First Generation Gaming

Although I can’t really describe myself as a gamer, as a Gen-Xer I am of the first generation which could have been into video and computer games in a big way, just as Baby Boomers were the first generation who could’ve been into rock music.  Sarada, a Generation Joneser, has noted that the gulf between her generation and its predecessor is much greater than that between her and our children’s.  I actually think that’s slightly less true than before because music seems to have gone through a more independent phase and has now returned to being corporate as it was in the 1950s.  Both Sarada and I were of a generation which believed it was possible to change the world with music, an idea which is now passé.  Anyway, this post is not about music but gaming.

Pong

Probably my first experience of computer games was TV football, as I knew it, or Pong as it’s more widely known.  However, it wasn’t as an actual Pong console plugged into a telly but played on television and broadcast on a children’s programme, possibly Crackerjack (CRACKERJACK!), a programme of which I was by no means a fan.  This was in about 1974.  It’s quite impressive how thinly computer power was being spread in that situation.  Not only is Pong, even by standards later in the decade, a remarkably primitive game with what feels like practically no demands on the hardware, but also this game was not actually being played in the living room or even an arcade, but in a TV studio in London being watched by millions.  It was a spectator sport.  I presume the idea was a bit like Blue Peter:  vicarious enjoyment of what the rich kids could have, such as companion dogs and cats in the case of Blue Peter and a video game in the case of Crackerjack (CRACKERJACK!  Gets old quickly doesn’t it?).  This is in keeping with the way the BBC used to approach things at the time, wanting to provide for the poor and do something about their situation, an ethic which sadly seems old-fashioned today but maybe it will come back into fashion.  But it also worked as something to aspire to.  It was the climax of the show and the kind of thing which was correctly considered an exciting draw on children.

Also in 1974, John Craven, later of Newsround, presented the first edition of ‘Brainchild’.  This used a similar idea, where a computer referred to as BERYL – the Brainchild Electric Random Year and Letter Indicator – formed the central feature of the series.  My memories of this programme are exceedingly vague but I seem to remember it involving a piece of equipment which would select topics for a quiz using a Teletext-like display.  Teletext was an interesting phenomenon which aimed to transmit text and graphics on the top and bottom lines of a CRT TV display of a standard which was initially impossible to realise because affordable hardware would have been completely beyond the domestic budget of the average household during the three-day week, scheduled powercuts and candles in the cupboard under the stairs for when the lights went out, which is about the time it came out.  I don’t really understand how Teletext was supposed to work considering that there weren’t any Teletext decoders commercially available at the time, but I seem to recall it was used on Brainchild, in the studio of course.  Again, this was a computer “game” mainly for viewers rather than something you could actually play at home with your own device, unless you count the television set.

Ceefax

Just as a brief aside, Teletext was a standard ahead of its time.  It enabled most of the ASCII character set to be displayed in 24 rows of 40 columns on the television screen with 2×3 block characters for graphics and the eight colours black, red, green, blue, magenta, cyan, yellow and white, with flashing and double-height characters as an option.  This was at a time when most British television sets were black and white and many of them couldn’t even pick up BBC2, and the most advanced personal “computer” would’ve been a four-function pocket calculator or a desk calculator with a thermal printout which made aircraft taking off noises when you plugged it into the wall, as was obligatory, so it’s pretty impressive.

My next encounter with computer games was in 1975, once again completely passively.  At the time, the University of Warwick published a fun maths magazine called MANIFOLD which I used to read, and is incidentally the origin of the Radio 4 game Mornington Crescent.  This mentioned a computer program called STAR TREK (lots of things were in capitals back then, partly because it would double the number of letters a computer had to recognise to have lower case as well, although by then the problem had been largely solved.).  This was a text-based game which had been written in BASIC for the SDS Sigma-7 mainframe computer in 1971:

By Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31996455640px-LCM_-_Xerox_Sigma_9_(right)_and_related_equipment_-_01

(man not included).  I knew this thing was out there but had no idea how it worked or how to play it, but it excited me considerably.  At the time, the idea of writing a program that could do this seemed utterly Herculean.

Later in 1975, I played my first computer game!  It was on a teletype connected to an HP mainframe at Imperial College, London, although the teletype was in Kent, linked to the computer by an acoustic coupler and telephone.  I might need to explain some of this.  A teletype is an electric typewriter which can be used to type information into a computer and print information sent to it by that computer.  Here’s an example:

Fernschreibmaschine mit Telefonanschluss

This particular machine dates from the 1930s and was used for telegrams, as most were back then.

This is an acoustic coupler:

628px-Acoustic_coupler_20041015_175456_1

These were needed because at the time, telephones had wires screwed into the walls of buildings.  An acoustic coupler is a bit like a headphone and a mike.  The signals sent by the computer and teletype were converted into screeching noises which were then picked up by another phone at the other end and converted back into computer data.  These kinds of things were examples of the kind of repurposing of objects designed for other functions which computers tended to rely on back then.  Nowadays it’s the other way round.  Ironically, just as I typed those words, I lost my internet connection.

One way in which my experience resembled that of gamers today is that it involved the telecom network and connecting to a distant computer, so whereas at the time the internet only existed for the purposes of the military, government and universities, the rest of the world was gradually groping its way towards it even back then.

Lunar_Lander

The game involved was Lunar Lander.  The illustration above is a little misleading as it didn’t involve any kind of video display but me typing in numbers to tell the computer how much fuel to burn.  The usual response of the computer was to tell me that “YOUR NEXT OF KIN HAVE BEEN NOTIFIED” because I’d crashed into the lunar surface, but the reason that happened was that at the time I was unaware of the difference between the digit zero and the letter O on a computer, or teletype, keyboard and kept typing the wrong characters, so rather than typing “100” I would instead accidentally type “1OO” and die.

To be honest, I found the game incredibly boring.  I tried to make it more exciting by imagining that the teletype was a robot because it stood on a pair of legs.

140150-Space_Invaders-1490193369

For a couple of years after that, computer games didn’t really impinge on my life at all as far as I can remember.  The next thing to happen was in 1978, with the advent of Space Invaders.  This had an appealing aesthetic of a black and white monitor with what was effectively high resolution graphics, at least for the time.  Although it didn’t do colour, that was added by sticking bits of coloured cellophane onto the screen, although it wasn’t for many years that I realised that was what they’d done.  It was also at this point that I began to disapprove heartily of computer games.  It disappointed me that the power of computer chips was being used just to play games.  In fact, at the time I was an incipient communist as well and thought microchips were going to make everyone unemployed, which was a Bad Thing, so I swore off computers and the like for quite some time.

Something else also came into play for me in the next few years, related to my purism.  At the time, I strongly disapproved of colour telly and this seems to have turned into a weird theme in my life connected to computer games themselves.  There are said to be traces in the distribution of the galaxies in the universe of the sound waves created by the Big Bang, even though there is in a sense no sound in space and those galaxies are now millions of light years apart.  Likewise, my childhood disapproval of colour was to have a long term affect on me which is still in evidence today.  However, it was also tempered by another thing going on in my life at the start of the ’80s:  ‘The Hitch-Hikers’ Guide To The Galaxy’.

Untitled

The pictures are of course better on the radio, so I was rather disappointed by the TV adaptation of the series in question, but one aspect of the series really stood out for me:  the “computer graphics” used to illustrate the Guide itself.  Like the cellophane on the Space Invaders monitor, I didn’t realise at the time that they were fake.  Cellophane was in fact also involved here.  What these graphics told me, however, was that there was such a thing as computer graphics of this kind of appearance, and that was enough to rekindle my interest in computers.  I will get back to computer games, honest!

ganymede

Another preoccupation of mine in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the Voyager missions, which NASA illustrated using computer animation which again would probably still stand up quite well today.  That said, the above frame and the YT animation linked to seem to have been redone because the textures on the moons look like what the probes ended up imaging themselves when they got there, and the picture of Io shows volcanism.  The quality of the animation is, however, about the same.

sunstone

At the end of 1981, during which I learnt BASIC despite not having a computer to practice it on, which was my own fault because I’d chosen to boycott them and the school computer club for political reasons (for the workers!), the long-running BBC Horizon science series broadcast a documentary on computer graphics, which completely blew me away.  At the time, I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen on telly.  One of the most impressive things for me was the brief sequence Sunstone, a still from which is shown above.  This dates from 1979.  However, all of this compares rather poorly with the kind of thing you could do with a home computer at the time.  Even with the outrageously expensive £350 and then £400 BBC Model B Micro you had the choice of up to “sixteen” colours (actually eight plus eight flashing colours) at 160×256 resolution or up to 640×256 resolution but only two colours.  Obviously I preferred the latter because you get more detail for the memory and storage available.  It’s no longer an issue but it stayed with me.

At the time, serious computers such as the IBM PC didn’t even bother with graphics at all because they were considered frivolous and just for games.  Even after they did, CGA graphics gave a kind of grudging nod to the idea of graphics and gave you stuff like 320×200 with four colours from two possible palettes or 640×200 with two colours.  This was in a computer costing almost ten times as much as the already outrageously expensive BBC Micro, which had better graphics – higher resolution and more colours, and the sound was also way better.

By the end of 1982, I had a ZX81.  It had frustratingly poor specifications even for the time and after a while I got worried that I was getting obsessed with it and gave it up for a bit, but it did have some surprisingly impressive games.  A famous example was 3-D Monster Maze:

3D-monster-maze-T-rex-2-steps-away

Amazingly, this game still stands up today for jump scares.  Nor is it even the most impressive thing ever done with a ZX81.

