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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
06/28/02 -- Vol. 20, No. 52
Table of Contents
History for the Science Fiction Fan (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was thinking about my high school history classes. I have to admit that I was not a big fan of history in high school. I did okay. But it was not the most viscerally fascinating subject for me. (That was probably mathematics.) It may well be that teachers are rarely rated on style. But the difference between an adequate teacher and a good one is a question of the style to capture students' imagination. Few of my history teachers attempted to grab the imagination of the class. That's a real pity. But it is not surprising since they don't get very excited about history themselves.
That high school memory somewhat surprises me. These days I think history has probably surpassed science fiction in my interests. Certainly I would rather see the next new historical film than the nextnew science fiction film. That is because once I was out of school and did not have to learn a fixed curriculum, history suddenly started to be one of the most engaging subjects. Once I was no longer being tested for it, suddenly history was more of a passion than the fantastic. Basically, it has the same kind of appeal as fantasies like Tolkien. History offers us fully- realized and complete worlds that we can visualize ourselves being in. And we can see what other people did in these worlds. You don't have to ask yourself would people really do that, if the history is accurate they would. Unlike reading science fiction, when you study history if it is accurate people always behave in believable ways. And it has an added bonus that it was real. Tolkien wanted his world to seem like it is real and did a fairly good job. But there is more to learn about Byzantium than there is about Middle Earth. There is only a limited amount possible to learn about Middle Earth. If you get interested in Byzantium you are limited only by the degree of detail you want. Though some information is harder to find that other.
Incidentally, I think that the cinema has gotten a bad rap from historians. A lot of the reason that history tweaks my and other people's imaginations is as an almost direct result of the historical film. Even in school the history that came the closest to grabbing my imagination was the history that was in and around events that had been dramatized in film. I remember sitting in a theater and hearing some kids in front of me looking at a coming attraction and calling it "awesome!" The film was not some sci-fi or action film, it was THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS and what the kid was finding awesome was a visualization of the French and Indian Wars. This was a period of history that really had never grabbed me. It does now because I have seen THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS and it was indeed awesome. I now can picture what life was like then and what fighting was like. The film may well have been a complete distortion of history. I do not form my political opinions based on a film, but I do allow a film to tell me that some period of history is exciting to study.
So I am a "fan" of history. That said, in what follows I am not arguing against the study of history but only against one argument for that study. The most common one-sentence defense for the study of history is generally attributed to Santayana (though nobody is really sure where or even if he said it). "Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it." It sounds good. Most aphorisms do initially. But do I really believe it? Do you?
Well, it is true that a knowledge of history can suggest what to do and what not to do in a given situation. And it can help one to understand the motivations of people in a given situation. (That is assuming they remember the history in the same way that you do. To understand the troubles in Northern Ireland or the Middle East it may be less useful to understand what really happened in history and more useful to know what each side believes happened.) But does the study of history offer what we would call wise counsel for avoiding repeated errors? I have my own observation, but one I think maybe actually even truer. "Those who remember history are condemned to be misled by it." A moment's thought tells you the aphorism that history repeats itself is true only on a very gross level. There are always major and important differences in the repetition. If I think about it I more often have seen people ignoring the specifics of a new situation because the new situation superficially resembles a previous one. That way lies danger if not disaster. That is the phenomenon behind the observation that countries always prepare for the previous war, not the upcoming one. They are being misled by history.
Admittedly, it is true that some events follow similar courses due to similar principles. In what was initially a throw-away idea in a story, Isaac Asimov suggested those principles could be defined like the principles of physics. That is what his "psychohistory" is all about. But even if psychohistory worked as a predictive tool, it would have to be as an exercise in the Law of Large Numbers. In the short term chance tends to dominate, but over many tests statistics kicks in. On one set of a million coin tosses you will get just about the same proportion of heads as you would get in a second set when you flipped it a million more times. But flip the coin only once and you get no useful information about the result if you flip it a second time. Political polls are a reasonable predictive tool about an upcoming election in large part only because they are predicting the aggregate of millions of votes. Try applying them to a single voter and they are extremely unreliable.
But are historic events the aggregate of many actions or are they one big action? The truth is probably that they can be either, but most are the actions of a few individuals influencing many. It is an argument I have generally heard as the issue of the "Great Man" hypothesis versus the "Tide of History" hypothesis. You can see the Roman Servile War as the result of one leader, Spartacus, coming along. Or you can see them as a great tide of discontent in the slave classes of Rome and eventually it boiled over. Psychohistory works best assuming a tide of history, is a terribly unreliable tool if one is all the way on the side of the great man hypothesis.
History does not give you a really reliable predictor for current events. Within a very few months the political climate in Afghanistan has changed. Most historical precedents after Alexander the Great have said that Afghanistan is the military equivalent of a patch of quicksand. It has not proved to be such a quagmire, at least if we are removing one government. The problem is that all cases of history repeating itself are false analogies. Things may look the same but the devil always lives in the details. The same situation never returns. Well . . . hardly ever. [-mrl]
Retirement Differences (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
One of the main differences in being retired (other than paying less in taxes, and having to keep telling our families that we are *retired*, not unemployed or "pseudo-retired," to use my nephew's term) is that we are far less claendar- and clock-driven.
For example, when we go on vacation, we can leave on any day, and return on any day. We don't have to worry about "maximizing" our vacation by leaving Friday night (or Saturday morning) and returning Sunday night. We can leave on a Tuesday (after rush hour), take our time driving, and so on. We can stop at bookstores in Connecticut on the way to visiting my family in Massachusetts instead of making a mad dash after work on Friday.
We've done a bunch of short trips of the sort we never had enough vacation days for, and are getting ready for a month-long trip to the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, etc. (Someone asked us what day we're getting back, and it was wonderful to be able to say, "We don't know. We're driving and we're retired, so there's no real deadline.")
We discovered that Home Depot is much less crowded on Thursdays than on Saturdays, and eating lunch out after 1PM much faster than between 12N and 1PM. We discovered than all the senior citizens seem to grocery-shop on Monday afternoons, and the aisles are impassable because they are always stopping to chat to each other. We go on Tuesdays, usually after lunch at the best sushi place in the area. (And lunch is quite a bit cheaper than dinner for the same food.) We also have time to buy produce at the produce store instead of settling for what the grocery has.
We discovered that because we could do our shopping and such during the week, we could do more on the weekends as well. We just went to the NJ Chili and Salsa Cook-Off in Toms River last Saturday, and last October we attended the annual meeting and laboratory tour of Consumers Union.
We go to movies on weekends only if we're going with friends--the audiences are much quieter during the week. (This will change over the summer.)
We find we're spending a lot less money somehow. This is true even with all our appliance breakdowns--so far since we're retired we've had to get four new tires, a new furnace, a new washer, a new dryer, plumbing repairs, and new brakes. But we're spending way less for taxes, less for gas, probably less for food, but probably more for DVDs, and $1 for a bag of books at the thrift shop every time we go to the bank next to it. (On the other hand, with all the T-shirts we have from our working years from vendors, we won't need clothes for a while. Since we don't wear shoes in the house, they will certainly last longer.)
What I discovered, however, was that being retired didn't magically give me enough time to do everything I wanted to. After nine months, I can't figure out how I ever could go back to work-- there's no spare time for it. :-) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Numbers are like people; torture them enough and they'll tell you anything. -- Anonymous
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