Killing the Queen: Ronda Rousey

Friday, July 31st, 2015

Jack Slack gives his advice for killing the queen, Ronda Rousey:

Really it all comes down to avoiding the clinch for as long as possible by circling off as Rousey comes in on a straight line. And using long, non-committal strikes to punish Rousey’s bull rushes, or intercepting elbows to hurt and deter Rousey. This can already be seen frequently in men’s MMA: it’s sound, proven strategy against a rushing opponent, whether he wants the infight, a brawl, a shot, or the clinch. Realistically though, anyone who doesn’t either 1) bumrush straight into the clinch with Rousey or 2) concede the clinch while swinging desperately for a knockout in the first minute is already way ahead of the game.  Then when the clinch does inevitably come, making sure it isn’t the be all and end all of the fight. But let’s face it, even avoiding one or two of Rousey’s charges would be considered a good performance.

The Cimmerian Hypothesis

Friday, July 31st, 2015

Beyond the Black River ends with these words:

‘Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,’ the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. ‘Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.’

This is more than a bit of bluster meant to add color to an adventure story, John Michael Greer argues:

Science fiction has made much of its claim to be a “literature of ideas,” but a strong case can be made that the weird tale as developed by Lovecraft, Smith, Howard, and their peers has at least as much claim to the same label, and the ideas that feature in a classic weird tale are often a good deal more challenging than those that are the stock in trade of most science fiction: “gee, what happens if I extrapolate this technological trend a little further?” and the like. The authors who published with Weird Tales back in the day, in particular, liked to pose edgy questions about the way that the posturings of our species and its contemporary cultures appeared in the cold light of a cosmos that’s wholly uninterested in our overblown opinion of ourselves.

Thus I think it’s worth giving Conan and his fellow barbarians their due, and treating what we may as well call the Cimmerian hypothesis as a serious proposal about the underlying structure of human history.

What sets barbarian societies apart from civilized ones, he suggests, is that a much smaller fraction of the environment that barbarians encounter results from human action:

When you go outdoors in Cimmeria — if you’re not outdoors to start with, which you probably are — nearly everything you encounter has been put there by nature. There are no towns of any size, just scattered clusters of dwellings in the midst of a mostly unaltered environment. Where your Aquilonian town dweller who steps outside may have to look hard to see anything that was put there by nature, your Cimmerian who shoulders his battle-ax and goes for a stroll may have to look hard to see anything that was put there by human beings.

What’s more, there’s a difference in what we might usefully call the transparency of human constructions. In Cimmeria, if you do manage to get in out of the weather, the stones and timbers of the hovel where you’ve taken shelter are recognizable lumps of rock and pieces of tree; your hosts smell like the pheromone-laden social primates they are; and when their barbarian generosity inspires them to serve you a feast, they send someone out to shoot a deer, hack it into gobbets, and cook the result in some relatively simple manner that leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that you’re all chewing on parts of a dead animal. Follow Conan’s route down into the cities of Aquilonia, and you’re in a different world, where paint and plaster, soap and perfume, and fancy cookery, among many other things, obscure nature’s contributions to the human world.

Here’s where his argument takes an unexpected turn:

“Primitive” cultures — that is to say, human societies that rely on relatively simple technological suites — differ from one another just as dramatically as they differ from modern Western industrial societies; nor do simpler technological suites correlate with simpler cultural forms.

[...]

Thus traditional tribal societies are no more natural than civilizations are, in one important sense of the word “natural;” that is, tribal societies are as complex, abstract, unique, and historically contingent as civilizations are. There is, however, one kind of human society that doesn’t share these characteristics — a kind of society that tends to be intellectually and culturally as well as technologically simpler than most, and that recurs in astonishingly similar forms around the world and across time. We’ve talked about it at quite some length in this blog; it’s the distinctive dark age society that emerges in the ruins of every fallen civilization after the barbarian war leaders settle down to become petty kings, the survivors of the civilization’s once-vast population get to work eking out a bare subsistence from the depleted topsoil, and most of the heritage of the wrecked past goes into history’s dumpster.

If there’s such a thing as a natural human society, the basic dark age society is probably it, since it emerges when the complex, abstract, unique, and historically contingent cultures of the former civilization and its hostile neighbors have both imploded, and the survivors of the collapse have to put something together in a hurry with nothing but raw human relationships and the constraints of the natural world to guide them. Of course once things settle down the new society begins moving off in its own complex, abstract, unique, and historically contingent direction; the dark age societies of post-Mycenean Greece, post-Roman Britain, post-Heian Japan, and their many equivalents have massive similarities, but the new societies that emerged from those cauldrons of cultural rebirth had much less in common with one another than their forbears did.

Human societies that don’t have urban centers tend to last much longer than those that do, he notes:

As we’ve seen, a core difference between civilizations and other human societies is that people in civilizations tend to cut themselves off from the immediate experience of nature nature to a much greater extent than the uncivilized do. Does this help explain why civilizations crash and burn so reliably, leaving the barbarians to play drinking games with mead while sitting unsteadily on the smoldering ruins?

