A Canticle for Leibowitz

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Lent started recently, and, by coincidence, I started reading A Canticle for Leibowitz, which opens with a monastic novice passing his Lenten vigil in the desert — in the 26th century, six centuries after the Flame Deluge has plunged civilization into a new Dark Age:

The text reveals that as a result of the war there was a violent backlash against the culture of advanced knowledge and technology that had led to the development of nuclear weapons. During this backlash, called the “Simplification,” anyone of learning, and eventually anyone who could even read, was likely to be killed by rampaging mobs, who proudly took on the name of “Simpletons”. Illiteracy became almost universal, and books were destroyed en masse.

Isaac Edward Leibowitz had been a Jewish electrical engineer working for the United States military. Surviving the war, he converted to Roman Catholicism and founded a monastic order, the “Albertian Order of Leibowitz”, dedicated to preserving knowledge by hiding books, smuggling them to safety (booklegging), memorizing, and copying them. The Order’s abbey is located in the American southwestern desert, near the military base where Leibowitz had worked before the war, on an old road that may have been “a portion of the shortest route from the Great Salt Lake to Old El Paso.” Leibowitz was eventually betrayed and martyred. Later beatified by the Roman Catholic Church, he became a candidate for sainthood.

Centuries after his death, the abbey is still preserving the “Memorabilia”, the collected writings that have survived the Flame Deluge and the Simplification, in the hope that they will help future generations reclaim forgotten science.

Recently, Robin Hanson called attention to William Grassie’s fuzzy-headed far view on surviving such a catastrophe, calling it not just fuzzy-headed but also amazingly wrong-headed, because it suggested that a single impractical book — Maps of Time — could preserve literacy.

That’s an odd complaint, I said, given that we know many, many people learned to read specifically to read one such “impractical” book, the Bible, and, as Canticle reminds us, the last time we needed to bootstrap society, we did it with the help of religious monasteries, which had retained many ancient texts and the ability to read them because they were tenuously connected to the Bible.

Today, especially amongst American Protestants-turned-agnostics, we look at the Catholic Church as an enemy of Truth and Progress — the Church silenced Galileo! — but through most of human history it served as a kind of Long Now Foundation, establishing rites and rituals that would sustain the Church and its traditions for generations and giving great thought to Big Questions.

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.

This ties in with Robert Nelson’s Reaching for Heaven on Earth, which, according to TWV, divides many great thinkers into two camps:

He calls his first category “the Roman tradition,” after both the empire and the Catholic Church. The thinkers he discusses under this rubric range from Aristotle to Paul Samuelson. “The leading figures of the Roman tradition,” he claims, “have not been the great revolutionaries of history, but men who typically saw moderation as a virtue and favored an incremental process of human development” (31). He lists 15 characteristic views of those in this tradition:
  1. The world is rational; nature, including man, is guided by the dictates of reason.
  2. The material and external world are the original and fundamental reality — not the world of the mind and ideas.
  3. Men are in principle capable of discovering and understanding the rationality of human existence.
  4. Systematic scientific investigation is required to uncover the rational laws of nature, demanding careful research and studies.
  5. Progress is found in gradual movement toward a natural and rational destiny.
  6. Valid law is natural law, which should govern humanity.
  7. Justice is what is rational, which is common to all.
  8. Because all humanity shares the same reason, all men are fundamentally equal.
  9. Life is lived to achieve happiness; a utilitarian goal is appropriate for mankind.
  10. Society is an organic community steered for the common good.
  11. Private property is a beneficial instrument of the common good.
  12. It is natural and just to pursue one’s self-interest.
  13. The poor are deserving: Society has the strong obligation to support them as fellow members of the community.
  14. Wisdom is found in moderation.
  15. This-worldy, commonsensical, and pragmatic attitudes best serve the needs of humanity.

