Wednesday, October 12, 2011

An Eyewitness Report

I work in Downtown Manhattan and am easily amused, so last week on my lunch break I went to ogle at the Occupy-a-Little-Square-Next-to-Wall-Street people. There were between 100 and 200 of them, mostly young. One dude was playing the bongos as I walked by.

This area isn't very far from City Hall Park, where much bigger, noisier, more energetic demonstrations occur at least a dozen times a year. When the city clerical workers' union is out in force, you're gonna know about it from at least 15 blocks away. Compared to that the occupiers looked listless and boring. I guess someone in the media made a decision to cover them. Or perhaps it snowballed by accident (the coverage of course, not the occupation.) 

As for the young people themselves, some were hipsters, others not. There was probably a 90/10 white/black mix there. Apparently Asians aren't big enough on either altruism or laziness to find such events worthwhile.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Why Do Women Like to Travel?

This question has bothered me for a while. The average man has a lot of interests, and since different men tend to have different ones, the total number of distinct male obsessions and hobbies is numbered in millions. All women have pretty much the same interests, and there are scarcely more than a handful of them in total. Why should travel, of all things, be one of those?

I'm guessing that this is a recent development. In the past most travel was dangerous, unpredictable, uncomfortable - the kind that still appeals to a subset of high T adventurous guys. If Richard Burton and Columbus were alive today, they would probably try to cross the world in a canoe or swim across the Bering Strait naked in winter or traverse the Antarctic on foot, all in a shorter amount of time than the current world record holder.

That's not the kind of travel women have ever liked. They're into packaged deals - hotels, fat tour guides, group photos in front of the Eiffel Tower, lying on the beaches of a continent other than their own. This is all very modern.

Some would tell you that to women travel is like jewlery or flowers - they don't like it for itself, they just like seeing men spend money on them through it. And indeed one would expect all the leading experts on jewlery and botany to be men, not women. But what is one to make then of the fact that single women often travel with each other on their own dime?

I've heard the theory that women like to travel because in hotels they don't have to cook or do any household chores. Perhaps there's some truth to that, but I doubt that it's the whole truth. Wealthy women still seem to like riskless travel more than wealthy men do.

My hunch is that women's desire for frequent superficial changes of scenery has to do with gender differences in focus and attention. It is more male to want to focus deeply on one thing at a time and it is more female to prefer to quickly jump from one topic to another, never delving deeply into any one of them. Perhaps the feminine passions for constantly redecorating one's home and changing one's wardrobe are related to that.

The intelligent high T guys' preferred type of travel (mountain climbing and the rest of it) isn't just dangerous, it also requires a lot of focus. It can often be described as a single-minded pursuit of a difficult goal, in other words the very opposite of anything that the average travel agency has ever tried selling. Most men won't climb the Everest, but a largish percentage will put even more effort into other, stationary hobbies than it woud have taken to climb it. Compared to that packaged tours seem passive, scatterbrained, and above all, boring, to many men. But not to any women.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Review of The Mauritius Command

The Mauritius Command, 1977, by Patrick O'Brian. Glossy's rating: 9.2 out of 10.

I loved this volume as much as the others, but instead of rhapsodizing about O'Brian's style, humor and plotting, I'm going to spend this review disparaging Stephen Maturin's politics and general worldview. Since O'Brian is such a tremendous writer, you end up knowing his protagonists from the inside, in a way in which it's rare to know anyone but oneself. So even a cynical right-winger like me cannot in the end hate Stephen. His disappointments, hopes and moods are described too realistically, and will remind anyone who's occasionally tried to think for himself of himself a bit too much for hatred to be a typical response. And yet most of the things Stephen says about politics are such nonsense!

Here he takes part in a discussion of crime and punishment:

"There was a man," remarked Captain Eliot, "who was sentenced to death for stealing a horse from a common. He said to the judge, that he thought it hard to be hanged for stealing a horse from a common; and the judge answered, "You are not to be hanged for stealing a horse from a common, but that others may not steal horses from commons."
"And do you find," asked Stephen, "that in fact horses are not stolen from commons? You do not."

What a moronic thing to say. I'm sure that hanging, like any punishment, would decrease the number of horses stolen. And the more severe the punishment, the larger the decrease . Now, one might argue about the trade-offs between effectiveness and humanitarianism, but Stephen, by vulgarly boiling down an inherently probabilistic phenomenon to a binary yes-or-no form, seems to "argue" here that hanging isn't even effective as a deterrent. Wasn't he supposed to understand something about statistics? I clearly remember statistics being mentioned in a description of his card-playing techniques in an earlier novel.

