Archive for May, 2016

A Maze of Stars

May 23, 2016

I found A Maze of Stars by John Brunner to be an intriguing and slightly unusual book. The book does not seem to read like a novel with a continuous story from beginning to end, so much as a series of short stories or vignettes. The story takes place in the Arm of Stars, the last section of our galaxy to be colonized by humanity. A vast sentient Ship was built to travel along the Arm of Stars, seeding each habitable planet with the colonists who chose to settle there. After its great mission was complete, the Ship was supposed to stand by and monitor the progress of the colonies and rescue any population that was in danger.

Maze of Stars

Such was the plan. Instead the Ship found itself to be cast back and forth through time, compelled to retrace its journey along the Arm of Stars again and again centuries after the settlement of the Arm, observing but not contacting like an interstellar Flying Dutchman. At the end of each journey, the Ship travels through time again, emerging at the first planet it visited at a seemingly random time. In A Maze of Stars, the Ship finds itself at the earliest of its voyages, only 500 years after it seeded the colonies. The Ship travels from planet to planet with some knowledge of each planet’s future history, though there is much that remains hidden from the Ship. Some of the colonies have been successful, with a few even beginning to build star ships of their own. Many more are surviving with difficulty and more than a few are failures, the colonists destroyed by the hostile conditions of the planet they colonised. The Ship can recognise that some apparent successes will falter and fail, while some failures will recover. Occasionally, the Ship is able to exploit a loophole in its programming and take along a passenger on its travels. By the time the Ship reaches the end of its path, it learns why it was built and why it is sentenced to retrace its path again and again.

There is one issue raised by A Maze of Stars that I have not seen anywhere else in science fiction or nonfictional speculations about colonizing extra-terrestrial worlds. No life form on Earth either as an individual or a species exists in isolation. Every type of plant or animal lives in a complex ecosystem, composed of not just the obvious predators and sources of food, but also on a microscopic level with the bacteria than live around us and within us. Every form of life on Earth is to some extent depended on a vast web of interactions that are not always well understood. What would happen if some organisms are removed from that web and transplanted to a world with its own native lifeforms? Would the newcomers compete with the native life. Would alien organisms be toxic to creatures from Earth? What about the ecosystem of bacteria that each of us carries around with us and helps with our digestion? Could we maintain the proper balance in an alien world? Scientists have also recently learned that it is possible for DNA to be transferred between different species by viruses, and that these transfers have helped the process of evolution along. What if human colonists pick up alien DNA? Will they be able to remain human. The attempts of the various colonists to protect themselves against  and adjust to the alien environments they have found themselves in is an important backdrop to the story of each planet the Ship visits and is a major factor in the success or failure of each colony, and the questions raised about the future of human development make the book worth reading.



Don’t Say Eskimo

May 9, 2016

If you want to understand why people hate what is commonly called political correctness, you don’t have to go much further than to read this article from NPR explaining why we should not use the word “Eskimo”.

Confused about the word Eskimo?

It’s a commonly used term referring to the native peoples of Alaska and other Arctic regions, including Siberia, Canada and Greenland. It comes from a Central Algonquian language called Ojibwe, which people still speak around the Great Lakes region on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border. But the word has a controversial history. (Editor’s note: And that’s why it’s not used in the stories on Greenland that NPR has posted this week.)

Actually, no, I wasn’t at all confused. Eskimos are those people who live far to the north. I doubt many people are in the habit of asking NPR for advice on what words to use and it seems rather presumptuous for the author of this article to tell the rest of us what is appropriate or offensive. Most people resent being told to use certain politically correct expressions, even when it is well intended.  But to continue.

People in many parts of the Arctic consider Eskimo a derogatory term because it was widely used by racist, non-native colonizers. Many people also thought it meant eater of raw meat, which connoted barbarism and violence. Although the word’s exact etymology is unclear, mid-century anthropologists suggested that the word came from the Latin word excommunicati, meaning the excommunicated ones, because the native people of the Canadian Arctic were not Christian.