By this time, I’d started to worry about violence as well, and there were also a couple of porn games around which really didn’t impress me:  Custer’s Revenge for the Atari 2600 (I meant to talk about that console earlier) and Commodore 64 Strip Poker.  I wasn’t impressed, so I forswore the whole thing for a bit, although I did buy a Jupiter Ace after the company went bankrupt.

After that there was a very long gap.  Looking back on my time with home micros, arcade machines and games consoles, I was never really much of a gamer and didn’t even really approve of games.  It wasn’t until 1994 that I finally got back into computers, and I’ll leave that for the next post, but I’m not finished here yet.

My involvement with computer games, then, was somewhat half-hearted, but these are of course embryonic and I was on the margins with some rather self-defeating and idiosyncratic prejudices – I disliked colour, saw computers as anti-communist and perversely saw games programming as a waste of power.  The reason, however, that I saw it in that way was that my entire reason for being interested in them in the first place was aesthetic, namely the graphics.  It’s entirely feasible to create good graphics on an early ’80s eight-bit home micro, as this loading screen for the Commodore 64, released in 1982, shows:

Screen_Shot_2015-08-20_at_1.46.47_PM.0

However, although I did manage to do some art on the ZX81, with its 64×48 monochrome resolution, and that’s if you include the two lines at the bottom of the screen used for status messages and input, my approach was largely mathematical rather than artistic and I aspired to a higher resolution screen.  It occurs to me, though, that my focus on visuals and graphics prefigured what my son would do decades later on much better hardware.

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The Mermaids’ Bible

A couple of days ago, Sarada and I were, as we do so often, considering the lilies of the field.  I’m sure you know the Bible passage,  Matthew 6:28-30, which is, in the King James Version:

And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:  And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

Sidestepping the usual things taken from this verse, I wondered exactly what flower was in mind when this was first uttered, and I tend to think it was Amaryllis although I may be wrong:

564px-Flore_des_serres_v14_053a

 

I actually imagined something whiter but unlike most plant genera, Amaryllis is a small genus, close also to Crinum.  I’ve written about plants in the Bible before and the main point, a lot of the time, is that the plants are there for a purpose, to illustrate something, and it doesn’t really matter to the reader exactly what they are, which is to be expected and also an argument against creationism because it also means the specifics of the creation narratives are not to do with what actually happened so much as what significance the events are given.  In fact, most of the time it’s highly inappropriate to attempt to look at the Bible as a science textbook because science didn’t really exist for the writers.  To illustrate this, insects are described as walking on all fours when they clearly have six legs, suggesting that the writers didn’t observe them that closely.  Some fundamentalists have stated that this is in fact good observation because locusts, for example, don’t use their hind legs for walking but for hopping, but this impresses me as very much against the grain and missing the point that the reason the Israelites were allowed to eat locusts was very likely to be exceedingly practical – that the locusts had just eaten all their crops, so if they weren’t kosher they would be expected to starve.  Whereas there may have been cultures where locust-eating was tabu, they probably didn’t survive, so it’s also a possible illustration of natural selection operating on a sacred text.

There is, however, the question of what the original Greek text actually says, which is this:

και περι ενδυματος τι μεριμνατε καταμαθετε τα κρινα του αγρου πως αυξανει ου κοπια ουδε νηθει λεγω δε υμιν οτι ουδε σολομων εν παση τη δοξη αυτου περιεβαλετο ως εν τουτων ει δε τον χορτον του αγρου σημερον οντα και αυριον εις κλιβανον βαλλομενον ο θεος ουτως αμφιεννυσιν ου πολλω μαλλον υμας ολιγοπιστοι

The bold word is “krina” – “lilies”, which immediately brought the word “crinoid” to my mind.  A crinoid is a sea lily, which is a relative of a starfish which lives on the sea bed, sometimes attached by a stalk, and is also a particularly common fossil.  Nowadays they’re quite rare.  They have been illustrated thus:

632px-Haeckel_Crinoidea

Interestingly, our own ancestors may have been stalked echinoderms like crinoids, so they’re quite significant in that respect.  Crinoids are also examples of an exceedingly common body form among animals as well as plants, including also sea anemones, moss animals and the microscopic protozoan Vorticella:

Vorticella_convallaria

The likes of crinoids and Vorticella suggest strongly to me that if there is complex life out there in the Universe, one thing that could be expected to exist would be flower-shaped organisms, possibly even in the form of land-living predatory flowers.  It also shows that for whatever reason, flower-like organisms are quite likely even though most of the flower-like animals in question are very unlike flowers in their lifestyle, mainly being stationary or almost stationary captors of smaller swimming or floating organisms.  To me this suggests that it’s not just the lifestyle or ecological niche which calls living things to become flowery but that it’s a tendency in nature, like the tendency for things to be tree-like which has led to nerve cells as well as oaks.  Having said that, insect-pollinated flowers, i.e. the fancy ones as opposed to the likes of ears of wheat and catkins, do need to capture the attention of bees, beetles and butterflies and entice them in in the same way as a predatory animal might.  It’s just that they let them go again and it’s more directly about reproduction.

Nevertheless, there’s a perceived tendency for things in the sea to be like things on land, and the question arises of whether this is coincidental and the result of the human ability to see patterns everywhere or significant in some other way.  There were, for example, once sea cows:

Pallas_Sea_Cow

Tragically, these became extinct only twenty-seven years after Europeans discovered them, and the above appears to be the only drawing of a sea cow directly from a complete specimen.

There are also cowfish:

610px-Haeckel_Ostraciontes

Sea cows and cowfish have little in common apart from the name.  Sea cows were ten tonne, ten metre-long herbivores munching through kelp forests and clearly resemble land cows quite closely in lifestyle and to some extent appearance.  If a cow had evolved into a marine form, it’s easy to imagine that it would’ve become such an animal and ecologically it sounds like sea cows were really the sea’s version of cows.  Cowfish, on the other hand, are mainly carnivorous boxfish who pursue their prey by squirting water out of their mouths and secrete poisonous soap through their skins when stressed, and grow up to half a metre long.  Their boxiness, which I imagine is armour, leads to the corners of the box which makes up their bodies being extended into horn-like projections, hence the name, but apart from that they have little in common with cows themselves.  Having said that, the reasons there are flowery animals are twofold:  there seems to be a predisposition for flower-like organisms to evolve and their form helps them capture their prey in a slightly similar manner to flowers needing to attract insects.

People try to make patterns out of things, which may or may not reflect what’s really going on in the outside world.  I haven’t been able to track this down but I’ve heard that in mediaeval times scholars believed that everything on land had to have its counterpart underwater.  Consequently there were sea dogs (which were originally sharks rather than experienced sailors), sea lions, sea anemones and so on, but as mentioned above there are also dogfish, lion fish and so forth, so in fact there are two sets of correspondences.   This led to the idea, allegedly, that if there was an apparent omission, it simply meant that the sea version of the land thing hadn’t been discovered yet.  This was expressed in the sixteenth century Guillaume du Bartas’ poem Le Creation du Monde:

Seas have (as well as skies) Sun, Moon, and Stars;
(As well as ayre) Swallows, and Rooks, and Stares;
(As well as earth) Vines, Roses, Nettles, Millions,
Pinks, Gilliflowers, Mushrooms, and many millions
of other Plants lants (more rare and strange than these)
As very fishes living in the Seas.
And also Rams, Calfs, Horses, Hares, and Hogs,
Wolves, Lions, Urchins, Elephants and Dogs,
Yea, Men and Mayds; and (which I more admire)
The mytred Bishop and the cowled Fryer;
Whereof, examples, (but a few years since)Were shew’n the Norways, and Polonian Prince.

I can’t tell if he’s being serious here.  It strikes me as rather whimsical in tone, but maybe.  Hence there was considered to be a sea monk:

Japetus_Steenstrup_sea_monks-1-

(here compared to a squid) and a sea bishop:

Sea_bishop

(Incidentally, is it just me or do these remind anyone else of Doctor Who monsters?).  In a rather chess-like incident, a sea bishop was supposedly once captured and taken to the king of Poland, but gestured to be released, whereupon he was, made the sign of the cross and went back into the sea, never to be seen again.  I find the sea bishop a much more appealing being than the sea monk, who to me just looks silly.  However, it does kind of, just about, make sense that if there are sea bishops there would also be sea monks, and perhaps sea curates, sea deacons and sea canons, I suppose.

Choirs of angels are a bit like that, but I’ve gone there before so I won’t go on in that vein.  However, just briefly, the idea of choirs of angels is that order in Heaven reflects order on Earth, so the social hierarchy of feudal society could be expected to correspond to the order of things in Heaven.  This makes me feel claustrophobic and trapped, although it might be reassuring to people at the time.  It sounds rather propaganda-like though.

the-collective-invention

The ultimate marine correspondence, assuming there to be a chain of being, would of course be sea humans.  To a contemporary mind the closest thing to a sea human would probably be a dolphin, but presumably an earlier idea would have put merpeople in that position.  I’ve never understood why mermaids are considered more prominent than mermen, which hardly ever seem to be mentioned.  This is in a sense a blow for feminism but still raises questions of why they didn’t just think there was a tribe of underwater humanfish rather than ones who were female, and I feel like there’s something I’m not getting here which makes more sense to other people.  One thing mermaids do demonstrate quite effectively is the non-scientific, mythological-type approach to life, because just as a dragon is just a monster who eats princesses and hoards gold for no apparent biological reason and doesn’t seem to have any other ecological relationships, so are mermaids somewhat puzzling owing to it being a mystery how they reproduce.  Do they lay eggs?  Do they mate with other mermaids, so they’re all lesbian?  I DON’T UNDERSTAAAAAND!

