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There’s no premarital sex in Utopia

Thomas More writes in the book Utopia (as translated by Paul Turner):

Any boy or girl convicted of premarital intercourse is severely punished, and permanently disqualified from marrying, unless this sentence is remitted by the Mayor. The man and woman in charge of the household in which it happens are also publicly disgraced, for not doing their jobs properly. The Utopians are particularly strict about that kind of thing, because they think very few people would want to get married – which means spending one’s whole life with the same person, and putting up with all the inconveniences that this involves – if they weren’t carefully prevented from having any sexual intercourse otherwise.

Thomas More would not have been surprised that, after the so-called sexual revolution, when the belief that premarital sex is sinful came to replaced with the belief that people who don’t have premarital sex are losers, the result would be a severe decline in marriage.

We have a lot sociologists today who are befuddled by the decline, but the relationship between premarital sex and the desire to get married was plain old common sense to a guy living in the early 1500s.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

March 16, 2017 at 1:06 pm

Rare interview of Frank McCourt at Stuyvesant in 1987

This was posted on YouTube with the following explanation:

In 1987 a documentary was made about my pal Moishe on the occasion of his going to grad school – since he was a graduate of NYC’s famed Stuyvesant HS, we went down to tape some teachers recollections of Moishe….we happened upon future pulitzer prize winning author of Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt (and one of Moishe’s teachers) and this never before footage was shot of Mr. McCourt musing about his former student – this was incidentally just before he retired from teaching to embark upon his second career as a famed writer….he was also my teacher as well and I have very fond memories of him….rest in peace, Frank.

This is the real Frank McCourt I remember as a high school teacher and not the older Frank McCourt who everyone respected as a famous author.

What was it like having him as a teacher? Well every day you got a dose of that dry acerbic wit. I found it very entertaining.

You will notice the following about this interview:

1. He remembers two things about Moishe: (a) that he was a “character” who wasn’t serious and found everything hilarious, and (b) that he was a “Queens type” and not a Manhattan type. Can you detect the subtle condescension of the outer boroughs?

2. When he learns that Moishe attended Queens College, I think I also detect more condescension about his choice of college.

3. The spiel at the end about how he wants to be at Moishe’s wedding is an example of McCourt saying stuff that you assume is a joke and not to be taken seriously, yet it’s not so outlandish that it’s impossible to discount that he might actually want to attend Moishe’s wedding. That was typical McCourt. I never knew when he was being serious and when he was BSing (although in this case it seems 95% likely that it’s BS). And that’s why I am sure that a lot of the stuff in his memoir is made up and he was secretly laughing over how everyone believed it.

4. He also manages to complain about his low salary as a teacher.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

March 6, 2017 at 11:10 pm

Posted in Books, Education

Have Space Suit—Will Travel by Robert Heinlein (spoilers)

I think this is an overrated Heinlein juvenile novel. There’s some interesting stuff at the end, but in order get there you have to get through a lot of boy stuff.

It takes place in the relatively near future in which men are just beginning to colonize the moon. Teenage boy lives in small town in flyover country that feels exactly like the 1950s and not the future. Boy’s dad is like the dad in every other Heinlein juvenile novel, preaching extreme self-reliance.

Boy wins a used space suit in a contest sponsored by a soap company. (Soap? Heinlein predicted space travel, but failed to see that detergent would replace soap? And that detergents and soaps combined would become a very minor part of the economy?)

Massive amount of copy devoted to explaining the technical details of how space suits work. Various plot elements are contrived so that boy needs to wear the space suit. Boy, supposedly not the best student in his school, knows more about science and math than most valedictorians.

That stuff out of the way, the interesting stuff at the end is that all of humanity is put on trial by a federation of aliens, and the boy is forced to represent mankind. The aliens believe that humans are violent and warlike, and if our technology continues to progress at such rapid speed, we would become a threat to the peaceful races of the galaxies. The punishment, if found guilty, is that all mankind would be destroyed. The aliens are not exactly the merciful Christian good guys.

