and only take the story of the mystery up until the late 1970s. Much has happened since then that needed recording — not so much UFO sightings, but information on what happened to those who documented the mystery, and the mystery’s slow re-emergence from the half-light of forgotten memories.

The mystery is being discussed and celebrated at a conference in Warminster in August this year (2015). It was in August 1965, during the summer holidays, that the town was first invaded by hordes of curious skywatchers who camped on the hills surrounding the town to look for the mysterious lights and listen out for the strange sounds they had learned about through TV, radio and newspapers, caused by a phenomenon the locals called the Thing.

To provide an introduction to the Warminster mystery — for those who might be new to it or revisiting it after many years — Kevin Goodman and I have written a new book that describes the fifty years of the mystery. The book reviews what happened during the crazy, exciting years of the Warminster mystery, and also what has happened since the mystery faded away. It is not a long list of sighting reports; it is a short history of the events — the lights and sounds — and the media reports and characters that shaped the Thing.


For information on the Warminster 2015 conference, see the Warminster 2015 Website.

For information on the Warminster mystery, see the UFO Warminster Website.

The Warminster mystery is described in the following currently in-print books:

History of a Mystery: Fifty Years of the Warminster Thing

In Alien Heat: The Warminster Mystery Revisited

UFO Warminster: Cradle of Contact

For information on out-of-print books that discuss the Warminster mystery, see the Books page of the UFO Warminster Website.


 

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Review: Crome Yellow

Crome Yellow
Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Much to my surprise, I enjoyed Crome Yellow a lot more than I expected to. I’m not one for humour in books, so if it was funny in a 1920s-style, that passed me by. Nothing much happens in the novel, and what passes for plot is slight. That it satirises and lightly mocks the world that Huxley moved in at that time is well-known: the Bloomsbury set, the Garsington crowd. And Huxley is self-knowing enough to realise that he is one of those people. It is tempting to see the protagonist Denis as Huxley himself; the young, slightly naif poet, moving among older, wiser, talented people, searching for something, but somewhat callow and innocent — many of the people Huxley mingled with at Garsington — Bell, Middleton Murray, Lawrence, Russell — were ten or more years older than he.

The crisis at the end is faintly ridiculous, but at the same time oddly true — for who else but a naif to whom nothing had happened would contemplate such an action?

Also of passing interest were hints of topics that would interest Huxley in his later books. Obviously, satirising intellectuals and the pre-occupations of a certain class would continue through Point Counter Point and Eyeless in Gaza; but, for example, one of the characters in Crome Yellow discusses an ideal society in which children are selected at birth for particular roles and educated so that those roles become their prescribed path through life — a prefiguration of the social rankings in Brave New World, of course.

Ultimately, Crome Yellow was light and frothy. It was a delight. A charm.

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Memory Traces

I surfed the Web, randomly entering into Google the words I found in the notepads that were scattered on the desk. The desk was a mess, I noted. Scraps of paper contained notes and doodles, yellow Post-it notes yelled imperatives and reminders, and the rings from coffee mugs stained A4 sheets and the desktop. The ashtray was full to overflowing. The bottle of scotch was empty. Had it all been downed in one sitting? I worked around the chaos, carried on entering words. Pages were displayed. I scrolled and followed links. What I was discovering, what I was creating, was like a picture, a map, a simulation, a metaframework, of a mind.