Anyway, so just as there’s a land Bible for humans, there’s presumably also a sea Bible for mermaids, and in this Bible we’re asked to consider the lilies of the sea rather than the land, and exhorted not to worry because they are decked out in sea finery or something, better than Poseidon or Neptune in all their glory, or perhaps Jacques Cousteau.  Since it doesn’t matter what kind of flowers the lilies of the field actually were, it wouldn’t change the meaning of the text to replace lilies with sea lilies, but certain problems do emerge.

Jonah comes to mind.  Was he swallowed by a giant bird?  Did he go to an underwater Atlantis and preach to them to see the errors of their ways?  Even so, there’s probably a way to make it work.  It also has quite positive consequences having only mermaids rather than women and men.  For a start, there could be no verses in it condemning the practice of mermen lying with mermen as they did with mermaids, because nobody ever talks about mermen and I don’t even feel like they really exist, so presumably the mermaids’ Bible would heartily approve of homosexuality or there wouldn’t be any mermaids.  Maybe that explains it.  Maybe mermaids were converted to Christianity and had to stop reproducing because it was a sin, so they’re now extinct.  Fie upon thee, Mermaid Bible!

This raises the question of cultural relativism, writ large.  Does the Bible work in other contexts?  I think it’s more a question of language expressing the inexpressible.  Since I grew up in a Christian culture, I tend to think of spirituality in a particular way and it has the strongest resonance to me.  This is not the same as saying Christianity is superior to other world views.  However, it seems inappropriate to me to adopt the spiritual language of another faith, like affecting a foreign accent.  It’s like Typically Tropical’s ‘Barbados’ or Genesis’s ‘Illegal Alien’ – just highly inappropriate and crassly racist.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t take my religion seriously, any more that my interest in other languages means I don’t appreciate the beauty of the English language.

 

Policy-Based Evidence And Animal Liberation

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“Evidence-based Medicine” is supposed to be medicine which is based on what can be established to work, and on the whole it sounds like quite a good idea although that would partly depend on how broadly it’s interpreted.  For instance, there’s evidence for the placebo effect and as such, that should be included in the absence of anything else, including of course ethics, and ecological validity would be another issue – is a treatment assessed in the same environment it’s being given in?

The term “evidence-based” can be extended to the idea of government policy, and it’s notable that such policy often seems to be very rare.  It’s also notable that the kind of research undertaken to support government policy can take the form of surveys or even role-playing, and that kind of research is often unscientific, for reasons which I suspect are linked to the non-science backgrounds of politicians and civil servants.  On the other hand, maybe I should be careful what I wish for because Margaret Thatcher was a chemist and most people don’t consider what she did to be exactly marvellous, although of course she was very adept for a very long time at what she did.

Bertold Brecht’s famous poem Die Lösung expresses an interesting sentiment:

Die Lösung The Solution

Nach dem Aufstand des 17. Juni
Ließ der Sekretär des Schriftstellerverbands
In der Stalinallee Flugblätter verteilen
Auf denen zu lesen war, daß das Volk
Das Vertrauen der Regierung verscherzt habe
Und es nur durch verdoppelte Arbeit
zurückerobern könne. Wäre es da
Nicht doch einfacher, die Regierung
Löste das Volk auf und
Wählte ein anderes?

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

In other words, “the government is unpopular:  we must elect a new people”.  This thought applies pretty well across the political spectrum.  People could dislike a government rationally or irrationally, and beyond that, it doesn’t necessarily follow that irrational unpopularity is not a good reason for them being unpopular, but leaving that aside, I would like to believe that my reasons for voting have a rational element to them and it would also be nice if political parties came up with manifestos which were based on firm reasoning, even if that reasoning makes me uncomfortable or I disagree with it.

Sometimes, however, a policy is devised for other reasons than whether it’s either in the common interest or popular, and when this happens, “evidence” can be manufactured to support the policy rather than the other way round.  This is called “policy-based evidence“, a phrase popularised by the Cardiff researchers Rebecca Boden and Debbie Epstein.  It’s also been extended beyond the scientific realm by people involved in the humanities.  That’s the history and origin of the phrase then.

Although this phenomenon is sadly perennially topical, it came to mind in the recent HM Government decision not to include “animal” welfare in the EU withdrawal bill.  More specifically, they have voted that “animals” cannot feel pain or emotions.  The reason for the inverted commas, of course, is that humans are animals.  There is of course copious scientific evidence for consciousness in other species, and of course pain and emotion.  Rene Descartes, the philosopher responsible for “I think, therefore I am” maintained, very inconsistently, that humans and other species were fundamentally different even though their anatomy and physiology were similar, in that only humans had a soul, a thinking unextended substance located in the pituitary gland, meaning that only humans could experience.  This absurd thought ultimately led to my own “ethics as first philosophy” position.  The phrase, incidentally, is borrowed from the Lithuanian-French thinker Emmanuel Levinas but I use it somewhat differently.  It works like this.  If you have a vested interest in supposing that something does or does not exist which is not also a universal vested interest, your thoughts on the matter are likely to be less rational and your beliefs will reflect your prejudice.  For instance, it’s wrongly claimed that mediaeval philosophers believed that women had no souls but men did.  This is in fact a myth based on a misreading, but that belief illustrates the kind of direction prejudicial thought based on vested interests takes one.  Another example would be Baudrillard’s claim that the Gulf War had not taken place, and similarly scepticism that the past exists, which would, for instance, make holocaust denial feasible.  Ultimately I believe there is a possible system of metaphysics, or perhaps several, which it is right to believe in rather than just rational, and that such a principle is more important than apparently reasoned argument.  This is of course the opposite, in a sense, of evidence-based policy.  Nonetheless, it’s practically impossible to use science to back up the idea that other species don’t feel pain or emotion.

Unfortunately, Baudrillard’s cultural theory tradition is also responsible for the idea that other species are not conscious, because of the central position of language in the narrative.  In fact the very use of the word “narrative” indicates that.  This includes the idea that philosophy is a branch of literature.  Consequently, they believe that consciousness depends on language, and this conveniently means that they don’t regard non-human animals as conscious unless they use some kind of symbolism.  The problem with this is that it’s not falsifiable, and that’s not a good thing.  There is no inherent possibility that the idea that language non-users cannot be conscious can be proven false if language is given such a central position in the construction of reality.  You can’t ask them, by definition.  It also means, of course, that babies are not conscious and cannot suffer, and whereas this may be true, nobody advocates for this.

Most people would recognise the sentience of a cat or dog in their behaviour, and would reason from that behaviour that the animals concerned have subjective mental states such as anger, fear and the sensation of pain.  It doesn’t follow that that’s true, but nor does it follow that one isn’t the only conscious being in the world.  Everyone else might be unconscious zombies for all I know.  On the whole, people don’t pursue that thought, but they do pursue the thought that consciousness suddenly stops at the boundary of the human race, so not even bonobos or chimpanzees are conscious.  This is quite reminiscent of the idea white people have had in the past that black people have a higher pain threshold and don’t need as high a dose of painkillers as a result.

There’s a document written by three neuroscientists called ‘The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness’ (PDF here).  This document makes the point that emotions are not based on higher brain centres found in the cerebral cortex, the largest part of the brain in humans, but further down inside the brain, in much older structures which exist in mammals and birds generally.  That is, if you did a brain scan of an angry, happy or frightened human and another one of an apparently angry, happy or frightened fox, sheep or turkey, the same parts of the brain would light up as active.  Birds in fact seem to have evolved purposeful behaviour independently of mammals, since it’s been hundreds of millions of years since our small brained common ancestor back in the Carboniferous Period.  This could also imply that the capacity to suffer also goes back that far.

I’m no fan of the European Union.  However, I also feel that the worst motives are involved in the withdrawal of the “United” Kingdom from the EU.  It so happens that there is an EU directive, which I imagine this bit of the withdrawal bill is aimed at, which covers this issue, namely EU Directive 2010/63/EU.  Article 1.3 of this directive not only protects vertebrates but also cephalopods, that is, the likes of octopodes, squid and cuttlefish.  There’s a PDF of it here.

I’m not going to make the lazy and tribalist assumption that any politician is automatically psychopathic and devoid of empathy or compassion.  I honestly don’t believe that’s so.  Nor do I believe, and this is significant to the Conservative Party, that Tory voters don’t care about animal welfare, as they might put it.  I have met people whose sole reason for not voting Conservative was that the Conservative Party supported fox hunting.  I also have a fair bit of sympathy with the contention that it’s humans that have the problem and that exploiting our selfishness is the only way to make society work, but that other animals are fine and need to be taken care of.  It’s understandable cynicism about humanity, which I happen not to share but I do get it.  Nonetheless, I can’t avoid the suspicion that in order to get very far in politics as it’s currently constituted, it really, really helps to be psychopathic.  Now, let’s be calm about this.  I’m talking about an identifiable personality disorder with an International Classification of Diseases code and I also recognise that we need psychopaths, perhaps as surgeons for example.  Nonetheless, there are people out there who lack empathy and only care about themselves, and those people don’t care about the feelings of others except insofar as they impinge on their personal desires and plans, and that it wouldn’t be surprising if a politician thinking that way would lack the expertise, or not take it seriously, to recognise that other animals can feel pain and emotion, and this, I think, is what has happened.  They might even recognise it and not care.

Got to go, it’s tea time, which is of course vegan.

