Back to the Quote Mines

Holidays are over, family has gone home, and I’ve handed off the time-consuming part of my job to a new hire – time to pick up where I left off.

Easing back into things, I spent a half hour or so every day this past week extracting from my commonplace books anything that could serve as a Silas Hudson quote. The original idea was to publish it as a standalone piece akin to Heinlein’s Notebooks of Lazarus Long.*

Whether or not that happens, it will at least be a useful background resource. Much of the material ascribable to Hudson concerns technocracy, a personal hobbyhorse and one of the themes of Book 2 and especially Book 3.

The unexpected part of this side project is discovering that I have plenty of material to do the same for both Aaron Jacobsen and Martin Beech and the themes they represent. It’s an imposing amount of material to sift through: 30+ commonplace books and 1800+ index cards. And then there are all the books with margin notes…

* – Looking at the fulltext on the Baen website, I see I’m going to have to fisk it at some point. Long’s “wisdom” seemed a lot wiser when I was lot naiver.

Managerialism: Where the MDA is Headed

In a nutshell, a managerial state, implemented (enforced) via MAs: The China Convergence.

I haven’t finished the article yet, but the first several pages neatly summarize my thinking on where the MDA is headed in the second and third books, based on my reading of Burnham, Reimann, Orwell, Wells, Scott, and others.

This managerial system developed into several overlapping, interlinked sectors that can be roughly divided into and categorized as: the managerial state, the managerial economy, the managerial intelligentsia, the managerial mass media, and managerial philanthropy. Each of these five sectors features its own slightly unique species of managerial elite, each with its own roles and interests. But each commonly acts out of its own interest to reinforce and protect the interests of the other sectors, and the system as a whole. All of the sectors are bound together by a shared interest in the expansion of technical and mass organizations, the proliferation of managers, and the marginalization of  nonmanagerial elements.

Interesting that art is imitating life here for a change.

My own imagined version of this based on reading Burnham is a managerial system so integrated that the sectors defined by Lyons are indistinguishable, having been systematically dismantled and rebuilt as a seamless whole.

The catch in implementing any totalitarian state has always been achieving the total part: total control requires total legibility and total ‘actionability’. If you are obliged to carry an electronic communications device in your pocket at all times, and you use it in some capacity (even just its passive presence) in every interaction with another human, it’s trivial for the state in question to harvest all the data about your thoughts and actions they could ever need. And with a machine simulacrum of intelligence to analyze it, to find subtle actions and interventions it can take to achieve its goals and eliminate dissent before it can become a problem – indeed, before the dissenters even become aware of their dissent.

Of what use are crude tools of surveillance and control like the gulag, Gestapo, Stasi, Pitešti, Room 101, struggle sessions, brainwashing, social credit, etc. when you have technology through which you can precisely spot the patterns and trends in an individual’s thoughts early, even before he does, and nudge him in a safer (for you) and more productive (for your interests) direction without his awareness?

A system of this kind, implemented objectively and with the right overall goals, could indeed be a utopia – all discontent headed off by the right incentives and disincentives applied automatically at the right moment, all personal potential optimized with targeted opportunities and constructive interferences appearing at the right moments, etc. Each subject might see himself as the luckiest man in the world as he reflects on his unbroken string of good fortune and near-misses…as if there is someone watching out for him.

But, humans being humans, we all know a system of this kind could not and would not be implemented in such a way. As we see with things like the Google algorithm, biases, pettiness, misanthropy, ideology, etc. would prevent an objective implementation. It would be impossible for anyone capable of implementing such a system to allow it to apply positive nudges to people they see as undeserving, e.g. giving a frustrated young antisemite an art-school scholarship so as to focus his energies on something rewarding and constructive – and equally impossible to avoid programming it to sadistically apply negative nudges to those they feel deserve them.

A Litmus Test of the “Scientifically Minded”

Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind  has been making the rounds over the past year or so (despite originally having been published in 1976 – I blame Westworld.)

I read it last summer, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was wholly skeptical of the premise as I had encountered it prior to reading the book, in particular the shift from bicamerality to unicamerality/consciousness happening in such a brief period over such a wide area. (Spoiler: a good part of it is driven by the advent and diffusion of literacy.)

The book was not at all what I was expecting. It’s a deep dive into the anthropology and history of archaic cultures and early civilizations, particularly those of the Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, and what our knowledge (as of the mid-1970s) tells us about their conception of knowledge and its origins, what that reveals about the structure and operation of their minds, and how these things evolved over thousands of years – first glacially and then all at once.

There are plenty of summaries and analyses of the book and Jaynes’ ideas, however, so I’ll focus instead on an aspect that I find particularly interesting: the reaction to it all.

