Tag Archives: Fiction

Why We Fight Over Fiction

We tell stories with language, and so prefer to tell the kind of stories that ordinary language can describe well.

Consider how language can describe a space of physical stuff and how to navigate through that stuff. In a familiar sort of space, a few sparse words can evoke a vivid description, such as of a city street or a meadow. And a few words relating to landmarks in such a space can be effective at telling you how to navigate from one place to another.

But imagine an arbitrary space of partially-opaque swirling strangeness, in a highly curved 11-dimensional space. In principle our most basic and general spatial language could describe this too, and instruct navigation there. But in practice that would require a lot more words, and slow the story to a crawl. So few authors would try, though a filmmaker might try just using visuals.

Or consider stories with non-human minds. In principle those who study minds in the abstract can conceive of a vast space of possible minds, and can use a basic and general language of mental acts to describe how each such mind might make a decision, or send a communication, and what those might be. But in practice such descriptions would be long, boring, and unfamiliar to most readers.

So in practice even authors writing about aliens or AIs stick to describing human-like minds, where their usual language for describing what actors decide and say is fast, fluid, and relatable. Authors even prefer human characters with familiar minds, and so avoid characters who think oddly, such as those with autism.

Just as authors focus on telling stories in familiar spaces with familiar minds, they also focus on telling stories in familiar moral universes. This effect is, if anything, even stronger than the space and mind effects, as moral colors are even more central to our need for stories. Compared to other areas of our lives, we especially want our stories to help us examine and affirm our moral stances.

In a familiar moral universe, there many be competing considerations re what acts are moral, making it sometimes hard to decide if an act is moral. Other considerations may weigh against morality, and reader/viewers may not always sympathize most with the most moral characters, who may not win in the end. Moral characters may have unattractive features (like being ugly). There may even be conflicts between characters who see different familiar moral universes.

These are the familiar sorts of “moral ambiguity” in stories said to have that feature, such as The Sopranos or Game of Thrones. But you’ll note that these are almost all stories told in familiar moral universes. By which I mean that we are quite familiar with how to morally evaluate the sort of actions that happen there. The set of acts is familiar, as are their consequences, and the moral calculus used to judge them.

But there is another sort of “moral ambiguity” that reader/viewers hate, and so authors studiously avoid. And that is worlds where we find it hard to judge the morality of actions, even when those actions have big consequences for characters. Where our usual quick and dirty moral language doesn’t apply very well. Where even though in principle our most basic and general moral languages might be able to work out rough descriptions and evaluations, in practice that would be tedious and unsatisfying.

And, strikingly, the large complex social structures and organizations that dominate our world are mostly not familiar moral universes to most of us. For example, big firms, agencies, and markets. The worlds of Moral Mazes and of Pfeffer’s Power. (In fiction: Jobs.) Our stories thus tend to avoid such contexts, unless they happen to allow an especially clear moral calculus. Such as a firm polluting to cause cancer, or a boss sexually harassing a subordinate.

As I’ve discussed before, our social world has changed greatly over the last few centuries. Our language has changed fast enough to describe the new physical objects and spaces that have arisen, at least those with which ordinary people must deal, if not the many new strange objects and spaces behind the scenes that enable our new world. But we have not gone remotely as fast at coming to agree on moral stances toward the new choices possible in such social structures.

This is why our stories tend to take place in relatively old fashioned social worlds. Consider the popularity of the Western, or of pop science fiction stories like Star Wars that are essentially Westerns with more gadgets. Stories that take place in modern settings tend to focus on personal, romantic, and family relations, as these remain to us relatively familiar moral universes. Or on artist biopics. Or on big conflicts like war or corrupt police or politicians. For which we have comfortable moral framings.

Stories we write today set in say the 1920s feel to us more comfortable than do stories set in the 2020s, or than stories written in the 1920s and set in that time. That is because stories written today can inherit a century of efforts to work out clearer moral stances on which 1920s actions would be more moral. For example, as to our eyes female suffrage is clearly good, we can see any characters from then who doubted it as clearly evil in the eyes of good characters. As clear as if they tortured kittens. To our eyes, their world has now clearer moral colors, and stories set there work better as stories for us.

This is also why science fiction tends to make most people more wary of anticipated futures. The easiest engaging stories to tell about strange futures are on how acts there that seem to violate the rules in our current moral universe. Like about how nuclear rockets spread radioactivity near their launch site, instead of the solar civilization they enable. Much harder to describe how new worlds will induce new moral universes.

This highlights an important feature of our modern world, and an important process that continues within it. Our social world has changed a lot faster than has our shared moral evaluations of typical actions possible in our new world. And our telling stories, and coming to agree on which stories we embrace, is a big part of creating such a fluid language of shared moral evaluations.