A man who would steal a horse might steal a lot of other things, might break a lot of other laws. He's a rotten man. How selfish it is for Stephen to enjoy the benefits of living in a law-abiding society while wanting to undermine the forces that had made it such.

Still on the topic of capital punishment, Jack says:

"And as for the value of human life..." "...one man, even a post-captain, nay' - smiling - "even a commodore or jack-in-the-green, is not to be balanced against the good of the service."

Clonfert, one of the captains serving under Jack, indignantly calls the above "the Tory view of human life."

This conflict between goal-oriented and idly sentimental thinking, masculine vs. feminine, accepting the world as it is vs. indulging in saccharine fantasies about it, is very familiar. On this issue the right and the left of 1809 are recognizable as themselves today.

When Stephen asks Jack to elaborate, he says:

"I do in fact dislike hanging more than I said, but more for myself than for the hanged man: the first time I saw a man run up to the yardarm with a nightcap over his eyes and his hands tied behind his back, when I was a little chap in the Ramilles, I was as sick as a dog. But as for the man himself, if he has deserved hanging, deserved it by our code, I find it don't signify so very much what happens to him. It seems to me that men are of different value, and if some are knocked on the head, the world is not much the poorer."

It's not that liberals disagree that men are of different value - few seem to put right-wingers on the same exalted level as themselves. Instead, they tend to be more hypocritical about it. All but the most naive of them act as if they believe that different men have different values, but few will admit to it in principle.

Here is Stephen on procreation:

"I freely admit I find most babies superfluous, and unnecessary."
"Without there were babies, we should have no next generation," retorts Jack.
"So much the better, when you consider the state to which we have reduced the world we must live in,..." 

Oh yeah, that's logical.

"...the bloody-minded wolfish stock from which they spring..."

What are the chances of a weaselly stock surviving long-term?

"...and the wicked, inhuman society that will form them."

Guys like Stephen should be forbidden on pain of death from coming within a mile of forming any children.

And just to top it off, here are his thoughts on women and intelligence:

"...a girl, when grown into a woman, has greater need for her intellect than a man."

WHAT?

In the following passage he tries to justify his dependence on opium:


"...and I take it only when my disgust is so great that it threatens to impede my work. One day, when he is sober, I shall ask McAdam whether disgust for oneself, for one's fellows and for the whole process of living was common among his [mental] patients in Belfast - whether it incapacitated them. My own seems to grow; and it is perhaps significant that I can feel no gratitude towards the man who took me from the water."

I don't find it strange that Stephen, the self-proclaimed humanitarian, is disgusted by people and by life in general while Jack, who kills men for a living without feeling much guilt over it, loves life and a great many of the living.

Those who act, who constantly see the direct consequences of their actions, feel in control and are happier for it. Idleness, dependency are frustrating. Jack is still alive to a large extent because he's fought for it. It's an accomplishment, a prize snatched from others in the course of the infinitely thrilling game that is war. Even money is more appreciated by those who've worked hard to get it than by those who've merely inherited it. And since Jack has fought for his life fair and square, he expects others to do the same, without whining if they lose. And he really, really wouldn't have whined if he was in their place. He's just not made that way.

Of course this take-it-or-leave-it, fair's-fair attitude to war depended on civilians not being involved. A large majority of the people who were hurt in the battles described in these books volunteered for them. Isn't it ironic that in the modern world the mafia and similar organizations honor the old aristocratic don't-touch-the-civilians code better than most states?

Stephen exists in a bubble of safety created by Jack personally and by guys like Jack generally. He hasn't fought for his life. During his duel with Canning at the end of the last novel he actually wanted to miss. Life is a given to him, and apparently a boring one at that. Dependency, even if comfortable, even if luxuriant, is depressing. If you do not feel yourself to be the master of your own fate, if you do not frequently see your actions having an effect on yourself and on others, you will be that much less happy for it - a toy in others' hands. You will instinctively sympathize with the losers of this world. For my own part, I was never more liberal than when I was unemployed for a couple of years after college, living with my parents, depending on them.