As it happens, I think it does.

As we’ve discussed at length in the last three weekly posts here, human intelligence is not the sort of protean, world-transforming superpower with limitless potential it’s been labeled by the more overenthusiastic partisans of human exceptionalism. Rather, it’s an interesting capacity possessed by one species of social primates, and quite possibly shared by some other animal species as well. Like every other biological capacity, it evolved through a process of adaptation to the environment—not, please note, to some abstract concept of the environment, but to the specific stimuli and responses that a social primate gets from the African savanna and its inhabitants, including but not limited to other social primates of the same species. It’s indicative that when our species originally spread out of Africa, it seems to have settled first in those parts of the Old World that had roughly savanna-like ecosystems, and only later worked out the bugs of living in such radically different environments as boreal forests, tropical jungles, and the like.

The interplay between the human brain and the natural environment is considerably more significant than has often been realized. For the last forty years or so, a scholarly discipline called ecopsychology has explored some of the ways that interactions with nature shape the human mind. More recently, in response to the frantic attempts of American parents to isolate their children from a galaxy of largely imaginary risks, psychologists have begun to talk about “nature deficit disorder,” the set of emotional and intellectual dysfunctions that show up reliably in children who have been deprived of the normal human experience of growing up in intimate contact with the natural world.

All of this should have been obvious from first principles. Studies of human and animal behavior alike have shown repeatedly that psychological health depends on receiving certain highly specific stimuli at certain stages in the maturation process. The famous experiments by Henry Harlow [sic], who showed that monkeys raised with a mother-substitute wrapped in terrycloth grew up more or less normal, while those raised with a bare metal mother-substitute turned out psychotic even when all their other needs were met, are among the more famous of these, but there have been many more, and many of them can be shown to affect human capacities in direct and demonstrable ways.

Universities Are an Illusion

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s department of African and Afro-American studies offered a now-notorious selection of non-classes for athletes — and others — who needed a little… help:

After the fraud was exposed and both the university chancellor and Mr. Davis lost their jobs, outside investigators discovered that U.N.C. had essentially no system for upholding the academic integrity of courses. “So long as a department was offering a course,” one distinguished professor told the investigators, “it was a legitimate course.”

Mr. Davis came to understand this all too well. As the investigators wrote in their final report, Mr. Davis “found Chapel Hill’s attitude toward student-athlete academics to be like an ‘Easter egg,’ beautiful and impressive to the outside world, but without much life inside.”

Most colleges, presumably, aren’t harboring in-house credit mills. Yet in its underlying design, organizational values and daily operations, North Carolina is no different from most other colleges and universities. These organizations are not coherent academic enterprises with consistent standards of classroom excellence. When it comes to exerting influence over teaching and learning, they’re Easter eggs. They barely exist.

This goes a long way toward explaining why colleges spend so much time and effort creating a sense of tribal solidarity among students and alumni. Think of the chant that Joe Paterno and students cried out together at the height of their university’s pedophilia scandal: “We are! Penn State!” The costumes, rituals and gladiatorial contests with rival colleges are all designed to portray the university as united and indivisible. Newer colleges that lack such deeply rooted identities spend millions of dollars on branding consultants in order to create them.

They do this to paper over uncomfortable truths revealed by their own researchers.

The Bible of academic research on how colleges affect students is a book titled, plainly enough, “How College Affects Students.” It’s an 848-page synthesis of many thousands of independent research studies over the decades. The latest edition was published in 2005 by Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, professors at the University of Iowa and Penn State.

The sections devoted to how colleges differ from one another are notable for how little they find. As Mr. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini carefully document, studies have found that some colleges are indeed better than others in certain ways. Students tend to learn more in colleges where they have closer relationships with faculty and peers, for example, and earn a little more after graduating from more selective institutions.

But these findings are overwhelmed in both size and degree by the many instances in which researchers trying to detect differences between colleges found nothing.

“The great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth,” the authors write. “If there is one thing that characterizes the research on between-college effects on the acquisition of subject matter knowledge and academic skills, it is that in the most internally valid studies, even the statistically significant effects tend to be quite small and often trivial in magnitude.”

The fact that universities hardly exist as unified teaching organizations should not be confused with the question of whether going to college is “worth it.” The typical student who graduates from a college somewhere fares far better in the job market than the typical student who doesn’t.

[...]

People can learn a lot in college, and many do. But which college matters much less than everyone assumes. As Mr. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini explain, the real differences exist at the departmental level, or within the classrooms of individual professors, who teach with a great deal of autonomy under the principles of academic freedom. The illusory university pretends that all professors are guided by a shared sense of educational excellence specific to their institution. In truth, as the former University of California president Clark Kerr observed long ago, professors are “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”

The problem for students is that it is all but impossible to know ahead of time which part of the disunified university is which. Consumers of higher education have been taught that their main choice lies between whole institutions that are qualitatively different from one another. Because this is wrong, the higher education market often fails, which is probably one reason that a third of students who enroll in four-year colleges transfer or drop out within three years.

