Things I Don’t Get, Part the Eleventy-Billionth

It always baffles me when people think The Incredibles is an Objectivist movie.

It examines, under the surface of an adventure story, the psychological foibles which can lead people into Randroidism. That’s a very different animal. But some people seem to take “When everyone is special, no one will be” as the movie’s actual moral. Let’s unpack that.

First, who says it? 1. The villain. Yeah. That’s always a great place to look for the moral of a story. And, ironically, Buddy/Syndrome is special: he has the same superpower as Bat- or Iron Man. 2. A middle-aged man who feels unappreciated and projects his own troubles onto other situations. Again, yeah. Basically defines “reliable source,” I’m sure.

What’s the first event that sets the conflict in motion? It’s not the lawsuits against the supers. It’s Mr. Incredible failing to live up to a social obligation by brushing off Buddy.

What’s the first thing we see Mr. Incredible do in the present day? He helps a woman long past her productive years to loot a corporation. He doesn’t exploit his knowledge of the system for his own benefit; instead, he risks his own job, acting against his own self-interest, to benefit another person who can do nothing material for him in return. And the movie unambiguously portrays this as the right thing to do.

What’s the happy ending—or, rather, the coda? The supers learn to rein in their powers, to come in second best, so they can remain incognito and be there when civilization needs them. Again, the movie depicts this as a clear-cut good thing. But Rand had something to say about people who deliberately do less than their best in order to fit in better. When Dagny Taggart suggests she do just that, Francisco D’Anconia slaps her face so hard she tastes blood.

Stepping outside the text of the movie for a moment, does Syndrome’s “make everyone super so no one is” plan actually make sense? No. If you could buy rocket boots, they’d be, in principle, analogous to mountain bikes or skis or rollerblades. That is, they’d be a technology that opens up new kinds of activity: hobbies for some, pro sports for others. Saying they’d erase individuality is like saying camera phones were the doom of cinema, or that the mechanical typewriter was the end of literary genius. The plan doesn’t hold up, either within the movie or outside. But it doesn’t have to: it’s a fantasy from the mind of a maniacal supervillain.

The villain is a man who built his entire life around his grievances. The hero, as they do in many stories, has a few points in common with the villain. But the hero learns to see beyond, and rise above, the flaws they share with the villain. That’s what puts them on the hero side of the ledger.

On that note: the people who claim that Lois Lowry’s The Giver is an Objectivist novel. Yes, the quiet, emotionally intimate story about slowly learning wisdom through suffering, where a child risks starvation and freezing to death in order to have a slim hope of making his community a better place after he is gone. The story of how family is a matter not of blood but of love, how the flattening of natural beauty is to be mourned, how solitude can be joyful and loneliness painful in equal measure. The book that literally, not figuratively, says this:

“Giver,” Jonas suggested, “you and I don’t need to care about the rest of them.”

The Giver looked at him with a questioning smile. Jonas hung his head. Of course they needed to care. It was the meaning of everything.

But apparently for some folks, anti-authoritarian is automatically Objectivist. Because the world is simpler when you’re a misunderstood teenager.


A few years ago, my friends and I came up with the label “nixiepunk” for science fiction set in a world where atomic spaceships are navigated using slide rules. Nixiepunk would be analogous to 1930s–50s science fiction as steampunk is to Victorian proto-SF. Whereas classic cyberpunk projected a future, clock-, steam- and nixiepunk reinvent a fetishized past. Choosing the term nixiepunk over “atompunk” emphasizes the other child of the Manhattan Project: computation over raw destructive force. But to live up to the “punk” half of the name, the genre must concern itself with the preterite, with the “Left Behinds of the Great Society.” If Asimov’s The Caves of Steel or the Byron the Bulb excursus in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow came out today, they’d be nixiepunk.
Continue reading Nixiepunk

Less Heteronormative Homework

A few weeks ago, I found an old physics book on a colleague’s “miscellaneous” shelf: University of Chicago Graduate Problems in Physics, by Cronin, Greenberg and Telegdi (Addison-Wesley, 1967). It looked like fun, so I started working through some of it.