The Sea Of Irresponsibility And The Desert Of Apathy

detailed-physical-map-of-Venus-in-Russian

One of the joys of Soviet stuff is that because they purported to be communist, all of it is in the public domain.  Consequently I can plonk the above massive map (download it and you’ll see – it’s huge) on here without fear of reprisals from Comrade Brezhnev or anyone else.  It’s a map of Venus by the way.  It makes rather odd reading because of the use of words like zemlya and oblast on it, making one feel  a little like the USSR has somehow gone to Venus and made all of it subject to the Kremlin.  Although this didn’t happen, it is in a way true that Venus in particular is the most Soviet of all the planets in the solar system.  The Soviet Union is the only country which has ever landed spacecraft there, and whereas NASA, Japan and the European Space Agency have between them sent fourteen missions there, the Soviet Union has sent a total of twenty-nine.  And that is the Soviet Union, not Russia.  Since the collapse of the USSR, they haven’t sent anything.

Venera9

The fact that the Soviets were much more active about exploring the planet next door was a source of great frustration to me as a child, because whereas a NASA mission, such as the Viking landers and orbiters which went to Mars or the Mariner probe to Mercury, would receive adequate coverage in the Western media, the Daily Telegraph used to squeeze tiny little reports about the Russian missions in obscure corners of the paper somewhere near the back, presumably out of embarrassment.  The Soviets were the first to land anything on another planet, four years before the Americans managed to do so, and they did it on the notoriously horrible and difficult to access surface of Venus rather than on the relatively easy Martian soil.

In some ways the solid surface of Venus is not very similar to Siberia, although it is far more desolate – just not frozen.  One distinctive feature of the Cytherean (posh word for Venusian) surface is that it’s the largest known area of dry land, at more than 460 million square kilometres.  This is almost three times Earth’s total land area and also quite ironic, since until at least the 1950s it was widely believed that Venus was completely covered by ocean.

I don’t consider Venus to be evil, but merely misunderstood.  Patrick Moore’s famous “fried, poisoned and squashed” quote describes what would happen if you stepped out unprotected onto the planet’s surface, but my view of this is that the solid surface of the planet is the wrong focus.  In fact, stepping out onto the surface of most of this planet would also crush you almost instantly while your lungs briefly caught fire, but we tend to think of Earth as quite a nice place to live.  Venus is more like a gas giant, and consequently if you were to step onto its solid surface you’d really be setting foot onto the interior of a planet, and as such the planet is quite a bit more hospitable than the red-hot magma inside ours.  The “real” surface of Venus is its clouds, and up there it’s quite hospitable, with pressures and temperatures similar to Earth’s temperate regions at sea level, with only the minor detail that it is wreathed in clouds of sulphuric acid vapour.  Nonetheless, Venus is a disappointment, rather like the Soviet Union, and this poignancy was commemorated in ‘Farewell Fantastic Venus’, Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison’s 1968 collection of short stories written before the unpalatable truth about the planet was revealed by the aforementioned Soviet probes.  I have myself attempted to approach Venus twice, once here and once in a story where I imagined a single parent family in its upper atmosphere, and I must get round to finishing that at some point.

Why am I going on about Venus then?  Well, there’s this radio series, ‘The Men From The Ministry’, which was on the BBC from 1962-1977, with one further series on the World Service in 1980 followed by even more series in Sweden and Finland with new scripts, finally finishing in 2008.  It took me a long time to get into it but now I consider myself a fan.  Although it’s a Whitehall civil service based sitcom, it’s utterly unlike ‘Yes Minister’ or ‘The Thick Of It’ because it’s primarily about slacking as well as the wider theme of incompetence covered by the other two series.  Due to its earlier date there’s a strong impression of job security and nobody doing very much most of the time, which I presume was the Zeitgeist, or at least the stereotype back then among certain people.

The 11th July 1972 episode, ‘The Conference Trick’, concerned the idea of an international conference to divide Venus up between different countries, namely the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China and the UK.  The British government don’t really want it, but nor do they want to be seen not to want it, so they send our bungling heroes along.  However, it turns out that the Soviets, Chinese and Americans have all done the same thing and at the end of the conference Venus has become British territory.  Later on, the Americans buy us out for $200 million because the person writing the cheque doesn’t realise his government don’t actually want it.  Venus is a white elephant, in other words.

In the programme, Venus is auctioned off bit by bit and we get to hear the name of two areas, namely the northern circumpolar “Sea Of Irresponsibility” and a plateau referred to as the “Desert Of Apathy” somewhat further south.  Clearly these are references to the character of the conference attenders and of course explaining jokes usually makes them unfunny but it gave me to wonder about a planet covered in other such features, such as the Basin Of Complacency, the Hills Of Idleness and the Chasm Of Procrastination, and perhaps even suggest geological processes which might form them.  Clearly the Hills Of Idleness built up because the wind just couldn’t be bothered to erode them and the Chasm Of Procrastination probably started out as a hairline crack in the ground which the planet never got around to doing something about and is now five times wider than the Grand Canyon or something.  I also imagine a bored astronomer sighing and thinking “I suppose I’d better get on with naming these features which are permanently swathed in clouds and nobody really cares about, including me, so let’s see…Sea Of Irresponsibility…Desert Of Apathy…it doesn’t matter, nobody’ll notice”, so maybe there’s another equally unengaged Soviet cartographic agency involved, mirroring Her Majesty’s General Assistance Department in a more specific area.

When I looked at the broadcast date for this episode, I initially imagined it would coincide with Apollo XVII, the final NASA lunar landing, but it corresponds neither to that nor its predecessor.  However, it is clearly from a time when planetary exploration was on the agenda.  There may also be a sense of futility in this enterprise, naming and claiming places where nobody really wants to go, and as such I can see the spirit of the times in that, it being the year in which human exploration of space was abandoned, possibly because it had served its immediate political purpose.  Venus is also the next step into the Universe in a sense because it’s the second closest celestial body to us, coming closer than Mars.

If I’m completely honest with myself, Venus is disappointing.  When I look at a map of Venus, I feel less enthusiastic about it than Mars because all the features seem inaccessible and stuck in a red hot poisonous fug which poses a huge challenge to reach, and it isn’t clear why one would want to go there, although I presume it’s geologically quite similar to us at least in terms of igneous rocks.  There won’t be any coal, oil or natural gas down there, or even marble or limestone, but presumably there are plenty of mineral deposits and fewer people to exploit than in the Congo, so it may be worthwhile. Looking at the surface also seems quite hypocritical because I’m supposed to be thinking about Venus as a kind of lychee gas giant, with a thin pulp and the solid planet itself merely an oversized core.  Even so, wouldn’t it be cool if something like this happened?

Maybe not.  Maybe terraforming Venus (making it habitable) would be vandalism.  If there is life in the atmosphere, and there may well be, it would probably wipe it out and that would definitely be unacceptable.  Funnily enough, this became an issue between C S Lewis and Olaf Stapledon.  In the latter’s epic future history of the human race, spanning two billion years from his day in 1930 forward, Stapledon imagined a point around 300 million years in the future when a highly enlightened human species accidentally interfered with the Moon, leading to it colliding with Earth and seeking a new home nearer the Sun, namely Venus.  On exploring the planet, it’s discovered that in its global ocean live intelligent life forms whose metabolisms run on radioactive decay.  In order to make the planet suitable for human habitation, it needs to be altered in such a way which will kill all of these life forms, which they proceeded to do and inhabit the planet.  Genocide, in other words.  C. S. Lewis was perhaps understandably not impressed by Stapledon’s depiction of this decision and went to the lengths of basing his villain on him in his Perelandra series.  Incidentally, at the time it was thought that the closer planets to the Sun were younger than the more distant ones, so Lewis depicted Venus as existing before the Fall of Man, which raises all sorts of interesting questions but I’m not going into them here.  A more germane point is that I think Lewis got Stapledon completely wrong.

Olaf Stapledon was a theist of sorts, except that his God, the Star Maker, was utterly aloof, partly because he saw it as making no sense to love part of Itself, even though it was appropriate for humans to love It.  Loving God, for Stapledon, is and ought to be unrequited.  He also had a very positive view of Jesus and saw Him as special, and also as superhuman.  Nonetheless he couldn’t really have been called Christian and it’s tempting to think that his God was based on a distant father figure, though I don’t know that this is so.  He was also a Communist at least some of the time, so the issue of anti-theism came up, and the poor reputation of the Soviet Union in the West led to his philosophy – he was an academic philosopher at the University of Liverpool and the WEA – being considered inferior.  Hence the idea of Stapledon and Lewis being poles apart is inaccurate even if that’s how Lewis saw it.

Stapledon depicted humanity as highly spiritually enlightened and wise at this point, way beyond the understanding of the current human species.  He also showed them agonising over the decision and drawing the conclusion that the Venerians, as he called them, were doomed because of the half-life of their radioactive sustenance.  Finally, after they do succeed in colonising Venus, thereby wiping out the intelligent life there, it destroys them spiritually.  Their civilisation collapses because they’re unable to deal with the guilt and they lose their telepathy.  It is by no means a question of them acting amorally, but under duress and with an enornmous cost, and Lewis seems to have completely failed to appreciate this.  It was absolutely not irresponsible or apathetic of Stapledon’s human race to do what it very regretfully did in the circumstances.  They had no choice.

Venus looks from Earth to be a featureless globe resembling a ping pong ball, and consequently it has historically had all sorts of things projected upon it.  Carl Sagan once traced one particular train of thought thus:  I can’t see anything through my telescope so it must be obscured by cloud; clouds on Earth are made of water vapour and produce rain; it must rain a lot on Venus; the surface of Venus must be swampy and covered in rainforests filled with enormous reptilian monsters.  This is more or less based on nothing other than not being able to see the solid surface of the planet through a telescope.  Consequently, Venus more than Mars or other planets of the solar system has acted as a kind of Rorschach ink blot for the manner of thinking of the people thinking about it.  In this respect, it’s hardly surprising that a comedy about apathetic civil servants should end up naming features Mare Irresponsibilitatis and Solitudo Apatheiae.