This helps to explain why we invest so much time and energy into fiction, far more than did any of our ancestors. Why story tellers are given high and activist-like status, and why we fight so much to convince others to share our beliefs on which stories are best. Our moral evaluations of the main big actions that influence our world today, and that built our world from past worlds, are still up for grabs. And the more we build such shared evaluations, the more we’ll be able to tell satisfying stories set in the world in which we live, rather than set in the fantasy and historical worlds with which we must now make do.

(This post is an elaboration of this Twitter thread.)

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Board Games As Policy Arguments

When we want to convince others to support our policy positions, we often tell stories. We tell people about things that happened to us, to people we know, and to people we’ve heard of. Journalists tell stories about what happened to famous people recently, or to whole sets of people in “studies”. Popular books also include such policy-lesson stories. And fiction often tries to persuade about policy using “true-like” stories, which are not actually true.

The way that these stories are supposed to support policies is that we are invited to imagine how such stories would have turned out better with different policies. That is the policy “moral” of a story. A big problem with this approach, however, is that even if the story is true, and even if we can correctly judge how a policy would have changed a story, each policy influences a great many other stories. Policy advocates are likely to select the stories that make their policy look best, out of all the other possible stories they could tell.

Academias often tell these kinds of stories, but we also tell other kinds that better avoid this problem. For example, formal game theory models describe entire formal worlds, including agents, resources, actions, info, locations, and preferences. So one can judge if a policy is good overall in such a world. A similar benefit holds for agent-based simulations, lab experiments, and field experiments. In each case, one can judge how much a policy helps or hurts overall for the world that is studied.

Of course most of these methods actually only consider relatively small worlds, which at best correspond to small parts of our big world. So if a policy has effects outside of the scope of the world that it considers, these methods won’t see that. You can try to analyze the many small worlds that a policy influences, and add up the overall effect across them all, but that is hard to do well.

These sorts of small world models also make many assumptions about the basic situations in the small worlds that they consider. So the lessons that they draw from their small worlds need not apply to the corresponding parts of our big world, if those assumptions are bad approximations to our big world. This is less of a problem when one relies on true stories drawn from our actual world. So both sorts of methods have their advantages and disadvantages, and one should plausibly use both when drawing policy conclusions.

All these methods by which academics model policy in small worlds have one big disadvantage: it is hard to use them to persuade ordinary people. They and their supporting analysis can be complex, and also just boring, and thus not emotionally engaging. Dramatic stories from the real world can overcome these big disadvantages.

However, there is another kind of policy story that has so far been neglected, but which can combine the advantages of a wholistic policy evaluation across an entire small world, with the advantages of being simple enough for ordinary people to understand, and also emotionally engaging enough to get them to pay attention. And that is board games. Consider Monopoly:

In 1903, Georgist Lizzie Magie applied for a patent on a game called The Landlord’s Game with the object of showing that rents enriched property owners and impoverished tenants. She knew that some people would find it hard to understand the logic behind the idea, and she thought that if the rent problem and the Georgist solution to it were put into the concrete form of a game, it might be easier to demonstrate. …

Also in the 1970s, Professor Ralph Anspach, who had himself published a board game intended to illustrate the principles of both monopolies and trust busting, fought Parker Brothers and its then parent company, General Mills, over the copyright and trademarks of the Monopoly board game. (More)

The rules of each board game describe both an entire small world, and also the policies that govern player actions in that world. So when people play a board game, they get an intuitive feel for how that world works, how much they enjoy living in that world, and how alternate rules would change their enjoyment. At which point they are ready to hear and understand this policy argument:

If we changed these policy-setting rules (as opposed to these world-defining rules) in this game, that would turn this into a more enjoyable game, and/or make the world it describes more admirable. So to the extent that an important part of our real larger world is like this game world, we should try to move our real policies more toward these better game policies.

Now as far as I can tell, these policy argument fail badly in the case of Monopoly. People like playing the Monopoly game as it is, and do not enjoy it as much when its rules are changed to embody the alternate property and tax policies favored by those who designed and developed it. But the basic approach to policy argument seems valid, at least as a complement to our other story approaches.

Yes, people may have different agendas and priorities regarding life in a board game, relative to their own real lives. But that critique applies as well to all the other kinds of stories that people use to argue for policies. For example, your priorities about the characters in a story you hear may not be the same as your priorities if you were in the story yourself. Yes, to the extent that video games have board game elements, with rules on how players relate to each other, video games can also support policy arguments.

So I’d like to see more people try to make policy arguments in the context of board games. Show us two variations on a game, where the more fun or admirable version corresponds to the policies that you prefer, while the other version corresponds to policies closer to what we have now. Let us prove your claim to ourselves by playing your game. Or maybe find other rules that we enjoy even more, and invite you to prove that claim to yourself by playing.