The whole apparatus of selective college admissions is designed to deliberately confuse things that exist with things that don’t. Many of the most prestigious colleges are an order of magnitude wealthier and more selective than the typical university. These are the primary factors driving their annual rankings at or near the top of the U.S. News list of “best” colleges. The implication is that the differences in the quality of education they provide are of a similar size. There is no evidence to suggest that this is remotely true.

When college leaders talk about academic standards, they often mean admissions standards, not standards for what happens in classrooms themselves. Or they vaguely appeal to traditions and shared values without any hard evidence of their meaning. This is understandable, because the alternative is admitting that many selective institutions are not intrinsically excellent; they were just lucky enough to get into the business of selecting the best and brightest before everyone else.

Jim Baen’s Top 10 Science Fiction Books

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

Jim Baen called David Drake on Thursday, June 8, 2006, saying that Amazon had asked him at BookExpo for a list of the ten science fiction books that everybody should read. David Drake goes on:

He wanted me to join him in coming up with the list. Jim and I did this sort of thing — him calling me as a resource — very frequently. The only thing unusual is the fact that he’d had a mini-stroke during the night. When he finally went to the hospital on Monday, June 12, he had the fatal stroke. This was literally some of the last thinking on SF that Jim did.

I was rather shocked that I had in fact read all ten:

  1. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  2. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
  3. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
  4. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
  5. Dune by Frank Herbert
  6. Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague deCamp
  7. Against the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke
  8. Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein
  9. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  10. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

I went to back to see when I mentioned any of these book earlier, and the last time I mentioned Jim Baen’s list, I lamented that I’d missed a few. So, I have made some progress.

Anyway, I’ve mentioned Foundation repeatedly, but not to discuss its literary merits:

I’d consider myself a Heinlein fan, but I barely made it through Stranger in a Strange Land as a teen, and I didn’t make it through a few years ago. I much preferred the short novel he wrote while taking a break from Stranger:

I didn’t find Citizen of the Galaxy memorable.

When I tried to read A Canticle for Leibowitz in college, the pre-Vatican II Catholicism didn’t work for me, but when I re-read it a few years ago I found it powerful and insightful:

I did not know it at the time, but Walter Miller, the author, had served in a bomber crew that helped destroy the monastery at Monte Cassino during World War II, and he converted to Catholicism after the war. Seen through his sympathetic eyes, the Church is a source of great practical wisdom, with established methods for steering flawed human beings toward productive behaviors — not unlike the Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong crowds, but more experienced, if also tied to a peculiar cosmology.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea never did much for me. He’s supposed to be the father of science fiction, so he may simply need a better translator.

Dune I mention here regularly, as a powerful novel that didn’t quite work for me — but obviously stuck with me:

I definitely enjoyed Lest Darkness Fall, which has its modern-day protagonist bring telegraphy without electricity to ancient Rome. That scenario raises the interesting question of ideas behind their time.

The Time Machine is an absolute classic. Lawrence Auster would certainly recommend it. Wells wrote many novels worth reading.

By contrast, Mark Twain might qualify as a wit of the highest order, yet I found A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court hard to take. It’s mainly hamfisted whig history, which played to his audience, I’m sure.

How to Hire Better Cops

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

It’s seldom recognized that the argument for racial quotas makes more sense for cops than for firemen, Steve Sailer remarks:

A couple of weeks ago my column “The Density Divide” brought up a fundamental divide between two kinds of human activity: objective striving against the natural world versus subjective contention for social dominance. Firemen battle chemical reactions, so it makes sense to hire them meritocratically, while policemen try to impose their will upon other people, so political considerations matter relatively more.

Asimov, Heinlein and Virgil

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

Science fiction is speculative fiction, John C. Wright argues:

Many a fan of Science Fiction would like to include any classical work containing an unearthly or supernatural element in the work t be Science Fiction, including the Odyssey, Aenead, Fourth Eclogue, Divine Comedy, Tempest and Faust, not to mention the Ring Cycle of Wagner.

Science fiction is the fiction of the scientific revolution. It is the unique product of the revolution in thought that ushered in the modern age. That revolution changed both the theory and the practice of life, the paradigm and the technology, both what men thought about the cosmos and how they lived their daily lives.

Having lived through one paradigm shift and its attendant technological advancements, an audience was ready for fictional speculation about the next paradigm shift, the next technological advancement.

Speculative fiction, properly so called, is fiction taking place in a cosmos that differs from what the audience understands to be the real world, either (in science fiction) after the next paradigm shift or (in fantasy) before the previous one. Both challenge the imagination by rejecting the paradigm, or the technology, current to the time and place in which the author and his readers generally agree they live.

