The Disheveled Old Mystic of Das Kapital

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

You can quickly see why Heinlein’s Starship Troopers would get labelled fascist — it mocks communism:

He had been droning along about “value,” comparing the Marxist theory with the orthodox “use” theory. Mr. Dubois had said, “Of course, the Marxian definition of value is ridiculous. All the work one cares to add will not turn a mud pie into an apple tart; it remains a mud pie, value zero. By corollary, unskillful work can easily subtract value; an untalented cook can turn wholesome dough and fresh green apples, valuable already, into an inedible mess, value zero. Conversely, a great chef can fashion of those same materials a confection of greater value than a commonplace apple tart, with no more effort than an ordinary cook uses to prepare an ordinary sweet.

“These kitchen illustrations demolish the Marxian theory of value — the fallacy from which the entire magnificent fraud of communism derives — and to illustrate the truth of the common-sense definition as measured in terms of use.”

Dubois had waved his stump at us. “Nevertheless — wake up, back there! — nevertheless the disheveled old mystic of Das Kapital, turgid, tortured, confused, and neurotic, unscientific, illogical, this pompous fraud Karl Marx, nevertheless had a glimmering of a very important truth. If he had possessed an analytical mind, he might have formulated the first adequate definition of value… and this planet might have been saved endless grief.

“Or might not,” he added. “You!”

I had sat up with a jerk.

“If you can’t listen, perhaps you can tell the class whether ‘value’ is a relative, or an absolute?”

I had been listening; I just didn’t see any reason not to listen with eyes closed and spine relaxed. But his question caught me out; I hadn’t read that day’s assignment. “An absolute,” I answered, guessing.

“Wrong,” he said coldly. ” ‘Value’ has no meaning other than in relation to living beings. The value of a thing is always relative to a particular person, is completely personal and different in quantity for each living human — ‘market value’ is a fiction, merely a rough guess at the average of personal values, all of which must be quantitatively different or trade would be impossible.” (I had wondered what Father would have said if he had heard “market value” called a “fiction” — snort in disgust, probably.)

“This very personal relationship, ‘value,’ has two factors for a human being: first, what he can do with a thing, its use to him… and second, what he must do to get it, its cost to him. There is an old song which asserts that ‘the best things in life are free.’ Not true! Utterly false! This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted… and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.

“Nothing of value is free. Even the breath of life is purchased at birth only through gasping effort and pain.” He had been still looking at me and added, “If you boys and girls had to sweat for your toys the way a newly born baby has to struggle to live you would be happier… and much richer. As it is, with some of you, I pity the poverty of your wealth. You! I’ve just awarded you the prize for the hundred-meter dash. Does it make you happy?”

“Uh, I suppose it would.”

“No dodging, please. You have the prize — here, I’ll write it out: ‘Grand prize for the championship, one hundred-meter sprint.’ ” He had actually come back to my seat and pinned it on my chest. “There! Are you happy? You value it — or don’t you?”

I was sore. First that dirty crack about rich kids — a typical sneer of those who haven’t got it — and now this farce. I ripped it off and chucked it at him.
Mr. Dubois had looked surprised. “It doesn’t make you happy?”

“You know darn well I placed fourth!”

“Exactly! The prize for first place is worthless to you… because you haven’t earned it. But you enjoy a modest satisfaction in placing fourth; you earned it. I trust that some of the somnambulists here understood this little morality play. I fancy that the poet who wrote that song meant to imply that the best things in life must be purchased other than with money — which is true — just as the literal meaning of his words is false. The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion… and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself — ultimate cost for perfect value.”

(From ChapterVI, page 75 in my old paperback edition.)

Violence Never Solves Anything

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Heinlein’s Starship Troopers presents many ideas through Mr. Dubois:

I thought about it during the last session of our class in History and Moral Philosophy. H. & M. P. was different from other courses in that everybody had to take it but nobody had to pass it — and Mr. Dubois never seemed to care whether he got through to us or not. He would just point at you with the stump of his left arm (he never bothered with names) and snap a question. Then the argument would start.

But on the last day he seemed to be trying to find out what we had learned. One girl told him bluntly: “My mother says that violence never settles anything.”

“So?” Mr. Dubois looked at her bleakly. “I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that. Why doesn’t your mother tell them so? Or why don’t you?”

They had tangled before — since you couldn’t flunk the course, it wasn’t necessary to keep Mr. Dubois buttered up. She said shrilly, “You’re making fun of me! Everybody knows that Carthage was destroyed!”

