Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Review: Tales of MU

Tales of MU is a fantasy serial. So far, I've read books one and two, and at the time of this writing, book three is coming out in regular installments. This is one of the most enjoyable Web serials I have yet read; it might be the best. The writing style is smooth and clean and at a professional level of competence. The characters are likable and pleasurable to follow. The storyline has some "adult" situations, but those situations are not the reason for the storyline. In other words, the tale has the occasional erotic scene, but overall it is not erotica. There is a lot of humor in the narrative, but again, it isn't a comedy. The closest brief description is probably fantasy bildungsroman.

The main character and narrator is a young woman attending a university for the first time after being reared in a small town by a strict grandmother. It is not an original concept, but most fiction concepts aren't, and the author handles it skillfully and keeps the reader wanting to find out what happens next.

The author is unafraid to tackle heavy themes--free will, freedom of choice, nontraditional lifestyles, sexual morality, et cetera--but does it in a light-handed manner that leaves the reader feeling unpummeled. No side in a complex dispute is ever declared all right and the other all wrong.

The setting is a prestigious public university apparently located in the fantasy analog of the contemporary United States. The technology of the society is powered by magic, and our high technology is considered fantasy. (The author has not yet explained how legends of science have entered the setting's culture.) Equivalents of the Internet, telephones, recreational pharmaceuticals, mass transit, and Wal-Mart exist. Weaponry, though, seems to rely on muscle power.

Furthermore, it looks as if all of the popular intelligent races from mythology and fantasy fiction--elves, dwarves, nymphs, giants, and so on--are assumed to exist, and many can crossbreed with humans. Again, the concept isn't original, but it is well handled. Many of the in-jokes are based on Dungeons-and-Dragons style fantasy role-playing games. Humans apparently are the dominant race, and racism is a running theme, but like the author's other difficult subjects, it is deftly handled.

The story is not for everyone. Obviously, a reader who does not like fantasy will have little use for the serial. Be aware that it is a serial in every sense of the word, and the pace is slow by the internal clock of the story. I have probably read more than a hundred thousand words of the narrative, and I don't believe two-weeks of story time have yet passed. Readers who read to get to the end, therefore, will hate it. For all I know, the author does not yet have an end in mind. On the other hand, the protagonist and her new friends are undergoing so many personal changes that the pace does not feel slow.

Another thing to beware of is that sexual self-discovery is one of the themes. Some of the characters, college freshmen on their own for the first time, are exploring lesbianism and bisexuality. An important character is transgendered. BDSM, mostly light, is an ongoing topic. The sex scenes aren't especially graphic, but they aren't just glossed over, either. Harry Potter this ain't. Readers looking for stroke material, however, will doubtless find too much story in between sex scenes.

I suggest that fantasy readers not put off by the above warnings give the serial a try. Those who have been burned by infrequently updated installments of other Web serials need not fear. The author is one of those fortunate souls blessed with a high writing speed and is turning out, roughly, an impressive ten thousand words of lucid prose per week. Recommended.

The overall website is here.

The beginning of the narrative can be found here.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

Most of the distinction between fantasy and SF is the I-know-it-when-I-see-it type. The technical distinction that some have proposed is that science fiction doesn't break any known physical laws. Unfortunately, most of the stuff that gets classified as science fiction does break known physical laws, and the authors knew it when they wrote it. That includes such big-name writers as Heinlein, Asimov, and Niven.

I think the real-world distinction that writers, publishers, and readers use is that if it contains elves, swords, unrationalized magic (unexplained by psi, or something), vampires, or dragons, it is fantasy. That is why the vast majority of readers consider Pern and Glory Road fantasy, even though they are given SFnal rationalizations. If it contains space ships, time travel (but no other magic, other than FTL), techno-babble, or alternate history, it is science fiction. If it has swords and space ships, it is science fantasy (or space fantasy).

I used to consider SF and fantasy to be separate branches of a larger category called "speculative fiction," but considering what I have written above, as time has passed I have concluded that SF, technically, is actually a subcategory of fantasy and that speculative fiction and fantasy, properly understood, are the same thing. Fantasy is merely any type of fiction that does not take the real world, either past or present, as a starting assumption. Magic realism is also a branch of fantasy.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Environmentalism Considered as a Death Cult

I am about to make a series of massive generalities, but I think they are reasonable generalities. They can be nit-picked, and counterexamples are easily found. Nevertheless, I believe they contain more truth than falsehood. Taken together, these generalities imply that the typical self-described environmentalist is a de facto member of a death cult, although he might not consciously realize it.