Even a single element unearthly or extraterrestrial element in an otherwise mundane setting —a Mindreader in Brooklyn—can make the story science fiction; this is because discovering a Mindreader in Brooklyn would overthrow the current paradigm. We don’t believe in telepaths, and James Randi disbelieves even less than we do. Therefore a tale where the reader is asked to take that possibility seriously, to think through the implications, challenges the current paradigm.

The genre is called “speculative” because of the emphasis on implications. The Invisible Man of H.G. Wells has to run around naked because his clothing was not also transparent; and his footprints dinted the snow. The invisible ring in Orlando Furioso had no such logical limitations: it was magic. When Brandamart puts it in her mouth, she vanishes.

All this is in marked contrast to the epics and poems mentioned here. They were written by authors whose purpose was to confirm the paradigm of the time and place in which they wrote.
Dante was not attempting to lead his Christian readers into speculations about what the pre-Christian world looked like to pre-Christians, or to imagine what the world was like had that long-lost world-view been true. Dante did not write a fantasy. He wrote the opposite. Pagan elements are introduced (Ulysses, etc.) for the express purposed of being retrofitted into a Christian philosophical framework. This would be the same as if some author (for example Mary Renault) took a character from the previous prescientific world view (for example, Theseus) and retold his story explaining all the supernatural elements in terms of scientifically and anthropologically modern ideas (for example THE KING MUST DIE).
The speculative element is exactly what is missing in Dante: and I say this with the greatest respect for Dante’s scientific learning. His astronomy and his optics are spot on perfect. But when the shades in Purgatory see the shadow of Dante on the ground, and the departed spirits cast no shadow, it is not explained how the ghostly eyeballs can see Dante’s shadow, if the photons are passing through them–and if the photons are not passing through them, then how is it that the departed spirits cast no shadows? Common folk wisdom of Dante’s time said shades were shadowless, and he had craft and art enough to work this cleverly into his poem. But he did not speculate about scientific implications. Dante’s take on ghosts was meant to confirm the paradigm of his age.
In contrast, Robert E. Howard wrote fantasy. Conan does not live in our universe as we understand it: he cannot be fitted into the modern scientific world-view. Conan is a speculation (if we may dignify it with that term) about what the world would have been like had the men of the previous paradigm been correct in their view of the universe: a realm of capricious gods, monsters, bold barbarians, beautiful slavegirls, pirates, kings, where magic worked and sorcery hung thick as incense on the air.

Do not be deceived by the presence of wondrous and fantastic elements in the great poets. All tales are really about wonder. All readers suspend their skepticism at least in part for the sake of the tale being told. I truly doubt every man in the audience of Homer believed in Amazons or Centaurs. Certainly Plato scoffs at Homer’s portrayal of Gods and demigods. And there were skeptics even in Shakespeare’s day who did not believe the ghosts: but ghosts were an accepted part of the revenge story, and so a ghost in HAMLET was not something alien to their paradigm of the universe. There are many modern skeptics who do not believe in love at first sight, but who will accept it as possible for the sake of watching a love story.

So, with all due respect, while we have the liberty to define SF broadly enough to include anything and everything we want (indeed, a liberty I take here), we run the risk of sounding puffed and presumptuous. I have never been at an SF Con were a fan said his three favorite science fiction authors were Asimov, Heinlein and Virgil. I have never found a copy of Shakespeare’s TEMPEST in the Dungeon and Dragon’s aisle at the bookstore, even though Prospero is clearly a Twelfth Level mage, able to cast a seventh level control weather spell with an area-effect modifier.

How Dare You Say That! The Evolution of Profanity

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

John H. McWhorter (The Language Hoax) explores the evolution of profanity:

In medieval English, at a time when wars were fought in disputes over religious doctrine and authority, the chief category of profanity was, at first, invoking—that is, swearing to—the name of God, Jesus or other religious figures in heated moments, along the lines of “By God!” Even now, we describe profanity as “swearing” or as muttering “oaths.”

It might seem like a kind of obsessive piety to us now, but the culture of that day was largely oral, and swearing—making a sincere oral testament—was a key gesture of commitment. To swear by or to God lightly was considered sinful, which is the origin of the expression to take the Lord’s name in vain (translated from Biblical Hebrew for “emptily”).

The need to avoid such transgressions produced various euphemisms, many of them familiar today, such as “by Jove,” “by George,” “gosh,” “golly” and “Odsbodikins,” which started as “God’s body.” “Zounds!” was a twee shortening of “By his wounds,” as in those of Jesus. A time traveler to the 17th century would encounter variations on that theme such as “Zlids!” and “Znails!”, referring to “his” eyelids and nails.

In the 19th century, “Drat!” was a way to say “God rot.” Around the same time, darn started when people avoided saying “Eternal damnation!” by saying “Tarnation!”, which, because of the D-word hovering around, was easy to recast as “Darnation!”, from which “darn!” was a short step.