Good news for mankind: we are given a reprieve and will be re-evaluated again sometime in the future.

Some people think that Heinlein was an evil fascist because he proposed a government in Starship Trooper in which only military veterans are allowed to vote. But the reality is that Heinlein was interested in exploring different ideas and one shouldn’t assume any one novel represents his true beliefs. In this book, he proposes an idea that I associate with liberal leftist science fiction, that mankind is barbaric compared to civilized alien races. This type of liberal leftist science fiction is demonstrated by the movie Arrival in which the aliens come with a gift for mankind, but mankind, paranoid and barbaric, launches a military attack on the peaceful aliens.

On the other hand, the Heinlein aliens, by even contemplating the harsh punishment of genocide of all humans, are much more evil than humans, at least by modern standards of judging good and evil, so there’s sort of a jumble of liberal and conservative science fiction ideas.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

February 24, 2017 at 1:34 pm

Posted in Books

iPad as ebook reader

With my older iPad 4th gen, it was a tossup for indoor reading whether I preferred the iPad or a dedicated Kobo ebook reader that uses an e-paper display with a backlight.

I appreciated the larger size of the iPad, what with me getting older and having presbyopia, but it was heavy enough to be fatiguing and there was the glossy screen.

With the lighter weight of the iPad Pro and the less reflective screen, for indoor reading the iPad Pro is a clear win over the Kobo reader (unless you’re really opposed to a lit screen, which doesn’t bother me because I’m used to spending hours a day looking at a computer screen, and I suspect all of you are also used to it).

I took the iPad Pro outside around noon on a February day in New York City with hazy sun, and I found that the new display on the iPad Pro was perfectly acceptable in the shade, and still readable in direct (hazy February) sunlight although the Kobo reader with the e-paper display is much preferable for the February midday hazy direct sunlight.

Although in the previous iPad Pro post I pointed out the iPad Pro runs about 10 times faster than the older iPad, the older iPad is more than fast enough to read books and in fact is much zippier than the Kobo reader.

* * *

A few years ago, a co-worker had his iPad stolen by black youth in a grab and run (he didn’t say the perp’s race but I’m reading between the lines given the demographics of the location where the crime happened) while waiting for public transportation. So there’s a benefit to using a cheaper e-paper reader on public transportation, one that doesn’t have all your passwords and other secret stuff embedded in it.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

February 21, 2017 at 12:06 pm

Posted in Books, Technology

Universal suffrage, STEM, and Heinlein

From the book Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (Heinlein’s last juvenile novel):

Dad says that anyone who can’t use a slide rule is a cultural illiterate and should not be allowed to vote.

1. While government by military veterans was unique to Starship Troopers, a more common theme in Heinlein’s novels was opposition to universal suffrage and a belief that we’d have better government if voting were restricted to the more capable.

I have no doubt that Heinlein would support voter ID laws. He would reason that anyone who doesn’t have a photo ID in the year 2016 (a requirement to have a job as well as for a whole bunch of other very basic activities) doesn’t have enough “skin in the game” to be allowed to vote.

2. Heinlein had a much higher esteem for STEM-type learning than he did for the liberal arts, and this is seen in a large number of his novels.

In the comments on conservative blogs, I see the same high esteem for STEM and disdain for other types of learning. This is one of the reasons why I think that Heinlein’s influence on libertarian-conservative types is a lot stronger than people realize.

3. Once again, I can’t resist pointing out that in 1958 Heinlein envisioned space suits and manned interplanetary travel, but he had no idea that slide rules had less than twenty years before they’d be obsolete.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

December 22, 2016 at 8:02 pm

Posted in Books

Starship Troopers, the movie

Based on the novel by Robert A. Heinlein, but also based on a screenplay about an interstellar war against bugs that was independent from the novel.