I displayed pages about Devon, train timetables to Leeds, a Google map of Bristol. I zoomed in, found Montpelier. A page in one notepad contained only the words Flickr and Wiltshire. I searched Flickr for tags, looked at pages of photographs of beautiful, soft, green, Wiltshire hills. I read essays about reality, quantum physics, red rain, ghosts, and post-structuralism. As I worked, I saved all the pages to a folder on the computer. I printed out pictures and texts that took my fancy, and placed some of them in a physical folder. Other pages I placed on the cream walls of the office using the pins and Blu-Tac I found in the desk drawers. I made connections between the pages using the coloured ribbons I had also found in the desk. I used as clues the scribbles I had found, the Web pages I had read, and my own intuitions. A ribbon linked a Google map of Dereham to a photo of a UFO, then a Google map of Roswell. One blue ribbon stretched from a map of Banbury to a picture of Leeds University. The link was one made from intuition, as Banbury had been a station my train had stopped at on a railway trip I had once made from Reading to Leeds. From that picture, a yellow ribbon stretched across the wall to a photograph of Middlesex University. The ribbon was pinned and then turned 90 degrees, ending at a picture of Meg Ryan. I believe that Middlesex University once had a performance arts course, and Meg is, of course, an actor. It made sense. It made sense. Of course it did. I felt it in my gut. I searched around the desk, the Web, for another link, looked in the notebooks, at the scraps of paper and Post-It notes. Soon, I had found the connection and pinned it to the wall. It was, of course, Jim Morrison. I printed the photo and placed it on the wall, added more ribbon from Meg to Jim.

I continued to do this for half a day. I trailed ribbons around the walls of the office, connecting by inference and reference, induction and deduction, intuition and knowledge. I stood back and looked at the walls, at my fully-realised network, my wall Web. At that moment I should have been proud of that Web. I wanted to be. I wanted to admire its utility, its coherence, its completeness. But all I could do was shake my head in dismay. I sat down heavily in the black leather office chair, rested my arms on its leather arms, and continued to look at the wall. It was obvious to me now. I had been such a fool. I should have used the colours of the ribbons to also present information, to indicate particular types of connections and relationships. Although dismayed, I am by nature, dogged, persistent; some might say obsessive, although I think that is too strong a word.  It didn’t take me long to work out a system I could use that would could convey the additional information. The ribbons were only available in a limited range of colours – less ROYGBIV, more RGBY. I made a note of the colours and the information each colour would represent on a scrap of paper, and then set to work again, stringing the ribbons from photo to map to document. I hardly needed to refer to the key I had devised. Unsurprising, I suppose, when you have a mind like mine.

I sat down again, leaned back in the leather chair, my hands behind my head, satisfied, proud at last of my labours. I lit a cigarette. It was a shame the whiskey bottle was empty; my throat was dry. Researching, making connections, following trails through the evidence, was thirsty work. I thought about making myself a mug of tea, but I didn’t really want to leave the room. For a moment, my world, the world I was constructing, the world I would shore against my ruins, was in this room, and only in this room. The picture was not yet complete. That much I knew. I closed my eyes and relaxed.

 *

 Now, I open my eyes and turn to the computer on the desk. My attention is drawn to the photograph on the wall above the monitor. She is a pretty woman, there’s no doubt. Blonde, slight, laughing, her arms outstretched in front of her, ready to catch something, it seems. A ball, perhaps, or a frisbee? There is blue sky behind her, and trees, heavy with full, fresh, green leaf, lean into the photograph from the side of the frame. Her summer dress, long, maroon, has been arrested by the act of photography, but I can imagine its movement continuing, twisting the dress around her. I wonder what she would think if she knew that I was still here, in her house? The house was quiet. I knew she wouldn’t be coming into this room today.

I am going to enter into a database all the Web pages I have so far saved to the computer. I shall also scan the documents and photographs and also enter those into the database. I can then cross-reference all these motes of information programmatically. The database will not be as visual as the map on the wall, will not so instantly conjure for me fragments of memory. Yet, in time, the database will offer up more interconnections, intersections and permutations. I will add more documents to the wall, more ribbons that show the all-important connections.

My hands are warm inside the latex gloves. I remember this – I had found these gloves, earlier in the day, today I think, in a drawer in the kitchen. I allow myself to turn my head and glance through the open door to the hallway. I will later clear away the bodies that still lie there so obscenely. Death has created a vacuum in my head. I am blanked, black, blocked, all empty, nothing. First, I must reconnect these fragments from my notebooks, my desk, My Favourites, My Documents, rebuild my world, rebuild my self, rebuild my identity, rebuild, rebuild, restructure, reframe, cross-reference – reconstruct me.

Only then, perhaps, can I know to whom those bodies once belonged, and why they are in my hall.