Physics problems age irregularly. Topics fall out of vogue as the frontier of knowledge moves on, and sometimes, the cultural milieu of the time when the problem was written pokes through. Take the first problem in the “statistical physics” chapter. It begins, “A young man, who lives at location $A$ of the city street plan shown in the figure, walks daily to the home of his fiancee…”

No, no, no, that just won’t do any more. Let us set up the problem properly:

Asami is meeting Korra for lunch downtown. Korra is $E$ blocks east and $N$ blocks north of Asami, on the rectangular street grid of downtown Republic City. Because Asami is eager to meet Korra, her path never doubles back. That is, each move Asami takes must bring her closer to Korra on the street grid. How many different routes can Asami take to meet Korra?

Solution below the fold.
Continue reading Less Heteronormative Homework

Here’s a Question for You

Did any futurologists from last century predict online harassment? All I remember is VR, full-body haptic interfaces, video-telephones that would translate as you talked…. It was all this kind of thing:

  • “Unused computes on the Internet are harvested, creating … human brain hardware capacity.”
  • “The online chat rooms of the late 1990s have been replaced with virtual environments…with full visual realism.”
  • “Interactive brain-generated music … is another popular genre.”
  • “the underclass is politically neutralized through public assistance and the generally high level of affluence”
  • “Diagnosis almost always involves collaboration between a human physician and a … expert system.”
  • “Humans are generally far removed from the scene of battle.”
  • “Despite occasional corrections, the ten years leading up to 2009 have seen continuous economic expansion”
  • “Cables are disappearing.”
  • “grammar checkers are now actually useful”
  • “Intelligent roads are in use, primarily for long-distance travel.”
  • “The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition (CSR) software”
  • “Autonomous nanoengineered machines … have been demonstrated and include their own computational controls.”

All of these are from Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), specifically its list of predictions for 2009.

The most insightful-in-retrospect predictions I recall were from Larry Gonick’s Cartoon Guide to (Non)Communication (1993), but that book was about honest errors and confusion, not venom and spite. Surely someone speculated about the Net enabling new ways of making people’s lives miserable, but I’m having a hard time recalling examples which are really pertinent. I can’t help thinking that the downsides which people had in mind weren’t the ones we face now.

My Year in Publications

This is, apparently, a time for reflection. What have I been up to?

And so this is Korrasmas
Things have been Done
Kuvira is fallen
A new ‘ship just begun

We all knew it

Well, other than watching cartoons?

At the very beginning of 2014, I posted a substantial revision of “Eco-Evolutionary Feedback in Host–Pathogen Spatial Dynamics,” which we first put online in 2011 (late in the lonesome October of my most immemorial year, etc.).

In January, Chris Fuchs and I finished up an edited lecture transcript, “Some Negative Remarks on Operational Approaches to Quantum Theory.” My next posting was a solo effort, “SIC-POVMs and Compatibility among Quantum States,” which made for a pretty good follow-on, and picked up a pleasantly decent number of scites.

Then, we stress-tested the arXiv.

By mid-September, Ben Allen, Yaneer Bar-Yam and I had completed “An Information-Theoretic Formalism for Multiscale Structure in Complex Systems,” a work very long in the cooking.

Finally, I rang in December with “Von Neumann was Not a Quantum Bayesian,” which demonstrates conclusively that I can write 24 pages with 107 references in response to one sentence on Wikipedia.

Art for After the Ladder Pulling-Up

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Forgive all the cartoon talk. I spent the day trying to understand, whatever I didn’t understand, about [The New Republic]. More Monday.

Me: I’m reading this as saying that ’80s cartoons are essential for understanding TNR.