20 seconds later…

Everyone’s heard of the Butterfly Effect nowadays of course but people tend to get it wrong.  The initial idea, which I’ve mentioned before on here, was that a single flap of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon can cause a hurricane in Africa, something which is very relevant to us right now in these days of hurricanes and climate change denial.  It’s often taken the wrong way.  Whereas it does mean that tiny differences can lead to enormous changes in the long run, it definitely does not mean that all tiny differences will.  They have to be in the right place at the right time.

In this vein, something which has been going through my head a lot recently is the question of what would have happened if the year had been slightly longer, for instance by a second.  There are actually massive problems with this idea.  If the year had been a second longer for the past 4600 million years, the estimated age of the planet, it would have orbited the sun a total of a hundred and forty-five times fewer.  There is a major problem with this though, specifically the extinction of the (non-avian) dinosaurs.  In fact, it would take an incredibly tiny difference for the asteroid to miss the Earth in this respect.  If the year were more than a hundred nanoseconds longer or shorter, the extinction of the dinosaurs wouldn’t have happened and the chances are we wouldn’t exist.  This is a good example of the butterfly effect.  However, it should also be noted that if the year had been that bit longer so that Earth ended up in exactly the same position, for instance if it had been exactly 6.8 milliseconds shorter or longer, which would add up to exactly a year over its whole history, the asteroid would have hit and the situation would be as it is now.  There is another factor in this to which I’ll return, but before I do that I also want to mention that the solar system is chaotic in nature.  It is in fact impossible to predict over a period of many millions of years exactly where any of the bodies in the solar system will or have been because they all pull on each other very slightly, which is how Neptune was discovered – Uranus wasn’t in the right place so another planet had to be changing its orbit slightly.  Therefore all of this is rather artificial.

The other issue is of course that as well as dodging an asteroid, Earth would also have been hit by other asteroids and meteorites which in reality it wasn’t, so for all we know in this scenario we might have been about to bang the rocks together when we got hit by a completely different asteroid which wiped us all out a couple of million years ago.

Since even a hardly measurable difference in the length of the year would completely change the history of the past 66 million years, it’s not possible to have the length of the year have been different since the very beginning of the world.  What is possible, though, is for it to have been altered by the asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs itself.  It’s known as the Chicxulub Impactor, because it hit the Mexican town of Chicxulub in the Yucatan Peninsula.  Although it’s not essential for the future evolution of the human race for the object, which may have been a comet, hence the name, it clearly would have to hit the planet somewhere at about that time.  The question is, then, how do I get the year to take slightly longer and still have the Chicxulub Impactor hit the planet?

My first thought was to have the object itself hit the planet so hard that it actually changed its velocity by enough to lengthen the year by twenty seconds, which incidentally adds up to around forty-two years in the past 66 million.  It might be thought that this would require the planet to be slowed down but in fact the opposite would be needed.  In order to move a planet into a slower orbit, it has to be sped up.  Hitting it from behind could do this.  It would then move into a wider orbit taking longer to go around the Sun.

However, a scenario as simple as this wouldn’t work because of the energy involved to change the velocity of this planet by even a millionth.  Earth’s mass is about 5 972 000 000 000 000 000 000 tonnes and moves around the Sun at thirty kilometres per second.  Considering the energy of a rifle bullet of twelve grammes travelling at 370 metres a second already sounds quite large, or a Saturn V rocket with a mass of 1000 tonnes travelling at 40 000 km/hr is almost unimaginable, anything which could alter the velocity of this planet by that much would have to exert an unfeasibly immense force even to increase the orbital velocity of this planet by a millionth.  The Chicxulub Impactor was ten to fifteen kilometres in diameter and may have been of a class of meteors known as carbonaceous chondrites, which have a maximum density of 3.7 kg per cubic decimetre.  Assuming it to be a cube, which it wasn’t of course, its mass would have been up to 12 487 500 000 000 tonnes, and assuming it to have a head-on collision with the Earth, orbiting at the same speed but in the opposite direction, it would have hit us at 59 kilometres per second.  Given that its mass would have been two billionths that of Earth’s, hitting it head on at twice its velocity would have slowed us by four billionths of a year, which by now would have added up to about three months, although a slower planet ultimately means a shorter year as its orbit would’ve moved inwards.  So this is not a solution.  Four billionths of a year is about an eighth of a second, so ultimately one hundred and sixty times that force is needed.  This could of course be provided by a body a hundred and sixty times more massive, which given the same density amounts to something, again assuming it’s cube shaped which it wouldn’t be, the size of a dwarf planet.  Such an impact would probably do the job of slowing the year down by twenty seconds but it would also wipe out all life on Earth, so that’s a non-starter.

However, all is not lost.  It’s been suggested that the Chicxulub Impactor was actually formed by an impact event in the asteroid belt in the Jurassic period, which is interesting to contemplate because it means there was a rock with the dinosaurs’ names on it from quite early in their history.  Thinking on the same scale, if there is even now an asteroid fated to wipe out humanity in the same way, that would have been around since the dinosaurs themselves were at their height.  Hence Chicxulub needn’t be a one-shot job.  It could accelerate our orbit over a period of about 100 million years if need be.  How though?

In order to answer that question, the moons Janus, Epimetheus and Phobos can help.  Here’s a picture of Janus and Epimetheus, which are co-orbital moons of Saturn:

PIA08170_Epimetheus_and_Janus

The remarkable thing about these moons is that they share orbits.  One takes only thirty seconds longer to orbit Saturn than the other, and they regularly slow down and speed each other up, leading to them swapping orbits.  If the Chicxulub Impactor did this with Earth, it would be a very unequal tug of war and over time it could alter the orbital velocity of this planet.  What it means, effectively, is that rather than needing to provide a massive jolt of energy in one go, the object concerned can do it over a period of 100 million years, meaning that it would only need to exert one hundred millionth of the force required each year to change Earth’s orbit.  This could be achieved by a highly eccentric orbit in the approximate direction of the Earth’s movement, with Earth at the focus in the same direction as its orbit.  From the perspective of the Sun, the orbits would be braided, and from ours we would have another small but eccentric moon.

A slightly similar situation exists with this right now:

491px-Phobos_colour_2008

This is Phobos, which is slightly larger than the Chicxulub Impactor but is also a carbonaceous chondrite.  The streaks visible on its surface in this picture are caused by the gravity of Mars tearing at it and in about 40 million years it will break up and form rings around the planet, which themselves will be gone some time afterward.

On first thinking about this, I was given to wonder whether in fact the Chicxulub Impactor was, at least temporarily, a minor moon of this planet which collided with it, and to me that does seem quite plausible, particularly in view of the fact that a very similar situation pertains on Mars right now.  However, clearly Earth has no rings so its fate would have been much more violent.  Incidentally, when Phobos does get broken up by Mars, some of it will probably hit the planet but it may not slow it down much because the angular momentum of the whole system will remain the same.  Angular momentum is the quantity of rotation of a body, given by multiplying the velocity of its rotation by its moment of inertia, which in turn is a body’s resistence to angular acceleration – speeding up its spin in other words.  An actual impact would donate the energy of the moon to Mars, but rings won’t.  This is also the flaw with Chicxulub.  Whereas it is feasible for the object to change the length of the year, it would have changed straight back again when it hit us, unless parts of it broke off and were slung into space carrying their angular momentum with them.  Hence I’m going to assume that would happen.

Now it may look as if I’ve done the maths here but in fact I haven’t.  However, I ignorantly assume that this is still possible – that if the Chicxulub Impactor had entered into a co-orbital relationship with us in the early Jurassic period, it could have accelerated the Earth-Moon system enough to give us a year twenty seconds longer by the time it hit us 66 million years ago.  However, in a way this is too big a change because a year twenty seconds longer would be detectable as time went by.  The lengths of the year (there is no one official year length, but that’s another story) are known to within a hundred microseconds, and a year twenty seconds longer would be out by a day compared to ours after only 4320 years, which is shorter than the length of recorded human history so far.  Although this sounds trivial, it would be neater to assume that in the process of lengthening the year, the day was also lengthened in proportion to that year.  This brings up a couple of issues.

As it is, the Moon gradually slows the rotation of the Earth by tides, both in the rocks and in the oceans, slightly decelerating.  At the time the Chicxulub crater formed, there were approximately 370 days a year, meaning that the 24-hour day we have right now would have been around half an hour shorter.  It is, however, entirely feasible that the Chicxulub Impactor itself could slow the rotation of the planet by the requisite interval to preserve the exact same number of days per year as there are now.  This would require a day only 54.7 milliseconds longer by today.  That would be one heck of a coincidence of course, but as far as I can tell the same object could do both in the same orbit.  Incidentally, just as there is no one definitive year length, there is no one definitive day length at any particular time, for the same reasons which I’m not mentioning here because it would make all this more complicated than it already is.

There has been a lot of handwaving mathematically up to this point which I haven’t resolved, so anyway, just assume for the sake of argument that the 24-hour day as we understand it now is roughly 54.7 milliseconds longer and the year is exactly twenty seconds longer.  What does that mean for this planet?

The first difference is that the centre of the Chicxulub crater would have been around fifteen metres to the east of its actual location.  This is because the planet is rotating slightly more slowly, and it means the casualties of the impact would be slightly different, looking at them at an individual level. For instance, this is a Purgatorius unio:

By Nobu Tamura – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19461292Purgatorius_BW

This is the earliest known primate,  close to our direct ancestors, and lived in North America at the time of the impact, so it’s entirely feasible that many members of the species directly ancestral to us were indeed wiped out directly by the incident.  The exact individuals ancestral to us would have been different.