By the late 18th century, sex, excretion and the parts associated with same had come to be treated as equally profane as “swearing” in the religious sense. Such matters had always been considered bawdy topics, of course, but the space for ordinary words referring to them had been shrinking for centuries already.

Chaucer had available to him a thoroughly inoffensive word referring to the sex act, swive.

I think that qualifies as the word of the day!

We are hardly beyond taboos, McWhorter notes; we just observe different ones:

Today, what we regard as truly profane isn’t religion or sex but the slandering of groups, especially groups that have historically suffered discrimination or worse. Our profanity consists of the N-word, that C-word once suitable for an anatomy book discussion of women’s bodies, and a word beginning with f referring to gay men (and some would include a word referring to women beginning with b).

It might seem strained to compare our feelings about the N-word with a bygone era’s appalled shuddering over the utterance of “By God!” But do note that I have to euphemize the N-word here in print just as someone would have once have felt compelled to say, “By Jove!”

[...]

But we are just as capable as previous eras of policing our taboos with unquestioning excess. An administrator in Washington, D.C.’s Office of the Public Advocate had to resign in 1999 for using the word niggardly in a staff meeting. At the University of Virginia, there was a campus protest in 2003 after a medical school staffer said that a sports team called the Redskins “was as derogatory to Indians as having a team called n— would be to blacks.” Julian Bond, who was then the head of the NAACP, said that only his respect for free speech kept him from recommending that she be fired. In 2014, the lawyer and writer Wendy Kaminer elicited aggrieved comments for saying, during a panel discussion at Smith College, that when we use euphemisms for the N-word we all “hear the word n— in our head.”

[...]

Some might object that we should not check that impulse, and that extremism is necessary to create lasting social change. But it’s useful to recall that, when it comes to profanity, there were once people who considered themselves every bit as enlightened as we see ourselves today, with the same ardent and appalled sense of moral urgency. They were people who said “Odsbodikins” and did everything they could to avoid talking about their pants.

The Point of Disbelief

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Definitions of SF are a subject not likely to be addressed to everyone’s satisfaction, but John C. Wright makes an effort:

The simplest definition is to say that, where normal stories are about rescuing princesses from pirates, science fiction stories are about rescuing space-princesses from space-pirates.

Behind this facetious definition there is a thought worth examining:

All stories are falsehoods used to reveal some truth. The falsehood is one the storyteller and the audience tacitly agree shall be treated as true for the purposes of telling the tale. In this respect, the storyteller is a magician who enchants his audience; they are willing to believe the unbelievable, to suspend their disbelief. But if he makes too great a demand on their willing suspension of disbelief, the spell is broken, and his illusion stands open to their contempt as a cheap trick.

Different audiences will place this ‘point of disbelief’ at different heights.

For example, in a comedy, the audience is willing to accept the most unlikely and unrealistic coincidences in plot or stunts in action, merely because it is funny. The tolerance is high. In a gritty action thriller, however, any unrealistic detail, such as shooting seven bullets from a six-shooter, will break the spell for a serious audience.

Every reader will recognize when it has happened once or twice that his point of disbelief has been notched upward. Let me use a war picture as an example. When the hero runs through a hail of machinegun bullets fired by Nazis unscathed (or, in Science Fiction, when he runs through a lightningstorm of blaster fire from Imperial Stormtroopers) something clicks in our brains, and we smile, and settle back in the theater seat, and we don’t take the movie was seriously as we did the moment before. We might still like it: but now it is a ‘popcorn’ movie, light entertainment. Our tolerance for unreality for light movies is more generous than for gravid ones. Compare that, on the other hand, with the opening sequence in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, where the whistling storm of machinegun-fire was realistic and horrifying. No one was running around protected by an invisible aura of ‘main character glow’. The point of disbelief was low.

When we have put our tolerance at the high point, either because it is a genre we like or an author we like, we react grumpily to any evidence that the scenes are unrealistic. Complaints seen like nit-picking, small-mindedness. The complainer cannot get in the spirit of things. He is trying to break the spell.

What makes the calculation of where to put the point of disbelief complex is two factors:

First, unbelievable things actually do happen in real life: there are moments of high heroism and deep horror, eerie coincidences and true love. There really are men like Napoleon and George Washington, who change history. Stories are supposed to be about the unusual: anyone who works on a newspaper can tell you that.

Second, the craft of the artist consist of certain tricks and devices he uses to make the unbelievable seem real. This is called verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is the illusion of reality: a thing that is not real, but which seems realistic.

Stephen King writes with masterful craft by using settings and people as one might find in any small town in America; only after the reader is habituated into trusting these descriptions, do odd, and then unearthly elements begin to intrude on the picture. He is correctly regarded as a fine horror writer, perhaps the finest, because of his mastery of this device of verisimilitude.

