Saturday, May 19, 2018

Isaac Asimov, The Complete Adventures of Lucky Starr


Opening Passages: Asimov knows how to open, so it's worthwhile to see each one. From David Starr--Space Ranger:

David Starr was staring right at the man, so he saw it happen. He saw him die. (p. 11)

From Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids:

Fifteen minutes to zero time! The Atlas waited to take off. The sleek, burnished lines of the space-ship glittered in the bright Earthlight that filled the Moon's night sky. Its blunt prow pointed upward into empty space. Vacuum surrounded it and the dead pumice of the Moon's surface was under it. The number of its crew was zero. There wasn't a living person aboard. (p. 129)

From Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus:

Lucky Starr and John Bigman Jones kicked themselves up from the gravity-free Space Station No. 2 and drifted toward the planetary coaster that waited for him with its air lock open. Their movements had the grace of long practice under non-gravity conditions, despite the fact that their bodies seemed thick and grotesque in the space suits they wore. (p. 246)

From Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury:

Lucky Starr and his small friend, John Bigman Jones, followed the young engineer up the ramp toward the air lock that led to the surface of the planet Mercury.

Lucky thought: At least things are breaking fast. (p. 361)

From Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter:

Jupiter was almost a perfect circle of creamy light, half the apparent diameter of the moon as seen from Earth, but only one seventh as brightly lit because of its great distance from the sun. Even so, it was a beautiful and impressive sight. (p. 475)

From Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn:

The Sun was a brilliant diamond in the sky, just large enough to the naked eye to be made out as something more than a star; as a tiny white-hot pea-sized globe. (p. 592)

Summary: David Starr is the youngest member of the Council of Science, an advisory body whose advice seems to be taken as considerably more than advisory, in what is variously called the Terran Federation, the Terrestrial Empire, the Solar Confederation, and the Solar Federation of Worlds. We follow his adventures through the Solar System as he uncovers plots of various kinds. The first book tries to stay true to its Lone Ranger origins, with Lucky obtaining a personal shield (his mask); after the first book, this mask then plays virtually no role whatsoever, and by the end of the series one of Lucky's problems is that everyone knows who he is, so being a masked ranger seems to have been Lucky's only failure.

An interesting feature of all the stories is that they take standard tropes and turn them in a new direction. A man who would ordinarily be a typical mad scientist character turns out to be just alone and unhappy; a story that would ordinarily be a revenge story ends with mere persuasion; an attempt to control minds becomes recognized as a brilliant discovery; the sinister Sirians, while genuinely sinister, are sometimes just being framed; deaths apparently connected turn out to be unrelated; the leak for a secret project turns out not to be either human or alien; the Sirians' most aggressive move is foiled by a diplomatic vote. And in all of the tales, means that are sinister are not seen as inherently so: Lucky's detective work doesn't just solve mysteries, but advances the frontiers of science, to the benefit of all.

While there are some inconsistencies throughout the works, the real weakness of the books, I think, is the Council of Science. The books themselves recognize the potential issues with an unelected body of men having virtually unlimited sway over matters of government -- at least, Mercury does, but this is quite limited, and by the last books, Lucky keeps telling people that he outranks them, which raises all sorts of unaddressed issues about how the Council of Science even works. Because of this, it's often unclear what's at stake. We find a similar problem with the Sirians, although the Sirians we actually learn more about (they are very much like the Solarians in the Robot novels). This is, I think, the primary way in which the book's unrelenting optimism gets in the way of the stories -- we really don't know much about this shadowy organization that seems to work more like a high-tech intelligence agency than any scientific institution we know.

But in other respects the optimism of the books makes for excellent reading. Scientific progress is a mythic idea; it is capable of epic scope and inspiring detail; portrayed well, it has a sublimity that both overwhelms and exalts. The difficulty is always the 'progress' part: you can't have a progress without a teleology, and specific set of ends, that tells you whether you are going in the right direction. But if you posit the direction, even as a primitive, you can build beautiful stories, as long as the direction is something you can bring your reader to grasp as a good thing. Asimov here does this better than he does elsewhere, because it is a very human direction, and because each apparent danger becomes a stepping stone to something more human and beneficial to all.