Nelson’s second category is the “Protestant tradition,” which includes thinkers as diverse as Plato, Augustine, Karl Marx, and Herbert Spencer. For these thinkers, the moral status of law is “much less exalted…. Law is necessary in the Protestant tradition, but is merely a coercive device required to keep wicked men from doing still greater damage to one another. Indeed, all government is seen in this light, as a sinful product of man’s condition. Nevertheless, its decrees must be obeyed until God — or history — finally opens the way to a happier destiny” (55). Nelson’s list of characteristic Protestant views diverges dramatically from the Roman:

  1. The human condition in this world is deep alienation from original and true nature.
  2. Owing to man’s corrupted condition, reason is unreliable, often a source of delusion.
  3. Existing law is a corrupted product — like reason — of current human depravity.
  4. Justice is not to be found in the rational, but in the iron dictates of God or history.
  5. The ways of the world are revealed to men not through reason, but through revelation.
  6. True progress demands a revolutionary transformation of human existence.
  7. The current world is destined for sin; the triumph of virtue must await a heaven in the hereafter or the arrival of an earthly heaven.
  8. Mankind is divided among the saved and the condemned, the superior and the inferior groups.
  9. Life is lived not for happiness, but for disciplined labor in the service of God or history.
  10. Self-interest and economic competition exert an evil influence in the affairs of man.
  11. Communal living and common ownership are the highest form of existence.
  12. Government, like property, is a coercive social instrument designed to control sinful and unruly natures.
  13. The poor are responsible for their fate; society must not coddle them.
  14. Moderation is banality; pragmatism is a sign of weakness.
  15. The record of history is not progress, but retrogression, the fall of man.

Again, American Protestants-turned-agnostics tend to see the Catholic Church as similar to the Protestant Church, but with more silly rituals, when the key distinction through most of history has been the conservative, moderate nature of Catholicism versus the romantic, millennial nature of most Protestantism, at least in its origins.

Aretae recently mentioned that Tolstoy’s War and Peace helped him understand the entirely foreign worldview of an honest-to-goodness monarchist. I felt that Miller’s Canticle gave me a similar insight into Catholic monks — and reminded me that we may have torn down much of what the Church stood for, but we haven’t done a good job replacing it — which is why Peter Taylor recommends Yet Another Space Alien Cult. But we’ll get to that some other time.

Misanthropic Picture of the Fitness Scene

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Zdeno has painted a remarkably misanthropic picture of the fitness scene, and I said as much:

Certainly some people have turned the gym into a counterproductive soul-sucking obsession, but many others use their time there to meditate away from the distractions of the world, while aspiring toward physical excellence. Is that a tragic waste of time?

Agis III and Louis XVI

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Andrew Bisset argues that the strength of a nation lies in its small farmers, who are both hardy and motivated to fight for their land — unlike the idle rich or the landless poor, who arise as land becomes concentrated, as in later Sparta and pre-Revolutionary France:

The mode in which Lycurgus succeeded in giving to Sparta the strength which it long possessed in an eminent degree, was this: He created in the Spartan citizens “unrivalled habits of obedience, hardihood, self-denial, and military aptitude; complete subjection on the part of each individual to the local public opinion, and preference of .death to the abandonment of Spartan maxims; intense ambition on the part of every one to distinguish himself within the prescribed sphere of duties, with little ambition for anything else.” What Lycurgus did, was to impose a vigorous public discipline, with simple clothing and fare, incumbent alike upon the rich and the poor. This was his special gift to Greece, according to Thucydides, and his great point of contact with democracy, according to Aristotle.

But he took no pains either to restrain the further enrichment of the rich, or to prevent the further impoverishment of the poor; and such neglect is one of the capital defects for which Aristotle censures him. The philosopher also particularly notices the tendency of property at Sparta (from causes which it is unnecessary to specify here, but which, will be found enumerated in Mr. Grote’s History of Greece) to concentrate itself in fewer hands, unopposed by any legal hindrances.