“You seemed to be unaware of it,” he said grimly. “Since you do know it, wouldn’t you say that violence had settled their destinies rather thoroughly? However, I was not making fun of you personally; I was heaping scorn on an inexcusably silly idea — a practice I shall always follow. Anyone who clings to the historically untrue — and thoroughly immoral — doctrine that `violence never settles anything’ I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and of the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.”

He sighed. “Another year, another class — and, for me, another failure. One can lead a child to knowledge but one cannot make him think.”

(From Chapter II — page 24 in my old paperback edition.)

History and Moral Philosophy of Puppy Housebreaking

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

In reference to Foseti’s theory of crime and punishment, Winchell Chung just mentioned this passage from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers:

I found myself mulling over a discussion in our class in History and Moral Philosophy. Mr. Dubois was talking about the disorders that preceded the breakup of the North American republic, back in the XXth century.

According to him, there was a time just before they went down the drain when such crimes as Dillinger’s were as common as dogfights. The Terror had not been just in North America — Russia and the British Isles had it, too, as well as other places. But it reached its peak in North America shortly before things went to pieces.

“Law-abiding people,” Dubois had told us, “hardly dared go into a public park at night. To do so was to risk attack by wolf packs of children, armed with chains, knives, homemade guns, bludgeons… to be hurt at least, robbed most certainly, injured for life probably — or even killed.

This went on for years, right up to the war between the Russo-Anglo-American Alliance and the Chinese Hegemony. Murder, drug addiction, larceny, assault, and vandalism were commonplace. Nor were parks the only places — these things happened also on the streets in daylight, on school grounds, even inside school buildings. But parks were so notoriously unsafe that honest people stayed clear of them after dark.”

I had tried to imagine such things happening in our schools. I simply couldn’t. Nor in our parks. A park was a place for fun, not for getting hurt. As for getting killed in one — “Mr. Dubois, didn’t they have police? Or courts?”

“They had many more police than we have. And more courts. All overworked.”

“I guess I don’t get it.” If a boy in our city had done anything half that bad… well, he and his father would have been flogged side by side.

But such things just didn’t happen.

Mr. Dubois then demanded of me, “Define a ‘juvenile delinquent.’ ”

“Uh, one of those kids — the ones who used to beat up people.”


“Huh? But the book said — ”

“My apologies. Your textbook does so state. But calling a tail a leg does not make the name fit ‘Juvenile delinquent’ is a contradiction in terms, one which gives a clue to their problem and their failure to solve it. Have you ever raised a puppy?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you housebreak him?”

“Err… yes, sir. Eventually.” It was my slowness in this that caused my mother to rule that dogs must stay out of the house.

“Ah, yes. When your puppy made mistakes, were you angry?”

“What? Why, he didn’t know any better; he was just a puppy.

“What did you do?”

“Why, I scolded him and rubbed his nose in it and paddled him.”

“Surely he could not understand your words?”

“No, but he could tell I was sore at him!”

“But you just said that you were not angry.”

Mr. Dubois had an infuriating way of getting a person mixed up. “No, but I had to make him think I was. He had to learn, didn’t he?”

“Conceded. But, having made it clear to him that you disapproved, how could you be so cruel as to spank him as well? You said the poor beastie didn’t know that he was doing wrong. Yet you indicted pain. Justify yourself! Or are you a sadist?”

I didn’t then know what a sadist was — but I knew pups. “Mr. Dubois, you have to! You scold him so that he knows he’s in trouble, you rub his nose in it so that he will know what trouble you mean, you paddle him so that he darn well won’t do it again — and you have to do it right away! It doesn’t do a bit of good to punish him later; you’ll just confuse him. Even so, he won’t learn from one lesson, so you watch and catch him again and paddle him still harder. Pretty soon he learns. But it’s a waste of breath just to scold him.” Then I added, “I guess you’ve never raised pups.”

“Many. I’m raising a dachshund now — by your methods. Let’s get back to those juvenile criminals. The most vicious averaged somewhat younger than you here in this class… and they often started their lawless careers much younger. Let us never forget that puppy. These children were often caught; police arrested batches each day. Were they scolded? Yes, often scathingly. Were their noses rubbed in it? Rarely. News organs and officials usually kept their names secret — in many places the law so required for criminals under eighteen. Were they spanked? Indeed not! Many had never been spanked even as small children; there was a widespread belief that spanking, or any punishment involving pain, did a child permanent psychic damage.”

