Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Automation Paradox in Science Fiction

One of the obviously ridiculous aspects of Star Trek and similar science fiction shows is that humans not only make the larger, more strategic decisions ("Attack that ship!"), they also make more detailed decisions that would certainly be automated.  There is absolutely no way, for example, that if sensors detected a vessel of unknown intentions charging their weapons the procedure would be for the weapons officer to notice this, speak to the captain, after which the captain considers the situation, eventually realizing that if shields are not raised the ship will be destroyed, so he tells the weapons officer to raise shields, which he then does.  No way!  The shields would be raised automatically.  Depending on pre-programmed decisions depending for situations matching those encountered, an automatic attack (or retreat) would probably also be launched, though the captain could disable this feature when it was deemed in appropriate. 

In fact, most of the bridge activity makes no sense whatsoever; it would mostly be replaced by automation except for the big decisions that (to be meaningful) have to be made by the humans (or Vulcans, or whatever):  things like, "Are we friends or are we enemies?"  

Engineering would not be much better.  A sailing ship of the 18th century could make most repairs using tools and materials already aboard ship, possibly with the use of raw materials (like trees) that could be obtained without further help from civilization.  If a circuit board on a modern aircraft carrier is fried, though, the ship does not have the facilities to fabricate a replacement.  The more technically sophisticated a ship is, the more dependent it is on a technically sophisticated society to supply its components.  If the Enterprise's engines were working properly, they probably would need to be controlled automatically (human reaction time again being too slow); if the engines were broken, it would probably be impossible to fix them without a tow to a shipyard.

What is interesting, though, is that increasing automation comes at a cost, the automation paradox.  As the crash of Air France flight 447 makes clear, we have already reached the point where that paradox has begun to be a problem. If that is true on a modern jetliner, it will be vastly more true on future spaceships.  

It would be interesting to see this dealt with seriously in a science fiction context.   Maybe -- just maybe -- it could be used to justify having a helmsman, a weapons officer, etc., rather than automating the whole operation.

End of the War?

Over the past couple of decades, I have the impression that the War Between the States is finally coming to an end. This is a terrible thing, because the end of that War means the end of the experiment begun by Washington and all the other Founding Fathers.

The Monitor and Merrimac

What I mean is this:  Until fairly recently, it was still possible for the supporters of either side to acknowledge the virtues of their opponents.  Thus Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles, the character played by John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, was a veteran from the Union side who was able to say when burying a veteran of the Confederate side, 
I also commend to your keeping, Sir, the soul of Rome Clay, late Brigadier General, Confederate States Army. Known to his comrades here, Sir, as Trooper John Smith, United States Cavalry... a gallant soldier and a Christian gentleman.
That couldn't happen today for several reasons.
  1. The term "Christian gentleman" would today be used only in a mocking, sneering way.
  2. People today, and certainly the media today, "think in crayon", as a friend of mine puts it.  If you are good, you had better be flawless.  If you are bad, you can have no virtues at all.  This leads to such stupidity as saying that the 9/11 terrorists were "cowards".  They were certainly lacking in the virtues of justice and charity, but it is not clear how they may have been lacking in courage. 
    (On the flip side, one hears politicians praise the "courage" of American sailors launching Tomahawk missiles at targets hundreds of miles away.  Those sailors may indeed be courageous, but they cannot demonstrate this by merely flipping a launch switch.)
  3. The American Civil War, like any war, was fought for an untold number of reasons. I think it is fair to generalize that the rich on both sides fought for the most base of reasons, their own economic and political advantage, whereas the poor on both sides fought for more noble reasons. On the Union side, this would include freedom for slaves; on the Confederate side, it would include defense of their homes and families.
    However, that picture is no longer permitted in "polite conversation".  Today the War is presented as being all about slavery and nothing but slavery, and slavery is indefensible.
So that's what I mean about the War drawing to a close:  we are left with a cartoonish view in which Confederate claims can be dismissed without being considered.

The problem with that is not merely one of historical accuracy.  The problem is that for the American system to work, there always has to be a tension between the forces tending towards greater centralization and the forces tending towards greater local independence.  There also has to be an unending discussion about the need for order and continuity vs. the rights of self-governance.   These were the great disputes between the Union and the Confederacy, as they had been earlier between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.  If we abandon these and go to one extreme, we become just another nation of European sheep, like Prussia without the cool helmets or Czarist Russia without the religion.   If we go to the other extreme, we become Somalia or Afghanistan.