There is a famous scene in Homer, when Andromache brings her baby out to say farewell to Hector before that warrior prince issues forth to battle. Astyonax is startled by the plumes on his helm of his father and begins to cry. This is the type of realistic detail suddenly makes the unearthly elements in the epic seem more realistic. When Hector batters down the gate of the Achaian palisade, he hoists a rock so large that “two men, such as men are now, could not have lifted it.” The fact that the baby was startled by his gleaming armor makes Hector seem like a real person; even when he does feats no one now-a-days can do, the feeling of reality is maintained. Instead of shaking their heads, and saying no one could lift up so large a rock, the listeners nod and listen.

Now, along the spectrum of realistic to unrealistic fiction, Speculative Fiction (by which I mean Science Fiction and Fantasy together) occupies the more unrealistic side. Indeed, Speculative readers not only tolerate but demand that a high demand be placed on their imaginations: they want to see life or Mars, or Barsoom, or Middle Earth, or in the Year 2000 or in the Hyperborean Age. We place the point of disbelief very high.

The separation of fantasy from science fiction is merely the difference in the craft of verisimilitude used. Fantasy impersonates the tone and style, the tropes and details of medieval and ancient songs, epics and folktales. Unearthly and unbelievable things can happen in Middle-Earth, provided they seem to happen in the same mood and atmosphere as ORLANDO FURIOSO or LE MORTE D’ARTHUR. If the mood is not broken, the audience will accept the illusion as real.

Science Fiction impersonates science. The science does not need to be real, but it needs to produce a realistic illusion. Time Travel, or Faster-Than-Light drive, are both as fantastical as Santa’s Elves: but, in the communal imagination of SF, they are assumed to be the product of scientific investigation, built in a workshop or lab, produced by the same ingenuity as Robert Fulton or the Wright Brothers.

This point is worth dwelling on. In order to create verisimilitude in THE TIME TRAVELER, the author H.G. Wells has a frame in the first chapter. The scene opens with an unnamed first-person narrator describing a conversation at a dinner party: the idea that time is a dimension that can be crossed like length, breadth, and height are introduced, and a machine for crossing time, similar to a flying machine, comes on stage as a prop. Now the reader is ready to accept the idea of a man who crosses time in a time machine the way a sea-traveler crosses the sea in a steamship. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be might bring Scrooge into the future to view a prophecy, but this is a supernatural visitation. The Time Traveler’s vehicle is natural, a product of his workshop, no more supernatural than a steam engine. But without the frame of the dinner party, where we meet the Time Traveler, without the initial theoretical discussion, the stress on the readers willing suspension of disbelief would be greater.

This is the unique property of Science Fiction. The readers of Science Fiction are expected to know something about modern science, and they expect that whatever fantastic adventure about to be told them will be framed in terms of some explanation that is plausibly scientific. Whether the science fiction is hard or soft depends on how implausible the scientific explanation is, and how central the story it is.

Science fiction readers expect to be convinced by having a discussion or lecture take place in the text, which has enough real science to make the fake science seem real. These lectures are unknown in other genres.

Tales where the props and settings from science fiction are merely thrown in for flavor, or to produce a background of wonder, are rightly called Space Opera: adventure stories that take place in space, no different, really, than similar tales taking place in remote jungles, pirate-infested seas, golden palaces, or the mountains of Tibet. STAR WARS, for example, is space opera, since the science is there merely for flavor. The same tale could have taken place, almost unchanged, in the fairytale Japan of legend.

There is, by the way, a similar division in fantasy between hard and soft, or high and low. Fantasy that accurately follows the ancient models of the world, now lost, which our ancestors knew, is realistic fantasy (if we can use that term). The language is elevated, the action is mannered. Sword and Sorcery stories follow the themes of ancient epics and folktales. Oriental fantasy follows the model of Arabian Night’s Tales, with their strange vistas, Jinn-haunted palaces, and cruel bejeweled splendors. The ‘Dying Earth’ tales of Jack Vance are a superb example of this opulent oriental flavor, even though they take place in the Far Future rather than the Far East.

Fantasy where the characters talk and act like middle-class gamers from Southern California, except that they swing swordsand shoot lightning from their fingertips, is a tale where the fantasy settings and props are merely thrown in for flavor. We should call such unrealistic fantasy Elf Opera.

But the point, the main point, of speculative fiction, both fantasy and science fiction, is that they are both ultramundane. Fantasy is unearthly, and science fiction is extraterrestrial. They deal with things that do not happen in the here-and-now. Either the setting is in another world Beyond the Fields We Know, or something from the Other World or Outer Space has intruded into our comfortable little reality. When something from Beyond intrudes into our little world, the reaction is either terror or awe. All the old SF magazines had titles reflecting this: Thrilling, Wonder, Amazing, and so on. Any definition of Science Fiction or Fantasy that does not point to this central characteristic of unearthliness is defective.

Scrabble Francophone

Monday, July 27th, 2015

The French-language Scrabble world championship just went to a New Zealander — who doesn’t speak French:

The BBC reported that Nigel Richards, originally from Christchurch, defeated a rival from French-speaking Gabon in the final in Louvain, Belgium, on Monday.