(I had reflected that my father must never have heard of that theory.)

“Corporal punishment in schools was forbidden by law,” he had gone on.

“Flogging was lawful as sentence of court only in one small province, Delaware, and there only for a few crimes and was rarely invoked; it was regarded as ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ ” Dubois had mused aloud, “I do not understand objections to ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment. While a judge should be benevolent in purpose, his awards should cause the criminal to suffer, else there is no punishment — and pain is the basic mechanism built into us by millions of years of evolution which safeguards us by warning when something threatens our survival. Why should society refuse to use such a highly perfected survival mechanism? However, that period was loaded with pre-scientific pseudo-psychological nonsense.

“As for ‘unusual,’ punishment must be unusual or it serves no purpose.” He then pointed his stump at another boy. “What would happen if a puppy were spanked every hour?”

“Uh… probably drive him crazy!”

“Probably. It certainly will not teach him anything. How long has it been since the principal of this school last had to switch a pupil?”

“Uh, I’m not sure. About two years. The kid that swiped — ”

“Never mind. Long enough. It means that such punishment is so unusual as to be significant, to deter, to instruct. Back to these young criminals — They probably were not spanked as babies; they certainly were not flogged for their crimes. The usual sequence was: for a first offense, a warning — a scolding, often without trial. After several offenses a sentence of confinement but with sentence suspended and the youngster placed on probation. A boy might be arrested many times and convicted several times before he was punished — and then it would be merely confinement, with others like him from whom he learned still more criminal habits. If he kept out of major trouble while confined, he could usually evade most of even that mild punishment, be given probation — ‘paroled’ in the jargon of the times.

“This incredible sequence could go on for years while his crimes increased in frequency and viciousness, with no punishment whatever save rare dull-but-comfortable confinements. Then suddenly, usually by law on his eighteenth birthday, this so-called ‘juvenile delinquent’ becomes an adult criminal — and sometimes wound up in only weeks or months in a death cell awaiting execution for murder. You — ”

He had singled me out again. “Suppose you merely scolded your puppy, never punished him, let him go on making messes in the house… and occasionally locked him up in an outbuilding but soon let him back into the house with a warning not to do it again. Then one day you notice that he is now a grown dog and still not housebroken — whereupon you whip out a gun and shoot him dead. Comment, please?”

“Why… that’s the craziest way to raise a dog I ever heard of!”

“I agree. Or a child. Whose fault would it be?”

“Uh… why, mine, I guess.”

“Again I agree. But I’m not guessing.”

“Mr. Dubois,” a girl blurted out, “but why? Why didn’t they spank little kids when they needed it and use a good dose of the strap on any older ones who deserved it — the sort of lesson they wouldn’t forget! I mean ones who did things really bad. Why not?”

“I don’t know,” he had answered grimly, “except that the time-tested method of instilling social virtue and respect for law in the minds of the young did not appeal to a pre-scientific pseudo-professional class who called themselves ‘social workers’ or sometimes ‘child psychologists.’ It was too simple for them, apparently, since anybody could do it, using only the patience and firmness needed in training a puppy. I have sometimes wondered if they cherished a vested interest in disorder — but that is unlikely; adults almost always act from conscious ‘highest motives’ no matter what their behavior.”

“But — good heavens!” the girl answered. “I didn’t like being spanked any more than any kid does, but when I needed it, my mama delivered. The only time I ever got a switching in school I got another one when I got home and that was years and years ago. I don’t ever expect to be hauled up in front of a judge and sentenced to a flogging; you behave yourself and such things don’t happen. I don’t see anything wrong with our system; it’s a lot better than not being able to walk outdoors for fear of your life — why, that’s horrible!”

“I agree. Young lady, the tragic wrongness of what those well-meaning people did, contrasted with what they thought they were doing, goes very deep. They had no scientific theory of morals. They did have a theory of morals and they tried to live by it (I should not have sneered at their motives) but their theory was wrong — half of it fuzzy-headed wishful thinking, half of it rationalized charlatanry. The more earnest they were, the farther it led them astray. You see, they assumed that Man has a moral instinct.”

“Sir? But I thought — But he does! I have.”

“No, my dear, you have a cultivated conscience, a most carefully trained one. Man has no moral instinct. He is not born with moral sense. You were not born with it, I was not — and a puppy has none. We acquire moral sense, when we do, through training, experience, and hard sweat of the mind.