Here’s a quote from Ray Bradbury’s classic A Sound Of Thunder, which is a possible origin of the term “Butterfly Effect”, discussing the possibility of killing a single mammal ancestral to humans in the late Cretaceous:

“All right,” Travis continued, “say we accidentally kill one
mouse here. That means all the future families of this one particular
mouse are destroyed, right?”
“Right.”
“And all the families of the families of the families of that
one mouse! With a stamp of your foot, you annihilate first one,
then a dozen, then a thousand, a million, a billion possible
mice!”
“So they’re dead,” said Eckels. “So what?”
“So what?” Travis snorted quietly. “Well, what about the
foxes that’ll need those mice to survive? For want of ten mice, a
fox dies. For want of ten foxes, a lion starves. For want of a lion,
all manner of insects, vultures, infinite billions of life forms are
thrown into chaos and destruction. Eventually it all boils down to
this: Fifty-nine million years later, a cave man, one of a dozen in
the entire world, goes hunting wild boar or saber-toothed tiger
for food. But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that
region. By stepping on one single mouse. So the cave man starves.
And the cave man, please note, is not just any expendable man,
no! He is an entire future nation. From his loins would have
sprung ten sons. From their loins one hundred sons, and thus
onward to a civilization. Destroy this one man, and you destroy a
race, a people, an entire history of life. It is comparable to slaying
some of Adam’s grandchildren. The stomp of your foot, on one
mouse, could start an earthquake, the effects of which could
shake our earth and destinies down through Time, to their very
foundations. With the death of that one cave man, a billion others
yet unborn are throttled in the womb. Perhaps Rome never
rises on its seven hills. Perhaps Europe is forever a dark forest,
and only Asia waxes healthy and teeming.  Step on a mouse and
you crush the Pyramids. Step on a mouse and you leave your
print, like a Grand Canyon, across Eternity. Queen Elizabeth
might never be born, Washington might not cross the Delaware,
there might never be a United States at all. So be careful. Stay on
the Path. Never step off!”

This is, in my opinion, usually incorrect.  Whereas there are crucial individuals, even back in prehistoric times, the same mutations would usually arise elsewhere in different individuals of the same species and it’s been calculated that about fifty thousand generations would be sufficient to dampen down such differences in the gene pool.  I don’t know how thoroughly that calculation was done, so once again this is sloppy maths.  Having said that, although the Butterfly Effect only applies to a few tipping points, the fact that there are so many species on the planet at the moment in question probably does mean there would be a couple of small differences in what managed to survive the initial extinction and what was wiped out, but it would only be noticeable to specialists.

By World Wide Gifts – Flickr: United States – California – Sequoia National Park – General Sherman Tree – Panorama, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27955967314px-United_States_-_California_-_Sequoia_National_Park_-_General_Sherman_Tree_-_Panorama

 There are also examples of species with individuals who may be less than fifty thousand generations from the time of the dinosaurs even now, such as redwoods.  Anything which can still produce offspring when more than around 1500 years old would be instances, so it might even include yew trees.  But for most species any differences would have been dampened down.

This issue is raised by, of all people, Elizabeth Gray!  Not this one but a fictional one who appears in what may be one of the stories which ultimately inspired Doctor Who, namely Time Patrol by Poul Anderson.  This is part of a series where people are recruited from the entire history of the human race to ensure that history is never altered by slapdash time travellers, and effectively expresses the opposite of Ray Bradbury’s idea.

By the end of the Palaeocene, fourteen million years later, any organism with a generation time under about three centuries which exists in this timeline stands a good chance of existing in the other one.  Past that point, barring another impact which would have been dodged, things proceed pretty steadily and similarly to how they are “here” until the start of the Pliocene, ten million years ago, because there does turn out to be at least one significant difference, namely Milankovitch Cycles.

There are three of these, and for us they repeat every thousand centuries or so.  One is how circular or elliptical the orbit of the planet is, which varies between almost circular and 5% from circular.  Since the Sun is always at one focus of the ellipse, this alters its position more than might be thought.  Also, over forty-one millenia the planet tilts more or less, between 21 and 24 degrees from right angles to the plane of its orbit.  Finally there’s a twenty-three millenium wobble, which is quite widely known, called precession.  The three of these together change how much light and heat from the Sun Earth gets, thereby changing the climate, substantially because ice is white and reflects heat.  Again, however, the ultimate difference would amount to a few months, so although the onset of the ice ages and the warmer periods between them would be altered, it probably isn’t very significant.  The Butterfly Effect loses again.

This brings us to the end of the last Ice Age, happening maybe nine months later, and since ice ages don’t have such rigid timetables this really means nothing.  The climate in the Sahara would alter in its usual cycle, so it makes no difference to when the people who left Africa did so or when others crossed the Bering land bridge much later on, during the last Ice Age.  All of this still seems inevitable and the fact that by the end of that time the planet happens to have orbited forty-two times less is pretty irrelevant.

One thing which would’ve been happening throughout this period is that in terms of strictly numbered years since the impact, astronomical events have been occurring in different years and different times of year.  Eclipses in particular are very different.  They occur on different dates and at different times, are of different types and durations and over different parts of the planet.  Therefore there’s potential for differences in history.  The Chinese astronomers whom the Emperor executed for failing to predict a solar eclipse would not have died.  Earth dodged the Arizona meteorite and there is no Meteor Crater in Arizona, but of course there might be another crater elsewhere.  There would also be minor differences in Moon craters.  For instance, the 22 km wide crater Giordano Bruno appears to have formed in 1178, so that wouldn’t be there either, along with perhaps others, but others would be.

This is where it gets rather hard to think about.  Assuming exactly twenty seconds difference over exactly 66 million years, which is spurious accuracy, the difference is not precisely forty-two years but forty-one years, 302 days, 20 hours, 20 minutes and 34.2 seconds according to the solar year, again with spurious accuracy.  Over the five thousand years of recorded history the drift would amount to just over a day.  The significance of this is that the seasons would be at different times of year if the year is thought of as a trip round the sun.  They would in any case be at different times of year because the Milankovitch Cycles would be different.  So would the solstices and equinoxes, for the same reasons.  Since solar calendars such as our own are based on seasons and day lengths, the actual start of the year would be at a different time in terms of seconds since the extinction of the dinosaurs.  Speaking of seconds, since they are 1/86400 of a day, they would be very slightly longer and the year would be the same length.  The speed of light would therefore seem to be very slightly slower although in fact it wouldn’t be.  The astronomical unit, however, would not be different as it’s rounded off and the difference in the distance of the Earth from the centre of gravity wouldn’t be big enough for it to make any difference.  This also means that the parsec would be the same length because measurements can’t be accurate enough.  The light year, however, would be longer by twenty light seconds.

It would in fact be forty-two years earlier, but in order to make this show on a calendar the assumption must be made that the date of the beginning Christian Era, along with the points in time for all the other dating systems, is fixed.  I have in fact chosen to assume this although it does make it a religious statement.  The idea is that the birth of Jesus, which incidentally occurred in 4 BCE rather than 1 BCE/CE because of a mistake by the Venerable Bede who invented this dating system (there is no year zero), occurred at the same time as it would’ve done anyway in absolute terms, so it is in fact now 1975 rather than 2017.  Jesus was born during the rule of Caligula rather than Augustus and was crucified not in the time of Tiberius but that of Vespasian.  This has several particularly interesting consequences.  It means that:

  • His ministry began just after the destruction of the Second Temple.
  • The Epistle to Titus is called Traian instead, assuming that Titus was named after the emperor.
  • The Number of the Beast is 1260 rather than 666, because numerologically the name used appears to have been that of Nero, but in this reality it would’ve been Traian instead because he was on the throne at the appropriate time.  This assumes a preterist interpretation of Revelation, where it’s seen as a disguised account of the events of the first Christian century.  It so happens that the number 1260 also occurs in Revelation in any case, so this is a world where the Number Of The Beast is mentioned a total of three times and is numerologically the same as the title of one of the books in the New Testament.  Someone might use this.
  • Although the first pope is called Peter, this is not the Peter of this timeline but someone else.  This means there are fewer popes in this timeline.  Assuming Alexander I is the second pope, there are four missing popes and the regnal number of the Clements is one lower.
  • Assuming that the darkness after the Crucifixion was a real event and a genuine eclipse, which some early texts say it was and for which there is an apparent candidate at the appropriate time, the heavens did not darken after the death of Jesus in this timeline, which makes the gospels one verse shorter for that reason if not others.

Passing beyond the immediate aftermath of the foundation of Christianity, the next issue is Constantine’s conversion and his decision to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.  In order to keep history in step in terms of absolute time since the extinction of the dinosaurs, the Edict Of Milan, which declared the Empire Christian, occurred in 271.  Since I believe Christianity was responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire by causing people to focus on the hereafter, this would lead to the Goths sacking Rome in 368, and so it continues forty-two years ahead of us in calendar terms right through history.  Easter, all movable feasts and Passover would all be on different dates.

Scorpius2

Another set of differences is astronomical.  The solstices doe not occur when the Sun enters Capricorn and Cancer, but Aquarius and Leo.  Or so it seems.  If the hypothesis that the sequence of the Zodiac is named after dominant seasonal incidents, they would be in the same places but these would be at different times.  However, for the sake of this idea I assume that this is a merely mnemonic device, since I genuinely believe that Scorpius, for example, does look like a scorpion, meaning that Libra, having been formed from its “claws”, would still be next to it, and this in general suggests that they would have the same locations relative to each other.