But now there’s a new theory. According to the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, linguists believe the word Eskimo actually came from the French word esquimaux, meaning one who nets snowshoes. Netting snowshoes is the highly-precise way that Arctic peoples built winter footwear by tightly weaving, or netting, sinew from caribou or other animals across a wooden frame.

But the correction to the etymological record came too late to rehabilitate the word Eskimo. The word’s racist history means most people in Canada and Greenland still prefer other terms. The most widespread is Inuit, which means simply, “people.” The singular, which means “person,” is Inuk.

Of course, as with so many words sullied by the crimes of colonialism, not everyone agrees on what to do with Eskimo. Many Native Alaskans still refer to themselves as Eskimos, in part because the word Inuit isn’t part of the Yupik languages of Alaska and Siberia.

But unless you’re native to the circumpolar region, the short answer is: You probably shouldn’t use the word Eskimo.

So, “Eskimo” was bad because it was believed to be derogatory, but now it may not be so bad, but we still shouldn’t say it because an Eskimo might be offended.

The fact is that few Native American tribes or nations are widely known by the names they call themselves. Most Indian groups are commonly known by the names others have given them. Some are of obvious European origin, the Black Foot, Nez Perce, Creek, Delaware, Crow, or Beaver. In most cases, these are translations of their original names into English, French, or Spanish. Many are known by names given by their enemies, thus; Sioux (little snakes), Mohawk (man eaters), or Iroquois (real snakes), or their friends like Comanche (they fight with us). Some of the tribal names derive from European attempts to pronounce unfamiliar words, Ute from Nuutsiu, Seneca from Osininka, or Illini from Illiniwek. Of course, there are the names we use for the people as a whole. Indians are only called Indians because Columbus didn’t know where he was, and while the Indians are certainly natives to this continent, they did not call themselves Americans.

It is not just the Native Americans who are not called by the names they call themselves. No one in China knew that they were Chinese until they met the Europeans. The Chinese call themselves the Sons of Han and their country is the Middle Kingdom (Zhong Guo). China seems to be derived from the first Imperial dynasty the Qin. The Indians had many names for themselves, since India is a very diverse country, but India is derived through Persian from the Indus River. The most common Indian word for India is Bharat. The Hindu religion was not called Hinduism until the Muslims started to conquer India. Before that time, the Hindus had no need of a word to distinguish their religion.

Our Western civilization largely began with the Greeks, but the words Greek and Greece come from Latin. The Greeks knew themselves as the Hellenes and their country as Hellas. We call the Deutsche Germans and Deutschland Germany, while the French refer to them as Allemands and Allemagne from the German tribe the Alamanians. This isn’t just an European colonialist custom. The Arabs and Persians refer to Europeans as al-Faranj and Farangi from the Franks.

It seems that almost no one in the world is called by outsiders by the same name they use for themselves. It doesn’t seem practical to go through every language and change every term that might be offensive to someone somewhere in the world  so I think I’ll just go on saying Eskimo.



Cinco de Mayo

May 5, 2016

On this date in 1862, the Mexicans defeated an invading French army at the Battle of Puebla. This might not sound like much, these are the French we’re talking about, but in fact, the French had the best army in the world at that time. The Mexican forces were outnumbered two to one and out gunned, yet they managed to rout the French. So, the Mexicans have been celebrating the fifth of May, or Cinco de Mayo, ever since.

This holiday has spread here in the United States in recent years. At first, I objected to celebrating a “foreign” holiday, but then I reconsidered. We celebrate St. Patrick’s day for the Irish, Mardi Gras for the French and others, Columbus Day for the Italians, etc, so why not Cinco de Mayo for the Mexican-Americans. Besides, any holiday that celebrates the French getting their butts kicked is worth keeping.