The best ways to deal with such feelings of loserdom are to try to turn oneself into a winner, or, if that's impossible, to at least refuse to whine about it. Succumbing to envy, hating all winners on principle, is the least socially-responsible choice. There is a reason why no one who feels that way ever admits to actually being moved by envy, instead hiding behind supposed humanitarianism. Envy is both pathetic on the individual level and harmful to a society as a whole. If the worst players on your team are furiously trying to trip up the best ones, your team will fall behind those teams that are united. The same is true of civilization and of humanity. The envy of a few has the ability to hold back the world.

The above is probably not the only motivating factor behind Stephen's liberalism - there's also his mixed ethnic background, his bastardy in an age when that was (with good reason, of course) looked down upon, his having been born into a minority religion (he's a Catholic), the herd effect of being an intellectual during the Age of "Enlightenment", and, finally, his being an alter ego for a writer born in a much more liberal period than his own.

But it may well not be a coincidence that in this book Clonfert, the character most acutely aware of his inability to measure up to Jack, takes up the liberal position in the argument about the value of human life which I quoted above.

And Stephen admits in a diary entry that his motivation for siding with the English in the Napoleonic wars is neither love for the English nor for humanity, but hatred for that particular historic moment's most spectacular, most flagrant, most unapologetic winner:

"And although my loathing for Bonaparte and his evil system is an efficient stimulant, hatred alone is a poor, sterile kind of basis." 

And yet he genuinely likes Jack. And if the sentiment Stephen expresses in the following passage isn't conservative, I don't know what is:

"...a ship at sea, particularly a small ship on a foreign station, is an enclosed village; and whoever heard of a long-matured judgment of a village being wrong? The communal mind, even where the community is largely made up of unthinking and illiterate men, is very nearly as infallible as a Council."

He's not wholly predictable because he tries to think for himself.

In my review of H.M S. Surprise I said that Stephen is the more interesting of the two protagonists. And yet Jack's letters to Sophie are some of the funniest and most endearing passages in these books. The one I'm going to quote, however, is more revealing than entertaining. Here Jack is talking about two French ships of war, the Minerve and the Bellone:

"...there is a rumor that someone, a Royalist or Papist or both, damaged their bottoms with an infernal machine: but I find it hard to believe that even a foreigner could be so wicked." 

Even though this royalist or papist would have helped Jack's cause, he still looks down on his sabotage as unsporting. War should be honorable. He knows that not all foreigners happen to share his views on honor, but his benevolence, his typical desire to look at everything in a cheerful, magnanimous light, conquers all in the end, and he ends up refusing to believe that any Frenchman could be so villainous as to help the British by dishonest, sneaky means.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Victory Day


For anyone with a non-trivial connection to the old USSR or to the states that have become its heirs, today is Victory Day.

One of my grandfathers went through the whole war, was wounded, got back to the front, came home alive. Two of my great-grandparents died during the German occupation of Pochep, Russia. As a kid I used to play with my grandfather's "Victory Over Germany" medal, brushing my hands over the mustached face on the front, thinking of all the hundreds of Russian movies I'd seen about The War, imagining myself in it.

It's interesting to think about why we won and they lost. Some would tell you that Hitler's big blunder was starting his Russian campaign on June 22nd instead of a month or two earlier. A May start would have given him more time to try to take Moscow and Leningrad before the winter set in. But actually the war would have continued even if he took the capital - Stalin had plans to move the government to the Urals.

Some say that Hitler lost because of a failure to divide and rule. If he promised the Poles, the Balts, and, most importantly, the Ukrainians, independent states after the war, then perhaps more of them would have joined him in his drive against Russia. But even if he was willing to make such promises, how many would have believed him?

Prolonged all-out wars are anomalies, evidence of a miscalculation on somebody's part. It makes no sense to go to war unless you think you can quickly win. The German effort against France only lasted a few weeks because both sides quickly agreed on the vitally-important question of who was stronger.

In the Great Patriotic War the two sides did not agree. 

Even though all of my known ancestors were Jewish, I grew up immersed in Russian culture and feel that perhaps I have a little bit of an insight into it. Russians are unique in being extremely altruistic without being fussy. Going through the countryside you see terrible roads, leaning houses. A surprisingly small percentage of the fences are fully vertical. The constant need to always have everything sparkling clean, perfectly upright and by the book, which is so characteristic of Germans, is absent from the Russian character. It's actually absent from the national characters of a great majority of the Earth's peoples, including mine. But unlike this great majority, Russians are extremely altruistic in a crisis.