He had only started studying the French dictionary about eight weeks ago, said a close friend of Mr Richards, Liz Fagerlund.

“He doesn’t speak French at all, he just learnt the words. He won’t know what they mean, wouldn’t be able to carry out a conversation in French I wouldn’t think.”

Mr Richards, now in his late forties, is a previous English Scrabble champion. He is based in Malaysia.

He has won five US National titles and the World Scrabble Championship three times.

Donald Trump and the Fed-Up Crowd

Monday, July 27th, 2015

Victor Davis Hanson discusses Donald Trump and the Fed-Up Crowd:

To explain the inexplicable rise of Donald Trump is to calibrate the anger of a fed-up crowd that is enjoying the comeuppance of an elite that never pays for the ramifications of its own ideology. The elite media, whose trademark is fad and cant, writes off the fed-up crowd as naïve and susceptible to demagoguery as the contradictory and hypocritical Trump manipulates their anger. In fact, they probably got it backwards. Trump is a transitory vehicle of the fed-up crowd, a current expression of their distaste for both Democratic and Republican politics, but not an end in and of himself. The fed-up crowd is tired of being demagogued to death by progressives, who brag of “working across the aisle” and “bipartisanship” as they ram through agendas with executive orders, court decisions, and public ridicule. So the fed-ups want other conservative candidates to emulate Trump’s verve, energy, eagerness to speak the unspeakable, and no-holds barred Lee Atwater style — without otherwise being Trump.

(Hat tip to Jonathan at Chicago Boyz.)

Berkeley Breathed has his own take:

Bloom County Trump Oddly Appealing

Great Books and Genre Books

Monday, July 27th, 2015

There is no great Science Fiction literature, John C. Wright admits — or, rather, great Science Fiction isn’t necessarily Great Art:

To be Great Art, the subject matter must meet Adler’s three criteria of timelessness, of rewarding infinite study, and of being relevant to the great conversation through history of the great ideas of the Western mind. But the execution must also be according to the highest standards of the art of which we speak.

[...]

I must emphasize that the science fiction value of the work proceeds, in my opinion, from different standards. Whether a science fiction book is good as science fiction depends on several things, of which I will here list the top three:

Scientific – Are the ideas extrapolations from real (or fairly realistic) science? SF gets points form me when it is based on something legitimately scientific, even if my personal taste runs more toward the softer end of the spectrum. Larry Nivens “Neutron Star” captures this criterion: despite the magic technology of hyperspace or invulnerable hulls, the problem and the solution in the tale is all legitimate, basic Newtonian physics.

Wonder – Does the work awe, terrify, or inspire the reader with the contemplation of the scientific view of the universe. A book that delivers this might be written in an unpalatable style with stiff and lifeless characters, but still win on sheer strength of its sense of wonder. GALACTIC PATROL by E.E. Doc Smith, and THE NIGHT LANDS by William Hope Hodgson fit into this category; so does NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR by Geo. Orwell.

Imagination – A good SF story is speculative in small things as well as in great. That is to say, given the counterfactual premise of the story, what details in the lives of the characters logically must also differ? If the author imagines the ramifications in greater detail than the reader, it is a better SF novel than one where he falls short. The Golden Age writers of John W. Campbell Jr.’s stable, for all their merits, were not good at this: some imagined future society would have remarkable technological changes, but the characters would still have to go downtown to make a long-distance phone call or send a telegram, the wife would be in the kitchen, and the porter on the train would be a black. When an author does it badly, the reader’s reaction is to slap his head and ask “Why not?” If these people can raise the dead, why not kill the sick and resurrect them in new bodies? If those people have teleportation, why not have your ‘house’ have a room on every continent? A whole book could be written on what Star Fleet in real life would do, if they had transporter technology, which they do not do on STAR TREK.

[...]

To sum up, these criteria are unrelated to the criteria for good literature. A books can have crummy characters, a weak plot full of wholes, or no plot at all, tin-eared dialog and cardboard characters, but if it is hard, wonderful, and imaginative, science fiction readers will rightly count it as a first class science fiction book for decades.

Small-Arms Overmatch

Sunday, July 26th, 2015

A former Ranger with experience commanding troops in Rhodesia and Namibia and then advising troops on the ground in El Salvador and Nicaragua explains what small-arms overmatch really comes down to:

When you’re close enough to engage the enemy with rifles and GPMGs, life is good. You don’t have to chase the rat bastards up hill and down dale dodging land mines and booby traps. No, they’re right over there, in range, and you get to KILL THEM. The units I commanded killed 147 by body count, for the loss of…..Zip, Zero, None. We lost more troops to vehicle crashes than to enemy small arms. The enemy were armed with the standard Soviet array, AKs, RPKs, PKs, and RPGs. We were armed with FN FALs and FN MAGs and yes we ate off the “overmatch”. We would engage them at a distance where their fire was not effective but ours was. And they died and we lived.