These unfortunate juvenile criminals were born with none, even as you and I, and they had no chance to acquire any; their experiences did not permit it. What is ‘moral sense’? It is an elaboration of the instinct to survive. The instinct to survive is human nature itself, and every aspect of our personalities derives from it. Anything that conflicts with the survival instinct acts sooner or later to eliminate the individual and thereby fails to show up in future generations. This truth is mathematically demonstrable, everywhere verifiable; it is the single eternal imperative controlling everything we do.”

“But the instinct to survive,” he had gone on, “can be cultivated into motivations more subtle and much more complex than the blind, brute urge of the individual to stay alive. Young lady, what you miscalled your ‘moral instinct’ was the instilling in you by your elders of the truth that survival can have stronger imperatives than that of your own personal survival. Survival of your family, for example. Of your children, when you have them. Of your nation, if you struggle that high up the scale. And so on up. A scientifically verifiable theory of morals must be rooted in the individual’s instinct to survive — and nowhere else! — and must correctly describe the hierarchy of survival, note the motivations at each level, and resolve all conflicts.”

“We have such a theory now; we can solve any moral problem, on any level. Self-interest, love of family, duty to country, responsibility toward the human race — we are even developing an exact ethic for extra-human relations. But all moral problems can be illustrated by one misquotation: ‘Greater love hath no man than a mother cat dying to defend her kittens.’ Once you understand the problem facing that cat and how she solved it, you will then be ready to examine yourself and learn how high up the moral ladder you are capable of climbing.

“These juvenile criminals hit a low level. Born with only the instinct for survival, the highest morality they achieved was a shaky loyalty to a peer group, a street gang. But the do-gooders attempted to ‘appeal to their better natures,’ to ‘reach them,’ to ‘spark their moral sense.’ Tosh! They had no ‘better natures’; experience taught them that what they were doing was the way to survive. The puppy never got his spanking; therefore what he did with pleasure and success must be ‘moral.’

“The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to individual. Nobody preached duty to these kids in a way they could understand — that is, with a spanking. But the society they were in told them endlessly about their ‘rights.’ ”

“The results should have been predictable, since a human being has no natural rights of any nature.”

Mr. Dubois had paused. Somebody took the bait. “Sir? How about ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’?”

“Ah, yes, the ‘unalienable rights.’ Each year someone quotes that magnificent poetry. Life? What ‘right’ to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What ‘right’ to life has a man who must die if he is to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of ‘right’? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man’s right is ‘unalienable’? And is it ‘right’? As to liberty, the heroes who signed that great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called ‘natural human rights’ that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.

“The third ‘right’? — the ‘pursuit of happiness’? It is indeed unalienable but it is not a right; it is simply a universal condition which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore. Cast me into a dungeon, burn me at the stake, crown me king of kings, I can ‘pursue happiness’ as long as my brain lives — but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can insure that I will catch it.”

Mr. Dubois then turned to me. “I told you that ‘juvenile delinquent’ is a contradiction in terms. ‘Delinquent’ means ‘failing in duty.’ But duty is an adult virtue — indeed a juvenile becomes an adult when, and only when, he acquires a knowledge of duty and embraces it as dearer than the self-love he was born with. There never was, there cannot be a ‘juvenile delinquent.’ But for every juvenile criminal there are always one or more adult delinquents — people of mature years who either do not know their duty, or who, knowing it, fail.”

“And that was the soft spot which destroyed what was in many ways an admirable culture. The junior hoodlums who roamed their streets were symptoms of a greater sickness; their citizens (all of them counted as such) glorified their mythology of ‘rights’… and lost track of their duties. No nation, so constituted, can endure.”

(That’s from Chapter VIII, pages 90–96 in my old paperback edition.)

What’s your favorite Heinlein novel?

Monday, July 19th, 2010

Tor Books is about to release the first-ever authorized biography of Robert Heinlein, and they’ve asked a number of SF authors the obvious question, What’s your favorite Heinlein novel?.

David Brin picks a not-so-obvious answer, Beyond This Horizon:

I consider Robert Heinlein’s most fascinating novel to be his prescriptive utopia Beyond This Horizon. (A prescriptive utopia is where an author “prescribes” what he or she believes a better civilization would look like.) While Heinlein did opine, extensively, about society in many books, from Starship Troopers to Glory Road, it is in Beyond This Horizon (BTH) that you’ll find him clearly stating This Is The Way Things Ought To Be. And it turns out to be a fascinating, surprisingly nuanced view of our potential future.