It's an unusual combination and not everyone picks up on it. If you frame an issue, almost any issue, in terms of selfishness vs. altruism, in terms of sticking by one's buddies when they're in trouble or abandoning them, in terms of being morally good or bad, then your average Russian will respond more altruistically than almost anybody on Earth. One can call it the Chernobyl syndrome - a lackadaisical everyday attitude occasionally leads to screw-ups which are then followed by unbelievable feats of heroism, which are later shrugged off as nothing special.

There is a cognitive dissonance here. I can easily imagine a German officer thinking "how can a country with such roads be a threat?"

Well, in many Russian minds the question of whether or not one should do one's absolute best for filthy lucre, for a wage, on a regular weekday, does not involve honor or morality or anything of the sort. And if your boss is unhappy with your work, that may well be his problem - a normal human being endowed with a soul and some empathy, someone who is not a brute or an automaton, wouldn't expect his employees to slave away for hours on end over some meaningless who-knows-what anyway. 

But the question of one's duty before a friend in real trouble, before the whole community in trouble - that does involve morality, shame, pride, etc. very directly. And unlike many other peoples, Russians are perfectly able to trust, feel loyalty to and sacrifice for entities that are much larger than extended families. If need be, this very strong altruism can be felt about hundreds of millions of people.

It seems to me that Hitler might well have misunderstood the Russian national character, and consequently underestimated Russia. He went in because he thought that Russia would have been as easy to overrun as all the other countries with bad roads. In fact it is not.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The MAT

I took the Miller Analogies Test yesterday because I had nothing better to do on a Saturday and because I wanted to see if I could get into the Prometheus Society. I can't. I fell short by a mile, actually by many, many miles, scoring only a 476. Here's a blog post by a guy who got a 506, and here's another by a gentleman who got a 486.

I took the GRE 3 or 4 times over the years, getting almost identical results each time. There are tables on the Internet that show equivalent scores between different standardized tests, and a 476 on the MAT is almost identical to my old GRE scores.

I've taken a specific work-related test 4 different times by now. One of those times I screwed up the timing and didn't get to the last dozen or so questions. But the other 3 times my scores were almost identical to each other. It's eerie. Also funny, considering the amount of money made by test prep companies and publishers every year. How much of the medical profession operates on the same principle?

About 5 years ago I had a bout with cancer. Half of my hair fell out because of chemotherapy, I couldn't keep any food inside me for a week at a time, and for long periods a weird, chemo-related fog spread over my mind - an amazingly crappy sensation that I've never experienced before or since.

But even that failed to permanently alter my scores. I got pretty much the same result on those professional tests before and after chemo.

Complex mechanisms tend to be fragile, but the mind apparently isn't. Kingsley Amis, my favorite English-language author, drank heavily all his life, and yet his last novel, written in his early 70s, was just as witty as the ones he wrote in his 30s. If hundreds of gallons of whiskey won't screw it up, what can?

By the way, according to this PDF (p.40), the highest MAT score during the 2001-2003 period was 563. Good God! Why is Lady Gaga a celebrity, but the guy who scored a 563 on the MAT isn't? That's supposed to be 6.52σ above the mean, which gives us a right-tailed p-value of 3.515*10^-11, which translates into a frequency of roughly one in 28.45 billion people. Well, perhaps the testing isn't as reliable at the extreme right tail as elsewhere, and perhaps the extreme right tail of the IQ distribution isn't even very normal to begin with. Regardless, my hat goes off to the geek who managed to score that high. Has anyone outscored him since 2003?

The highest level that tests like the LAIT claimed to reliably measure was, if I'm not mistaken, around 175 IQ. 6.52σ, assuming a mean of 100, implies something like 198. Of course the mean here should be higher than 100 because only people who want to go to graduate school take the MAT. The company that operates the MAT has a lot more resources than Mr. Langdon or Mr. Hoeflin. For example, the 563 guy was the best in a sample of 126,082 people. However, since I'm not a psychometrician, I'll stop there.

What of the test itself? I was surprised by how un-PC it was. You had to know who people like Camus, Renoire and Degas were. As far as I remember, all the cultural references were Western and all of the culture referenced was high, not TV-based. However, it was a real IQ test because sometimes I couldn't get the analogies even though I recognized all of the terms in a question.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review of H.M.S. Surpirse

H.M.S. Surprise, 1973, by Patrick O'Brian. Glossy's rating: 9.3 out of 10. 

