Monday, November 7, 2011

Is Realism Unrealistic?

ISS spacewalk
Realism is viable so long as you only want to do realistic things. Exploring space is realistic. Mining it, colonizing it, or fighting Epic Battles in its far reaches are all operatic things. None of them is impossible. But all are highly unlikely, at any rate in the readily foreseeable future, given technology as we know it.

In fairness to me, I have generally discussed the 'plausible midfuture,' a time and place that is characterized as plausible, but not necessarily most likely, or even very likely at all. But that doesn't do away with the problem. Does an implicit requirement for 'plausibly' demi-realistic technology amount to an unrealistic constraint when applied to essentially operatic settings?

Or, putting it another way - and bringing it down to cases - given that deep space warfare is pretty damn unlikely under the technological restraints I have discussed here, does the Space Warfare series really provide any useful help for writers or gamers who want to make their space battles more convincing. Wouldn't they really be better off to adopt the operatic technology of their choice, then work out the implication for combat under those conditions?

This came up in a recent comment thread, in which John Lumpkin's novel, Through Struggle, the Stars, got taken in vain. I have not read the book, so I have no informed opinion on how convincing his setting is. But the question raised is much more general - does putting 'realistic' spaceships in a setting of space colonies make it less plausible than allowing a technology that would justify deep space travel as convenient and cheap?

As I have noted here before, my bias toward realistic-style spacecraft (and other details of a setting) is essentially aesthetic. Magitech is inherently arbitrary. It is well done if it holds together with internal consistency, but it is still arbitrary. And just on the level of purely visual aesthetics I was heavily influenced by the early space age, when we started getting pictures showing how things in outer space actually look.

Oddly enough, by the way, I have never seen Hollywood successfully capture this look, especially the brightness of spacecraft in full sunlight at 1 AU. In some cases this may be because Hollywood loves gothicism in space, but I suspect the real reason is much more basic: No studio lighting is anything near as bright as direct sunlight.

(Although APOD doesn't mention it, the dim lighting of the spacewalk scene above suggests that it was taken while the ISS was passing over Earth's nightside, illuminated only by floodlights and sucy, not direct sunlight.)

Speaking of Hollywood spaceships, the Venture Star in Avatar may not be quite as realistic as it looks. Its appearance, with big radiator wings and so forth, is very much Plausible Midfuture, suggestive of a gigawatt-output nuclear electric power plant ... but the drive is capable of reaching relativistic speeds at more or less 1 g. I'm not gonna do the math here, but that drive is putting out waaaaay more than a gigawatt of thrust power. Those impressive-looking radiators couldn't shed much more than the ship's galley heat.

See? This is the sort of problem you get into when you start running the numbers for our favorite space scenarios. And the problems exist at multiple levels of meta-ness, from the sorts of technical issues I just mentioned up to (at least) the question of what relationship science fiction settings can or should have to 'the future.'



Discuss.

230 comments:

1 – 200 of 230   Newer›   Newest»
Anonymous said...

=Milo=



As I've said in a previous thread, getting technology right is less important than getting physics itself right. Let your astronaut's spacesuit work however you wish, plausible or not, but if that spacesuit is ruptured, subject the astronaut to the realistic effects of vacuum exposure. Humans made the spacesuit, but they didn't make the vacuum, so they don't get to say how it works.

Beyond that, if you decide to use technobabble derived from genuine scientific terms, try to use them in an accurate manner. So, for example, don't equip your ships with neutrino cannons, because a neutrino is just about the single most useless thing you can try to blast someone with.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



A belated addition, also a recap from an earlier thread, is the importance of the mediocrity principle. Violating the mediocrity principle, by giving a priviledged status to humans, planet Earth, or sentient minds, will get your story assigned to the "science fantasy" shelf much faster than any amount of dodgy technology. This, in particular, is why I hate psychic powers (in settings that aren't explicitly fantasy, that is). Overly humanlike alien are also a common offender.

nqdp said...

I feel that at some level, all speculative fiction needs to admit to itself and its readers that no matter how well it's dressed up, it is essentially not how the future is actually going to look. All speculative fiction requires some suspension of disbelief, and I generally prefer it when the author slips something into his work that subtly says, "just go along with this and don't ask too many questions, okay?"

One of my favorite authors is Kim Stanley Robinson, who wrote the Red Mars trilogy. A lot of people (including myself, to a limited extent) don't like the politics in the books, though. And the setting is so realistic that it becomes difficult to separate the fun parts of the story from Robinson's actual political views. Then there are random little details that occasionally pop out as unrealistic (such as where the water came from at the end of the first book), and the books are written to such a high degree of realism that the unrealistic bits can't be ignored. I feel that the trilogy becomes stronger with the addition of the fourth book containing alternate endings, because it relaxes the strict realism imposed by the first three books.