Yes, I might still not like your policy, because I think your world differs from our real world, or our priorities differ between games and real life.  And yes, the space of fun board games is far smaller than the space of games, so that fun games are far from representative of the larger space. But still, from the point of view of convincing ordinary people about policies, adding game policy arguments probably puts us in a better position than we are in now relying mainly on personal stories, fictional stories, and academic authority.

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Lazar’s Dreamland

I’ve always enjoyed science fiction, in part because such big things tend to be at stake there. But over the decades as I’ve learned more about the world, the less sense most of it makes. And I enjoy it less. Authors work hard to have their stories make sufficient sense to their median reader or reviewer, but not much beyond that.

Biographies are more realistic. They may not be exactly accurate, but they try harder to seem so. Not as many big things happen there, though I recently enjoyed Chernow’s Titan, a biography of John D. Rockefeller, wherein events are plenty big. I found I liked and admired him; he deserves a better reputation than he has.

Recently, I discovered that stories of probable hoaxes can offer a great compromise, as they try both to have big things happen, and also to seem realistic even to knowledgeable but skeptical investigators. In that spirit, I very much enjoyed physicist Bob Lazar’s Dreamland, the story of his working briefly for the US government in 1989 near Area 51 on alien UFO tech, and then publicizing that fact.

I was born seven months after Lazar, and like him studied physics, worked at secretive west coast US government labs, hung out with relatively colorful characters, and was prone to take more chances than the people around me. I was at NASA ’89-93 and Lockheed ’84-89, were I once had a top secret clearance. Lazar is a type of person I knew, describes a world I knew well, and does so believably.

Someone somewhere complained that Lazar isn’t very deep, which is true, but also realistic. Lazar is a much more hands-on intuitive guy, while I’m more of a theorist. He put a jet engine on his bike and car, and he throws around physics theory concepts in ways that I find sloppy. But that seems realistic for a person like him, and it makes sense that someone might think it would make sense to hire a person of his style to do the task he claims to have been assigned. His sort of person might even be tempted to embellish a few not-central-to-story details when telling his story.

I’ve also watched his documentary and Rogan interview, where Lazar comes across as more trustworthy than the people around him. So I’m inclined to believe him – except for that one fact: his key claims sound batshit crazy. Sorry, this isn’t the sort of thing I can believe on the testimony of one person, no matter how credible.

Reading Lazar’s Dreamland makes me a bit more eager to see a good overall stat analysis of a large dataset of UFO reports, where ideally his case is one datapoint. And more eager to read other probable-hoax biographies; what else ya got?

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Plot Holes & Blame Holes

We love stories, and the stories we love the most tend to support our cherished norms and morals. But our most popular stories also tend to have many gaping plot holes. These are acts which characters could have done instead of what they did do, to better achieve their goals. Not all such holes undermine the morals of these stories, but many do.

Logically, learning of a plot hole that undermines a story’s key morals should make us like that story less. And for a hole that most everyone actually sees, that would in fact happen. This also tends to happen when we notice plot holes in obscure unpopular stories.

But this happens much less often for widely beloved stories, such as Star Wars, if only a small fraction of fans are aware of the holes. While the popularity of the story should make it easier to tell most fans about holes, fans in fact try not to hear, and punish those who tell them. (I’ve noticed this re my sf reviews; fans are displeased to hear beloved stories don’t make sense.)

So most fans remain ignorant of holes, and even fans who know mostly remain fans. They simply forget about the holes, or tell themselves that there probably exist easy hole fixes – variations on the story that lack the holes yet support the same norms and morals. Of course such fans don’t usually actually search for such fixes, they just presume they exist.

Note how this behavior contrasts with typical reactions to real world plans. Consider when someone points out a flaw in our tentative plan for how to drive from A to B, how to get food for dinner, how to remodel the bathroom, or how to apply for a job. If the flaw seems likely to make our plan fail, we seek alternate plans, and are typically grateful to those who point out the flaw. At least if they point out flaws privately, and we haven’t made a big public commitment to plans.

Yes, we might continue with our basic plan if we had good reasons to think that modest plan variations could fix the found flaws. But we wouldn’t simply presume that such variations exist, regardless of flaws. Yet this is mostly what we do for popular story plot holes. Why the different treatment?

A plausible explanation is that we like to love the same stories as others; loving stories is a coordination game. Which is why 34% of movie budgets were spent on marketing in ’07, compared to 1% for the average product. As long as we don’t expect a plot hole to put off most fans, we don’t let it put us off either. And a plausible partial reason to coordinate to love the same stories is that we use stories to declare our allegiance to shared norms and morals. By loving the same stories, we together reaffirm our shared support for such morals, as well as other shared cultural elements.

