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Posts Tagged ‘intelligence’

Mary Wollstonecraft, an acclaimed 19th century writer and activist, once said, “No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness.” In everyday life, I believe this is largely true. We give in to the yearnings of either lust or money (and, really, there is very little difference) and Hell follows. A few years ago, one of the richest men in the United States was interviewed after throwing a magnificently overdone party which cost more than most Americans earn in a year. He was so wealthy, and had been for so long, that he had lost track of what he owned, forgetting cars, houses, jets, entire businesses… When asked what he could possibly still want, he answered simply, “More of everything.” Now, I don’t consider that evil – offensive and nauseating, but not evil per se – but I think it is that kind of runaway greed and self-indulgence that leads to evil things.

So why all this talk about evil? Well, I believe evil begets evil. The more bad stuff that’s going on the world, the easier it is for even more bad stuff to happen. A negative feedback loop, if you will, where the situation gets progressively worse with every trip around the loop. Or, say, sun. But it’s an intensely difficult system to change, not one you can easily knock off balance once it has some momentum. And momentum, unfortunately, has never been the problem.

Humans are easily manipulated, panicked, frenzied. A few well-placed hoorahs can put a man in power, or leave him dead in the street. We have quick tempers, long memories for grudges, and a lust for vengeance. But we are also quick to forget treacheries that did not involve us directly, and we easily swallow lies as long as our standard of living remains acceptable. We have the intelligence to fabricate fantastic weapons able to produce the heart of a star on the surface of our own planet … but not enough intelligence to accept peace. We are an interesting but dangerous species, classified as a mammal but with all the trademarks of a virus. What we need is a vaccine.

A vaccine does not kill a virus. Instead, it prepares the host for the potential of a battle with a virus. It posts guards and rallies the troops, if you will. Then, if the virus later infiltrates, the host is prepared and the virus is controlled before any damage is done. The battle is averted. The war is won, essentially, before it’s begun. And the trouble-making virus isn’t really destroyed. It is incorporated into the host, becomes a peaceful part of it, and its antibodies survive as long as the host lives. That way, if another faction of the virus invades, it can also be quelled before war breaks out. This is exactly what we need. The trouble, with humans and vaccines, is that they only succeed on one issue at a time.

As a species, I’m not sure where we’re headed. The utopian society envisioned in the early 20th century never materialized. The Jetsons are as far away as ever. As long as we keep focusing on material goods and indulgent comforts, it will probably stay that way. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with wanting a decent house, a reliable vehicle, or three squares a day. But it’s hard to work toward political stability, reduced international tensions, and peaceful resolutions when all you can think about is “more of everything.” It’s important that we not let the pursuit of perceived happiness lead us down the wrong road, toward decisions with irreversible consequences and no redeeming outcome in sight.

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If you’ve read much of the Science Fiction/Fantasy genre, you’ve probably heard of Orson Scott Card. Probably best known for his “Ender” series (beginning with Ender’s Game), he has authored dozens of books and short stories as well as having worked on scripts, comic book novelizations, video game dialogs, and many other projects.

Buried somewhere in his bibliography, which most people probably scan right by, is a little book called Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. Classified as an “alternate history,” the story centers around a small group of people specially chosen to go back in time and reduce the nagative impacts of European contact with the New World. It was published in 1996, and I happened to have just finished reading Ender’s Game when Pastwatch hit the paperback shelf in Wal-Mart so I picked it up to see if he was an author worth following.

While it didn’t convince me to follow him as an author, I did fairly enjoy the book. And the older I get – the more I see of the world around us – the more one facet of it returns to me. That small group of people from the future who travel back in time do so because their own time is a dead end. The world has been decimated, and it becomes clear that it can no longer sustain the human populace. Homo sapiens face imminent extinction. But only a few people realize this. Most of the world’s population toil on in complete ignorance.

Sometimes I wonder how near this we are. Eco groups shout doomsday prophecies of global warming; governments and economies fall apart; religious zealots spark worldwide fears; scientists offer a thousand obscure but entirely possible paths to “the end of the world” … but they’re all pretty easy to write off, aren’t they? Nobody believes global warming will wipe out mankind, not even the most hardcore eco-warrior. Governments and economies may fall apart but some form of rule always asserts itself and nuclear armageddon is extremely improbable. And while quasar bursts and ballooning red giants may one day spell the end of this planet, it’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

Despite all the fearmongering, we’re a rather logically placid species. Someone screams that the sky is falling and most of us just look up, squint a little, and wave it off with a “Nah, go have your head examined.” In many ways, I think we feel invulnerable: “it won’t happen, not to me, not here, not now.” We understand that it really can happen, even to ourselves, right here and now, but that’s a bit heavy to deal with in the day-to-day. A little denial goes a long way toward stable social constructs and the perception of safety.