My take is pretty common, and I would say properly scientific: the book is a flood of interesting ideas and conjectures, some of which are argued more convincingly than others, but which overall are very thought-provoking and point in a potentially useful and informative direction. One can and should read it (as all science books) with open-minded skepticism, and tease out the useful threads of inquiry. As I’ve seen it put by several readers, Jaynes may not have hit a home run, but he’s definitely on the field – however flawed or limited, there is a “there” there that merits consideration and further exploration.

And then there are the reactions from the “scientifically-minded”.

Because it’s not wholly-accepted and Expert-Approved Science, or employs some evidence which has been overturned in subsequent decades, or engages in conjecture which is (of necessity given the antiquity of the examples) unfalsifiable, they write the whole thing off as pseudoscience.

Which is itself an unscientific attitude to take, but one which is all-too-common among those who fucking love Science™ but are utterly bereft of the curiosity and ability to think independently which are essential to true science. If science is supposed to be about the discovery of knowledge and the development of understanding about reality, closing one’s mind to new ideas and dismissing potential insights in this manner is plainly counterproductive.

Silas Hudson on Innovation

“Innovative people respond to incentives, just like anyone. You can’t punish them for innovating or taking rational risks and expect them to continue to do so. Nor can you merely deny them the rewards, recognition, and returns for their efforts without creating an atmosphere of indifference which is every bit as stagnating as an openly hostile one.”

Testimony before the House Science, Technology,  and Space Policy Subcommittee, March 13, 2046

Contrasting Views on What Science Is

While I’ve been bashing Sagan lately, he does get some things right about what science is supposed to be. However, despite his flaws as a writer/ranter, Bruce Charlton in Not Even Trying does a far better job of defining what science ought to be (along with what it actually is, which is something else entirely).

My reading notes on his take:

  • Reality exists independently of our knowledge of it;
  • Reality is coherent/integrated/consistent – there are no contradictions, no isolated phenomena cut off and unrelated from other phenomena or the rest of reality (as our siloed scientific disciplines and areas of study imply);
  • Our knowledge and understanding of reality are always provisional and incomplete (Sagan actually gets this);
  • Science is an intellectual tool (or suite of tools) we use to observe reality and to form and test ideas as to its nature, one with in-built methods for minimizing the effects on its function of our intellectual and cognitive biases and the natural limitations of our observational and cognitive capabilities;
  • The purpose of “science” as a tool is to expand our knowledge and understanding of reality while bringing them ever closer in line with reality as it is;
  • The process of science must follow strict rules of inquiry, reasoning, and methodology and those performing it must demonstrate strict honesty, integrity, and independence (and an obsessive fascination with the subject) for the output of the process to have any value;
  • “Science” in the sense of the corpus of knowledge and understanding of reality generated by scientific processes is not reality itself, nor is it a holy idol to be worshipped (e.g. “IFLS!” types), but our current best map of reality and nothing more.

I’m sure there are some holes in the above, terms I’ve left undefined, etc., but it’s clearer, more concise, and more complete than what definition Sagan presents in The Demon-Haunted World, and without the smug, patronizing, and self-important tone.

And I think Sagan himself would probably agree with the gist of it.

“The Probably Likely Demon-Haunted World”

In skimming back through Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, I’m struck by something that didn’t catch my attention when I read it a year ago – or nearly did, to judge by my margin notes, but not consciously so.

And no, it’s not his smug, patronizing tone (impossible to miss), nor the tiresome and cliché takes on various subjects presented as deep thoughts. It’s his very unscientific writing throughout the book.

Isn’t it more reasonable that…[his own interpretation, presented without evidence]?”

A friend of mine claims…[some plainly sockpuppeted assertion].”

…although these estimates are probably too high...[presented without reasoning to back up the claim]”

“…is an interesting question.” [a rhetorical one he then leaves unanswered]

“…clearly these factors are playing a role.” [on which he doesn’t elaborate further]

Is there really any alternative but Explanation X and Explanation Y?’ 

What does that imply about ___ ?” [another question he asks but doesn’t answer, leaving the reader to fill in the implication he’s too chickenshit to spell out himself]

“In more than one case…”, and “…the single German city of Wuerzburg in the single year 1598…” [(emphasis added) using a small number of examples to imply the general case, with no indication of how representative it actually is]

Their story seems very plausible, though I have no evidence.’ [an “argument” he would surely not accept from anyone with ideas differing from his own]

How could [incredulous misrepresentation of some matter he wishes to deride and debunk]?’

…And a bunch more that I only made short notes on after consciously noticing it.