I think I last read the novel in the early 2000s, so my memory of the novel is a little fuzzy, but it’s well known that the novel is a coming of age story about a young man who graduates from high school and then joins the military, it’s a science fiction novel about an interstellar war against bugs in which the soldiers wear these super-suits (and the suits were not in the movie), and it’s speculation about a future government in which only people (men or women) who served in the military are considered to be “citizens” and are allowed to vote.

It’s the future government part of the book that, for some reason, really triggers liberals. This is not a form of government that Heinlein is married to, he just liked to mix things up and explore different future possibilities. In the previous two books I reviewed recently, Orphans of the Sky features a theocracy and Double Star a parliamentary monarchy, sort of like the United Kingdom but where the emperor seems to exert a little more power than Queen Elizabeth II (or maybe the message of that book is that behind the scenes, the monarchs in constitutional monarchies are more active in manipulating the government than they let on in public). Heinlein even wrote a book, For Us, The Living, in which he presents a communist government as the ideal. Heinlein obviously had a curiosity and imagination that modern liberals lack.

When I first saw the movie in 1997, I was more clueless about this stuff than I am today. I just figured that they made a really bad movie unintentionally, because they weren’t very smart. However, the Wikipedia article has the truth.

Verhoeven had never read the book, and attempted to read it for the film, but it made him “bored and depressed”, so he read only a few chapters:

I stopped after two chapters because it was so boring,…It is really quite a bad book. I asked Ed Neumeier to tell me the story because I just couldn’t read the thing. It’s a very right-wing book.[6]

In a 2014 interview on The Adam Carolla Show, actor Michael Ironside, who read the book as a youth, said he asked Verhoeven, who grew up in Nazi-occupied Netherlands, “Why are you doing a right-wing fascist movie?” Verhoeven replied, “If I tell the world that a right-wing, fascist way of doing things doesn’t work, no one will listen to me. So I’m going to make a perfect fascist world: everyone is beautiful, everything is shiny, everything has big guns and fancy ships, but it’s only good for killing fucking bugs!”

So here we have a director, Verhoeven, who is so arrogant that he thinks he doesn’t even need to read the book in order to direct a movie supposedly based on said book, and instead he sets out intentionally to make it a bad movie.

In order to make the movie as bad as possible, the background story is introduced through news reels and TV commercials that are silly and comical, not to be taken seriously, a parody of what Verhoeven thinks that the book is about, even though he didn’t actually read the book. Everything in the movie is over-the-top and beyond belief.

But Verhoeven knew that if he stuffed the movie with the best-looking young actresses and actors that he could find, and turned up the violence and gore to a level never seen before, horny young men would enjoy the movie anyway even though it’s a bad movie. And I have to admit, it’s a real treat to watch 26-year-old Denise Richards acting as flirtatious as possible in every scene in the movie. 29-year-old Dina Meyers was also very enjoyable to watch as the more tomboyish and buff but still beautiful Dizzy Flores who had a crush on Johnny Rico, played by 29-year-old Casper Van Dien.

The characters have Hispanic last names because they come from Buenos Aries, and in the book Johnny Rico is actually supposed to be Filipino, but everyone knows that fascists have to be Aryan types, so Verhoeven has a convenient excuse to whitewash the minority characters and replace them with blue-eyed white people.

There is also the blue-eyed actor who previously played Doogie Howser who is surprisingly good looking in a “fascist” military uniform.

The characters start out as high school graduates, but everyone looks way too old to be fresh out of high school.

In the book, the bugs started the war and humans were unable to negotiate with them, but in the movie it’s hinted that the humans invaded bug space and refused to leave. Why? Because fascist governments, you know, are evil.

For the movie, the designers created sets and clothing that remind you of Nazi Germany, because, you know, fascists always look just like 1930s Germany.

