28 May 2009

Heinlein

I recently came into a digital collection of many science fiction books, and took the opportunity to brush up on my Heinlein. I had previously read and very much enjoyed Stranger in a Strange Land, his most popular work about a transcendant human being who leads a revolution in thought when he comes to Earth after having been raised by Martians. It was excellent, and fully deserves its reputation. There is good reason why some of the concepts in its pages have been incorporated into the language, although virtually every use of "grok" actually just means that the writer is a pretentious asshole who didn't want to use the more apt word "know."

Since I have been reading a great deal about libertarianism, though, I knew there was other Heinlein that was considered exceptional, and indeed his work The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is considered one of the most "libertarian" books by many proponents. So I decided to read much of his work, most particularly the aforementioned libertarian treatise and his famous Starship Troopers (I liked the movie, but mostly just because I like any movie with tits in it).

So I read The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Starship Troopers, Glory Road, The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, Job: a Comedy of Justice, Time Enough for Love, and The Number of the Beast over the course of about a month. And let me tell you this: if creating Mary Sues was a crime, Heinlein would be verging on the death penalty for his multiple offenses. In almost everything he writes, there is an older male character with a crusty yet paternal personality, who is clearly Heinlein's ideal self. Invariably, they are pursued by incredibly desirable women. These women are either much younger than him, or else older but with the appearance of being much younger (thanks to future-science). They always see through his gruff mannerisms and laughingly call him an "old fraud" (same words, every time). And he's always libertarian.

To be frank, most of what I read was disappointingly mediocre.

Starship Troopers is almost without a plot; it's simply the story of how one man goes through boot camp and then several battles. There is no suspense, nothing really happens beyond long recountings of how X Device works or how tough is Drill Instructor Y. Heinlein tries to disguise this by shifting the narration around in time, starting in media res and skipping back and forth. But when you get down to it, it's not even a story so much as a technical recounting of a future military.

The Number of the Beast, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Time Enough for Love, and The Cat Who Walked Through Walls were all in the same imaginary universe, and the only one that was decent was Moon. This is probably because it's the first one of these I read, and the social innovations and ideas present in this universe were interesting when first presented. Polygamy, certain libertarian features of his idea of space colonies, superpatriarchism, and so on are all very intriguing, especially in the way Heinlein presents them.
  • Polygamy. There exist various iterations of many-partnered marriages, such as "line marriages," where new husbands and wives enter into the marriage continually over the years. Some of these latter last for hundreds of years and have dozens of spouses. In Heinlein's works, these occur because of the paucity of women in the space colonies.
  • Libertarianism in space. Most prominently lauded and featured in Moon, but alluded to and assumed within all of these works, is the idea that in an environment lacking anything that might be called "free," since even air and water must all be paid for, and distanced from the long-existing power structures on Earth, libertarianism naturally would evolve from this mindset. Summed up in the motto of "TANSTAFL" (There's Ain't No Such Thing As a Free Lunch), Heinlein seems to think that when everything must be bought, then people would naturally begin to think in terms that anything could be bought. This commercial freedom and inability to depend on anything beyond oneself would lead to a demand for total freedom in society as well, presumably. It's an interesting notion.
  • Superpatriarchism. The worlds and societies in these books are all run by men with frank acknowledgement of that fact, while simultaneously putting women on an incredibly high pedestal that exceeds even Victorian estimates and giving them enormous freedom. They're Daddy Societies: the women don't get to be in charge, but they get to do whatever they want and are savagely guarded.
Ultimately, though, aside from a few other interesting ideas, Heinlein shoots his wad all at once. His main weakness - writing an interesting plot - becomes the glaring flaw in the other books. His plots are okay if condensed to one sentence (space travelers exploring Burroughs' idea of Mars; trying to convince the universe's oldest man to avoid suicide; altering past events to improve the future), but they grow no thicker when expanded to book form. It makes for thin soup, especially without the beef of new fun ideas.

I would strongly recommend The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land, and say that you can safely give the rest a pass. If you find you really like his style of writing, then maybe you should snap up a few more, but if you think that the main showpiece are just his interesting ideas about what the future can be - like I do - then there's no need to keep going.

"Ex-Basketball Player," by John Updike

Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,
Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off
Before it has a chance to go two blocks,
At Colonel McComsky Plaza. Berth’s Garage
Is on the corner facing west, and there,
Most days, you'll find Flick Webb, who helps Berth out.

Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps—
Five on a side, the old bubble-head style,
Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low.
One’s nostrils are two S’s, and his eyes
An E and O. And one is squat, without
A head at all—more of a football type.

Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In ’46
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.

He never learned a trade, he just sells gas,
Checks oil, and changes flats. Once in a while,
As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube,
But most of us remember anyway.
His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench.
It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though.

Off work, he hangs around Mae’s Luncheonette.
Grease-gray and kind of coiled, he plays pinball,
Smokes those thin cigars, nurses lemon phosphates.
Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers
Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.

27 May 2009

Sotomayor

Recently, President Obama nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor to replace Justice Souter on the Supreme Court. I'm not over the moon about his choice. Her Wikipedia page has all the relevant bio information if you're curious (and amusingly, was updated within a minute of the announcement of her nomination), and she seems highly qualified. But the NYT has a great article about how the scope of her decisions has been extremely limited (if meticulous) and her most controversial case is bizarre and has little supplied reasoning to reveal her thoughts:
[Sotomayor's decisions] reveal no larger vision, seldom appeal to history and consistently avoid quotable language. Judge Sotomayor’s decisions are, instead, almost always technical, incremental and exhaustive, considering all of the relevant precedents and supporting even completely uncontroversial propositions with elaborate footnotes.

All of which makes her remarkably cursory treatment last year of an employment discrimination case brought by firefighters in New Haven so baffling. The unsigned decision by Judge Sotomayor and two other judges, which affirmed the dismissal of the claims from 18 white firefighters, one of them Hispanic, contained a single paragraph of reasoning.
This is troubling, to say the least, when added on to the fact that she otherwise has relatively few pivotal-issue cases. To me, the situation looks remarkably like the nomination of Souter (whom Sotomayor is replacing): President George H.W. Bush had just lost with Bork and wanted to avoid a fight, so they appointed someone with relatively little controversy behind him but who seemed generally conservative. To their surprise, Souter ended up in the liberal set more often than not, and never overturned all the liberal precedents on abortion and civil rights like they hoped.

Ideally, we'd get a real liberal constitutionalist in Sotomayor, but who the hell can tell at this point? The Times magazine has a great analysis of what a liberal justice might be in the modern era, and points out that we're not going to see another Burger coming from Obama, after all. But at least conservative Volokh isn't happy; when it comes to questions like this, that's a good sign.

In the end, it doesn't really matter. The Dems are certainly all going to vote to confirm, and the Republicans won't be able to sustain a filibuster; their hispanic Senator Martinez from Florida is probably not going to be able to take the heat from a filibuster against the first hispanic nominee in history, and that one seat would do it. Politico points out some potential tactics, but it's a sealed deal.

Wonkette had a great brief piece about liveblogging the nomination that you should read:
10:32 AM — “An ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences.” Translation: a radical leftist lesbian radical who will take away your guns, force your children into kindergarten abortion parties, exhume the corpse of Ronald Reagan for the purposes of urinating on it, and surrender in Iraq.

20 May 2009

Tough Questions

I can't believe I just heard something worthwhile from Jesse Ventura appearing on the View:
"If waterboarding's okay, then why don't we let our police do it to suspects so we can learn what they know?"
This hits the gut, and it's one of the tough questions that are customarily avoided by a certain kind of policy advocate.  It's equivalent in abortion debates is, "Do you support prosecuting women who get abortions for murder?"  If abortion is murder, then it is pretty clear that Texas' death row should be getting pretty crowded with fourteen-year-old girls.

Fair questions, but with emotional impact and verve.

18 May 2009

WolframAlpha, Google, and Wikipedia

I have long used Google as a search engine, for obvious reasons. From the moment I saw an article about it in Wired - so very, very long ago - and heard about how great its PageRank system was (assigning each site a value based on how many other sites found it worthwhile to link to it, thereby divining it would be more desired by the average searcher), I knew Google was great.

Supplementing it has been Wikipedia, also for obvious reasons. Harnessing the collective power of a million obsessives with a handful of facts and the brute force of a clumsy kind of democracy-by-persistence, it has become a huge database of every kind of bizarre information and essential set of facts; it is the best encyclopedia ever written, and only getting better.

Of late I have added Wolfram Alpha, a new search engine that is designed to assemble and present sets of facts. It's already pretty amazing; the page on "ibuprofen," for example, is exactly what I wanted. But it's highly technical, and still pretty stupid.

A sample search query shows off their various skills:  Query: "population of the earth."
Google returns relevant pages that discuss the topic. Wikipedia returns a long and well-written article. And W|A returns a simple number and small block of demographics.