Favorite Passage:
But Lucky shook his head. "No, Senator Swenson is not a real cause for worry. He's ruthless and dangerous , but for that very reason he keeps the Council on its toes, keeps us from getting flabby.

"Besides," he added thoughtfully, "the Council of Science needs its critics, just as Congress and the government do. If ever the Council began to consider itself above criticism, then the time might come when it would establish a dictatorship over the Earth, and certainly I wouldn't want that to happen."

"Well, maybe," said Bigman, unsatisfied, "but I don't like that Swenson."

Lucky laughed and reached out to tousle the Martian's hair. "Nor I, but why worry about that now. Out there are the stars, and who knows where we'll be going next week, or why?" (p. 469)

Recommended: Recommended; all of them are worth a read if it comes your way. If you only do one, Venus is the best.


Isaac Asimov writing as Paul French, The Complete Adventures of Lucky Starr, Science Fiction Book Club in arrangement with Doubleday (New York: 2001).

Friday, May 18, 2018

Butler on Compassion

This constitution of nature, namely, that it is so much more in our power to occasion, and likewise to lessen misery, than to promote positive happiness, plainly required a particular affection, to hinder us from abusing, and to incline us to make a right use of the former powers, i. e. the powers both to occasion and to lessen misery; over and above what was necessary to induce us to make aright use of the latter power, that of promoting positive happiness. The power we have over the misery of our fellow creatures, to occasion or lessen it, being a more important trust than the power we have of promoting their positive happiness: the former requires, and has a further, an additional security and guard against its being violated, beyond, and over and above what the latter has. The social nature of man, and general good will to his species, equally prevent him from doing evil, incline him to relieve the distressed, and to promote the positive happiness of his fellow creatures: but compassion only restrains from the first, and carries him to the second; it hath nothing to do with the third.

The final causes then of compassion are, to prevent and to relieve misery.

The Right Reverend Doctor Joseph Butler, Bishop of Durham, in his sermon VI, on compassion, from the Rolls Chapel sermons. Butler, one of the greatest moral philosophers of his day, was born May 18, 1692.

Music on My Mind

Kardemimmit, "Hius Heliä".

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Authority of a Title

In Shakespeare's historical plays, we find something of a study of the nature of authority, and in particular the name of the king. Richard II insists on the importance of the king's name, and insists, entirely correctly, that he is king. But, of course, what we see is that he has no significant authority -- his authority is unraveling even as he insists on his kingship, and all the insistence merely shows him to be weak and, at times, foolish and petty. All his talk about the King's Name is insubstantial in the face of a man with real power. And thus we get Henry IV. But Henry IV, a man who has seized the throne solely by force of will and competence, also has authority problems, albeit of a different kind. It is Henry V who shows the full authority of a king, and it is Henry V who shows that Richard's insistence on the authority of the king's name is not wrong: he invests his kingship with so much authority that his son Henry VI, a very weak king, is literally able to stop a revolt by merely mentioning that he is the son of Henry V. Shakespeare's historical plays are useful lessons in how authority works. A king's name is a title, and titles have authority -- except when they don't.

I was thinking of this recently having come across by accident an online discussion by a professor on the topic of insisting on one's title -- 'Doctor' or at least 'Professor'. And one of the things claimed was that those of us who do not insist on the title make it harder for those who, like the professor in question, do; the matter was explicitly put in terms of authority with students. There's no point in mentioning the professor's name; I have seen many professors sabotage themselves the way the professor in question is doing, so it is not particular to the person in question. But the insistence on title is indeed self-sabotage, and shows that the academics in question do not understand how authority works in a classroom, or anywhere, in fact. (Which explains a lot of how academics behave in political contexts, to be honest.)

There are things that carry an intrinsic authority -- we can summarize the sources of intrinsic authority as obvious power, obvious wisdom, and obvious goodness. All authority has to trace back to some kind of intrinsic authority. The Office of the President has authority because it is an obvious reservoir of immense power, and also more indirectly because of the general American belief in the wisdom and goodness, or at least wisdom-enough and goodness-enough, of the Constitution. Someone who can make whatever they want happen has a sort of authority from the power. A sage carries the authority of wisdom. A saint has the authority of goodness. But even in these cases the authority only arises to the extent that it is known, so it is the recognizable sign of power, or wisdom, or goodness, or at least something like these things, that conveys authority.