Hence there are tropics of Leo and Aquarius rather than Cancer and Capricorn.  This means that the books ‘Tropic Of Cancer’ and ‘Tropic Of Capricorn’ by Henry Miller are called something else, possibly ‘Crazy Cock’ and ‘Crazy Hen’.  Another literary change is ‘1984’, and this has considerable consequences too.  George Orwell will have written it in 1906 and swapping over the last two digits would make it ‘1960’.  1960 is our 2002.  This means that the John Hurt ‘1984’ film does not exist, that the Eurhythmics didn’t bring out the album ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and that the influence of ‘1984’ on Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ is absent.  However, Bowie’s ‘The Diamond Dogs’ still refers to ‘1960’.  This would’ve made a difference to the careers of Annie Lennox, John Hurt, Richard Burton and Terry Gilliam.

By contrast, ‘2001’ would still be called that but it would be set in a more distant future which we have yet to reach.  On that subject, there would have been no Y2K bug in 1958 and presumably the problem would be completely solved by the time the year 2000 came around.  ‘1066 And All That’ would be called ‘1024 And All That’ and England would’ve won the World Cup in 1924.  Columbus would have sailed the ocean blue in 1450, so that rhyme would have to be different.

Anyone falling asleep here and waking up in the 20 seconds later universe the next day wouldn’t notice much awry other than the date being way out.  This would be a 1970s with Donald Trump and social media.  The world would’ve been changed by an attack on the Twin Towers on 9/8.  There would be a number of trivial differences in popular culture, such as the probable absence of ‘Twelve Monkeys’, the Asian radio station GEM AM being a heavy metal station instead and so on, which nobody would be able to account for easily.

I want to use this scenario as the basis for writing but I don’t know what to do with it.  One merit it has, however, is its resemblance to the kind of trivial popular culture differences often associated with the Mandela Effect, and for this reason it also interests me.  The trivial results from the year being twenty seconds longer seem inconsequential but in fact would here be caused by such a tiny change.  This is like the universe next door, and it illustrates that some unknown detail could be different and lead to such differences.

But mainly I just want to use it as a basis for a story.

The Wyvern Chronicles

I’m embarrassingly interested in fictional worlds.  Whereas there are fictional worlds one is supposed to be into, such as Middle Earth and Westeros, and of course the Galactic Association, there are others which are only really meant as a backdrop, and strangely I find myself drawn to these, if anything more so than the ones you’re actually supposed to notice.  Two of these which are particularly close to my heart are the fictional BBC English counties of Borsetshire and Wyvern.

By Chemical Engineer – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63010076640px-Ambridge_sign_BBC_Sep_2017

Borsetshire is of course the location of Ambridge in ‘The Archers’.  Its name is taken from Antony Trollope’s Chronicles Of Barsetshire, and both B?rsetshires have a county town called B?rchester, in themselves clearly named after the real Dorsetshire and Dorchester, although Borsetshire at least is not in the vicinity of Dorset.  Remarkably there are even maps of Borsetshire, something I became aware of in the early 1980s.  I also noticed at the time that the county in the map I saw remarkably borders other real counties.  It’s also clear from listening to the soap itself that it’s fairly near Birmingham, as characters go there more than they do London or Manchester for example, so it’s their Big Smoke.  I personally think it’s probably Herefordshire or Worcestershire, probably the latter since it doesn’t seem to border Wales.

Ambridge is not just confined to the radio soap, or to its bubble Ambridge Extra.  There are a total of seven novels set in Ambridge from three different authors.  One covers Elizabeth’s time at the Echo, another Jock Gallagher’s life in the early part of the twentieth century and another trilogy is contemporary with the soap from 1951-2000.  I sometimes think there’s scope for a kind of origin story to do with the founding of the village of Ambridge in Anglo-Saxon times or perhaps an account of the Archer family when they were in fact archers themselves, around the time surnames were developing.

Another rather more outré thought I had when I first saw the map was that it would work fine if the northern, southern, eastern and western edges were transposed, so that Borsetshire turns out to be north of Warwickshire, west of Herefordshire, east of Worcestershire and south of Oxfordshire.  In other words, it would be as if you’d taken hold of a map of English counties, made presumably out of the same stuff topologists make their items out of, pinched it upwards and twisted it through 180°.  Hence Ambridge, Borchester, Felpersham and the rest do have real locations but are only accessible through some kind of interdimensional portal.  In fact I shall refine this now:  Borsetshire is south of Gloucestershire, east of Worcestershire and west of Herefordshire, and can be entered and exited via a location between Broad Marston and Upper Quinton, in the waste ground between Reddipack Ltd and Simms Metal Management.  If you look these up, you just might get why I’m being so specific.

In my head canon, the county of Borsetshire is one in which all directions are reversed.  This means that when characters enter and leave the county, they become mirror images of themselves, for instance becoming left-handed instead of right and with their hearts on the right-hand sides of their chests rather than their left, a fact which is particularly important in Elizabeth’s case.  In a way it’s a shame that Ambridge village shop isn’t located at the topological anomaly without Clive Horrobin’s knowledge, as his armed raid might then have encountered problems when unbeknownst to him, Debbie, Kate, Jack and Betty would have turned out to have their hearts on the opposite sides than he expected.  This of course also assumes that Clive Horrobin is topologically naive, which since he’s also a plumber is unlikely.  It would also mean that the River Am would flow directly through the shop, which would be inconvenient.  There is generally an issue with rivers in this scenario.

Leaving aside the Borchester Triangle aspect of the situation, there are now nearly seven decades’ worth of audio recordings of linguistic data for the Borsetshire accent and dialect.  It might be thought initially that one of its chief features is the hypercorrect insertion of postvocalic R in syllables where it is historically absent such as the final syllable of Martha.  Surprisingly, however, it turns out that such hypercorrection does in fact occur in real rhotic English accents in the West Country among some speakers, which is disappointing.

There is of course another county, rarely mentioned explicitly, in BBC drama, namely Wyvern, the location of Holby City Hospital, Holby South Police Station and of course St Elsewhere James’s.  Holby itself is very clearly Bristol, although most of ‘Casualty’ is filmed in Hertfordshire and nowadays Cardiff.  I tend to think of “holbicity” as a kind of abstract noun or perhaps a force of nature akin to electromagnetism, but let’s not go there.  Wyvern is the county in which Holby is located, so it’s basically Avon.

What’s not generally realised, and I find this very neat in a nerdy kind of way, is that the fictional Wyvern predates both Avon and ‘Casualty’.  It was in fact first mentioned in the almost forgotten police drama ‘Softly Softly’, which was set in the fictional Wyvern district of Bristol.  My own memories of ‘Softly Softly’ are exceedingly vague but since it is itself a spin-off of the more successful ‘Z Cars’, this basically means that the world of ‘Casualty’ can be said, again in my head canon, to have been invented in January 1962.  ‘Z Cars’ was of course set in Lancashire, so oddly it probably doesn’t mention Wyvern at all.

The name ‘Wyvern’ was, I presume, chosen for heraldic reasons.  Bristol used to be in the county of Somerset(shire), whose flag looks like this:

640px-Somerset_Flag.svg

This is of course a wyvern.  Actually it’s not a wyvern at all but it is generally referred to as one.  This brings us back to Game Of Thrones in fact, because the so-called “dragons” of that series are also wyverns.  The difference is that dragons are quadrupeds with a pair of wings whereas wyverns are bipedal, again with a pair of wings.  I expect I go into this in more detail in my rather unfortunately titled book ‘Here Be Dragons‘, but I have to hold up my hands and admit that in fact I can’t remember.  So this is not a wyvern, technically.  Wyverns are effectively pterodactyls whereas dragons have six limbs and no counterparts in the real world.  Nonetheless it is referred to as a wyvern and at the time of ‘Softly Softly’, Bristol was in Somerset.  This changed in 1974 of course.

For quite some time prior to 1974 there was pressure to create a county of Greater Bristol, similar to Greater London.  Although this never happened, in 1974 the county of Avon was created in the same vein as the metropolitan counties, Cleveland and so on.  I’ve always perceived Avon and Cleveland to be anomalous because they’re kind of metropolitan counties but not quite, unlike the likes of Humberside and the Isle of Wight which clearly weren’t.  Incidentally, there was another metropolitan county proposal which never saw the light of day in the form of Portsmouth and Southampton, which I imagine would’ve been called “Solent” although I don’t know.  Taken together, Portsmouth and Southampton are higher in population than any of the big northern or Midland cities, or than Glasgow.  But I’m getting off the point, whatever that is.

Unlike Avon, which was abolished in 1996, Wyvern still exists, or at least it exists as much as it ever did.  I imagine there are parallel universes where it really does exist because it’s a really good name.  Here, it’s a mythical county named after the wrong mythical animal.

The same, unfortunately, does not apply to the name “Holby”.  It has its merits.  For instance, Derby is a substantial settlement about half the size of the presumed population of Holby.  The idea of setting hospital and police dramas in Bristol is also a very good idea because of the environs – moors, an estuary, beaches mountains, inner city and suburbs are all nearby.  Nearby, incidentally, is not a town, which brings me to the problem: “-by”.  I shall explain this by means of a diagram and a Danish soap opera:

By Midland_Map_-_5_Boroughs_912_AD.PNG: Robin Boulby.The original uploader was Robinboulby at English Wikipediaderivative work: Hoodinski (talk) – Midland_Map_-_5_Boroughs_912_AD.PNG, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=169621835boroughs

The lighter pink area represents the so-called “Five Boroughs”, which is part of the Danish-ruled part of Britain during the Dark Ages.  It’s notable for including many placenames ending in “-by”, such as Derby, Ashby-de-la-Zouch and Oadby.  This is because “by” is the Danish equivalent of the English “bury” or “borough”.  There are a few places ending in the syllable elsewhere but on the whole they are of Scandinavian origin.