Some thoughts on the series' protagonists:
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Because of his greater intelligence, Stephen is more interesting than Jack. But Jack is by far a better person. At the end of this volume he is shown writing a report for the Admiralty containing his soundings, draughts of the coast and other research of a sort that probably wasn't much less complicated or less useful to science than Stephen's efforts in botany and zoology. But the reverse - Stephen doing Aubrey's job - that wouldn't have flown at all. He would have refused to punish the idlers and the incompetents, he would have disobeyed orders, empathized with the enemy, spent hours asking himself if war could ever be justified, if life was worth living, if it was not in fact an illusion, and on and on. He would have gotten himself and everyone aboard killed within a fortnight.

Forget a man-o-war, how could any organization run or fully staffed by Maturins survive for long? Without guys like Jack occasionally managing to make small parts of the world so safe that illusions about its true nature temporarily seized being deadly for others, liberalism could have never been born. The “Age of Reason” would have never come about.

The ability of human reason to rival the unthinking parts of nature is pathetically weak even today. In 1806 it was almost non-existent. Even when you'd think it would be easy, as in the cases of wigs or artificial leather, human invention routinely falls short of the real thing. Anything more complex - hearts, kidneys, economic models, "scientific" theories of history or morality - reliably becomes a farce. The naval traditions that Stephen constantly makes fun of, including the Royal Navy's propensity to whip drunks, the ethnic generalization he scoffs at (unless of course it's directed at Englishmen), the sexual morality whose flouting by Diana he excuses - all of those may well be described as forces of nature. No single person has ever created a stereotype, a piece of folk wisdom, a successful (i.e. enduring) system of morals. They form like rivers, with every water molecule finding the most efficient way down by itself until zillions of them join each other in a permanent river bed.

It's true that the carriers of traditions and stereotypes are very rarely able to justify them intelligently, but that's not as important as some apparently think. If you ask a liver how it works, it wouldn't tell you either. Traditional societies with all of their superstitions have been working for eons. Attempts to reason about the basics of existence, morality and social order have a much worse track record than that. I'm not saying that these attempts will never succeed. Perhaps some number of centuries after the hypothetical invention of fake leather that looks like real leather all sociological speculation too will seize being manifestly defective. It's not impossible. But until that happens one should never take it seriously enough to try it. And one should be very weary of making fun of elements of working systems.

Stephen is not. Among other things we learn in this book that he was enthusiastic about the French Revolution until its Jacobin period, that he finds nothing wrong in others' pedophilia, that he disdains elementary hygiene, simple personal cleanliness because - wait for it - to him it's all useless social convention, a superstition. Just because he can't see a good reason to do something, he arrogantly assumes that no such reasons must exist. Even his choice of chemical mood changer is pig-headed in this very specific way. At least European genomes and social structures have by now had a few millenia to adjust to the alcohol that everyone on board these ships swills in spite of Stephen's protests. The opiates he takes instead are a far more novel, and therefore more dangerous, poison. 

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I found this passage interesting: "The Lively was a fine example, an admirable example, of a Whiggish state of mind at its best; and Jack was a Tory. He admired her, but it was with a detached admiration, as though he were in charge of a brother-officer's wife, an elegant, chaste, unimaginative woman, running her life on scientific principles."

I can't say I'm shocked by it, but it's still fascinating. If the Tories primarily represented the aristocracy and the Whigs the bourgeoisie, then of course the latter would be fussy and boring, while the former bold and adventurous. And since there is no aristocracy in America, the right here falls back on representing the middle class, so it necessarily becomes boringly responsible (at least compared to the left) - the reverse of what Toryism apparently meant within the world described by O'Brian.

Another anachronism: in the following passage set in Bombay an Indian guide tries to tempt Stephen ("the sahib") with local entertainment:

"Would the sahib want me to bring him to a house of boys? Cleaned, polite boys, like gazelles, that sing and play the flute?" ... "There [is] Kumar the rich, an unbeliever; he has a thousand concubines. The sahib is disgusted. Like me, the sahib looks upon women as tattling, guileful, tale-bearing, noisy, contemptible, mean, wretched, unsteady, harsh, inhospitable; I will bring him a young gentleman that smells of honey."