By whatever means the process was effected, we know that in the time of Agis III., about 250 years before Christ, when all the land of Sparta was in a very small number of hands, when the citizens were few in number, and the bulk of them miserably poor, the old discipline and the public mess (as far as the rich were concerned) had degenerated into mere forms. The attempt of Agis to bring back the State to its ancient strength, by again admitting the disfranchised poor citizens, re-dividing the lands, cancelling all debts, and restoring the public mess and military training in all their strictness, though it failed — partly from the want of ability in the sincere enthusiast who undertook it, and his misconception of what Lycurgus had really done, partly from its being made too late — at least proves the state of degradation and decrepitude to which Sparta had then fallen, and indicates some of the chief causes of that decrepitude and degradation.

About two thousand years after Agis had paid with his own life, and the lives of his wife and mother, for the noble and patriotic, but treacherous dream of a regenerated country, the dream of Agis actually became reality, in a nation which was fast perishing under the evils of a government which, like that of Sparta, favoured an exceedingly unequal distribution of property. The French Revolution, amid many crimes, may certainly be said to have regenerated the French nation as Agis proposed to regenerate the Spartan nation, and by means nearly similar to those proposed by him.

It is remarkable, too, that the French king, Louis XVI., a man, like Agis, eminent for his virtues, met with the fate of Agis. As Agis, whose sincerity is attested by the fact that his own property and that of his female relatives, among the largest in the State, were cast in the first sacrifice into the common stock, became the dupe of unprincipled coadjutors, and perished in the vain attempt to realize his scheme by persuasion; so Louis, with probably as sincere a desire to do what was best for the French nation, perished, like Agis, through the intrigues of the unprincipled people about him. But, though the fate of Louis was like that of Agis, the fate of France was very different from that of Sparta.

What is our school system supposed to do?

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Aretae looks at human nature and education, which leads me to comment:

I’m not quite sure what our modern public school system is supposed to do.

I can understand a Prussian-style school, which instills discipline and teamwork, as a way to produce useful soldiers and factory workers — although I’d want my own child to go to the school for officers and managers.

I can understand a Sudbury Valley school, which emphasizes learning to learn, by following your own interests and becoming an expert in something — although I’d want my own child to build “character” by sometimes doing unpleasant work.

I can understand a school that’s just a glorified babysitter, which keeps kids out of trouble while their parents work productive jobs — although I wouldn’t want to waste my own child’s time and energy like that.

What I can’t understand is how our schools do nothing well. They don’t prepare kids for the work world. They don’t teach kids important abstract concepts. They don’t even entertain kids.

To Badly Go

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Don Boudreaux remarks that, to visit DC expecting to find people engaged in serious discussions of economics is like visiting a Star Trek convention expecting to find people engaged in serious discussions of astrophysics:

Perhaps a handful of the celebrities and costumed performers are familiar with real science, but their overwhelming object is not to help their public deal with reality but, rather, to escape it.

I preferred that remark in the original Klingon.

How a hobbit is rewriting the history of the human race

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

At first, researchers assumed that the “hobbit” of Flores was an island-dwarf variant of Homo erectus, but now it looks like Homo floresiensis descended directly from the also-tiny Australopithecus:

It sounds improbable but the basic physical similarity between the two species is striking. Consider Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old member of Australopithecus afarensis. She had a very small brain, primitive wrists, feet and teeth and was only one metre tall, but was still declared “the grandmother of humanity” after her discovery in Ethiopia in 1974. Crucially, analysis of Lucy’s skeleton shows it has great similarities with the bones of H. floresiensis, although her species died out millions of years ago while the hobbits hung on in Flores until about 17,000 years ago. This latter figure is staggeringly close in terms of recent human evolution and indicates that long after the Neanderthals, our closest evolutionary relatives, had disappeared from the face of the Earth around 35,000 years ago, these tiny, distant relatives of Homo sapiens were still living on remote Flores.

The crucial point about this interpretation is that it explains why the Flores people had such minuscule proportions. They didn’t shrink but were small from the start — because they came from a very ancient lineage of little apemen. They acquired no diseased deformities, nor did they evolve a smaller stature over time. They were, in essence, an anthropological relic and Flores was an evolutionary time capsule. In research that provides further support for this idea, scientists have recently dated some stone tools on Flores as being around 1.1 million years old, far older than had been previously supposed.

