Timequakes, Zugzwang and bombing Syria

Timequake(Vonnegut)Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut’s last novel, is an odd thing. The story is ostensibly about the world having to relive the years from 1991 to 2001 all over again, with full memory of everything we did during that time but unable to change any of it because we don’t possess free will. The book itself is about that story, but also about Vonnegut’s attempts to tell that story and ends up folding in on itself to become as much a story of his life as it is a fiction. It’s an understandable mess because why the concept is a good one – and people being doomed to make and repeat mistakes while pretending they have free will is a recurring theme of Vonnegut’s works – actually depicting it is hard work.

I’m reminded of Timequake this week because it feels like we’re staggering through a replay of the events of the build-up to war in 2003 and at least one side is being portrayed as possessing no free will in the matter. So, we get coverage like this

and posts like this where the decision to start bombing Syria is taken as an unavoidable fact. Only those opposed to bombing appear to be deemed as possessing the free will required to have to come up with justifications for their actions, while those proposing it act as though they’re prisoners of destiny, lurching towards war because there’s no way to change their course of action and do something else. A whole army of keyboard Clausewitzes appear ready to blame those arguing against bombing for it happening while there own arguments in favour are little more than Something Must Be Done.

There’s a concept in chess (and wider game theory) called ‘zugzwang’ where a player finds themselves in a position where whatever move they make leaves them in a worse position. It feels an apt description for Jeremy Corbyn’s relationship with the media where whatever he does, it’s wrong: trying to get Labour to oppose air strikes is an attempt at loony lefty dictatorship, conceding a free vote is weak leadership that allows bombing to happen. Beyond that, it also seems apt for describing the global situation where every potential course of action appears to lead inextricably to the good intentions road to hell, the only question how we get there and which sub-district of the inferno we arrive in.

The problem seems to be that we’ve got a whole lot of tactics available to us, but none of them in themselves appear to add up to a strategy. Just like in 2003, we spend almost all our time arguing over what we should or shouldn’t be doing with the tools we have at hand without pausing to think about any long-term aims and goals. The overriding principle appears to be feeling that because we must Do Something, we have to choose from a variety of bad options and decide which is least worst. We’re not in a game, though, and we don’t have rules that say we must Do Something. Pretending that we must act, and expecting those advocating other courses of action to be the only ones who need to come up with a convincing argument why not is confusing tactics for strategy, repeating the mistakes we’ve made before and just confirming that we’re going to keep making them again and again.

So it goes.

On Paris, Beirut and everywhere else


It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.
And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”

(Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five)

Worth Reading 58: Severe thunderstorms start here

Kurt Vonnegut to weasels in five easy steps.

‘I Was There’: On Kurt Vonnegut – A long piece in The Nation looks back over Vonnegut’s novels from Player Piano to Breakfast of Champions.
10 Pilots With Light Turbulence – The Fan Can looks at the very early stages of some TV classics.
The Unbearable Stasis of “Accelerating Change” – Dale Carrico looks at how little futurology has changed, despite the fact we’re now living in the future. (via)
Oh Happy Days: A Personal Recollection Of Working With Jeremy Hunt – Interesting background on the (at the time of writing) Culture Secretary.
Unpack the weaselometers – “Blair: a sort of black hole of distrust, where distrust flips over into its opposite in another part if the multiverse and you pay him to take your children away and carry the garden gnomes to the van for him while he lectures you about rights and responsibilities.”

Worth Reading 6: Not featuring Colin Baker

OHere are some links. Happy now?

The 2010 “Editing Wikipedia From Inside Parliament” Awards – Just like any workplace, Parliament has people who use their internet access for things that might not be strictly work-related.
Trends analyst predicts global youth uprising, ‘progressive libertarians’ in 2011 – Futurology is almost invariably wrong, but it’s an interesting prediction
15 Things Kurt Vonnegut Said Better Than Anyone Else Ever Has Or Will – Later, in a cosmic twist he’d have enjoyed and/or decried, this becomes the last remaining internet page after the Great Crash, and the world converts to Vonnegutism
The state’s pedlars of fear must be brought to account – Just when did we agree to effectively privatise so much of the senior management of security? Makes you realise that a lot of the ‘Look! Evil terrorists coming!’ news is merely a marketing campaign to enable ACPO to sell more of their product, though.
Just Who Is The Alarm Clock Hero? – Justin McKeating voices my thoughts.