Now, another way we show our allegiance to shared norms and morals is when we blame each other. We accuse someone of being blameworthy when their behavior fits a shared blame template. Well, unless that person is so allied to us or prestigious that blaming them would come back to hurt us.

These blame templates tend to correlate with destructive behavior that makes for a worse (local) world overall. For example, we blame murder and murder tends to be destructive. But blame templates are not exactly and precisely targeted at making better outcomes. For example, murderers are blamed even when their act makes a better world overall, and we also fail to blame those who fail to murder in such situations.

These deviations make sense if blame templates must have limited complexity, due to being socially shared. To support shared norms and morals, blame templates must be simple enough so most everyone knows what they are, and can agree on if they match particular cases. If the reality of which behaviors are actually helpful versus destructive is more complex than that, well then good behavior in some detailed “hole” cases must be sacrificed, to allow functioning norms/morals.

These deviations between what blame templates actually target, and what they should target to make a better (local) world, can be seen as “blame holes”. Just as a plot may seem to make sense on a quick first pass, with thought and attention required to notice its holes, blame holes are typically not noticed by most who only work hard enough to try to see if a particular behavior fits a blame template. While many are capable of understanding an explanation of where such holes lie, they are not eager to hear about them, and they still usually apply hole-plagued blame templates even when they see their holes. Just like they don’t like to hear about plot holes in their favorite stories, and don’t let such holes keep them from loving those stories.

For example, a year ago I asked a Twitter poll on the chances that the world would have been better off overall had Nazis won WWII. 44% said that chance was over 10% (the highest category offered). My point was that history is too uncertain to be very sure of the long term aggregate consequences of such big events, even when we are relatively sure about which acts tend to promote good.

Many then said I was evil, apparently seeing me as fitting the blame template of “says something positive about Nazis, or enables/encourages others to do so.” I soon after asked a poll that found only 20% guessing it was more likely than not that the author of such a poll actually wishes Nazis had won WWII. But the other 80% might still feel justified in loudly blaming me, if they saw my behavior as fitting a widely accepted blame template. I could be blamed regardless of the factual truth of what I said or intended.

Recently many called Richard Dawkins evil for apparently fitting the template “says something positive about eugenics” when he said that eugenics on humans would “work in practice” because “it works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses”. To many, he was blameworthy regardless of the factual nature or truth of his statement. Yes, we might do better to instead use the blame template “endorses eugenics”, but perhaps too few are capable in practice of distinguishing “endorses” from “says something positive about”. At least maybe most can’t reliably do that in their usual gossip mode of quickly reading and judging something someone said.

On reflection, I think a great deal of our inefficient behavior and policies can be explained via limited-complexity blame templates. For example, consider the template:

Blame X if X interacts with Y on dimension D, Y suffers on D, no one should suffer on D, and X “could have” interacted so as to reduce that suffering more.

So, blame X who hires Y for a low wage, risky, or unpleasant job. Blame X who rents a high price or peeling paint room to Y. Blame food cart X that sells unsavory or unsafe food to Y. Blame nation X that lets in immigrant Y who stays poor afterward. Blame emergency room X who failed to help arriving penniless sick Y. Blame drug dealer X who sells drugs to poor, sick, or addicted Y. Blame client X who buys sex, an organ, or a child from Y who would not sell it if they were much richer.

So a simple blame template can help explain laws on min wages, max rents, job & room quality regs, food quality rules, hospital care rules, and laws prohibiting drugs, organ sales, and prostitution. Yes, by learning simple economics many are capable of seeing that these rules can actually make targets Y worse off, via limiting their options. But if they don’t expect others to see this, they still tend to apply the usual blame templates. Because blame templates are socially shared, and we each tend to be punished from deviating from them, either by violating them, or failing to disapprove of violators.

In another post soon I hope to say more about the role of, and limits on, simplified blame templates. For this post, I’m content to just note their central causal roles.

Added 8am: Another key blame template happens in hierarchical organizations. When something bad seems to happen to a division, the current leader takes all the blame, even if recently replaced prior leader. Rising stars gain by pushing short term gains at the expense of long term losses, and being promoted fast enough so as not to be blamed for those losses.

Re my deliberate exposure proposal, many endorse a norm that those who propose policies intended to combine good and bad effects should immediately cause themselves to suffer the worst possible bad effects personally, even in the absence of implementing their proposal. Poll majorities, however, don’t support such norms.