I haven’t read Beyond This Horizon, but it seems like an odd mix of ideas: eugenics leading to superhumans with telepathy; an armed, and thus polite, society; a post-scarcity economy, where work has become optional; and reincarnation.

Apparently Heinlein’s approach to eugenics is now known as the Heinlein solution:

I was amazed by many other aspects of this wonderful book-within-a-book, especially by Heinlein’s startlingly simple suggestion for how to deal with the moral quandaries of genetic engineering — what’s now called the “Heinlein Solution” — to allow couples to select which sperm and ova they want to combine into a child, but to forbid actually altering the natural human genome. Thus, the resulting child, while “best” in many ways (free of any disease genes, etc), will still be one that the couple might have had naturally. Gradual human improvement, without any of the outrageously hubristic meddling that wise people rightfully fear. It is a proposal so insightful that biologists 40 years later are only now starting to discuss what may turn out to be Heinlein’s principal source of fame, centuries from now.

G20 Looter Gets Owned

Monday, July 5th, 2010

I don’t know if this counts as “owning” a looter during the G20 Toronto Riots, but it’s a step in the right direction:

My inner-Heinlein wants to cycle such “anarchist” looters through the nearest airlock.

(Hat tip to Kalim Kassam.)

The Machinery of Freedom

Friday, June 18th, 2010

David Friedman has posted a pirated copy of his own anarcho-capitalist book, The Machinery of Freedom, in PDF format:

Since he felt free to pirate my work, I think it only fair to free ride on his effort scanning the book in.

The book is dedicated to Miltion Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Robert A. Heinlein, and Robert M. Schuchman.

It’s Not Monolithic

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Anyone who actually believes that the entire scientific community is embroiled in a monolithic AGW conspiracy is an idiot, Eric S. Raymond says — because it’s not monolithic:

There are a lot of players in this dance. I’ll round up a few.

First, the scientists. Most are caught up in, or struggling against, an error cascade of humongous proportions. What’s an error cascade? Somebody gave one of the type examples upthread, over the mass of the electron. This is not conspiracy, it’s a result of a tendency to use seniority or authority as a shortcut when it’s technically difficult to evaluate evidence and socially difficult to be skeptical. All humans do this, even scientists.

Next, the Gaianists — term I made up for people in whom “Save the Earth!” has psychologically substituted for traditional religion (in more or less chiliastic forms). They mean well, they really do; they recycle as an act of virtue, they worry about composting and buying local produce — and they’re totally subject to being manipulated by the other players, which is important since most of the action is going on in democracies. They’re not usually manipulated directly by the scientists, except occasionally a very wealthy one (er, think millionaire) might get hit up for funding. The Gaianists aren’t a conspiracy; they’re not organized enough. There’s some overlap with the scientists at the non-chiliastic end of this group.

Next, the green-shirts. These are political hacks of all varieties who just love the ideas of more carbon taxes, more regulation, and the general expansion of state power, especially if they can posture as virtuous eco-saviors while they’re arranging this. They’re not a conspiracy either, just a bunch of careerists who compete for the Gaianists as a voting bloc. They sometimes behave a bit like a conspiracy, but only because their behavioral incentives tend to push them all in the same direction. Er, they’re not scientists. They’re Al Gore, or they’d like to be, only with political power too.
My model of what’s been going on is basically this: The hockey team starts an error cascade that sweeps up a lot of scientists. The AGW meme awakens chiliastic emotional responses in a lot of Gaianists. The zombies and the green-shirts grab onto that quasi-religious wave as a political strategem (the difference is that the zombies actively want to trash capitalism, while the green-shirts just want to hobble and milk it). Pro-AGW scientists get more funding from the green-shirts within governments, which reinforces the error cascade — it’s easier not to question when your grant money would be at risk for doing so. After a few times around this cycle, the hockey team notices it’s riding a tiger and starts on the criminal-conspiracy stuff so it will never have to risk getting off.

Overall, is this conspiracy? No. Mostly it’s just people responding to short-term incentives, unaware that they’re caught up in an error cascade and/or being politically fucked around. Nobody involved is what you could reasonably call evil…well, except for the zombies. It would be pretty evil if the hockey team had planned all this, but I’m not cynical enough to believe that. Not yet, anyway, but I haven’t read all the emails either.