Preussische Pickelhaube

(For the record, I would say that the Confederacy was punished for its sins by losing, and the Union was punished for its sins by winning. The Republicans wanted Federal Union, and now they've got it to the point where it comes out their noses and is loathsome to them, like the quail in Numbers 11.)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

And he cast out Adam: and placed before the paradise of pleasure Cherubims, and a flaming sword, turning every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. -- Genesis 3:24


And the name of the sword is Time

Because of time we cannot go back and undo what has already been done.  In the real world, our actions have real moral consequences, unlike what we see in science fiction shows that feature time travel.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Constitutionalism and the Democracy of the Dead

In Orthodoxy G.K. Chesterton said
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.
Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial, American Battle Monuments Commission

This brings into clarity the difference between those who see the US Constitution as a "living document" and those of us who see it as being bound by the original intent of its authors.  Binding its meaning to the original intent at least gives a hint as to its authority; it is, as Chesterton put it, the vote of the dead, the concrete form of tradition in American government, and its authority comes from the consent given to it by previous generations.  If it is a "living document" with no meaning other than the most recent opinions from the Supreme Court, it can have no authority greater than the Court's own authority, which derives from the consent of the present generation through a fragile and tenuous chain.

If there is no Constitution, we are as unstable as the ancient Greek democracies.  If the Constitution has no stable meaning, but is merely a rhetorical conceit used by a small group of the "best" people to enforce their will upon us, then both the majority of the living and all of the dead have lost their votes, and we are no longer a democracy.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

More on the American World View

I know from a private conversation that some of what I wrote earlier was misunderstood, so here are some further thoughts to clarify somewhat. 

Probably most people around the world tend to sympathize with the underdog.  So in 2007 when 1AA Appalachian State beat 5th-ranked Michigan, everyone who was not a Michigan fan loved it.  It was David vs. Goliath, and just like in the Bible story, the giant fell.  I'm a huge fan of Alabama football, so I was not happy with Alabama losing to Louisiana Tech in 1997 ... let alone again in 1999. 


Make no mistake, though:  I am disgusted when my team does not play to its potential, as happened in those two Louisiana Tech games, but I was delighted with the attitude shown by Bulldogs.  They could have come into those games convinced that it was hopeless, that defeat was foreordained and that there was no point in doing their best.  They didn't.  They played against Alabama on those two days, but they embodied the never-say-die spirit that I expect from the Tide.  In a way, they were more truly a concrete realization of the abstract ideal to which all Bama fans hold the Tide than our own team was; in a sense they were the true Tide that day.  Roll Tide!

So in honoring the play of Louisiana Tech that day, I am not relishing the defeat of Alabama -- far from it!  But there can come times when a concrete community -- an "ego", to steal the Freudian term -- can come into conflict with another community that better embodies the ideals -- the "superego" -- of the first group.

Now the American "superego" -- that "World View" of which I spoke before -- has always had a strong dose of David vs. Goliath.  It could not have been otherwise.  At the time of the American Revolution, and again in the War of 1812, the British Empire was basically a superpower.  The Monroe Doctrine was something of a joke when it was introduced in 1823; it's not like the US would have been able to do anything meaningful to enforce the doctrine.

1816 Constitution Escape engr byWHoogland NavalMonument LC

When, in the book and movie The Mouse that Roared, the tiny country of Grand Fenwick declared war on the United States, it was (almost) taking on the same archetypal role that the US took on in the War of 1812.  ("Almost" because the government of Grand Fenwick had no intention of winning the war, something no American would expect of his government until perhaps the Korean War.)  The declaration of war on the United States by the Cherokees that is mentioned in The Outlaw Jose Wales fits the bill even more perfectly, because the Cherokee were serious and the provocations against them had sadly been all too real.  (I don't succumb to the "noble savage" stereotype any more than to the "wild Indian" stereotype; like most stereotypes they each have a nugget of truth but fail to describe the individual variations.  However, I don't see any way to justify the Trail of Tears.)

So far, it's not clear how uniquely American any of this is.  After all, the world is full of small countries that enjoy seeing the big boys taken down a few pegs, and many countries have "outlaw" folk heroes, like Robin Hood or William Tell.

However, I think another part of American history comes into play, and that is the fact that this country was founded as a democratic republic.  This makes us different than a country like the United Kingdom, which would have been called a European monarchy two centuries ago and is called a European democracy today, though in fact little has changed in its form of government.  We are also different than France, which was originally and for most of its history a monarchy, then a republic, then an empire, then a monarchy again, etc.  The histories of Germany and Italy are even more complicated, and certainly unlike that of the US.  We are unlike Canada in that we had to fight for independence, rather than gradually and nonviolently drifting away from the colonizing power. 