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Rah Chain of Command

During the first Christmas of WWI,

soldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasonal greetings and talk. … to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs. There were joint burial ceremonies and prisoner swaps, while several meetings ended in carol-singing. Men played games of football with one another, … Fighting continued in some sectors, while in others the sides settled on little more than arrangements to recover bodies. (more)

I just saw the 2005 movie Joyeux Noel on this. The movie itself, and all the reviews I could find, saw these events as a heart-warming story, of heroic soldiers resisting an evil military leadership:

Their castigators are elders who arrive to restore the bellicosity almost as a matter of tradition. (more)

[The movie] invents the notion that the men who took part in the event were subsequently punished. … But there’s no official evidence that such a thing happened, though subsequently the generals learned to rotate soldiers away from a specific section of trench. (more)

But the real military leaders did work to prevent recurrences:

It was never repeated—future attempts at holiday ceasefires were quashed by officers’ threats of disciplinary action (more)

commander of the British II Corps issued orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops. Adolf Hitler, then a young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry, was also an opponent of the truce. …

The events of the truce were not reported for a week, in an unofficial press embargo which was eventually broken by The New York Times, published in the then-neutral United States, on 31 December. The British papers quickly followed. … The tone of the reporting was strongly positive, with the Times endorsing the “lack of malice” felt by both sides and the Mirror regretting that the “absurdity and the tragedy” would begin again. …

Coverage in Germany was more muted, with some newspapers strongly criticising those who had taken part … In France, … greater level of press censorship … press was eventually forced to respond to the growing rumours by reprinting a government notice that fraternising with the enemy constituted treason. (more)

I find it disturbing that viewers and reviewers aren’t more torn about this. No hesitation or reservations whatsoever expressed. Even though this is depicted in the movie as leading to soldiers deserting and spying on enemy arrangements.

Sure, if all soldiers would always refuse to fight wars, wars would not be possible, and that might be for the better, I’m not sure. But as long as war remains possible, national governments will want to control armies who can protect the nation against hostile armies. They won’t want armies who can decide to start or stop wars whenever they feel like it; they will want armies who accept a chain of command with the government at the top.

Sure, maybe we want soldiers and commanders at various levels to have the freedom to refuse to follow some limited set of commands to commit atrocities. As long as such freedoms are still consistent with our armies defending us from hostile armies. But we simply can’t just let any soldier or commander agree to a local peace any time and place they choose. Just as we can’t let them quit or switch sides anytime they choose. Or sell military equipment or supplies, or rape and pillage any accessible locals, or start new wars with new rivals.

The idea of armies that we control who defend us against hostile armies just isn’t consistent with very high levels of local discretion. Sure, the idea of armies is consistent with some modest levels of local control, and there are some borderline questions about how much discretion is desirable. But wholesale local negotiations of local truces, purposely hidden from commanding officers, surely that at least risks moving into dangerous territory. And an ordinary movie viewer who liked the idea of having armies to protect them from hostile armies should feel at least some wariness about this prospect, and some sympathy for the awkward positions in which such actions place commanding officers.

There’s a chain of command in the army for a reason. A good reason. Even at Christmas in the trenches.

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Joker is Creepy

Joker is a classic villain, opposite the classic hero Batman. The new Joker movie is an origin story that treats him sympathetically. We see how circumstances and personality can combine to turn a sad but loyal citizen into a vicious villain.

The basic formula is simple, but quite well-executed, especially via the remarkable acting performance of Joaquin Phoenix. The formula has two parts. First, there’s a slow steady trajectory. We start Joker out as a pretty ordinary if weak person, hungry for respect that he doesn’t get. We pile on abuses and crises, under which he slowly cracks. We give him the respect and attention he craves only when he is violent, and so tempt him toward more. He starts out admirably restrained in his response to quite unfair abuse, then we slowly ratchet up the size of the abuse, his sometimes out-sized response, and his comfort level with that response. He slowly becomes more confident, graceful, and charismatic, and he is surprised to learn he doesn’t feel so bad about what he’s done. With no clear bright line crossed, the movie dares the viewer to judge when exactly he has gone too far.

The second part of the formula is to subtly make Joker seem creepy, right from the start, to foreshadow the eventual outcome. (“Creepy” = ambiguous threat.) That is, though what he overtly does seems mostly restrained and reasonable, at least for a while, and though we make him understandable and sympathetic, we also pile on subtle and largely unconscious cues that he can’t be trusted. We combine signs that he’s low status and has poor social skills with signs that he’s prone toward physical outbursts. We make sure he seems self-absorbed, and that his gaze and voice seem guarded, i.e., overly controlled and evasive. Joker chain smokes, often laughs uncontrollably, often has his legs shake uncontrollably, lives among garish home furnishings, wears white socks with dark pants and shoes, has an awkward lanky running style, walks into glass doors, and is bad at reading what others will think is funny. He often fails to read or anticipate how others do or will react to what he does.