OK, now it’s months later and I’ve read enough of the emails to be fairly sure that the “team” did not in fact plan all this. Nor, I’m pretty sure, did the green-shirts or the zombies; they merely exploited an opportunity to do what they wanted to do anyway. The key point — and the reason the AGW frauds need to be shamed and punished — is that the political background conditions favoring this kind of fraud are still in place.

Since the political background conditions favoring this kind of fraud are still in place, Raymond expects to see another fraud soon — endocrine disruptors are a good bet.

This is why Aretae thinks Raymond should appear in a Heinlein novel:

The most effective way to prevent a recurrence is for there to be real penalties — political, social, and criminal — attached to playing the environmental-panic con game. It’s not a good outcome for any of us if the scientists who committed criminal data fraud and denied FOIA requests get a soft landing to positions elsewhere in academia. And the green-shirts who used that fraud as cover for their ambitions should absolutely be hounded out of public life so that politics in future will be a bit less toxic.

As for the zombies — well, hanging them all from lamp-posts would be ideal, but distinguishing them from their more-or-less innocent dupes is difficult. At least, by destroying the reputations of everyone who promoted this fraud, we might impair the zombies’ past ability to operate Gaianist organizations like so many sock puppets.

The most optimistic take on the long-term outcome is that the collapse of the AGW fraud might at least partially immunize us against future attacks of environmental junk science. I wish I were in fact that optimistic, but I’m not. In any case, a round of public excruciations of the villains in this one is certainly called for, pour encourager les autres.

Trooper in a Strange Land

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

I did not realize that Heinlein was in the middle of writing his “hippie” classic, Stranger in a Strange Land, when he decided to write his “fascist” classic, Starship Troopers:

When Robert A. Heinlein opened his Colorado Springs newspaper on April 5, 1958, he read a full-page ad demanding that the Eisenhower administration stop testing nuclear weapons. The science-fiction author was flabbergasted. He called for the formation of the Patrick Henry League and spent the next several weeks writing and publishing his own polemic that lambasted “Communist-line goals concealed in idealistic-sounding nonsense” and urged Americans not to become “soft-headed.”

Then Heinlein made an important professional decision. He quit writing the manuscript he had been working on — eventually it would become one of his best-known books, Stranger in a Strange Land — and started work on a new novel. Starship Troopers was published the next year, and it quickly became perhaps the most controversial sci-fi tale of all time. Critics labeled Heinlein everything from a Nazi to a racist. “The ‘Patrick Henry’ ad shocked ’em,” he wrote many years later. “Starship Troopers outraged ’em.”

In Defense of James Cameron

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Steve Sailer loved Terminator and Aliens, and he’s a bit of a contrarian, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when he wrote a piece in defense of James Cameron — but calling Cameron a worthy successor to the greatest American science fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) strikes me as going a bit too far:

Heinlein’s thumbprints can be found all over Avatar’s pastiche of a plot. For instance, the device that launches Cameron’s scenario — one identical twin must substitute at the last minute for his brother on an interstellar voyage — is also in Heinlein’s 1956 novel Time for the Stars. Moreover, Avatar appears to borrow one of its central ideas — Pandora, a planet where the entire ecosystem is a single living network exchanging information — from the climax of Heinlein’s 1953 book for boys, Starman Jones.

Indeed, Avatar’s main plot — a human soldier teams up with a seemingly primitive but actually wise alien tribe to prevent an evil Earthling mining company from despoiling their sacred tropical homeland — an be found in Heinlein’s 1948 “young adult” story Space Cadet.

This is not to say Cameron is plagiarizing Heinlein. Rather, Heinlein’s ideas are part of the creative DNA of every artist working in hard sci-fi.

Further, Cameron is confronted with the same storytelling problem as Heinlein: they both love giant machines, but audiences don’t want to see the overdog win. Heinlein used a more convoluted variant of the Avatar plot in both Red Planet (1949) and Between Planets (1951). In these, the heroes are human settlers on Mars or Venus who enlist the admirable indigenous aliens in their fight for planetary independence from the oligarchic rulers of Earth.

In Heinlein’s books, it’s as if the American Revolution saw the American settlers allying with the American Indians to defeat King George. (The reality, of course, was closer to the opposite. As the Declaration of Independence’s reference to “merciless Indian Savages” suggests, “democracy” and “indigenous rights” are more antonyms than synonyms.) Not surprisingly, Cameron, who was born and raised through age 16 in Canada, can’t be bothered with Heinlein’s contortions, so Avatar is politically simpler than its sources in the Heinlein canon.

