True and False

The world as we know it is a fictionalized version.

Today’s papers carry the obituary of Hubert Van Es. Apparently, after shooting the famous photo of the last helicopter out of Saigon, this van-dyke wearing Dutch photojournalist was a fixture in the Hong Kong press-club bar for the next 30 years, complete with Hawaiian shirt and floppy press-corp hat, cursing away in accented English. It seems the most clichéd of what we consider fiction really does capture something true. But what of the things we consider fact? The photo of the throngs lined up to board the helicopter is remembered as being on the roof of the US embassy. According to the Washington Post obituary, an editor mis-captioned what was actually an apartment building. But dig some more and it is said that the building was the home of the CIA station chief and his officers, and that the people turned away were employed by the US. So reality is close to the truth. Maybe close enough, maybe correct in a way but not precisely accurate.

There are always errors and the record is always incomplete. Sometimes we even create errors that may not be there. I notice that the obituary says that Van Es started as photo-journalist in 1959 after college. Since it also says he was born in 1941, there must be either an error or more to the story, no? I remember (but have not bothered to look up the details!), that Joseph Campbell speculated that future historians examining an incomplete record will assume that World War II was a myth. Hitler and Himmler must be alternate spellings of the same character. Surely the victorious “hewer of iron” general was made up by the Germans to explain their loss (Eisen-Hauer), and that “sword smiths” wouldn’t make flying screaming things (Messer-Schmidt, although I think it was Junker Stukas that had air-sirens attached to make scary screaming noises as they attacked). Skulls on black uniforms? Facial scars and eye patches? Come on. And yet the movies and even a lot of the propaganda is no stranger, more fanciful or more horrible than reality.

Heisenberg showed that we could not know the perfect truth, and there is great mystery about his own actions concerning the Nazis. How perfect is that?

If we don’t make or invent mistakes, there are always cranks, politicians, or corporations ready to make stuff up. Here’s a tragic one that I care about very much. There are a few wealthy engineers here in sunny California who claim to already meet all their personal home energy needs – including transportation – from modern, expensive but available solar generation. Yet the conventional wisdom from the press and even Al Gore’s organization is that local generation can never be efficient enough, and that we must instead pay large corporations hundreds of billions of dollars to expand the electric grid using a technology that looses 80% of it’s power to heat, and which is already a far more tempting vehicle to terrorists than are the shoes of air-travelers. The subtle truth may be that solar might never be efficient enough to make large profits with it using the current model of corporate-owned generation and consumer-dependency. Sometimes the subtleties matter.

Inventing the Future indeed. It is amazing how much of the past and present is invented – or is mostly spot on and assumed to be fiction. We’ve all grown up thinking of a person as being “on” the telephone, and carrying “their voice” rather than a digital simulation of it. My children sometimes refer to live-actor movies as being “real” because they are mostly not drawn or generated. Under these circumstances, to what extent is virtual reality “not real”?

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.


  1. Careful, you’re wandering into P.K. Dick territory here!

    I noted the the age disparity in Van Es’s obit and wondered what the story was also.

    One of the consequences of the demise of journalism, newspapers in particular, is that we’re losing yet one more agency that in theory, at least, and at least part of the time, exposed hidden truths and dismantled convenient popular fictions.

    Orwell, of course, in 1984, delved deeply into the mindset (doublethink) that goes along with and depends upon the endless re-invention of the past. I know that everybody does it whether they want to or not–memory is not reliable– but when institutions do it intentionally, it becomes evil — an idea examined in my femtoscopically novella The Pains.

    Finally, I remember a social science paper that created a stir about 25 years ago about “consensus reality in phone sex” or something or other. The author was ridiculed in the popular press–“*This* is a legitimate subject for research by a university professor? Har, har!”

    That was my initial reaction also, but my initial reaction did not last long. What the heck *is* the reality going on when two people who don’t know each other get on the phone and start having “phone sex”, — for which one person is paying the other, on top of everything else!

    Plenty of room for musing here. Or maybe even for another P.K. Dick style novel.

    Hmmmmm. . . .

  2. Go for it. (I just picked up “Pattern Recognition”, ‘though it’s still second in my queue, which I imagine is along these lines.)

    The thing is, the press has ALWAYS been partner to institutional invention of the present and past. Even at its most ernest, journalism is HARD. Even without a deadline, the reporter has to learn what’s going on in a subject they know essentially nothing about, from people they don’t know, and then write about it in a way that people with even less background will understand! It’s simply not possible to do well all the time. And then there are errors like the photo caption. (Or was it a mistake.)

    No, the fictionalization of history is not a recent nor transient development. The public record has always been a parallel universe to the God’s-eye view.

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