Audiences love the Joker movie:

After three impressive weekends in a row at the box office, Joker is on track to become the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time.

With Democratic candidates competing to advocate unprecedented extreme redistribution schemes, you might think left-leaning movie critics would love a film about a downtrodden guy who, suffering from public service cutbacks, starts a political movement to resist the rich and powerful. But in fact elite critics mostly hate it:

Joker … preview provided social media with the one thing it will not tolerate: moral ambiguity. … What critics … seem to fear is that Arthur Fleck … is also the kind of person we imagine would be very excited about the Joker movie in real life. … He thinks he’s taking revenge on an unjust world. This makes him look like an element of society we associate with senseless violence in real life: lonely, male and emotionally stunted. … David Ehrlich of Indiewire called it ‘a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels’ … At Slate, Sam Adams wrote that ‘no matter how emphatic Phoenix’s performance, it feels like a risk to feel too much for him, not knowing who might be sitting next to you in the theater using his resentments to justify their own. … has led reviewers to condemn the kind of moral ambiguity that was supposed to distinguish art from crass commerce in the first place. … won’t this movie cause dummies to think the Joker is good? To ask the question is to argue that nuance is dangerous. … failure to maintain critical distance… projected onto…audience that critics imagine to be more suggestible than themselves— insanely more suggestible, almost comically so… critics telling us, in a tone of concern for their fellow man, that these losers are total misanthropes. (more).

Apparently Joker being a low status white male who uses a gun to gain respect is a deal-breaker for them – that’s just too much like those incels and Trump supporters.

I’d say the movie actually pretty clearly disapproves of Joker’s actions toward the end; this is the origin story of a famous villain after all. It also disapproves of the rioting mobs that he inspires. Even if the rich and powerful have been mean to the poor and weak, wild angry rioters just make things worse. As Tyler says, “it is the most anti-Leftist movie I have seen, ever”. Which may also be why left-leaning critics hate it.

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Stephenson’s Em Fantasy

Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (’92) and Diamond Age (’95) were once some of my favorite science fiction novels. And his Anathem (’08) is the very favorite of a friend. So hearing that his new book Fall; or, Dodge in Hell (’19) is about ems, I had to read it. And given that I’m author of Age of Em and care much for science fiction realism, I had to evaluate this story in those terms. (Other reviews don’t seem to care: 1 2 3 4 5)

Alas, in terms of em realism, this book disappoints. To explain, I’m going to have to give spoilers; you are warned. Continue reading "Stephenson’s Em Fantasy" »

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Chiang’s Exhalation

Ted Chiang’s new book Exhalation has received rave reviews. WSJ says “sci-fi for philosophers”, and the Post says “uniformly notable for a fusion of pure intellect and molten emotion.” The New Yorker says

Chiang spends a good deal of time describing the science behind the device, with an almost Rube Goldbergian delight in elucidating the improbable.

Vox says:

Chiang is thoughtful about the rules of his imagined technologies. They have the kind of precise, airtight internal logic that makes a tech geek shiver with happiness: When Chiang tells you that time travel works a certain way, he’ll always provide the scientific theory to back up what he’s written, and he will never, ever veer away from the laws he’s set for himself.

That is, they all seem to agree that Chiang is unusually realistic and careful in his analysis.

I enjoyed Exhalation, as I have Chiang’s previous work. But as none of the above reviews (nor any of 21 Amazon reviews) make the point, it apparently falls to me to say that this realism and care is limited to philosophy and “hard” science. Re social science, most of these stories are not realistic.

Perhaps Chiang is well aware of this; his priority may be to paint the most philosophically or morally dramatic scenarios, regardless of their social realism. But as reviewers seem to credit his stories with social realism, I feel I should speak up. To support my claims, I’m going to have to give “spoilers”; you are warned. Continue reading "Chiang’s Exhalation" »

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The Aristillus Series

There’s a contradiction at the heart of science fiction. Science fiction tends to celebrate the engineers and other techies who are its main fans. But there are two conflicting ways to do this. One is to fill a story with credible technical details, details that matter to the plot, and celebrate characters who manage this detail well. The other approach is to present tech as the main cause of an impressive future world, and of big pivotal events in that world.

The conflict comes from it being hard to give credible technical details about an impressive future world, as we don’t know much about future tech. One can give lots of detail about current tech, but people aren’t very impressed with the world they live in (though they should be). Or one can make up detail about future tech, but that detail isn’t very credible.

A clever way to mitigate this conflict is to introduce one dramatic new tech, and then leave all other tech the same. (Vinge gave a classic example.) Here, readers can be impressed by how big a difference one new tech could make, and yet still revel in heroes who win in part by mastering familiar tech detail. Also, people like me who like to think about the social implications of tech can enjoy a relatively manageable task: guess how one big new tech would change an otherwise familiar world.