In the modern world, except perhaps in Afghanistan, gays are proud to exemplify the cattiest, least attractive aspects of femininity even more than women do. A modern man who's tired of bitchiness would never think of turning to buggery as an escape. What people rarely consider is that in a society where buggery is accepted as normal, the average buggerer (and even the average buggeree) wouldn't be an emotional outlier at all. He would be an average guy instead, and regular guys hate bitchiness wherever they see it. So the emotional motivation for buggery becomes reversed by 180 degrees. 

Being hormonally normal, the typical pre-modern buggeree would have probably been far more likely to be coerced into it or to do it for money than his modern, far less numerous and, not coincidentally, far more unusual colleagues. This means that if Islam ever manages to stamp out widespread buggery in Afghanistan the way Christianity once stamped it out in the Hellenistic world, that would be a big win for personal rights and a big loss for coercion. Not that most libertarians or "human rights" campaigners would see it that way, of course.

One of the conclusions here is that anyone who's ever wondered how a fairy could have possibly conquered half the civilized world in the 4th century BC shouldn't. At that time and place limp-wristedness simply wouldn't have been a typical part of that particular package. An obvious corollary is that those modern gays who look for forerunners and heroes in Greek antiquity and the pre-modern East quite likely would have been despised by those heroes of theirs more than they are by the average man of today.
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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Review of Post Captain

Post Captain, 1972, by Patrick O'Brian. Glossy's rating: 9.2 out of 10.

First things first: I found all of Master and Commander's virtues in this volume as well. The humor is just as dry. You never see any of the jokes coming until the exact moment of their punchlines and, just as importantly, O'Brian never lingers over them past that moment. One's desire to know what happens next to Jack and Stephen never wanes. If only real life could draw one towards most of its characters as well as O'Brian draws you to his. And I never have and probably never will learn this much, about history or anything else, while being so expertly entertained.

There is a flaw here though. Unlike in the first book, Jack and Stephen, especially the latter, are made to fall in love in this one, and unfortunately it's not pretty. Of course love can be as exciting as any human emotion, and in fact O'Brian does compare it to war in its capacity to make one feel life at its fullest. And yet his battle scenes are about a million times more interesting than his courtship and jealousy scenes. It's hard to blame the author's nerdiness for this because his female characters are nothing if not realistic.

One of the biggest problems here is that he refuses to make fun of Jack's and Stephen's love interests. This is especially disastrous because one of them happens to be a raging bitch. Every other consequential character is regularly made fun of in these books, some lovingly, others not so much. But Diana Villiers, a slut by the standards of any age, except perhaps of the present one, is allowed to just be there, almost without authorial comment.

We can be sure that this attitude wasn't caused by a misapplied sense of chivalry. When marine captain McDonald, a positive character throughout, says the following about the weaker sex, we're not meant to withdraw from him in horror:

"I hate women. They are entirely destructive. They drain a man, sap him, take away all his good: and none the better for it themselves."

This is as good as any comment on the senselessness with which Jack and Stephen waste their friendship, their health, and nearly their lives over Diana.

So why does O'Brian never cut her down to size, why are all the passages that involve her so reliably humorless? If Stephen's relationship with Diana was based on anything in O'Brian's own history, then of course those chapters would have been endlessly interesting to him even as they're written. Too bad for the reader then, who's never seen the woman behind Diana, never had any complicated history with her, and who just has to sit there looking at her being predictably selfish for the umpteenth time, while wondering when is the action finally going to move off to sea again.

But I'm being too harsh. A good 90% of this volume is about Jack's and Stephen's professional lives. I'm sure I'm far from being the only reader who would have paid good money for prequels. Jack's story should really have started when he was first sent to sea as a kid. The best literature is frequently about youth, plus we would have had a chance to learn about his mind-bogglingly complicated craft with him and through him. However, to be able to write about the late 18th century with O'Brian's level of confidence a modern writer would have probably had to start his decades-long obsession with it in his childhood too. And how many people do that?

At the end of the novel a British squadron captures some Spanish ships coming from South America with ungodly amounts of money. One comes up on this sort of scenario a lot while reading books set in the age of sail. The Spaniards' lack of organization is mentioned in this volume, as it was in the first one. If they really were that hapless and that rich at the same time, then why didn't the English, the French, and the Dutch simply take away all of their American colonies from them? I don't know the answer to that question, I'm just asking.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Review of Master and Commander

A review of a book I've recently finished reading:

Master and Commander, 1969, by Patrick O'Brian. Glossy's rating: 9.5 out of 10.
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A common reaction to works of genius is "I didn't know human beings could do that". I can honestly say that before I read Master and Commander I did not imagine that a man could know this much about a bygone world.