First, what do environmentalists say they want? As far as I can discern, they want, one, to prevent environmental disaster, as illustrated by the global-warming scare. Two, they want a cleaner environment. Three, they want to preserve and/or increase wilderness areas. Four, they want to preserve and/or increase endangered species. Five, they want to conserve natural resources. So far, in broad outline, they don't appear to want anything that most persons would find unreasonable.

The problems come in when one starts looking at the details of the things they promote and oppose. They are, in general, against such things as nuclear energy, genetic engineering, and new construction. They are for such things as organic farming, muscle power, and renewable fuels and energy sources. They also seem to have a reflexive antipathy to heavy industry. Taken together, their policy recommendations are in direct opposition to their stated broad goals.

Consider their opposition to nuclear power. Nuclear power is clean, nearly pollution free, and thus promotes the goal of a cleaner environment. It requires less mining than coal, so it promotes the goal of preserving and increasing wilderness areas, which helps preserve endangered species. It isn't precisely renewable, but we know how to make breeder reactors, so it has the potential to be plentiful, nay, bounteous, for centuries. This would allow for nuclear energy to substitute for less renewable energy sources, such as fossil fuels.

Someone reading this might object the nuclear power fails in the first stated goal, that it is the source of a potential environmental catastrophe. The Chernobyl disaster comes to mind. Chernobyl was a poorly designed Soviet-era plant. No First World nation builds plants that way. Chernobyl is a red herring.

What about Three Mile Island? Three Mile Island wasn't a disaster. It was a scare. Furthermore, since that time, the design of nuclear power plants has been improved, so they are even safer. Three Mile Island is a red herring.

Many things in modern life have a potential for disaster, for instance, air travel. We have all seen what happens when a large jet hits a tall building. As another example, a few chemical factories have blown up. The news regularly has examples. One needs to understand that they are evidence that human beings often screw up. The fact is that we are healthier, wealthier, and longer lived that at any time in history, and the progressive trend appears to be continuing. Sometimes our technology and industry turn and bite us, but it is clear that the tradeoff has been well worth it. We can and should be constantly looking for ways to make things safer and better--and the record shows that such is the general trend--but bans and near bans, as has been the fate of nuclear energy in the United States--are foolish.

What about the problem of nuclear waste? What about it? It is a solved problem. Put the waste in a dry, geologically stable place for a while. Even generating all of our energy in nuclear reactors wouldn't produce that much of it--nuclear fuel is concentrated stuff--so it easily could all go into the same storage facility. And that "while" I just mentioned isn't the many "thousands of years" that environmentalists rant about. The rule is that the more radioactive something is, the faster it decays. The high-level wastes have short half-lives.

Note that when someone says nuclear, environmentalists have the tendency to reply with wind and solar. There is nothing inherently bad about wind power and ground-based solar power, but they are expensive and intermittent. Because they are expensive, most people will not use them voluntarily unless they necessarily need an off-grid electricity source. Because they are intermittent, they can't serve as the baseline power that our industrial and technological society counts upon. Also note, in passing, that wind farms cover a lot of area, which is in direct conflict with the goal of preserving and expanding wilderness. Wind and solar when spoken by environmentalists are closer to being shibboleths than they are to being serious policy recommendations, which supports my contention that environmentalism is a cult.

The real-world alternative to nuclear energy is coal. The United States, because nuclear hysteria stopped the construction of new nuclear power plants, has been turning increasingly to coal. No doubt about it, coal is polluting. Because it isn't all that energy dense, a whole lot of it must be mined, which implies lots of ugly strip mines. It seems, then, that the environmentalist loathing of nuclear energy is particularly self-defeating.

So, we have seen that typical environmentalists are against one of the best things available for achieving their stated goals. Next, consider genetic engineering. Genetic engineering has the potential to reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides, two things that environmentalists tend not to like. Reducing the need for fertilizers conserves petroleum, which is the primary chemical feedstock for them. By creating more productive crops, genetic engineering reduces the need for farmland, which increases the land available for wilderness and wildlife. By creating faster-growing livestock, it again reduces the need for farmland by reducing the need for animal feed. Furthermore, more advanced genetically engineered organisms can produce some of the chemicals we currently derive from petroleum.

Genetic engineering, therefore, can aid in the accomplishment of all of environmentalism's stated goals, yet what one tends to hear from them is such fear mongering as the call for mandatory labeling and epithets such as "frankenfood." Mandatory labeling on first glance looks reasonable. Why shouldn't people be told what they are eating?