I recently enjoyed the science fiction book pair The Aristillus Series: Powers of the Earth, and Causes of Separation, by Travis J I Corcoran (@MorlockP), funded in part via Kickstarter, because it in part followed this strategy. Also, it depicts betting markets as playing a small part in spreading info about war details. In addition, while most novels push some sort of unrealistic moral theme, the theme here is at least relatively congenial to me: nice libertarians seek independence from a mean over-regulated Earth:

Earth in 2064 is politically corrupt and in economic decline. The Long Depression has dragged on for 56 years, and the Bureau of Sustainable Research is making sure that no new technologies disrupt the planned economy. Ten years ago a band of malcontents, dreamers, and libertarian radicals used a privately developed anti-gravity drive to equip obsolete and rusting sea-going cargo ships – and flew them to the moon.There, using real world tunnel-boring-machines and earth-moving equipment, they’ve built their own retreat.

The one big new tech here is anti-gravity, made cheaply from ordinary materials and constructible by ordinary people with common tools. One team figures it out, and for a long time no other team has any idea how to do it, or any remotely similar tech, and no one tries to improve it; it just is.

Attaching antigrav devices to simple refitted ocean-going ships, our heroes travel to the moon, set up a colony, and create a smuggling ring to transport people and stuff to there. Aside from those magic antigravity devices, these books are choc full of technical mastery of familiar tech not much beyond our level, like tunnel diggers, guns, space suits, bikes, rovers, crypto signatures, and computers software. These are shown to have awkward gritty tradeoffs, like most real tech does.

Alas, Corcoran messes this up a bit by adding two more magic techs: one superintelligent AI, and a few dozen smarter-than-human dogs. Oh and the same small group is implausibly responsible for saving all three magic techs from destruction. As with antigravity, in each case one team figures it out, no other team has any remotely similar tech, and no one tries to improve them. But these don’t actually matter that much to the story, and I can hope they will be cut if/when this is made into a movie.

The story begins roughly a decade after the moon colony started, when it has one hundred thousand or a million residents. (I heard conflicting figures at different points.) Compared to Earth folk, colonists are shown as enjoying as much product variety, and a higher standard of living. This is attributed to their lower regulation.

While Earth powers dislike the colony, they are depicted at first as being only rarely able to find and stop smugglers. But a year later, when thousands of ships try to fly to the moon all at once from thousands of secret locations around the planet, Earth powers are depicted as being able to find and shoot down 90% of them. Even though this should be harder when thousands fly at once. This change is never explained.

Even given the advantage of a freer economy, I find it pretty implausible that a colony could be built this big and fast with this level of variety and wealth, all with no funding beyond what colonists can carry. The moon is a long way from Earth, and it is a much harsher environment. For example, while colonists are said to have their own chip industry to avoid regulation embedded in Earth chips, the real chip industry has huge economies of scale that make it quite hard to serve only one million customers.

After they acquire antigrav tech, Earth powers go to war with the moon. As the Earth’s economy is roughly ten thousand times larger that the moon’s, without a huge tech advantage is a mystery why anyone thinks the moon has any chance whatsoever to win this war.

The biggest blunder, however, is that no one in the book imagines using antigrav tech on Earth. But if the cost to ship stuff to the moon using antigrav isn’t crazy high, then antigravity must make it far cheaper to ship stuff around on Earth. Antigrav could also make tall buildings cheaper, allowing much denser city centers. The profits to be gained from these applications seem far larger than from smuggling stuff to a small poor moon colony.

So even if we ignore the AI and smart dogs, this still isn’t a competent extrapolation of what happens if we add cheap antigravity to a world like ours. Which is too bad; that would be an interesting scenario to explore.

Added 5:30p: In the book, antigrav is only used to smuggle stuff to/from moon, until it is used to send armies to the moon. But demand for smuggling should be far larger between places on Earth. In the book thousands of ordinary people are seen willing to make their own antigrav devices to migrate to moon, But a larger number should be making such devices to smuggle stuff around on Earth.

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A publicist recently emailed me: 

We are inviting select science and technology related press to view an early screening of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s MARS Season 2. The series premieres on November 12, however, we could email a screener to you then follow up with top interviews from the season. We’d just ask that you hold coverage until the week of Nov 7.

MARS is scripted, however, during each episodes, there are cut-aways to documentary style discussion by real scientists and thinkers who describe the reality of our endeavor to the red planet. The scripted aspect rigorously follows science and the latest in space travel technology.

Though I hadn’t heard of the show, I was flattered enough to accept this invitation. I have now watched both seasons, and today am allowed to give you my reactions. 