In other words, we have a set of three amazing tools that all attack the same string from different ways.  Google gets webpages, Wikipedia serves up the enyclopedia, and in the future, W|A will be for all of my data needs.  So ignore the hubbub about one of the three dying.  That won't happen for long years, and will be because of some other reason.


EDIT: The Atlantic is stealing blogs from me. Boooooo.

Chief Justice Roberts

I said it from the beginning.  And the New Yorker has a great article on why he is such an unbelievable douche.
In every major case since he became the nation’s seventeenth Chief Justice, Roberts has sided with the prosecution over the defendant, the state over the condemned, the executive branch over the legislative, and the corporate defendant over the individual plaintiff. Even more than Scalia, who has embodied judicial conservatism during a generation of service on the Supreme Court, Roberts has served the interests, and reflected the values, of the contemporary Republican Party.
There's a lot of hidden insight in this article; it has been noted that SCOTUS has taken many fewer broad-ranging cases than they used to take in times past. Instead, they have tended to take cases with a much more narrow scope. And with the new generally-conservative majority they have cut out a lot of progress from past years.
“An originalist on abortion would say that at the time of the Constitution, or of the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, abortion was prohibited, and that’s it,” Akhil Reed Amar, a professor at Yale Law School, said. “A conservative like Roberts, on the other hand, wouldn’t look immediately at the question of whether all abortions should be outlawed, but examine the specific restriction on abortion rights at issue in the case and probably uphold it. He’d avoid the culture-war rhetoric and gradually begin cutting back on abortion rights without making lots of noise about getting rid of it altogether.”
His tenure on the court has already brought about and astonishing number of decisions that are overturning massive precedents or very recent decisions - both practices frowned upon. And this with a one-person conservative majority!
In Roberts’s first term, when Alito also joined the Court, there were fewer controversial cases than usual, as well as an apparent effort by the Justices to reach more unanimous decisions. But the Seattle case came down on June 28, 2007, which was the last day of Roberts’s second full term as Chief Justice and a year of routs for liberals on the Court. That same day, the Justices overturned a ninety-six-year-old precedent in antitrust law and thus made it harder to prove collusion by corporations. Also that year they upheld the federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, in Kennedy’s opinion, even though the Court had rejected a nearly identical law just seven years earlier. The case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear, brought by a sympathetic grandmother who had been paid far less than men doing the same work at the tire company, became a political flashpoint because the conservative majority, in an opinion by Alito, imposed seemingly insurmountable new burdens on plaintiffs in employment-discrimination lawsuits. (Ginsburg, in an unusual move, read her dissent from the bench.) In all these cases, Roberts and Alito joined with Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Kennedy to make the majority. On this final day, Breyer offered an unusually public rebuke to his new colleagues. “It is not often in the law that so few have so quickly changed so much,” Breyer said.
Read the article and be disgusted.

17 May 2009

From A History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, 1136


And Modred, as he was the boldest of men, and always the quickest at making an attack, immediately placed his troops in order, resolving either to conquer or to die, rather than continue his flight any longer. He had yet remaining with him sixty thousand men, out of whom he composed three bodies, which contained each of them six thousand six hundred and sixty six men: but all the rest he joined in one body; and having assigned to each of the other parties their leaders, he took the command of this upon himself. After he he had made this disposition of forces, he endeavoured to animate them, and promised them the estates of their enemies if they came off with victory.

Arthur, on the other side, also marshalled his army, which he divided into nine square companies, with a right and left wing; and having appointed to each of them their commanders, exhorted them to make a total rout of those robbers and perjured villains, who, being brought over into the island from foreign countries at the instance of the arch-traitor, were attempting to rob them of all their honours. He likewise told them that a mixed army composed of barbarous people of so many different countries, and who were all raw soldiers and inexperienced in war, would never be able to stand against such brave veteran troops as they were, provided they did their duty.

After this encouragement given by each general to his fellow soldiers, the battle on a sudden began with great fury; wherein it would be both grievous and tedious to relate the slaughter, the cruel havoc, and the excess of fury that was to be seen on both sides. In this manner they spent a good part of the day, till Arthur at last made a push with his company, consisting of six thousand six hundred and sixty-six men, against that in which he knew Modred was; and having opened a way with their swords, they pierced quite through it, and made a grievous slaughter. For in this assault fell the wicked traitor himself, and many thousands with him.