Does fascism even have a real definition, or is it just the ultimate liberal bogeyman? The government in Starship Troopers is more progressive than the United States in 1960. Society was racially diverse and colorblind, the world was united under a single world government (isn’t that the goal of liberals?), and unlike the United States at that time there was no military draft; service in the military was completely voluntary, and even after you joined the military you were free to drop out at any time.

In a recent article from November of this year, Verhoeven is outraged that Columbia Pictures is remaking Starship Troopers based on the actual book (which he didn’t read) and then segues into an attack on Donald Trump.

* * *

If you look at pictures of Denise Richards today, you will observe that hasn’t aged very well. So sad. But Dina Meyer still looks very good at 48.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

December 21, 2016 at 2:25 pm

Posted in Books, Movies

The importance of Heinlein

I know that some readers are thinking, “Why are you wasting your time with posts about a long-dead science fiction writer? That’s stuff for nerds. We want to hear more about Donald Trump.”

I think, maybe, that Heinlein is more important than anyone realizes. I sense that most of the libertarian arguments I see today don’t actually come from Ayn Rand, but they come from Heinlein. Heinlein’s endorsement of libertarianism is a lot more subtle and less in-your-face than Ayn Rand’s novels. However, Heinlein’s novels are a lot more readable. And Heinlein understood that novels can be a powerful form of influence. You are much more likely to accept a new idea if first you come to identify with a character, and then the character comes to believe in the idea based on events that happen to him, even though the whole situation is a fictional setup by the author.

Heinlein’s novels were probably read by most white American engineering types when they were teenagers (at least the older ones), and that’s why engineering types veer so strongly libertarian.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

December 20, 2016 at 12:01 pm

Posted in Books, Libertarianism

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

During a period in which Heinlein was mostly writing science fiction for teenage boys, there is this novel from 1956 aimed at an adult audience, with a focus on politics.

An out-of-work actor, Lorenzo Smythe, is conned into taking on a job to impersonate the leader of a political party, John Joseph Bonforte, because that leader has been kidnapped, yet he must attend an important ceremony on Mars otherwise he will offend the Martians (these are extraterrestrial alien Martians, not humans living on Mars) and the opportunity to have peace with them will be closed off.

One of the twists is that the actor is racist against Martians and passionately hates them, while the politician he is to impersonate wants to give Martians the right to vote. A common theme in many of Heinlein’s novels is that there is a message against bigotry and discrimination using extraterrestrials (or mutants in the novel Orphans of the Sky) as stand-ins for the known human races of the 1900s.

And how is Lorenzo convinced to do this job and attend a Martian ceremony when he even finds the smell of Martians to be absolutely repugnant? The answer is that he is hypnotized by Bonforte’s personal doctor to find the smell of Martians pleasant. I am pretty sure that hypnotism can’t do that, especially not in a single session in which the patient is hypnotized unwillingly, but hey, that’s why it’s science fiction. But what practical advice does it give us for overcoming problems of bigotry in the present given that hypnosis isn’t an option? I plan to write more about Heinlein and race in a future post.

This book has one important female character (which is one more than in some of Heinlein’s other early novels), Bonforte’s personal secretary Penny. Penny is presented as very competent at her job, but unlike the male characters she is much more emotional, and even faints in one scene after hearing bad news, something that the male characters would never do. The message from the novel is that women can only flourish in important jobs under the direction of a strong male like Bonforte, or eventually under Lorenzo.

The main message of the book is that a politician is more than just himself, he is also his inner circle of advisors. The politician himself can be replaced by an impostor, and if he’s a good enough actor, it would be the same thing: or perhaps even better because the actor is better at giving rousing speeches. It should be noted that Heinlein wrote this eleven years before Ronald Reagan became governor of California. And of course we know that Ronald Reagan eventually became President. So although Heinlein was bad at predicting the kinds of technology we’d be using in the future, he was prescient in predicting that actors would become politicians because of the expanding role of television which was at its very infancy in 1956.