This is all quite abstract. But a title like 'Doctor' only has any authority at all insofar as it is taken to be a sign of expertise, hard work in achieving the difficult, and, perhaps sometimes, influence, which are, so to speak, small sips of wisdom, goodness, and power respectively. But we do not live anymore in a society in which people automatically assume that people with the title of 'Doctor' are brilliant; it still conveys to some extent that you can stick with something, and that you have spent some time trying to learn difficult things, but not much more than that; and, of course, nobody thinks that getting a PhD gives you influence. As conveying intrinsic authority, it is weak, and it is limited. And someone who keeps stubbornly insisting on its being given respect is like poor Richard II, with all the name of authority and none of the substance. It might well be the result of wisdom and goodness, or at least intelligence and difficult achievement, that itself should have some authority, but it does no good whatsoever to insist on it if people can't see that already. Something like a title is neither power, wisdom, and goodness, but it does convey authority if -- and only if -- it suggests these things in some way to people.

The other kind of authority is extrinsic, which is based on a sort of exchange, and a title always gets most of its value from this. If you are made Vice President of Sales it indicates that you probably have a sort of power, for instance, to hire and fire, or to talk to the right people, but this only gets you so far in matters of authority; Richard II's title was King and it gave him very little authority. You can get more authority by obviously showing yourself to be forceful, competent, or decent, but this, too, will only get you so far, just as Henry IV's obvious power or Henry VI's obvious goodness gave them some advantages but still left them with authority problems. Intrinsic authority is a very general authority. What gives the most authority in actual practice is using your signs of intrinsic authority to exchange for more immediate authority in the context. Or to put it in other words, while there are some things that give authority by merely having them, other things only give authority when you give them away.

The President, for instance, has immense practical power. But this is a general power; nobody thinks that the President is going to use nuclear weapons in most situations, or that the power he has directly applies to most of the situations in which he finds himself. The fact that he is commander in chief of the most powerful military in the history of the world is completely useless in moving most people most of the time, because it is not seen as directly applying to most of those situations. So how do Presidents move people? By giving power, or at least signs of power, to other people. Someone who hoards signs of power, like Richard II, looks weak. The person who knows how to give them freely, like Henry V, looks immensely authoritative. Presidents exercise military authority by giving signs of authority to others, which is why militaries are structured the way they are; they exercise political authority by giving other people signs of authority. President Obama was excellent at the latter form of authority: his authority with a lot of people arises from the fact that he did not hoard the signs of the Presidency as his own particular authority, but made a lot of people feel that if they had a chance to talk with him, he would listen, and that he was sincerely working for their interests. This, of course, is what politicians are always trying to do, but President Obama was very good at giving out specific, easy-to-recognize tokens of this, in the form of how he talked to people, how he interacted with people, and so forth. And so people freely deferred to him on a far greater scale than they would have if he had just insisted that he was the President. (Contrast that with how he handled Congress, where he did go the 'I am President' route, and then began having difficulty even moving people of his own party who had an incentive to work with him.) This was, ultimately, the difference between Richard II and Henry V: Richard II, who was king, kept insisting that he was king, and lost everyone's respect; Henry V, who was king, made himself one of the people, and because of that the people respected him entirely as king -- respecting the kingship of Hal had become a way of respecting themselves. Henry V gave people signs that they themselves mattered; and in exchange for these tokens they treated him as mattering. He gained authority by trading his own authority for new authority, and got a massive profit in doing so. Just as you cannot be obviously wealthy if you are hoarding money (which makes you look like a cheapskate), you cannot be authoritative while hoarding signs of authority (which makes you look insecure or desperate).