TNC: Yes. But I haven’t figured out why…

This little exchange, and the Jem and Robotech discussion which led up to it, got me to thinking about the cartoons of my own childhood. In turn, that called something to mind from my years of studying the Found-in-Used-Book-Store-Basement Canon. Quoting from Antonia Levi’s Samurai from Outer Space: Understanding Japanese Animation (1996):

Why do young Americans stick with an art form that is so foreign and so difficult to understand, an art form that actually makes them work? Generation X’s image does not usually include much emphasis on the work ethic. Yet, this is the generation that has chosen to tackle a challenging art form purely for the purpose of entertainment. One reason, of course, is that the Baby Busters simply aren’t as lazy as Boomer curmudgeons would like to believe. The other reason, however, is that anime more than repays the effort by providing its fans with a fantasy world more compelling and more complete than they can find anywhere else. Okay, it’s escapism, but for a generation whose defining characteristic is that they are the first set of Americans who will not do as well as their parents, good escapism is worth a little effort.

Plus ├ža change, amirite?

Concerning “Great Books”

Shimer College: the worst school in America?

Subhead: This tiny, eccentric institution in Chicago was just voted the worst place to study in America. But does Shimer, which shuns lectures and has no societies or clubs, deserve such an accolade? Jon Ronson went there to investigate.

In the body, we have a bit more detail:

This is a ‘great books’ college. The great books of the western tradition, not the professors, are the teachers: Da Vinci’s Notebooks and Aristotle’s Poetics and Homer’s Odyssey and de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity and Kafka and Derrida and Nietzsche and Freud and Marx and Machiavelli and Shakespeare and the Bible.

Continue reading Concerning “Great Books”

Vignette (The Best Foreseeble Ending)

Reading what people write as they try to cope with the assault on our common humanity known as Fifty Shades of Grey is weirdly addictive. Midway through one recap/critique, I realized that given the “hero’s” character, this “love story for the ages” would honestly have ended a few chapters in, and very badly. Then I realized just what TV show Christian Grey—rich, arrogant, with an opinion of his own intelligence far exceeding the evidence—would have been a murderer on.

“The officer outside said it looks like an accident.”

“Yes, well, any time a person dies not under a doctor’s care, my department gets involved. Usually it just comes down to paperwork. Always the report, we have to file.”

“And she had just graduated college, you say? Such a shame. A lovely, bright young woman like that. She had her whole life ahead of her. I hardly knew her, but I can’t help… Such a tragedy, and so unfair.”

“It never is fair, sir, you’re right about that.”

“If you don’t need me any longer, Lieutenant, I’ll be on my way. You can reach me through my office.”

“Oh, I think we’re about done here. We’ll give you a call if anything turns up.”

“Please. Good afternoon, then.”

“Oh, Mr. Grey, just one more thing! For my report, you know….”

Public Shaming in the Interest of Orthodoxy

In re: Time magazine’s poll of words which are, like, grody to the max

OK, let’s give Steinmetz a big heaping dollop of benefit-of-the-doubt. Suppose you really are just exasperated by celebrities being, you know, celebrities in interviews. Sure. Fine. Then shouldn’t you direct your ire to the media apparatus which persists in caring about what celebrities do and say, regardless of what they are actually good at? If “media trends” are your problem, why don’t you criticize, I dunno, the media?

“Words to ban” pieces, like their year-in-review cousins, are perfect candidates to be granfalloons of petty grievances. They are also ideal capsules of public shaming in the interests of orthodoxy.

Language is all bound up with emotion, sometimes trying to fill an emotional need with pure verbal art. Larry Gonick‘s example was promoting someone to “vice president”, instead of giving her a raise. “A switchboard operator no longer, you are now Vice President, Corporate Communication!” Here, the policing of vocabulary gives people who don’t have a lot of power themselves the ability to stomp on those with even less. Sometimes, word rage is a way of punching up: e.g., getting one back from the executive class by condemning manager-speak. People who insist “impact is not a verb” come across, to me anyway, like they’ve heard it too many times in vacuous babble from middle management (cf. “think outside the box!”). But a lot of word rage is punching down. When a usage is commonplace, people grow accustomed to it, and complaining about it becomes a niche pursuit of peeve-ologists. But when it’s an idiom spoken by Those Other People, it’s common enough to be noticed, but it doesn’t become familiar. It’s how Those Other People talk, and distaste for Those Other People gains a convenient and superficially polite outlet, in disparaging their vernacular.

"no matter how gifted, you alone cannot change the world"