The problem with mandatory labeling is that it currently applies to things that are dangerous. We put warning labels on tobacco and concrete cleaner. If we start slapping them on genetically modified food, the typical consumer will, not unreasonably, conclude that there must be something dangerous about it. The environmental leadership, at least, realizes this. They want to spread fear.

The obvious objection to their plan is that genetically modified food is safe. So what if genes from beans get put into corn, genes from fish get put into tomatoes, and genes from carrots get put into rice? We already eat beans, fish, and carrots. Nevertheless, just to make completely sure, the new foods are tested for safety. There is nothing wrong with genetically altered food and a whole lot right with it.

But what if some of the new crops escape into the wild? This is another red herring. All of our major agricultural crops have undergone extensive selective breeding. They are nothing like their wild counterparts. I am sure that our crops also occasionally grow wild. So what? It has caused no disasters.

Again we observe that typical environmentalists are against a technology that would help them accomplish their stated goals. Next, let us look at one of the things they like: organic farming. At one time, all farming was organic. Yields were much lower. Even though the population of the earth was much smaller, famines and malnutrition were common.

The great leap in agricultural production, called the Green Revolution, started in the 1940s. The population of the earth in 1940 was about 2.3 billion. At this point, one may begin to discern where the death part of the label death cult originates, for the mortality would be tremendous if the world switched to organic farming. The world population might not fall all the way to 2.3 billion, because we have better crops nowadays, but a die-off in the 50% range ought to be a reasonable estimate. Of course, people wouldn't just quietly die, they would first eat everything they could find and put as much land as they could into production. This, no doubt, would be wonderful for the wilderness areas and wildlife the environmentalists want to protect.

Organic farming is for hobbyists and a few farmers selling overpriced produce to those with more money than they can use productively. Again, we see the promoted policies of the environmentalists in direct opposition to their claimed goals. In truth, organic farming is another shibboleth. The average environmentalist hasn't actually considered the ramifications of its widespread adoption, but the words separate the in-group from the out-group.

Now, the typical environmentalist might say that we could use organic farming, protect more wilderness, construct fewer buildings, reduce our use of nonrenewable resources, and so on while not needing such evil technology as nuclear energy and genetic engineering if only the human population was much lower than it is today. It seems obvious this contention is true, but how can world population be reduced?

This strikes me as a nontrivial problem. Unless it is done accidentally by, say, a large meteor striking Earth, world population can either be reduced by force or it can be reduced voluntarily. Using force would require either mass murder beyond the scale of a Hitler or Stalin or a type of totalitarianism not seen in the darkest days of the USSR. (Even a government as ruthless as China's has not been able to completely enforce its one-child rule.) Therefore, any environmentalist who espouses reduction of population by force reveals himself to be a would-be tyrant as well as a death cultist.

On the other hand, voluntary reduction in population has been going on for decades in the First World. Once children ceased being a source of cheap labor and retirement care and instead became a luxury good, people quit having large families. Almost every country in the First World has children at a rate below replacement level.

That is in the First World. Note that the First World is wealthy. It uses a lot machinery and automation to increase productivity. Wealth is what led to the decline in family size, for children became a drain on wealth rather than a source for wealth. Environmentalists, though, don't like the things that lead to wealth. They don't like power plants, refineries, and industry. They do like windmills, organic farming, and muscle power. They claim that the earth is overpopulated, but they dislike the one non-horrific thing that has been shown to decrease population. Again, the policies of the environmentalists are in conflict with their goals, and overpopulation, like wind, solar, and organic, is a shibboleth.

At this point it is clear that the average self-identified environmentalist has not arrived at his opinions through evidence and reason. Instead, he has developed them by listening to gurus or by becoming part of an in-group. He maintains his faith in environmentalism by ignoring or dismissing evidence that the real world does not operate by the principles he espouses. In short, environmentalism strongly resembles a religion and, perhaps, can best be thought of as a type of nature worship.

Note that, so far, an implicit assumption has been made that environmentalists do not examine the ramifications of the policies they promote. It is true that their policies interfere with their goals and in the worst case would lead to environmental catastrophe and mass death, but it is likely that many environmentalists have never thought about it. After all, it comes as no surprise that many people are stupid. On the other hand, there is not a little evidence that many environmentalists hate humankind and would be happy to see most of it die off. One may assume that at least some of these individuals have considered the implications of their policies and would welcome the human cost.

