08 March 2014

Better With Chunks?

I think I need to do some maintenance on the sausage grinder: These came out really chunky.

  • Without realizing that he was exposing a fundamental problem with space navies, Cory Doctorow penned an interesting piece at Locus that manages to ignore an elephant in the room: That there are often analogous human systems that undermine the premise of "cutting edge" stories. Doctorow criticizes the moral hazards invoked by Godwin's story "The Cold Equations" and the similar moral hazard implicated by Heinlein's (utterly wretched) Farnham's Freehold as being caused by writers consciously manipulating circumstances. I would take one further step back: Both "moral hazards" actually arise from writers failing to either do or acknowledge basic research in obvious, analogous circumstances.

    Godwin's research failure is easier to explain. Godwin clearly was not familiar — at all — with the way that rescue aircraft operated, even at that time: Each of the concepts of "inviolable fuel reserve," "professional maintenance crew that doesn't operate the aircraft," and "control tower monitoring of flight" eliminates the premise of his story. (As an aside, this is all too consistent with the "navy"/"ship" orientation of so much space-based science fiction... but that's a long argument for another time.) Even by the late 1930s, there were extensive aviation regulations requiring pretty significant fuel reserves at takeoff for all aircraft; failure even once to explicitly sign off on that reserve prior to takeoff got one fired from rescue-aircraft operation, and a second offense jeopardized one's license. Yet there's nothing in Godwin's story about a flight plan that clearly cuts into the reserve. Perhaps things were so desperate that such was the plan; if so, it should have appeared in the story. Then the regulatory error was compounded by the absence of a competent crew chief (and if I'm planning on breaking regs on one aspect of a flight, I'm going to be even more assiduous on everything else!), who would have either spotted or prevented the stowaway. So, for that matter, would reasonable security around delicate, easy-to-sabotage spacecraft. Then, too, the tower would have noted the deviation from the filed flight plan caused by either (a) excessive fuel consumption on launch or (b) failure to achieve required velocity on launch based on programmed fuel consumption... and that would have been in time to abort. Indeed, the absence of any of those aspects of flight operations for a medical emergency would ultimately be the story — not the requirements of physics. One doesn't challenge the requirements of physics unless one eliminates all of the human systems that have evolved — based on cold, hard experience — to avoid challenging them.

    Heinlein's failure is a bit more insidious, and more directly reflects an Annapolis attitude: He knew not a goddamned thing about the Geneva and Hague Conventions, or the legal firewall between the Law of the Sea and law that applies anywhere else, or how aircrews have been trained (since about 1917) on survival, escape, and evasion when shot down behind enemy lines. And he didn't care, because it was inconsistent with his preferred cryptolibertarian/nobility-of-the-hypercapable storyline in which the immediate reaction of a hero to the circumstances superficially facing that hero is always justified if it's in the hero's immediate, short-term self-interest. The fundamental problem with Farnham's Freehold and its "lifeboat" attitude is that all lifeboat rules (even those only present by implication and not explicitly invoked in the story as often as legend has it) evolved presuming both that there was a rightful appointed captain and no contact with even inimical humanity; indeed, those assumptions are explicit in the documents supporting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century antecedents, and in the Law of the Sea (pick your version), and in the Geneva and Hague Conventions. It wasn't that Heinlein was doing a gedankenexperiment on a particular technological event screwing up expectations; it's that to get to his gedankenexperiment, he had to ignore two centuries of human attempts to pretermit that very circumstance. He couldn't even claim (or be bothered the think through) justifying his story as an exception. He also had to ignore everything learned about behind-the-lines survival in the Second Thirty Years' War and in Korea; then, that's not all that surprising from a fully-indoctrinated pre-carrier-Navy squid.

    The short version is that both authors, in creating purported "classics" of science fiction, did so by presenting circumstances as new and unanticipated that had, in fact, been the subject of extensive anticipation in analogous human activities. Both works rely upon the ignorance of the authors and the readers to both establish and maintain their respective premises. And that's not good for anyone.

  • A simultaneously snarky and serious critique of PowerPoint slide presentations in academia brings back nightmares of the tyranny of slides in military briefings from well before PowerPoint. (Face it: I'm no spring chicken.) One of the reasons that I was considered a "good briefer" is that the slides I specified were seldom (if ever) mere summaries of my briefings. A numeric value ("we're now 1100 man-hours short of mission requirements") might be referenced on the slide... but I did the math elsewhere and explained all of the assumptions. Conversely, I seldom stated specific citations ("Classified Annex C, paragraph 2-14 and the accompanying table") in the briefing, leaving those for the slides — copies of which would be distributed as necessary after the briefing. But that was not the norm; indeed, in the early 1980s, all three services devoted between two and three weeks of their sophomore-level ROTC courses to not substance, but ridiculous lock-step briefing techniques largely unchanged since the 1940s.

    The real problem with PowerPoint, etc. is that it devalues any coherent narrative in a presentation. Despite three millenia of experimentation, humanity keeps returning to narrative as the most efficient and effective way to impart information, encourage retention of that information, and make intelligent (or at least defensible) decisions based upon that information. PowerPoint and various less-technical slide-based systems like the military briefing reject that that wisdom in favor of visual methods that help retain individual datapoints — Jeopardy! trivia — from presentations. That, of course, presumes that the audience already understands the narrative and just needs to update it for particular circumstances, and can accurately assess the significance of particular updated data for that narrative... and when teaching (or even briefing), almost nothing could be farther from reality.

  • Professor Buchanan laments "The Regrettable Loss of Intellectual Nuance When Battle Lines Are Drawn." It is, itself, a nicely nuanced piece, but it unfortunately makes a rather tenuous assumption: That intellectual nuance is the default before battle. Intellectual nuance — and its close cousin intellectual honesty — requires a certain allegiance to fact- and context-sensitivity. Some institutions, by their very nature and existence, limit or foreclose such sensitivity. I suppose that one could argue that those institutions draw lines of battle passively (again, by their very nature and existence), but I think that is perhaps too easy an assertion... and ignores the nuance that any organization sufficiently large to have that kind of influence upon argument has embedded in it. Even FauxNooz!