All of this is about authority in general. But it all applies to a title like 'Doctor' or 'Professor'. These titles carry some authority insofar as they are seen as signs of things like power over grades or expertise in a field. But this is not going to get you very far, and if you are a title-hoarder, going around insisting that students call you by your title, you will look insecure and self-doubting, and thus not authoritative. Perhaps you could get away with it if it were just blindingly obvious that you were a genius, but not very likely otherwise. If you want to look authoritative, you have to exchange your signs of intrinsic authority to get the respect that gives extrinsic authority. This, I think, is something that is sometimes difficult for academics to grasp: your degree, and the title from it, can give people a general reason to think you should get some respect, if the public at large thinks of it as indicative of something important, but it gives very little reason for anyone to think that they in particular should respect your authority in particular in whatever particular context in which they are crossing your path. That involves a kind of negotiation, which means you have to give something to get something. Too many academics think that being academics makes their opinion especially valuable, or gives their voice authority, for particular contexts. It does not -- it gives you a general ticket that you can use in earning the respect of others, as part of an exchange. Every academic knows the student who thinks that having worked really hard on a project in and of itself entitles them to an A; academics who think their titles in and of themselves make them worthy of particular acts of respect in particular contexts are making exactly the same error. It's what you are actually giving people in the context at hand that matters.

Given this, demanding that people use your title will often be the wrong move, because it looks like an insecure person trying to force people into respecting them because they can't actually earn it. It is self-sabotaging. Of course, there are exceptions. It's a great way to show contempt to people, put them in their place, or throw them off balance rhetorically by framing them as rude. One hopes you would not be doing this in a classroom, but icily insisting on one's title is one of the most effective uses of a title. And if it really matters to you, it is indeed possible, as noted above, to frame it in such a way that it is a way of giving power to students; you have to avoid looking like you are either demanding or begging. Most students prefer to use some kind of title to begin with, because it helps to establish the boundaries and guidelines for the interaction (and reduces the risk of accidentally getting too rudely familiar with the person who is grading your work). But even then, again, the only effective authority a title carries is that it can be exchanged; the students have to be getting something from the exchange. There are certainly other ways to do it than to give your title over to them (thus giving them the authority to decide how to treat your title), but they need to be getting something.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

And the Sound of a Voice that Is Still

Break, Break, Break
by Alfred Tennyson

Break, break, break,
  On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
  The thoughts that arise in me.

O well for the fisherman’s boy,
  That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
  That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
  To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand,
  And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break,
  At the foot of thy crags, O sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
  Will never come back to me.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Alfred's Will

If Alfred's will were to have been understood in the way David Hume and Edward Burke thought,* it would have allowed the English, after his death, to choose the form of government they preferred most.


* The interpretation given to Alfred's will by these authors was refuted by Count von Stolberg in his life of Alfred.

[Antonio Rosmini, Philosophy of Right, Volume 6: Rights in Civil Society, Clear & Watson, trs., Rosmini House (Durham: 1996) p. 125.]

The reference for Hume is to the discussion of King Alfred in Hume's History of England:

Yet amidst these rigours of justice, this great prince preserved the most sacred regard to the liberty of his people; and it is a memorable sentiment preserved in his will, that it was just the English should for ever remain as free as their own thoughts.

The reference to Burke is thus probably from his abridgement of English history:

This great man was even jealous of the privileges of his subjects; and as his whole life was spent in protecting them, his last will breathes the same spirit, declaring that he had left his people as free as their own thoughts.

Neither Hume nor Burke need be interpreted quite as strongly as Rosmini does, but it is clear that he is influenced by Friedrich Leopold Stolberg's discussion in his life of Alfred. Stolberg's argument is that the famous phrase, 'free as their thoughts' is due to a clumsy mistranslation into Latin, and that Alfred was actually asking that his noblemen confirm the serfs in their liberties. As Stolberg puts it, having heard the story before, he was delighted to find Hume and Burke confirm it (unsurprisingly, since he was a major Romantic figure), but his dream was destroyed by further research. (I know too well the feeling, Graf zu Stolberg.)

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The National Popular Vote Compact Scam

Since Connecticut lawmakers were recently stupid enough to be taken in by the National Popular Vote Compact, it seems worthwhile to give a reminder of the ways in which the (falsely called) National Popular Vote Compact is an obvious scam:

(1) We don't have any mechanism for getting information about a national popular vote; the add-all-the-state-numbers-together tally is a complete fiction that has no direct meaning. The United States under the Electoral College does not run one election; it runs fifty-one different elections (states plus D.C.), weights them by population, and gives the laurels to the person who won enough elections of sufficient weight. Each of these elections is run on different laws governing means of collecting votes, times and places, means of counting, and even who can vote and how. Adding numbers from different elections doesn't get you a 'national popular vote' number, because they are measuring different things. What is more, there is always a certain amount of uncertainty in elections involving large populations (and the U.S. electorate is very large); we have no mechanisms, as we would need if we were collecting a real national popular vote number, for minimizing this uncertainty, and, indeed, trying to guesstimate a national popular vote number from the elections we do have necessarily multiplies the uncertainty.