Boxing Day

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

John Derbyshire wouldn’t call himself a great boxing fan, but enrolling his 9-year-old in Fitness Through Boxing reminded him of his own long-gone glory days:

I had a brief moment of glory at age thirteen when the gym teacher at our boys-only school organized a boxing tournament, with a ring set up in the school auditorium. Though a fundamentally unathletic kid, I was going through a growth spurt, and, as often happens, different parts were growing at different speeds. The part of me that was growing fastest at this particular moment in time was my arms. I looked like a gibbon.

At our low skill level this gave me a great advantage. With decent wind and some grasp of basic technique, I could hold off any opponent till he tired enough to give me an easy opening. I won all my bouts.

The glory didn’t last long — does it ever? The gym teacher left that year, his successors had no interest in boxing, and society soon passed into a zone where the idea of thirteen-year-old boys punching each other’s faces for educational purposes became as unthinkable as the dense fug of tobacco smoke in our school’s staff room.

John and his son both like the boxing gym:

There is an agreeable and good-humored atmosphere in a boxing gym that cannot but be healthful for a growing boy to inhale. Robert A. Heinlein famously remarked that “an armed society is a polite society.” Well, a trained fighter is always armed. It is an odd paradox of human nature, seen in sergeants’ messes as well as boxing gyms, that there is never more ease of manner, concentration on mastering tasks and skills, and warm fellowship among men than when they have come together in a group to perform lawful acts of physical violence.

It is of course an open question how much longer boxing will be lawful in our feminized, lawyered-up society. Rob makes his customers sign a sheaf of wavers before they can put on the gloves. For a while longer yet, though, a boy can still come to a place like this and learn how to take on others in physical combat with skill, courage, and discipline, as men have done for longer than time itself.


Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

For whatever reason, Glenn Reynolds’s Instapundit site has never made its way into my regular reading — maybe I’m just too contrarian — but this interview makes two unusual references — to Heinleinian libertarianism and to Luftwaffe, the old pre-computer hex-grid wargame — that made me reconsider.

(I would embed the video, but their embed code isn’t editable for height and width.)

VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket)

Friday, July 24th, 2009

Lisa Grossman of New Scientist takes a closer look at Ad Astra’s VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket), which uses a radio frequency generator to heat plasma:

VASIMR works something like a steam engine, with the first stage performing a duty analogous to boiling water to create steam. The radio frequency generator heats a gas of argon atoms until electrons “boil” off, creating plasma. This stage was tested for the first time on 2 July at Ad Astra’s headquarters in Webster, Texas.

The plasma could produce thrust on its own if it were shot out of the rocket, but not very efficiently. To optimise efficiency, the rocket’s second stage then heats the ions to about a million degrees, a temperature comparable to that at the centre of the sun.

It does this by taking advantage of the fact that in a strong magnetic field – like those produced by superconducting magnets in the engine, ions spin at a fixed frequency. The radio frequency generator is then tuned to that same frequency, injecting extra energy into the ions.

Strong magnetic fields then channel the plasma out the back of the engine, propelling the rocket in the opposite direction.

Thanks to the radio frequency generator, VASIMR can reach power levels a hundred times as high as other engines, which simply accelerate their plasma by sending it through a series of metal grids with different voltages. In that setup, ions colliding with the grid tend to erode it, limiting the power and lifetime of the rocket. VASIMR’s radio frequency generator gets around that problem by never coming into contact with the ions.

“It’s the most powerful superconducting plasma source ever, as far as we know,” says Jared Squire, director of research at Ad Astra.

Scientists at Ad Astra began tests of the engine’s second stage – which heats the plasma – last week. So far, team members have run the two-stage engine at a power of 50 kilowatts. But they hope to ramp up to 200 kW of power in ongoing tests, enough to provide about a pound of thrust. That may not sound like much, but in space it can propel up to two tonnes of cargo, reaching Jupiter in about 19 months from a starting position relatively close to the sun, says Squire.

Of course, a starting position relatively close to the sun is half-way to anywhere, in Heinlein’s phrase, because the real challenge is getting out of earth’s gravity well, which requires more thrust than ion engines can generate:

At its current power level, VASIMR could be run entirely on solar energy. Squire says it would make a good Earth-orbit tugboat, pulling satellites to different orbits. It could also shuttle cargo to a lunar base, and because it could travel relatively quickly, it could be deployed to dangerous asteroids to gravitationally nudge them off course years before they would reach Earth.