As citizens of a democratic republic, we have an obligation summed up in three quotations:

  1. "Who will watch the watch-guards?"  -- Juvenal.  In our form of government, it is the responsibility of the citizenry to watch the watch-guards.  We do this by being well-educated, setting high standards for those in office, and seeing to it that they are held accountable for any abuses of power.
  2. "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."  -- Thomas Jefferson.  This states directly the idea implied above. 
  3. "A Republic, if you can keep it."  -- Benjamin Franklin.  It is possible that he originally meant keep it from being overthrown by the British, but I have always thought he meant keep it from evolving back into another monarchy or dictatorship.  Since this was Ben Franklin, he probably meant both.

This attitude of watchfulness is certainly akin to suspicion, but perhaps slightly different from it, since there is no implied expectation of finding abuses of power that must be corrected.  However, history is so full of such abuses that that expectation is certainly present.  On the whole, it is probably healthier for the Republic to have a distrustful view of government in general and the presidency in particular, such as predominated in the aftermath of Watergate, rather than to have a worshipful attitude such as predominated during FDR's presidency.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Is Chupacabras a Terror Bird?

The answer, of course, is almost certainly not, but the idea occurred to me when reading a recently posted description of a sighting in Texas:
The features we both noted were: About four to five feet tall and ran on the two hind feet. The knees bent backward, not forward as a human’s. It made it across the road in three or four seconds. It had the body of a slim small child, not like a fat kangaroo. The arms chugged back and forth like a person running. The head had a pointed chin and a pointed top at the back like a rooster’s comb. The body looked gray or some other dark color. The thing looked to be an alien to both of us. We have never seen a picture of any [conventional] animal that resembled what we saw. It seems there have been many sightings of such a thing in the past. These are found on the Internet under Chupacabras.

Phorusrhacos 04985

Many of the features described sound distinctly bird-like:
  • It is bipedal.
  • Its "knees" bend "backward".  (Birds' knees don't actually bend "backward"; what people mistake for knees are actually ankles.  Birds have fairly short legs but very long feet, and they run on their toes.)
  • The "rooster's comb" is compared by the witness himself to an avian feature. 
  • The "sharp chin" sounds compatible with a beak. 
It so happens that there was a giant, flightless bird in Texas a few million years ago.  Titanis walleri was a so-called terror bird, the only one known to have migrated up from South America when a land bridge finally formed between the two continents; fossils of it have been found both in Texas and in Florida.  Furthermore, it does not seem to have been able to have folded its wings back in the same way most other birds do; perhaps the motion of the wings as it ran would have looked like "arms chugg[ing] back and forth like a person running."  

However, if there were a breeding population able to sustain the species through the many millenia since their last known fossil, it should have been seen much more often.  If Bigfoot is unlikely, a surviving terror bird is even more unlikely.  This is more a topic for fiction than an hypothesis for serious science. 

In fact, a Google search shows that the idea that the "Chupacabras" might be a terror bird had already occurred to others, and in fact there is a novel (The Flock, by James Robert Smith) about terror birds surviving in central Florida.  As animatronics at Epcot Center, maybe; otherwise, I'm afraid not.

So what did these people see in Texas?  My guess is some other large bird.  Maybe it was wounded, or maybe they so little expected to see a large bird that their brains tried to find other categories for what they glimpsed -- and remember, all they got was a glimpse.  I'd be inclined to guess a sandhill crane, but it's hard to imagine its long beak being mistaken for anything other than a beak. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

A Beast Coming Up Out the Sea

La Bête de la Mer

And I saw a beast coming up out the sea, having seven heads and ten horns: and upon his horns, ten diadems: and upon his heads, names of blasphemy. 
-- Apocalypse 13:1
I was surfing the web tonight and stumbled across a reference to an organization that calls itself the "Sea of Faith Network".  It is dedicated to the idea that religion is false, but useful: a human creation that may help direct society in desirable ways.

Now, I am convinced by arguments based on Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and private revelation that the emergence of the Antichrist cannot happen until several prophecies are first fulfilled, several of which seem unlikely to occur within our lifetimes.  That said, the idea at the core of the "Sea of Faith Network" provides precisely the background from which any number of antichrists might emerge, each bringing enough misery and spiritual danger that it would scarcely comfort those who suffer because of them to be told, "Don't fret; this is just an antichrist, not the Antichrist."