(2) The 'National Popular Vote Compact' is not a national popular vote system; the name is a lie. It is an Electoral College system under which states agree to ignore the decisions of their own populations and distribute their Electoral College votes based on a number that was obtained inconsistently with their own election laws and by methods that they cannot themselves properly monitor and correct. It is indeed as stupid as that sounds. As I have said before:

On the NPV system, states would be committing themselves in the Electoral College to preferring votes elsewhere to those cast by their own citizens. If State A doesn't allow felons to vote and State B does for civil rights reasons, then on the NPV plan, State A is committed to accepting as legitimate felons voting in in State B despite the fact that people in A exactly like those in B don't get to vote, and State B is committed to accepting as legitimate the election numbers coming out of State A, despite knowing quite well that the numbers are derived in part on what people in State B regard as a civil rights violation, and that there are potential voters in A whose votes are not getting counted despite the fact that they would count in B. This is an absurd situation. Moreover, NPV guarantees that states with well-thought-out election laws and well-run election systems are held hostage to those without....Numbers can't be established for a 'national popular vote' (even one based on a fiction) under a state-by-state system like ours unless all the states have their act together. We know for a fact that this can't be guaranteed, and that a state can make a complete mess of things by poor collection methods, inconsistent vote-counting, and loopholes for voting fraud. And we also know for a fact that nobody can actually fix these problems except citizens of that state.

Any state legislature that is so stupid as to sign on to the Compact is failing in their responsibilities to their own citizens.

(3) Because it is not a real national popular vote, and involves nothing remotely like what would be required for a real national popular vote, no arguments for a national popular vote actually give one a reason for supporting the National Popular Vote Compact. And because it doesn't have any mechanism for guaranteeing equal votes, no argument for equalizing votes can give a reason for supporting the National Popular Vote Compact. And because it is an Electoral College system that is designed on principles inconsistent with the Electoral College itself, no arguments about how the Electoral College could better represent the people of the United States can possibly give a reason for supporting the National Popular Vote Compact, either. There is no good reason for it. The Electoral College is resilient enough that maybe -- maybe -- it could avoid disaster, but a proposal that is so incoherent -- and it is, again, literally incoherent -- cannot possibly be good for an electoral system.

(4) The proposal depends on an attack on the integrity of the Electoral College; it requires claiming that the Electoral College as it is intended to function is not getting good results. But at the same time, the proposal does not eliminate the Electoral College, and, indeed, the entire point of the proposal is to avoid going through the proper process to amend the Constitution. This is a further incoherence in the plan: it is, and this is often explicit in the defenses of the defenders, an attempt to treat a provision of the Constitution as defective while simultaneously pretending it doesn't need actual correction. Any citizen in any state should regard a legislator's vote for the NPV plan as an act of contempt for the United States Constitution and as a sign of incompetence, because it takes both stupidity and contempt for the Constitution to treat such a ridiculous proposal as a serious election system.

Poem Drafts

William Dawes on the Road

Swift in the night,
the trees rushing by,
the hooves on the path
like a drummed lullaby,
Boston behind,
Concord ahead,
message in hand,
through Boston Neck sped
a horse at full speed
with lives at the stake,
Hancock to warn,
the British to break.
Will Adams be saved?
Or Concord have aid?
Midnight comes soon;
a nation is made.


Lo, this infantry
of fragile parts!
May it be fortified
fully and lastingly
by signs of allegiance,
armors of grace,
that strengthen and ease,
restoring to place:
in fight like a sword,
in wound like a balm,
in throes of death
a resurrection.


The silent north star
shines from afar
and brave men fall dead where they are.

A heather bed is cold
for loyal men and bold;
and never's account made for why.
The tale will be told
by the young and the old;
but never return those who lie.
The blood trickles far
as dark black as tar;
yes, brave men lie still where they are.