But notwithstanding the loss of him, the rest did not flee, but running together from all parts of the field maintained their ground with undaunted courage. The fight now grew more furious than ever, and proved fatal to almost all their commanders and their forces. For on Modred's side fell Cheldric, Elasius, Egbrict, and Bunignus, Saxons; Gillapatric, Gillamor, Gistafel, and Gallarius, Irish; also the Scots and Picts, with almost all their leaders: on Arthur's side, Olbrict, king of Norway; Aschillius, king of Dacia; Cador Limenic Cassibellaun, with many thousands of others, as well Britons as foreigners, that he had brought with him. And even the renowned king Arthur himself was mortally wounded; and being carried thence to the isle of Avallon to be cured of his wounds, he gave up the crown of Britain to his kinsman Constantine, the son of Cador, duke of Cornwall, in the five hundred and forty-second year of our Lord's incarnation.

12 Rules

Saul Alinsky, radical activist and the soul of the 1960s community organizing movement, composed a set of twelve rules in his book Rules for Radicalism. They define the approach of a generation of activists that are now dying out. The rule, above all, is to win. As he said, "The Prince" was a book to tell the Haves how to get power. "Rules for Radicals" was about how the Have-Nots can take it away.

RULE 1: "Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have." Power is derived from one of two main sources - money and people. "Have-Nots" must build power from flesh and blood.

RULE 2: "Never go outside the expertise of your people." It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone.

RULE 3: "Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy." Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty.

RULE 4: "Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules." If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules.

RULE 5: "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon." There is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions.

RULE 6: "A good tactic is one your people enjoy." They'll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They're doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones.

RULE 7: "A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag." Don't become old news.

RULE 8: "Keep the pressure on. Never let up." Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new.

RULE 9: "The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself." Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist.

RULE 10: "If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive." Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog.

RULE 11: "The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative." Never let the enemy score points because you're caught without a solution to the problem.

RULE 12: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it." Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.

Very few organizations use these tactics these days. To my knowledge, in fact, the only major one that still hits the establishment this hard is PETA. And since I find the doctrine that "ends justify the means" (which, despite the Lady Macbethian protests, is to what the rules amount) reprehensible, that explains why I find PETA so annoying. But one cannot deny their effectiveness. They don't care about playing "fair," or being nice. They are okay with being the bad guy, as long as they can change the dialog and come closer to their goal. It's why they are successful: they're the ruthless, relentless, crazy radicals who nonetheless have shifted the national debate over the years from "Who cares about animals?" to "How much do we care about animals?"

A major part of the insight behind these rules is the recognition that the corporate establishment is hugely influential in the political and governmental sphere, and has accordingly built-in abilities to shift public opinion. And they have few constraints on their inclinations to do so beyond their profit margins. That's just how they work - it's a feature, not a bug, to borrow a phrase. The opposition of activists is already in a weaker position, thanks to the perilous dependence on short funds and the lack of purchased politicians with which to voice their arguments. So when those activists further constrain themselves, it's almost impossible to win.

PETA and other students of Alinsky's rules take the native strengths of community organizing - manpower and emotion - and use them without any moral compunctions to get what they want. They learned from an older school of early American socialists and radicals like Sinclair that radicals have to go from the gut, but succeeded where their predecessors failed by not pulling any punches.

There has to be a better way, but I don't know it and no one acts by it. Groups like MoveOn are ineffective castrati, like groups like PETA are amoral bulldozers. Modern advocacy has no effective and moral path.

07 May 2009

Future

Well, I was all set to go to either the University of Saint Louis at Madrid or the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, then I settled on just one of two New Zealand schools.  But it appears as though they are offering me very little money, probably because of my Wake Forest grades (which look a lot better when hidden behind a "transfer" section at UT than they do starkly on the transcript).  So now I'm not sure what to do.  Maybe work longer and try to raise some money and keep trying to get something published in a journal, or maybe just bite the bullet and take out insane amounts of loans.  Given the precarious future of English academia, I'm starting to think the latter might be foolhardy, even if it's more immediately satisfying.

Lizzie is advocating that I work for longer; she was willing to go with me wherever I was going to school, but I think she's pleased this might mean we might be traveling elsewhere (although naturally unhappy that my own goals are receding).  Maybe we'll work in Costa Rica or somewhere in Hispanica; the former is her suggestion.

Trying to figure out what to say to my mother, since I know she's going to freak out.

On the plus side, I've adopted Google Reader as a feedreader.  It makes accessing the sites I visit daily much easier; NYT, 538, webcomics, Harper's, London Books, and so on are all aggregated into a single service.  I guess I have poor nerd cred for not picking it up sooner, but necessity finally prompted me.  It's much easier to stay up on the news when a single link supplies it all to me.

Also, I finally got around to starting Gibbon.  For heavy reading, it makes a good break from the Proust.