So, does this mean the 7.62 NATO round and its Belgian launch platforms are the answer? Well here’s where it gets tricky. The distance where their fire became ineffective was about thirty to forty meters. At or beyond that range they were going to shoot high, sometimes off toward the clouds high, sometimes cracking just over your head high, but high is high if your unit has the training and discipline to take advantage of it. And we did, our fire was effective out to about a hundred meters. Past that we too were just making noise, but inside that gap, and “overmatch” is as good a descriptive as any, we killed. Now I’m sure you’ve noted that every cartridge fired from any of the weapons mentioned above has, on paper, an effective range several times the engagement distances I’ve been talking about. Which, I believe is the point. Effective, killing fire from infantry weapons has very little to do with the weapons and cartridges used, it is almost entirely the result of the training and discipline the units bring to the fight.

The fault lies not in the stars, or in our cartridges, but in our doctrine, and tactics, and training and discipline. For what it’s worth.

Escape Dynamics

Sunday, July 26th, 2015

A typical chemical rocket is 90 percent fuel, with the remaining 10 percent split between payload and structure, so an externally powered launch vehicle — one powered by on-the-ground microwave transmitters — has certain advantages:

EDI’s external propulsion launch system will operate at a specific impulse above 750 s and this breakthrough increase in efficiency reduces the fraction of mass dedicated to propellant to less than 72%. The increase of 3x in the mass fraction dedicated to structure and payload for the first time opens doors for reusability and single-stage-to-orbit flight. Our first generation vehicle is optimized for 100-200 kg payloads and is designed to operate like an airplane: the vehicle flies into orbit, delivers the payload, re-enters the atmosphere after completing one or more orbits around Earth and lands back at the spaceport.

EDI External Propulsion

Key benefits of external propulsion:

  • Space launch vehicles become fully and rapidly reusable.
  • Cost per launch can eventually be reduced to $150 per kg.
  • The need for combustion is eliminated, leading to safer and simpler launch vehicles.
  • Useful payload fraction goes up from 1.5-3% to 8-12% and the structural mass is increased by 1.5-2x.
  • Small satellites can be launched as primary payloads allowing higher degree of flexibility for customers.
  • Space launch is effectively powered with electricity from the grid through a battery-storage system pioneered by the company, and in the long term can rely on renewable sources of energy.

Their white paper goes into more detail:

Escape Dynamics’ baseline technology uses a wireless energy transfer system based on millimeter-wave high power microwave sources. The baseline frequency is 92 GHz; however, other mm-wave frequencies (90-170GHz) are also considered. The energy is delivered to the moving vehicle via a phased array of antennas enclosed in proprietary side-lobe suppressing radomes, which ensure safety of the energy transfer.

Our baseline propulsion approach is a thermal thruster which uses hydrogen as a working fluid and a heat exchanger for coupling external microwave energy into the thermal energy of the hydrogen. External microwave energy is absorbed in a ceramic matrix composite (CMC) heat exchanger with dimensions of approximately 3m by 5m. The hydrogen is initially stored as a liquid in a cryogenic tank and is supplied to the heat exchanger via a turbopump designed to raise the hydrogen’s pressure to approximately 150atm. The hydrogen is heated to above 2000C as it flows through the heat exchanger and is exhausted through an aerospike nozzle optimized for a SSTO flight. The heat exchanger also serves as a primary component of the thermal protection system (TPS) during the return from orbit.

Want a good public education for your kids? Better be rich first.

Saturday, July 25th, 2015

Matthew Yglesias complains that you need to pay more to live in a neighborhood with good schools:

Look at this chart showing the correlation between the price of a family-size house and the reading proficiency scores in the local school (the outlier, Garrison, where the reading scores are terrible and the houses are expensive anyway is my neighborhood public school):

Test Scores vs. Home Prices in DC

It doesn’t take a socioeconomic genius to see the logical problem here, as many already have on Twitter:

The plot correlates a measure of a) how smart the students are vs. a result of b) how wealthy the parents are, binned by school. And lo and behold it reveals the (wholly unsurprising) fact that higher family wealth correlates with kids who do better on tests.

What’s that got to do with how ‘good’ the school actually is? (Unless of course by ‘good’ you mean something else entirely.)

Camouflage

Saturday, July 25th, 2015

Camouflage is “the disguising of military personnel, equipment, and installations by painting or covering them to make them blend in with their surroundings,” from the French:

Camouflage Word Origin

late 19th century (in sense ‘disguise, concealment’): French, from camoufler ‘to disguise’ (originally thieves’ slang), from Italian camuffare ‘disguise, deceive,’ perhaps by association with French camouflet ‘whiff of smoke in the face.’ The military sense originated during World War I.

Camouflage Word Use Over Time

So, a camoufleur would camoufler something, and this camouflage would deceive the enemy.

Camouflage New French Word

If the word had been borrowed earlier, we might all be camoofling our equipment today.