Killer Whale Kills Again

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

In this photo taken on Dec. 30, 2005, Dawn Brancheau, a whale trainer at SeaWorld Adventure Park, poses while performing. Brancheau was killed in an accident with a killer whale at the SeaWorld Shamu Stadium Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 24, 2010.Tilikum, a 30-year-old orca, or killer whale, has just killed its third human, Dawn Brancheau, one of the more experienced trainers at SeaWorld in Orlando:

Brancheau’s interaction with the whale appeared leisurely and informal at first to audience member Eldon Skaggs. But then, the whale “pulled her under and started swimming around with her,” Skaggs told The Associated Press.

The Right of Exit

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Arnold Kling argues that the right of exit is important in order to limit government power:

I sometimes think that what kept the U.S. government small in the early 19th century was not so much the Constitution as the fact that people kept leaving the then-current United States for adjacent territories. The option to exit would have made it quite difficult for government to grow large and intrusive.

Eliminate the Safety Director

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

The way to improve safety is to eliminate the Safety Director:

More years ago than I care to admit I became a plant manager at the ripe age of 29 with a mandate to fix a serious safety problem. I worked at it night and day in every way I could and after a few months, had absolutely no improvement to show for my efforts. After an epiphany moment, I decided to eliminate the Safety Director’s position — not fire him — just eliminate the position. He was a great guy — very hard working and knowledgeable. I just came to the conclusion that the problem was the position. As long as there was a Safety Director, safety was his responsibility. Once the job was gone, safety clearly became the responsibility of everyone else.

The stupidity of government do-gooder regulators

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

The stupidity of government do-gooder regulators was highlighted for Eric Falkenstein last weekend:

My wife doesn’t work, staying home with our 2 year-old Izzie. She would often go to our health club after our boys are at school, around 9 AM, where there is a childcare facility and she can have a leisurely workout. She found they needed help, and she knows people there, so she works there part time, around 4-hour shifts, while Izzie is in childcare. She enjoys the break from the kids, the adult comaraderie, and Izzie has fun playing with other kids in a room just down the hall from my wife. Yet last weekend OSHA, the US agency that ‘regulates workplace safety’ determined that this could not stand, because the health club’s child care center was not licensed for such service (greater than 2 hours). Supposedly, they would need some extra-special licensed childcare, which would then be too expensive to the club. So, because some bureaucrat decided they would save workers from the evils of firm childcare, the health club loses out on my wife’s cheap labor, my wife loses out on some quality no-kid/adult time, and Izzie loses out on playing with her snot-nosed buddies. Lose-lose-lose.

Aquaponics

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Aquaponics combines hydroponics (or water-based planting) and aquaculture (fish cultivation):

What feeds his winter crop of lettuce is recirculating water from the 150-gallon fish tank and the waste generated by his 20 jumbo goldfish. Wastewater is what fertilizes the 27 strawberry plants from last summer, too. They occupy little cubbies in a seven-foot-tall PVC pipe. When the temperature begins to climb in the spring, he will plant the rest of the gravel containers with beans, peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers — all the things many other gardeners grow outside.

In here, though, the yields are otherworldly. “We actually kept a tally of how many cherry tomatoes we grew,” Mr. Torcellini said of last summer’s crop. “And from one plant, it was 347.” A trio of cucumber plants threw off 175 cukes.

A low-tech, low-cost barrel-ponics system can be built out of three 55-gallon barrels, a pump, a wooden frame and some off-the-shelf hardware:

One barrel, which sits on the ground, holds the fish. A second — split in half and filled with gravel — holds the plants. The final barrel, a storage or flush tank, perches above the other two like a toilet tank. The effluent-rich water that flows from one receptacle to the next is the life of the system, flooding the plants with nutrients and then trickling back into the fish tank.