The problem with the name Holby for Bristol is that it isn’t in the right part of the country.  If the Danes had got that far, possibly from the western side of the island, Britain would probably still be largely Scandinavian even today, which might be nice but isn’t so.  However, I haven’t noticed any specific references to Holby being where the real-life Bristol is, although I do have a vague impression that characters have been known to mention Weston-super-Mare.  Another noticeable thing, and I have no idea if it’s deliberate, is that accents tend to be much more like northern English ones than West Country ones, and I wonder vaguely whether this is an attempt to address the issue, although I very much doubt anyone else really cares, which I think is a shame in a way.

Just as there are potential academic papers which can be shoehorned into ‘The Archers’, so are there a number of interesting research opportunities regarding the situations depicted in ‘Casualty’, ‘Holby City’, ‘Holby Blue’, ‘Softly Softly’ and ‘Z Cars’.  One is that there seems to be a cluster of medical emergencies of an exciting nature in the Holby area, which I strongly suspect is statistically significant.  That said, it’s only fair to point  out that random or pseudorandom data can form clusters, like this:

 random

Hence although it’s unlikely that there are real Emergency Departments which see the accidents ‘Casualty’ depicts with such frequency, it has to be remembered that reality is not always very convincing.

I have now realised that I forgot to mention the Danish soap opera connection, so before I go on I’ll just mention that the Danish series Ugeavisen is also set in Holby, though not the same one.

A further medical oddity is found with Charlie Fairhead’s son Louis, who suffers from SORAS – Soap Opera Rapid Ageing Syndrome.  He became a teenager rather faster than his age suggests.  This is of course very common in soap operas and other TV drama.

Unlike Ambridge, Holby is a site of real research.  For instance, in ‘Holby City’ one cardiologist does research into gold nanoparticles for heart problems, and various other new surgical techniques and the like are developed by characters on occasion.  This happens a lot more in ‘Holby City’ than ‘Casualty’.  What puzzles me about this is how closely it relates to real medical science.  If it does, but doesn’t reflect actual instantiated results, it kind of makes the setting the ultimate in hard science fiction, along the lines of the magnetohydrodynamic motor in ‘The Hunt For Red October’ and the space junk harvesting in the Japanese anime ‘Planets’.  On the other hand, it may not be all that rigorous, although presumably the medical advisors do try to make it so.

A final question remains:  how long does it take to drive from Ambridge to Holby?

Discovering ‘Discovery’

New ‘Star Trek’ is on the box again for the first time in a dozen years.  Bearing in mind that there were only eleven years between the end of TOS and the first film, this could be seen as the biggest gap.  However, if you count TAS, which finished in 1974, and bear in mind that the J J Abrams “Star Trek” films started in 2009, the first gap is more like five years and the second only four.  Enough of this nerdiness – let’s move on to a different kind of nerdiness.

I’ve watched the first three episodes of ‘Star Trek Discovery’ and was relieved to find that it didn’t follow the more recent films, which I found utterly appalling as I’ve said previously on here.  In particular it ignores the fork in the timeline associated with the destruction of Vulcan in the films, which I suppose was thoughtfully included to avoid polluting the main franchise with the rather disappointing ideas promoted in the recent films.  I have now also read a number of reviews, which have influenced my opinion.  So how is it then?

One of the things about cinematic and televisual sci-fi, particularly in recent decades, is that they suffer considerably from high production values and special effects, which detract from the quality of the writing.  Ironically, technological innovation makes it ever easier to wow the senses without deploying intelligent stories.  Happily, this is not true of ‘Discovery’.  Although it does have pretty impressive sets, visuals and other special effects, it shows the influence of the quality of plot and characterisation evident in the likes of ‘Game Of Thrones’ and ‘The Walking Dead’, at least to some extent, and also seems to include topical references if my reading of the situation is the same as many others’.  I’m thinking in particular of the Klingons.

Just a brief aside:  one of the discoveries I made in ‘Discovery’ that made my watching more fun was that there are Klingon subtitles throughout.  It begins with on-screen Klingon subtitles in the Klingon script itself, but naturally the main Klingon subtitles use the Latin alphabet, which is mildly disappointing.  I won’t dwell on this though, because to me it seems very clear that the Klingons, here shown as a splinter group, are a reference to contemporary violent human groups committing atrocities in the name of Islam.  Leaving aside the question of whether they’re a genuine organisation or a name under which people claim certain acts, there’s a kind of cycle here because Al Qaeda is named after Asimov’s Foundation, Asimov being the science advisor for the original ‘Star Trek’ film in 1979.  It also kind of refers to the older ideas of the Klingons being first the Nazis, something which was particularly clear in TOS, then the Soviets, paralleled particularly in the comparison to Chernobyl in one of the films, after which they made peace with the Federation.  The need for an enemy is reflected in these choices, and when I say that I have the West rather than fiction in mind.  Klingons as a threat, and also as a splinter group rather than a whole race as an enemy, works quite well and the emphasis on their subculture works quite well. Potentially it could also allow difficult issues to be addressed which would otherwise possibly offend Muslims, although the question of tact and subtlety arises.

Like ‘Voyager’ and ‘Enterprise’, ‘Discovery’ has its ice maiden in the form of Michael Burnham.  Unlike the other two, Michael is fully human although she was brought up on Vulcan by Sarek, and possibly Amanda.  This raises the immediate continuity problem of why Spock never mentioned her, although this might be resolved at some point.  Then again, Spock didn’t acknowledge his father in TOS, so it may not be out of character.  My headcanon is currently telling me that as “Number One” she may in fact end up on Christopher Pike’s team on the Enterprise itself, although as usual I’m probably on a hiding to nothing there.  Incidentally we have yet to see the Enterprise itself and I strongly suspect we won’t until the series finale.

I’m now going to nitpick and get bogged down in detail as only I can.  It’s been said that ‘Discovery’ breaks with continuity in depicting three-dimensional audiovisual images when there were no holograms in TOS.  This is not so.  On the rare occasions when the viewscreen on the bridge is shown from several angles in the same scene, the figures and scenery are also shot from different angles, the implication clearly being that this is a three-dimensional representation of the transmission, not one onto a flat surface.  Moreover, the Arboretum can be seen as a primitive hybrid holodeck and it’s possible to interpret the dialogue, for example Scotty’s, as implying that, and ‘All Our Yesterdays’ effectively depicts a holodeck with, as usual, the completely ridiculous idea of suspended safety protocols.  In fact, the holograms shown in ‘Discovery’ could even be seen as more primitive than the examples in TOS, since they are obvious projections rather than looking completely realistic.  I’m just saying!

Other call-outs to continuity include the Gorn skeleton shown in one scene, though not referred to directly.  There’s probably a lot more of this stuff.  Apparently there’s also a tribble although I didn’t spot it.  A star date, possibly the earliest ever, is used just after the titles in the first episode, namely 1207.3, and an immediate Gregorian (presumably) calendar reference is given as Sunday 11th May 2256.  Incidentally, in the GAIL timeline this is a year after the discovery of the planet Mammon around Zeta Trianguli Australe.  I haven’t yet correlated that star date with the rest of the system.  I suspect there’s a depiction of the real Utopia Planitia in the title sequence itself.  But I realise I’m boring you, so enough of this.

Oh, just one more thing on that tack.  Although computers are often shown as amoral or perhaps evil in the Star Trek universe, the idea of a positronic brain also exists.  The main point of a positronic brain, as invented by Asimov, is not that it runs on positrons but that in behavioural terms it has a conscience.  Consequently I found it disappointing and inappropriate that a particular life-threatening quandary required an argument to engage ethical protocols (I can’t remember the exact phrase), although to be fair computers, as opposed to androids, in the Trekverse are not positronic and the actual idea of the positronic brain is not honoured in spirit in Trek anyway, as opposed to ‘Bicentennial Man’ and ‘I Robot’, so fair enough.

Good science fiction uses its setting and tells stories which could not be told without that setting.  ‘Game Of Thrones’ is not SF of course, but it does evoke the idea of weapons of mass destruction very effectively in a different context and very much tries to acknowledge the values and culture of pre-modern Western and other societies, though I’d take issue with Danaerys Targaryen’s politics in that context.  There’s nothing wrong with doing that in fantasy because fairly arbitrary things can be posited in it which don’t require rigour, although that in itself is a potential flaw in fantasy because it can provide facile resolutions to conflict.  Nonetheless it’s possible to look at, for example, Danaerys and contemplate whether she takes after her father in her deeds while still believing she has the very best of intentions and sees herself as a powerful force for good.  The same kind of thing can be done with characters in ‘Discovery’, or at least I hope it can.  One of the issues I have with Star Trek is that it tends to miss opportunities.  ‘Voyager’ failed to use being stuck on the other side of the Galaxy enough, and its voyage back could easily have provided structure to an arc but failed to do so.  ‘Enterprise’ suffered from similar flaws.  It could also be argued that ‘Discovery’ shouldn’t be trying to imitate the likes of ‘Game Of Thrones’ because telling those kinds of stories is not original enough and Star Trek is supposed to be groundbreaking rather than just copying what else is around even if it’s good.  On the other hand, recent work on ‘Replicas’ has convinced me that it’s okay to use a setting as a background to character-based stories even if it is science fictional.

Finally, I have to say that I dislike the use of action sequences and physical violence.  Whereas I recognise that this is a common part of Star Trek and is not a sign of the franchise going downhill, in the case of ‘Enterprise’ the increasing use of violence to solve problems really was a sign of the writers running out of ideas and presumably pressure by Paramount to make it appeal to a different but probably larger potential audience, which also made it more generic.  I just hope that the use of violence in ‘Discovery’ doesn’t ruin it.

You will note, incidentally, that I haven’t used a single illustration in this entire review.  I hope the reason is obvious!