I invite the readers who doubt the above to do a Web search on the phrase "humanity is a cancer". Many of the sites that this search turns up will have people condemning the idea, but many other sites will have people advocating it. It is not an opinion that is difficult to find displayed. Furthermore, self-identified environmentalists are common. Most adults have engaged more than one of them in a conversation about the environment. Their hatred of humanity and human institutions often displays itself in such conversations. With mild encouragement they will rant about crowding, industry, development, and so on. Some come out and flatly declare their hatred of most people.

Environmentalism, considered dispassionately, strongly resembles a religion. If its policies were ever implemented on a large scale, they would lead to mass misery and death, so it is harsh but not unfair to call environmentalism a death religion or, more emphatically, a death cult. Some of its member are witting death cultists, but considering human stupidity, it is likely the many more are unwitting death cultists.

All things considered, I feel somewhat foolish for writing this little essay. Any environmentalist who sees it will dismiss it and call me bad names, but any person who has even modestly researched the issues will already know everything I have said, although he might use more moderate language in his description of environmentalists. Thus, I have either been proselytizing to the converted or picking on the mentally deficient.

On the bright side, environmentalists do some good when they harp about pollution. A clean environment is a good thing. Furthermore, whereas environmentalists do some damage around the edges, as in their few-decades delay of nuclear energy, most of their harebrained plans are not taken seriously by persons with power and are unlikely to be implemented on a large scale.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Steve Sailer: Why "No Child Left Behind" Is Nuts

Why "No Child Left Behind" Is Nuts
This complete contradiction between what Gates knows to be true in his personal affairs, and the nonsense that he pays to promulgate in public, is never held against him (or against anybody else). Instead, lying in public is now considered the mark of a good person. The bad people are the ones like Charles Murray who carefully document what everyone else silently knows already.

Surely our elites can't be as naive as they let on. They must know that the average person can't become proficient in academic subjects if proficient is defined in a way that matches the intuitive definition. The question then becomes, if they indeed know the truth, what are their real goals?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Steve Sailer: How the college prestige racket works

Dr. Faust At Harvard

Comments on Sailer's article can be read or made here.

Sailer and others have convinced me that the primary value of most college degrees in the contemporary United States is in proving that the person who receives them was smart enough to get into a given university in the first place. This, of course, is extremely inefficient, and the expense of a prestigious degree helps maintain the position of the ruling class.

Bias and Politics

Good essay: Why People Are Irrational about Politics

Why Foxes Are Better Forecasters Than Hedgehogs (audio presentation)

An excellent new resource about bias is the blog Overcoming Bias.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Steve Sailer: iSteve.com Blog Archives: Debating Ploys of the Smug and Stupid

Steve Sailer: iSteve.com Blog Archives: Debating Ploys of the Smug and Stupid

This is a nice summary of unfair/illogical debate tactics. The author is somewhat unwarranted in limiting his discussion to liberals and neoconservatives, but his characterization of dirty argument techniques is excellent.

Friday, January 05, 2007

An IQ Primer

For anyone who might want to learn about IQ, the uses of IQ, and the relationship between IQ and race, here is a list of recommended articles available on the Web. I suggest that they be read in the order listed.

Start with this Linda Gottfredson article. It is an outstanding crash primer by an expert in psychometrics. A psychometrician is an experimental psychologist trained in testing and test design. Make sure you don't skip the sidebars, and study the graph thoroughly.

After that, read this copy of a letter originally published in The Wall Street Journal. If you take the trouble to Google the names of the signatories, you'll notice that they are (or were) big guns in psychology--nary a Nazi in the bunch.

If your appetite is now whetted read The Role of Intelligence in Modern Society. Omigod! That author isn't a Nazi either.

If you read those three things, you'll have adequate background to read with an open mind The Inequality Taboo by Charles Murray.

After Murray warms you up, read this paper by J. Philippe Rushton and Arthur R. Jensen. Rushton and Jensen are leading lights among psychometricians, and both have received good kickings in pursuit of the truth. Both men have needed police or campus security protection at times and have faced movements to have their tenure revoked. Nevertheless, if you are interested and take the time to Google around, you'll find that they are overwhelmingly respected by their peers, both psychometricians and the larger community of experimental psychologists.

All of that should give you an actually somewhat educated lay opinion, but a quick review by Dr. Jerry Pournelle, who has a PhD in experimental psychology (and another in political science), of the public policy implications wouldn't hurt.

Finally, if your now informed opinion induces the urge to further think about the political implications, Steve Sailer's articles on IQ are an excellent resource. Lots of people have taken the time to kick the man around, but Sailer has spent several years educating himself on the issues, and his detractors haven't. I'm not crawling as far out on a limb as it looks with that statement, because I know that Sailer's articles follow the mainstream thought of experimental psychology.