In a book aiming in part to expose the soft thinking and intellectual shenanigans behind popular woo, this weaselry comes across as annoyingly hypocritical at best, if not intellectually dishonest. It’s exactly the kind of thing one encounters in the works of those he is debunking here: unsupported assertions, conjectures presented as fact, obvious fallacies, conclusions implied but left unstated, etc..

I’d always assumed that Sagan was the authentic science popularizer – actually super-intelligent and hyper-rational and intellectually powerful, unlike the pair of dimwits who succeeded him. I’ll grant that reading a single one of his books is hardly an exhaustive study of the man’s mind – to be fair given my criticism above, I have to acknowledge that this one book may be representative, but it could be better than or worse than his other works, or even not comparable. That said, I was underwhelmed with what I perceived of it the first time I read The Demon-Haunted World, and have been even less impressed on the second pass.

Sagan on Scientific Inquiry

Looking back through my margin notes in Sagan’s The Demon Haunted WorldI found this:

There are no forbidden questions in science, no matters too sensitive or delicate to be probed, no sacred truths.

He couldn’t say that honestly today.

Indeed, there are many such observations in the book that don’t hold up 25 years later, or even as well as they did a year ago when I first read it. So much so that I question whether they were accurate when he wrote it, or whether his entire stated conception of science was even at that time aspirational rather than descriptive.

He does indeed present an idealized conception of the culture and philosophy and conduct science, what these could and should be. The catch is he’s describing these things as if they already are that way, rather than increasingly diverging from the vision he articulates.

Melodrama and Bootstrapping

Came across this trailer the other day:

I haven’t watched any of the series, only a couple of other snippets, so I don’t know what the content is actually like, but this trailer put me off ever finding out.

When it first came out, I watched a couple of clips showing the launch of a Truax SeaDragon which, given my background and paired with the alternative history angle, piqued my interest.

This looks like…crap. Melodramatic crap. Soap opera crap on Mars. I mean, sure, the spaceships look fun, but the characters and their interactions look insufferable.

No thanks.

One of the comments caught my attention, however:

All “space colony” stories on TV and movies either stop short of the actual colonization, or skip the colonization part and move straight to how the colony was destroyed or how colonies fought against each other.

Okay, so we’re not TV or movies, but…Hello? We’re right here… That’s a major point of the entire Ares Project universe: showing the initial development stages of Mars settlement, the part that everyone else skips over.

Martian Technology: Science Pins and Pingers

These devices have been featured so far in In the Shadow of Ares and quite prominently in Redlands and He Has Walled Me In.

A science pin, as described in ItSoA, is a device shaped like a scaled-up golf tee, with a stem 1-1.5m long, and a head 100-150mm across and anywhere from 50mm to 400mm tall. The stem contains common power generation, storage, and management functions, and in the field is mounted to a peg or sleeve drilled or driven into the soil or rock.  The head consists of one or more cylindrical modules of different heights and a wide variety of functions. These modules thread together at the center with a common physical and electrical interface.

In all applications there is a communications and C&DH (command and data handling) module. This module links the pin to local and satellite communications networks, as well as to specialized instruments such as seismometer arrays or deep soil probes which are not located on the pin itself.

Modularity and standardization make it possible for science pins to be quickly emplaced and easily maintained, and readily upgraded with new or additional instruments as needed. The size and external features of the modules make them easy for suited settlers to handle with gloved hands.

Lindsay Jacobsen is shown in ItSoA maintaining a science pin she had previously deployed to monitor ground water for evidence of biological activity.

In HHWMI, Leon Toa has a strange encounter with a strange science pin in the Wilds.

Redlands prominently features a gold-plated science pin, and the action is set at one of the settlements where the devices are manufactured.

In Ghosts of Tharsis, we introduce a specialized application of the science pin concept, the “pinger”. A pinger is a science pin used as a navigation aid, particularly during mild to moderate dust storms when travel by rover is still somewhat feasible. The head of a typical pinger is a single mass-produced module containing navigation strobes and the power storage required to operate them for a month or more. The head is crowned with a passive reflector that rover navigation radars can use for distance and triangulation measurements.

Pingers at intervals and in problem-prone locations include additional instruments to monitor local weather conditions and transmit them back to a central data hub for use in travel planning.

A real-world approximation of Martian navigation pingers
A real-world approximation of what Martian navigation pingers along a rover track might look like (Öskjuvatn, Iceland).

I particularly liked the idea of reusing science pin components as the basis of navigation aids, as it reflects a potential real-world solution to the problems of navigating across a landscape with minimally-developed roadways prone to obscuring by dust. It has the added benefit of eliminating the ability of the MDA to bring to a halt surface transportation among the independents by scrambling the signals from the positioning satellites on which they have a Charter-granted monopoly. But most importantly for our purposes as authors, it makes possible a dramatic rover chase in a Class 1 dust storm…