Indiana’s Choice

May 2, 2016

For once, people actually care about how Indiana will vote in tomorrow’s primary. Indiana’s primary is held late in the season, the first Tuesday of May, and by that time both parties have usually all but decided who their presidential nominees are going to be. If the presumptive nominee has not actually acquired a majority of delegates, by the time Indiana gets to vote, at least he is in a position where he has the most delegates by a wide margin and most of the other candidates have dropped out. There may be one or two candidates hanging on, trying against the odds to eke out a victory, but everyone knows they have no hope. In the general election, Indiana almost always goes Republican and is not big enough or enough of a swing state for either candidate to bother fighting over.

This year it is different for Indiana. While Donald Trump is currently in the lead and some already  consider him the presumptive nominee, he has not yet managed to get a majority of delegates and may not have a majority when the Republican convention meets in Cleveland. Ted Cruz is still a viable candidate, though his chances of winning the nomination without some sort of convention manipulation of the delegate seems to be increasingly remote considering Trump’s recent string of victories. If Cruz can win Indiana, he might be able to break Trump’s momentum and at least deny him an outright victory before the convention. If Trump wins Indiana, Cruz might as well drop out, so Indiana voters might actually have some influence on the outcome of the 2016 election. Judging from the polls, Cruz has a decent chance of winning here.

I intend to vote for Cruz tomorrow because he is not Donald Trump, who I continue to distrust and dislike. It may be a futile gesture, however, since I am certain that Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for president. By now, any Cruz victory will only delay this inevitable result. I really wish that the other Republican candidates had taken Trump seriously earlier in the race. They, and most commentators regarded Trump as a clown, until he started winning. By the time they realized that he was a greater threat than each other, it was too late.

I am going to go so far as to predict that Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. I am not happy about this prospect, though he is preferable to either of the Democratic candidates. There are still many pundits who are assuming that a Trump candidacy will be a disaster for the Republicans, ending in a landslide victory for Hilary Clinton. The polls seem to affirm this, Trump has record high unfavorability ratings with just about every group, yet I am not sure the polls are telling the whole story. Trump has gone from victory to victory even as his opponents have been dropping out. One might think that the remaining candidates would have gotten the bulk of the anti-Trump votes while Trump’s proportion of the vote remained about the same, but that hasn’t been happening. Trump seems to have been gaining a treating proportion of the vote over time, as if the people who might have voted for Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, etc are deciding to support Trump. Somebody out there likes Trump, and despite what the liberals think, the majority of Americans are not hate filled bigots. Trump is obviously saying something that appeals to a great many Americans.

Without getting into a detailed analysis, I think that what appeals to most of Trump’s supporters is simply the idea that he is on their side and is willing to fight for them, even if it means he has to be politically incorrect or even crude. Most politicians try very hard not to offend any of the myriads of pressure groups who are perpetually offended and they back down and apologize just as soon as someone accuses them of racism, sexism, etc. Their public statements are bland and meaningless, and there is a feeling that they care less about the silent majorities who make this country work and more about the very loud minorities who seem intent on tearing the country down. People like a fighter, and Donald Trump is a fighter. He does not back down or apologize when someone claims to be offended, and people who are tired of having to watch every word they say like to see that. Trump is, at least in his public persona, a Jacksonian at a time when the Jacksonians are under attack.

I think that when the battle between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump gets underway, the Democrats and the media, but I repeat myself, will throw everything they can at Trump. He will be a racist, sexist, Islamophobe, and the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler. I don’t think it will work. Many people in mainstream America, Trump’s natural base, have come to believe, with good reason, that the entertainment and new media is not on their side, that it is hostile to them and their values. If they believe that Donald Trump is on their side, attacks on Trump will be seen as attacks on themselves by people they already know despise them. And, of course, Trump will not simply sit by ignore Hilary’s attacks. He will respond and attack, thus ensuring that he continues to be seen as a fighter.

I guess I’d better get used to saying President Trump. I’m still not very happy about it.

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