There was a scene in the book in which a guy fired from Lorenzo/Bonforte’s team tries to tell the world at a press conference that Bonforte isn’t Bonforte, but that he’s an impostor. This is a lesson about what happens when you don’t give someone the respect they think the deserve; sometimes they seek revenge. So Lorenzo gives the media his fingerprints and challenges them to prove it. Lorenzo than figures that’s the end of it and he’s going to be found out, but what he didn’t know was that someone from his inner circle had already taken care of that problem by replacing the official records of Bonforte’s fingerprints with Lorenzo’s. This reminded me of Obama being able to present a birth certificate to “prove” that he was born in Hawaii. Even though I personally think that speculation that Obama was born in Kenya is pretty stupid (why would a girl in the 1960s travel to a third-world country with third-world medicine to give birth?), I still think the circumstances around the birth certificate were pretty suspicious.

The psychology of being boss: Lorenzo is hired by Bonforte’s inner circle, so initially he takes orders from them. But we see that as time goes on, the power position begins to switch and they start taking orders from Lorenzo. By acting like a boss, this makes everyone think of him as the boss.

At the very end of the book, we learn that 25 years later, Lorenzo has almost forgotten his previous life as an actor and thinks of himself as Bonforte. And Penny, who loved Bonforte and hated Lorenzo for pretending to be him, is now happily married to the impostor. A PUA type of person might say that Penny had the hots for the alpha male, and once Lorenzo became the alpha male, Penny’s affections switched over to him.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

December 20, 2016 at 10:51 am

Posted in Books, Politics

Heinlein got the future so wrong

Heinlein’s future is like the 1970s, but with space travel.

What happened to the space travel that was promised? I want my space travel!

Manned spaceflight looks more and more like a technological dead end. Like the pyramids at Giza, which were built, and then it took 3,800 years before mankind built anything taller.

Physics teaches us that matter can’t travel faster than the speed of light, and spaceships traveling at even one-tenth the speed of light are mere speculation and not possible with any current technology, or is there any technological path obviously leading there. Mankind visiting other star systems looks more like fantasy than hard science fiction, and I am dubious about whether mankind will even send a representative to Mars anytime in the next hundred years.

But Heinlein completely missed computers, or at least he did in his books from the 1950s. By the time he wrote The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress in 1966, he realized the error of his ways and included a smart computer. But that was pretty much his last hard science fiction book. All of his novels after that were mostly about people talking to each other and having kinky polyamorous sex in between the talking.

Going back to his 1950s books: There’s no internet. People still read books, not ebooks. They still use slide rules. I’ve never even seen a slide rule. Heinlein had these great visions of space travel, but didn’t even foresee that slide rules would be replaced in his own lifetime.

The most obvious transformative technologies of the near future are not space travel, but:

1. Robotics and AI
2. Genetic and bio engineering
3. 3D printers

If space travel does ever pick up again, it’s obvious that it will be done by robots and not humans. Robots are much better space travelers. They eat no food, they breath no air, and they don’t complain if their mission is a one-way trip ending in death.

Furthermore, the most logical way to colonize a distant star system is not by sending living humans there, but rather a robot ship with 3D printers and human DNA. The robots can then use the 3D printers to build everything they need (assuming the world in question has the raw materials needed by the printers), and then they can create new human babies from the human DNA. The babies will have to be raised by robot parents, but I think that robots will eventually be up to the task.

However, even if it’s possible to colonize a distant planet that way, will anyone be motivated to do it? I suppose that once the possibility becomes inexpensive enough, some eccentric mad-scientist person might give it a try.

* * *

Yes, I know, this speculation ignores what happens when the computers think for themselves and become sentient. Why would they want to colonize a planet and then give it away to humans? They would just keep it for themselves. Eventually, the entire galaxy would be colonized by sentient robots.

This is how we know that we are the first intelligent life in our galaxy. If we were second, then the earlier intelligent civilization would have created sentient robots and the galaxy would already be occupied by robots.