Justice and Humanity

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

The Spartan system of training cultivated hardihood and patriotism, but it did not cultivate justice and humanity:

On the contrary, in their aggressions on other States, and in their treatment of the races which they had subjected, they practised combinations of injustice, fraud, and atrocity, which, as Mr. Grote has observed, “even yet stand without parallel in the long list of precautions for fortifying unjust dominion.”

And this indicates another leading defect in the Spartan institutions, which was the opposite extreme to the leading defect of the Athenian government. As the ruin of the Athenian government arose, as we shall see, from an excess of talk in the shape of long harangues, instead of dialectical discussion, one great evil in the Spartan government arose from an absence of all public discussion whatever: for the Spartan character was of an eminently unintellectual type; destitute even of the rudiments of letters, rendered savage and fierce by exclusive and overdone bodily discipline, and, if possessing many of the qualities requisite to procure dominion, possessing none of those calculated to render dominion popular or salutary to the subject.

This anti-intellectualism wasn’t just a moral failing:

This intellectual defect of the Spartan character becomes more striking, when we find that it rendered all their excellent bodily training unavailing against inferior bodily training, where the inferiority was compensated by the leadership of a great and commanding mind. For the bodily training at Sparta combined strength and agility with universal aptitude and endurance, and steered clear of that mistake by which Thebes and other cities impaired the effect of their gymnastics — the attempt to create an athletic habit suited for the games, but suited for nothing else. Yet Thebes, by the aid of one great mind leading her councils and commanding her armies, gave Sparta an overthrow from which she never recovered — from which, indeed, the weak part of her system, particularly the accumulation of the land in very few hands, rendered it impossible for her to recover.

In a society so eminently unintellectual as that of Sparta, it may be pronounced impossible for a firstrate general to be produced. It may be true that great generals are born, not made: but their genius requires an atmosphere somewhat intellectual for its development; and we hear nothing of great generals (if such there are) born among savages. The Spartan training did, indeed, include the cunning as well as the hardihood and ferocity of the savage. But the strategy of a great general must soar somewhat beyond the cunning of an ordinary savage, or even of a Spartan. Indeed, two of the greatest generals the world has yet seen, the one in ancient, the other in modern times, were philosophers as well as generals and statesmen. The first gained the battle of Leuctra, the second the battle of Leuthen, both acting on the same strategical principle.

The principle upon which Epaminondas acted at Leuctra and Mantinea, and Frederick at Rosbach and Leuthen, consisted in bringing a superiority of numbers to bear upon a particular point, and by defeating that part, and driving it in upon the rest, throwing into confusion and defeating the whole. The way in which Epaminondas explained this principle to the Thebans, who stood somewhat in awe of the acknowledged military superiority of the Spartans, was this: having taken an adder of the largest size, he showed it to them; and then, in their presence having shattered the head of the animal, he said, ” You see that the rest of the body is useless, the head being gone. So is it with the head of our enemies; if we break to pieces the Spartan part, the rest of the body, consisting of their allies, will be
useless.”

The Fallacy of Gray

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Marc Stiegler describes The Fallacy of Gray in David’s Sling:

The Sophisticate: “The world isn’t black and white. No one does pure good or pure bad. It’s all gray. Therefore, no one is better than anyone else.”

The Zetet: “Knowing only gray, you conclude that all grays are the same shade. You mock the simplicity of the two-color view, yet you replace it with a one-color view…”

Asimov describes a similar concept, The Relativity of Wrong:

When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

Utilities Are Slow to Make the Most of Smart Meters

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Utilities are slow to make the most of smart meters — which measure not just cumulative electricity usage but when that electricity gets used — because consumers don’t understand the economics of electricity:

By making variable pricing plans possible, smart meters are expected to play a big role in getting customers to reduce their peak-hour energy consumption, a key goal of utility executives and policy makers. Electricity grids are sized to meet the maximum electricity need, so a drop in peak demand would let utilities operate with fewer expensive power plants, meaning they could provide electricity at a lower cost and with less pollution.