The fact that this organization has chosen to name itself a "sea" is thus ... creepy.  Even creepier is the fact that the man who founded the group is an ex Anglican priest, so he will have been familiar with Revelation 13:1.

And he shall make no account of the God of his fathers: and he shall follow the lust of women, and he shall not regard any gods: for he shall rise up against all things.  But he shall worship the god Maozim, in his place: and a god whom his fathers knew not, he shall worship with gold, and silver, and precious stones, and things of great price.
 -- Daniel 11:37,38

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Спаси Господи, люди Твоя

Спаси Господи, люди Твоя, 
и благослови достояние Твое, 
победы православным христианом
на сопротивныя даруя, 
и Твоё сохраняя Крестом Твоим жительство.

Note:   The translation is as follows.
O Lord, save Thy people,
And protect thy inheritance.
Grant great victories to the Orthodox Christians
Over their adversaries,
And by virtue of Thy Cross, 
Preserve Thy habitation.
See here for more details.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Mouse That Roared

Flag grand fenwick

One of the unusual things about the United States is the reaction that can be expected from an American to these lines from The Mouse That Roared:

Prime Minister Count Rupert Mountjoy:  I move we declare war on the United States of America.
Benter:  As leader of the party of the common man, I say that war is reprehensible, barbaric, unforgivable, and unthinkable. And I second the motion. 

or to this line from The Outlaw Jose Wales:

Lone Watie:  We thought about it for a long time, "Endeavor to persevere." And when we had thought about it long enough, we declared war on the Union.

That is, an American can be fairly reliably counted on to say, "Yeah!"  I don't think the same reaction could be expected of any other country -- certainly not with the same certainty. 

So what's going on?  I think the difference is that the United States is not just a nation.  Heck, from an ethnic point of view, the United States really isn't a nation at all, at least not the way the English and the Cherokee are.  But the point is, the United States is not just a political regime or even a political philosophy, though it is those, too.  

The United States is one of those few(?) countries that is also a World View.  In particular, it is the World View of a frontier people:  a people whose ancestors not only sacrificed the familiarity of Europe* to make a new start for themselves, in many cases they were specifically trying to get away from something that could not be escaped in "civilization", whether that was political or religious oppression, family or class expectations, or even bad personal decisions.  As time went on and the coasts became more "civilized", the same pressures pushed more recent generations across the Appalachians, then across the Mississippi, and finally across the Rockies.  There was always the idea that if things got too bad, one could escape to the frontier and start over again, and a corresponding distrust of the institutions that were being fled.

Such attitudes sat comfortably at least until the Spanish-American War.  The US was still expanding into the wilderness, immigration was contributing significantly to population growth, and the US was only a regional power.  Those same attitudes fit less well to a settled country with cell phone and internet access practically everywhere, where immigration is not so much causing growth as preventing the population from shrinking, and which is not merely a superpower, but has arrogantly (and mistakenly) declared itself to be the only remaining superpower.  There has always been something of a tendency to see the US government as precisely the kind of bully that the very spirit of America rebels against, going back to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 and of course most prominently displayed in the War Between the States. 

 In light of these considerations, several questions suggest themselves. 
  1. Do other countries with historical frontiers think the same way?  Russia has Siberia, but the two cases certainly do not seem to be parallel.  What about Australia?  Australians seem to have the same kind of love of frontier independence, but I'm not sure it manifests itself so much in distrust of their own government. 
  2. What effect has almost 70 years as a clear superpower had on this part of the American personality?  (My guess is not much.)
  3. As the frontier fades into memory and the ability to escape and start over is lost forever, what effect will this have?  (My guess is we will look more and more like an EU country and less and less distinctively American.)
  4. How many other nations can be said to be not just a particular place and people, but a kind of World View?  Some revolutionary countries might fit that description -- France just after the French Revolution and the Soviet Union, for example -- but to me at least they don't retain that identity for long.  It's tempting to say Israel, but in many ways they are the opposite of what I mean; the philosophy of Israel is particular to the extreme rather than being universal to the extreme.  Any other suggestions?

* Yes, I know that not everyone's ancestors came from Europe.  That doesn't really matter, though; the World View I am describing is, or at least has been, as ubiquitous in America as the English language, even though not everyone's ancestors spoke English, either.
The only practical definition of a superpower is in terms of what it can destroy, and Russia still has enough nukes to wipe out us and the rest of modern civilization. Fortunately, it seems much less likely that anything like that will happen than it did when I was a child.