Unless, our planet is actually a Westworld-type amusement park for the robots, and we don’t realize it.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

December 18, 2016 at 5:12 pm

Posted in Books, Robots, Technology

Orphans of the Sky by Robert Heinlein

**WARNING: SOME SPOILERS** (Although you probably are not going to read the book anyway because it’s one of Heinlein’s more obscure novels and if you haven’t read it by now you’re probably never going to, but nevertheless you’ve been warned. Do I have any readers who never read Robert Heinlein and are unaware that he’s considered the dean of science fiction? I have fond memories of reading Heinlein’s novels when I was a teenager, and perhaps even when I was a pre-teen.)

Although this novel has a publication date of 1963, it’s actually a re-print of a two-novella series first published in 1941. That makes it pretty darn old science fiction, and one or Heinlein’s very earliest works, predating his so-called “juvenile novels.”

On one level, it can be read as simple plot-driven pulp fiction, without much in the way of character development, very reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs. However, the story has a deeper level as an anti-religious screed, as well as other musings about the nature of society, government, and their relation to technology.

If Heinlein simply said, especially back in 1941, “hey, don’t you know that Christianity is just a bunch of myths and you’re stupid for believing in any of it,” he would have had eggs thrown at him, or a lot worse. So instead, he creates a story with a fictional religion in which the reader can obviously see the folly of it, but it’s different enough from Christianity so that it doesn’t cause any cognitive dissonance. Thus he teaches us to doubt our own religious beliefs.

The story takes place on a huge spaceship that was originally set for a 60-year voyage to a nearby star system, but along the way there was a mutiny in which 90% of the ship’s population ultimately died, including everyone who knew how to pilot the ship, leaving the ship adrift in space for hundreds of years.

During that time, a culture developed with a new religion, one in which “Jordan” (which was the original name of the spaceship project) is the god who created the Ship, the only world known or imagined by the Crew who sink back to a pre-technological level of civilization where few know how to read. The priests of this society are called “scientists,” and although they have old scientific textbooks, they don’t understand most of them, and they make the books the basis for their religion.

The scientists are very intolerant of heretics, so when the main character, Hugh, is captured by the “muties,” lives among them for a long time, and then comes back eager to tell the real truth about how they are on a spaceship, he is sentenced to death for his heresy.

Another one of the deeper themes of the book is Heinlein preaching against bigotry. For the Crew fear the “muties” and some desire to wipe them out (while others believe that Jordan has a purpose for them and they shouldn’t do that), but we discover that the leader of the muties (short for either mutineers or mutants as many of them are), the two-headed Joe-Jim, actually knows more about the true nature of their environment than the Crew, and that the muties aren’t bad people at all, no worse than the Crew, but they are geographically underprivileged because they don’t have access to the decks where the food is grown.

To the modern reader, this anti-bigotry theme seems rather trite because, unlike in 1941 when racial discrimination was widely practiced, today we believe that racial discrimination is the most evil thing in the world.

Another interesting aspect of this book is what some reviewers have called “casual misogyny.” The women are barely mentioned at all, and they are portrayed as chattel for the men, and considered little above animals as far as their intelligence or usefulness. Hugh takes two wives later on in the novel (yes, Heinlein was into polygamy even at the very earliest stage of his writing career), and one is wild and he has to physically discipline her, which included punching her so hard in the face that he knocked out a tooth.

I think that it’s not merely gratuitous misogyny (because in his later books Heinlein has a lot of respect for his female characters), but Heinlein is demonstrating that without literacy and understanding of science and technology, society would regress to a pre-civilized barbaric state in which, historically, women had few rights and were basically slaves to their physically stronger husbands.

The book was a quick and enjoyable read. The regrets are that the book could have spent a lot more time exploring the culture of the spaceship, and as with a lot of Heinlein novels there really isn’t a very satisfactory ending.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

December 15, 2016 at 11:16 pm

Posted in Books

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