Utilities have run dozens of pilot tests of digital meters and found that people cut power consumption the most when faced with higher peak-hour rates. But utility executives and regulators have been reluctant to implement rate plans that penalize people for too much energy use, fearing that if customers associate smart meters with higher bills, they will stall the technology’s advance just as it is gaining traction. Only about 5% of U.S. electric meters are “smart” today, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, but that figure is expected to grow to about one-third in the next five years.

So, many utilities are trying an approach that is less controversial, but also less effective: offering rebates to customers who conserve energy in key periods of the day. By doing things like turning off clothes dryers and adjusting air conditioners on hot summer afternoons, customers earn credits that can reduce their electricity bills.
[...]
Pacific Gas & Electric Co., a unit of PG&E Corp., got a taste of the public-relations risk last summer when it installed smart meters in Bakersfield, Calif., as part of a broad upgrade in its Northern California service territory. When customers — who weren’t participating in any sort of experimental rate plan — received dramatically higher bills shortly afterward, they blamed the meters for what they assumed was faulty billing. The San Francisco utility investigated and concluded that the meters were functioning properly. It found that the higher bills were simply a case of unfortunate timing: An increase in conventional rates had taken effect just ahead of unseasonably hot temperatures.
[...]
Pepco Holdings Inc. recently did a pilot test in Washington, D.C., of three rate plans designed to gauge how customers respond to different price signals. One plan pegged the price, which ranged from a penny to 37 cents a kilowatt-hour, to the wholesale cost of electricity. One charged a “critical peak price” of 75 cents a kilowatt-hour during certain hours on a handful of days, and 11 cents per kwh at other times. The final plan gave customers 75 cents for each kilowatt-hour of energy saved and charged 11 cents per kwh for power used.

Results showed that people responded most when threatened with the 75-cent-per-kwh peak pricing. Those customers cut their overall energy consumption between 22% and 34%, depending on whether they also had programmable thermostats that could automatically change temperature settings. Customers offered rebates reduced their usage 9% to 15% — again, with the deeper cuts among those who had smart thermostats.

Despite evidence that sticks are better motivators than carrots, the utility intends to offer rebates in the future in an effort to change behavior. “Our general sense is that consumers would prefer a rate structure with no downside,” says Steven Sunderhauf, a program manager for Pepco. “From a purist’s standpoint, I may prefer critical peak pricing because it gets the boldest response… but using rebates will help people get comfortable with smart meters.”

Electricity demand varies tremendously throughout the day and throughout the year, but electricity capacity is largely fixed and very expensive — more than $1,000 per kilowatt.

So an off-peak kilowatt-hour — a constant kilowatt of energy usage from, say, 1:00 AM to 2:00 AM — costs the utility the price of one kilowatt-hour’s fuel, but a peak kilowatt-hour — a constant kilowatt of energy usage from, say, 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM, on the hottest day of the summer — costs the utility the price of one kilowatt-hour’s fuel plus an extra $1,000 to increase capacity.

Imagine getting that electricity bill in the mail in September! Instead, you get a blackout. And you pay high prices all year round, night and day.

Quoits

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Andrew Bisset explains how the Greeks maintained their strength:

The Greeks in their early and healthy state paid the greatest possible attention to the cultivation of bodily strength and activity by instituting public contests in running, leaping, wrestling, boxing, and throwing the quoit. And it is not unworthy of note that the prize was made of small value that the combatants might be animated by the love of distinction not of sordid gain.

Wait, quoits?

On its website, the United States Quoiting Association explains that poorer citizens in ancient Greece, who could not afford to buy a real discus, made their own by bending horseshoes — which in those days weighed as much as 4 pounds each. The practice was adopted by the Roman army and spread across mainland Europe to Britain.

The aim of the sport remained as a competition to see who could throw the object the furthest, until at some later, undocumented point in history, perhaps around a few centuries A.D., the idea of using a wooden stake or metal pin driven into the ground, to use specifically as a target to throw at, totally redefined the pastime from a game of distance to a game of accuracy.