It’s human nature. A lot of people don’t want to know when something bad is going to happen, whether or not that knowledge could change the outcome. Like ostriches burying their heads in the sand, many people prefer ignorance to disillusionment. I do myself, on some levels; if I could un-see certain things, I would. Which brings me, finally, to the point, the question: would you want to know that the world was imminently doomed?

Yes. I believe I would. I would like a chance to atone for certain things and to set my affairs straight. Of course, death may come at any time, so I suppose on a very personal level the threat of doom is always imminent. “Death comes unexpectedly,” the author of Beowulf astutely noted. But perhaps not so unexpectedly on a global scale.

My greatest lament, when the human race expires, is that we were such a blight on this planet. Without us, it was a fertile and amazing world. And yet within a few millenia, an ecological blink of the eye, we managed to destroy, pollute, and otherwise adversely affect every inch of it. I only hope that after we go some bacteria will survive to begin again. Surely not all creatures of “intelligence” are so hopelessly and destructively ignorant.

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I have returned.

Now how about a bit of literature? I recently finished Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient. It’s set primarily in Italy against the backdrop of WWII though very little of the story includes battle. The main characters include a nurse who remains nameless for the first 30 pages, a patient who remains nameless nearly the length of the book, an English-trained Indian sapper who defuses bombs, and an ex-intelligence officer and thief … Hana, Almasy, Kip, and Caravaggio. Between these four and a handful of secondary players who enter and exit, Ondaatje weaves interesting tales with language and imagery that is often quite beautiful. It’s not a terribly recent book (the ones I read rarely are…a symptom of the bargain bin) but I remember advertising surrounding the publication and it being well-received by the general public. It might possibly have become a movie…or I might have gotten it mixed up with something else. With this mind, it’s hard to tell. At any rate, it’s a pretty good novel.

Hana is emotionally withdrawn and somewhat shell-shocked from her role in the war when Almasy enters her story, a man burned terribly and without hope of recovery. She vows that he will be her last patient, and they both refuse to leave their makeshift hospital in a ravaged Italian villa when the rest of the staff and patients move on. Caravaggio hears about Hana, an old family friend, while being treated in another hospital and goes to her. Not long thereafter Kip arrives, lured by the notes of a piano and the possibility of clever bombs. And an interesting love…square…develops. Though several years her senior, Caravaggio has always loved her; she loves the mystery and familiarity of the patient; and she loves the quiet presence of the sapper Kip. They are all emotionally and psychologically vulnerable, which manifests itself in different ways at different stages of the story, culminating in Kip’s unexpected explosion (emotionally, not physically; pardon the pun). At times, it’s difficult to follow the storyline, decipher who is speaking, understand how certain pieces fit together, but as a whole it’s interesting, beautiful, and certainly worth a read.

My favorite pieces come from the desert descriptions and stories from the burned patient (the “English” patient). They are really, extraordinarily beautiful.

Some of my favorite passages:

“Gradually we became nationless. I came to hate nations. We are deformed by nation-states. … The desert could not be claimed or owned – it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East. … It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscape. Fire and sand. … Ain, Bir, Wadi, Foggara, Khottara, Shaduf. I didn’t want my name against such beautiful names. Erase the family name! Erase nations! … Still, some wanted their mark there. On that dry watercourse, on this shingled knoll. Small vanities … But I wanted to erase my name and the place I had come from. … It was easy for me to slip across borders, not to belong to anyone …”

“… They are wakened by the three minarets of the city beginning their prayers before dawn. … The beautiful songs of faith enter the air like arrows.”

“A man in a desert can hold absence in his cupped hands knowing it is something that feeds him more than water. There is a plant he knows near El Taj, whose heart, if one cuts it out, is replaced with a fluid containing herbal goodness. Every morning one can drink the liquid the amount of a missing heart. The plant continues to flourish for a year before it dies from some lack or other.”

There are other great passages but these remain among my favorites. If you have a rainy afternoon and hanker for something a bit foreign, this would make a nice read.

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