The branding by National Geographic, and the interleaving of fictional story with documentary interviews, both suggest a realistic story. Their “making of” episode also brags of realism. But while it is surely more realistic than most science fiction (alas, a low bar), it seemed to me substantially less realistic, and less entertaining, than the obvious comparison, the movie The Martian. The supposedly “rigorous” documentary parts don’t actually go into technical details (except in their extra “making of” episode); they just have big “Mars” names talking abstractly about emotional issues related to Mars colonization.  

As you might expect, the story contains way too many implausibly close calls. And others have pointed out technical inaccuracies. But let me focus on the economics.

First, they say near the end of the second season’s story that they have completed 22% of an orbiting mirror array, designed to melt the polar ice caps. From Wikipedia:

An estimated 120 MW-years of electrical energy would be required in order to produce mirrors large enough to vaporize the ice caps. … If all of this CO2 were put into the atmosphere, it would only double the current atmospheric pressure from 6 mbar to 12 mbar, amounting to about 1.2% of Earth’s mean sea level pressure. The amount of warming that could be produced today by putting even 100 mbar of CO2 into the atmosphere is small, roughly of order 10 K. (more)

From a recent NASA report:

There is not enough CO2 remaining on Mars to provide significant greenhouse warming were the gas to be put into the atmosphere; in addition, most of the COgas is not accessible and could not be readily mobilized. As a result, terraforming Mars is not possible using present-day technology. (more)

These mirrors are supposedly made on Mars out of materials dug up there, and then launched into orbit. Yet we only seem to see a few dozen people living on Mars, they’ve only been there ten years, and we never meet anyone actually working on making and launching mirrors. Yet such a project would be enormous, requiring vast resources and personnel. I can’t see how this small group could have fielded so many mirrors so fast, nor can I see the cost being worth such modest and slow increases in pressure and temperature, especially during the early colonization period.  

There is almost no discussion of the basic economics of this crazy expensive colonization effort. The first launches are paid for by an International Mars Science Foundation (IMSF), initially run by a very rich guy said to have put 90% of his wealth into it. Is this all charity, or does he get a return if things go well? Later we see mostly nations around a governing table, and public opinion seems very important, as if nations were paying, mainly to gain prestige. But the scale of all this seems huge compared to other things nations do together for prestige. 

The second season starts with the arrival on Mars of a for-profit firm, Lukrum, run by greedy men on Mars and Earth, while good-hearted women now run the IMSF on Mars and Earth. Lukrum consistently breaks agreements, grabs anything it can, takes unjustified risks with everyone’s lives, and otherwise acts badly. Yet, strangely, IMSF as a customer is the only plausible source of future revenue for Lukrum. So how do they expect to get a return on their huge investment if they treat their only possible customer badly? Apparently their plan is to just lobby the governments behind IMSF to have IMSF pay them off. As if lobbying was typically a great general investment strategy (it isn’t). 

Thus the entire second season is mostly a morality play on the evils of greedy firms. The documentary parts make it clear that this is to be taken as a lesson for today on global warming and the environment; for-profit firms are just not to be trusted and must be firmly under the control of scientists or governments who cannot possibly be lobbied by the for-profit firms. Scientists and governments can be trusted, unless they are influenced by for-profit firms. The only reason to include firms in any venture is if they’ve used their money to buy political power that you can’t ignore, or if a project needs more resources than dumb voters are willing to pay for. (Obviously, they think, the best solution is to nationalize everything, but often dumb voters won’t approve that either.)

All this in a story that brags about its scientific accuracy, and that breaks for interviews with “experts. But these are “experts” in Mars and environmental activism, not economics or political economy.  

For the record, as an economist let me say that a plausible reason to include for-profit firms on Mars, and elsewhere, is that they often have better incentives to actually satisfy customers. Yes, that’s a problem on Mars, because other than governments seeking prestige, there are not likely to be enough customers on Mars to satisfy anytime soon, as almost anything desired is much cheaper to make here on Earth. This includes not just exotic places to visit or move, but protection against human extinction.

Yes, things can go badly when corruptible governments subcontract to for-profit firms who lobby them. But that’s hardly a good general reason to dislike for-profit firms. Governments who can be corrupted by lobbying are also generally corruptible and inept in many other ways. Having such governments spend vast sums on prestige projects to impress ignorant voters and foreigners is not generally a good way to get useful stuff done. 

By the way, I’ve also watched the first season of The First, another TV series on Mars colonization. So far the show doesn’t seem much interested in Mars or its related politics, econ, or tech, compared to the personal relation dramas of its main characters. They have not at all explained why anyone is funding this Mars mission. I like its theme music though.

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