Out of all the innumerable ways in which the Napoleonic era was different from ours, O'Brian again and again mostly just uses the ones that can help him make his next sentence, paragraph or plot twist more interesting. This, along with other hints, creates the frightening impression that he might have known that particular world as well as normal people can only know the one into which they were born, and that he was able to pluck completely at will anything from it that good plotting or the promise of a good joke might have suddenly asked of him.

The two protagonists - Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey - are, respectively, a nerd and a gregarious, guileless natural leader of men. Obviously, anyone who could have possibly written such a book would have had to feel closer to the former than to the latter. It's interesting to note in this context that Maturin is half-Catalan and half-Irish and that in the novel circumstances lead him to participate as a non-combatant in British attacks on the Catalan coast and on Catalan shipping. The half-German, half-Irish O'Brian happened to have been involved in Britain's WWII effort as an ambulance driver, and perhaps as a spy.

If this book teaches us nothing else, it's that naval warfare in the age of sail was really, really complex. When one ship boarded another, pure courage had a chance to carry the day, but everywhere else it had to be supplemented by prodigious technical expertise, hard work, discipline and fanatical attention to detail. The reason why Britannia ruled the waves for so long is hinted at when Jack tells a midshipman:

"The pleasant thing about fighting the Spaniards, Mr. Ellis,"..."is not that they are shy, for they are not, but that they are never, never ready."

Later in that scene we are told that the Spaniards' "efforts were brave enough - one man balanced there to fire until he had been hit three times - but they seemed totally disorganized."

With Germany divided into dozens of states, England was left as the largest country in Europe that was full of fussy, detail-oriented people who worked well in teams. It would have probably taken a miracle for it not to have monopolized the seas.

It has often been said that Europe's working classes tended to have a better friend in the aristocracy than in the bourgeoisie. This is entertainingly exemplified in this book when a City stock broker goes into a long tirade against the common man while Jack and Stephen listen in disgust. It's impossible to imagine such speeches coming from either Jack or his lieutenant James Dillon, both of whom come from old landowning families. Since the aristocracy was martial in origin, it was bred to despise cowardice to a much greater extent than boorishness. And of course the common sailor had many more opportunities to act bravely than all the stock brokers of the world combined.

Just a little bit about that boorishness, though: the effect of alcoholism on sailors, at least as it is described in the book, reminds one of nothing more than of the effect of gravity on bodies. Duty, the fear of whipping, the need to work for a living (and, of course, to pay for drink) are ultimately like chairs, ladders and floors in that they can only temporarily prevent bodies from falling towards their default state, in their default direction, which for sailors always seems to be drunkenness. Any time that they are left on their own in port, they get sloshed. Any time they're described as being whipped on board ship, it is of course for being drunk. When Jack orders all the prostitutes off his sloop in the beginning of the book, the crew's opposition is muted. However when Stephen suggests that the sailors' usual allowance of alcohol - a half-pint of neat rum a day per man - be diluted to promote health - the ship's gunner replies "Oh dear me,"..."if they was only to get half a pint of three-water grog we should soon have a bloody mutiny on our hands. And quite right, too."

I was curious to know how British naval officers of that era were made and promoted. It turns out that young men became midshipmen mostly through family connections, progressed to lieutenants by passing a test, were promoted to captains and then post captains again mostly through family and political connections, with the rest of their promotions automatically determined by seniority. And the lieutenant test wasn't blindly graded. None were depicted in the novel, but I've read up on them online: basically, a group of captains, some of whom you'd know personally, would ask you questions.

There was no shortage of bravery either in this book or, I'm sure, in real life, but the relationship between heroism and one's career prospects was not depicted as being particularly close. It makes you think: if even Britain during its heyday wasn't very meritocratic, what hope can meritocracy have anywhere else?

I'm sure that by somewhat narrowing the circle of people eligible for high offices the class system increased the mean IQ, decency, industry, etc. of the powers that be. But the way men got ahead within that rather large circle seems to have been as unmeritocratic, as full of pettiness and random chance, as anything in the modern world.