To travel to Mars in 39 days, however, the engine would need 1000 times more power than solar energy could provide. For that, VASIMR would need an onboard nuclear reactor. Early versions of the reactor technology were used from the 1960s to the 1980s by the Soviet Union, but have not been used in space since and would take time to develop. “That would be quite a ways down the line,” Squire says.

Destination Moon

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

I recently watched Destination Moon, the 1950 film about — what else? — a manned rocket flight to the moon.

Unlike most 1950s sci-fi flicks, this is a work of serious science fiction with no rubber-suited monsters. Robert Heinlein contributed to the script and served as technical advisor — which might also explain why the atomic rocket gets built by private industry and launched early, against a local demagogue’s court order.

Because many concepts of space travel were so new to the public, the film features an expository film within a film, starring a major Hollywood actor — Woody Woodpecker:

A Polite Society

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

Years ago, Jeff Cooper cited paleoconservative Samuel Francis on why modern Americans are so rude:

The society of late twentieth century America is perhaps the first in human history where most grown men do not routinely bear arms on their persons and boys are not regularly raised from childhood to learn skill in the use of some kind of weapon, either for community or personal defense — club or spear, broadsword or long bow, rifle or Bowie knife.

It also happens to be one of the rudest and crudest societies in history, having jubilantly swept most of the etiquette of speech, table, dress, hospitality, fairness, deference to authority and the relations of male and female and child and elder under the fraying and filthy carpet of politically convenient illusions. With little fear of physical reprisal Americans can be as loud, gross, disrespectful, pushy, and negligent as they please.

If more people carried rapiers at their belts, or revolvers on their hips, it is a fair bet you would be able to go to a movie and enjoy the dialogue from the screen without having to endure the small talk, family gossip and assorted bodily noises that many theater audiences these days regularly emit. Today, discourtesy is commonplace precisely because there is no price to pay for it.

Or, as Heinlein succinctly put it:

An armed society is a polite society.

I suppose there are some trade-offs to consider.

The Language of Clear Thinking

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

Alfred Korzybski famously said that the map is not the territory. This is the key point of his general semantics: we should be conscious of the abstractions we use.

If we try to reason from the “essence” of something, in true Aristotelian style, we might abstract away meaningful complexity. If we apply binary logic, we may label things true or false when they are largely true or largely false, or likely true or likely false. Korzybski thus recommended what he called null-A, or non-Aristotelian logic.

The language we use also introduces many questionable abstractions, and Korzybski believed that ambiguous language lent itself to unclear thinking. Most infamously, he railed against unclear use of the verb to be, which led a former student of his to suggest a modified form of English, E-Prime, which eliminated to be entirely:

To exist or not to exist,
I ask this question.
— modified from Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Proponents of E-Prime believed that it would do more than clarify communication; they believed it would clarify thought. This is an example of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which suggests that language influences thought, and that some languages might lead to clearer thinking. That was the rationale behind Loglan, the logical language, with its grammar based on predicate logic.

These ideas soon found their way into Golden Age science fiction. A.E. von Vogt had his protagonists overcome their totalitarian foes through clever use of intuitive, inductive logic in The World of Null-A. (Peter Chung’s animated Æon Flux shares many motifs with The World of Null-A.)

Robert Heinlein also embraced many elements of general semantics, especially the notion of languages designed to improve thinking. In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, the self-aware computer receives its precise instructions in Loglan — which makes Loglan sound like a variant of Prolog. Heinlein took the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis much further in his short story, Gulf, which posits a new language used by a race of supermen. The language, Speedtalk, uses every phoneme (sound) used in any human language, not the small subset that belongs to any one language, and maps every word in Basic English to its own phoneme.

Basic English also shows up in H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come as the lingua franca of the future. Similarly, it inspired the Newspeak of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. (It doesn’t take much to turn Wells’ utopian ideas upside-down.)

Nyrath has much more to say about future languages, but I thought I’d end with this amusing bit of geekery:

Raphaël Poss (AKA “Kena”) took the obvious step and adapted the Tengwar alphabet to the Lojban set of phonemes. As Mr. Poss puts it: “…it is far more natural to write Lojban with a logical writing system…. the tengwar system inherently contains some main Lojban morphology rules, making Lojban easier to learn when it is written with tengwar.”