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.