As a side note, I find it incredibly difficult to write my own future history of the solar system after reading Red Mars, because I can't find a direction that is both different and realistic.

In settings like Star Wars, Star Trek, or Warhammer, there basically is no standard of realism that the stories can be judged by. Anything that is cool and has an exciting plot is automatically deemed acceptable. When I watch Star Wars, the fact that cooling the Death Star is impossible never ruins the film, because that's not even remotely what the film is about.

And yes, I enjoy Star Wars, because I judge the films by their number of explosions and their number of scenes containing Harrison Ford.

When I read something by Robinson or Clarke or Alastair Reynolds, I judge the work by a different standard. And then I expect to see evidence of research and realism, even though I know that perfect realism is unattainable.

Elukka said...

Who knows how much of an unobtanium antimatter starship's waste heat goes to the exhaust stream? It's not an electric drive so it may not need massive radiators, similarly to chemical and nuclear thermal rockets.

AR said...

Re: The Venture Star, I don't think its electric. Those radiators aren't there to act as the heat sink for a power plant, they just need to get rid of the small amount of waste heat that can't be expelled with the exhaust for some reason.

If you're sense of scale for power density is based on electric power plants, you've got it all wrong, and need to re-calibrate you expectations WAY upward.

You're talking about 1 GW in the context of an interstellar ship as though that means anything, when the first stage of the Saturn V averages 190 GW.

Tony said...

First of all, you can't reject waste heat through your exhaust stream. It's waste heat precisely becuase it serves no useful purpose. Sending it out the tail end would serve a useful purpose by enhancing thrust.

WRT realism in romance, my personal preference is that as few natural laws as possible be broke or bent. But where you have to break them, most often for FTL and operatic levels of propulsion power, don't go out of your way trying to rectify it with the natural laws you know you're breaking. Just go on about your business as if everything is alright.

In this respect, I'd like to buy every aspiring SF writer a complete set of Astounding/Analog and Galaxy prior to about 1970. Such authors would benefit from studying the style promoted by editors like Campbell, Gold, and Pohl.

Anthony said...

First of all, you can't reject waste heat through your exhaust stream.
Yeah you can, chemfuel rockets do it all the time. It's just that the amount you can get rid of in that way is dependent on the heat capacity of the fuel, so it's not really useful on any high ISp drive.

As for realism, unless you're trying to teach people a bit of science along with your novel, your main goal is to avoid jarring nonsense, not to be actually hard; I prefer books that keep the explanations to a minimum.

Eth said...

Nqdq said
"the books are written to such a high degree of realism that the unrealistic bits can't be ignored"
"In settings like Star Wars, Star Trek, or Warhammer, there basically is no standard of realism that the stories can be judged by"

That's interesting. If the authors shows us at the beginning that 'Look, this will be a realistic story', they will have to keep their world. If they say 'Don't bother with science here, look, lightsabres!', then we will accept the Death Star.
On the other hand, if we saw Luke say 'Ok dad, let's rule the galaxy' or Picard say 'Screw the Earth, let's go pirate', we would still cringe because it would be out of character, and the story is visibly meant to have believable characters, if not science.

A funny side effect happened to me there with Avatar. The movie is meant to be quite highly realistic, with the Venture Star and its radiators, the giant planet always at the same position in the sky, the fauna and flora designed by biologists...
And then, you have the star system the closest to the Earth with a planet with life very similar to ours, a species close enough to us to create hybrid clones, and at the exact same time than us. Even better, they developed a hive mind and neural connexions with most animals.
Oh, and the world is filled with an extremely rare material, the unobtanium, which is needed for interstellar travel, at the limit of our operatic range just when our evolution makes us need it.

So, when I arrived at the conclusion that the whole world is artificial and has been created by someone very very powerful to test or study humans, the subsequent scenes are quite creepy instead of enchanting.
Particularly when I realised that the test results would indicate a species which is adaptive, violent, quite irrational and uncaring, divided and clearly expansive...

This is a case where the highly realistic setting was a bad thing for me, due to the implications it caused. To not cause that, they would either have to explain why they are so goddam like us (and risk to be boring/unbelievable if done poorly) or simply go for a slightly less realistic setting.

Btw, this is my first comment, so thank you Rick! This blog is a mine of information to create stories and setting in the plausible midfuture.

francisdrake said...

I guess predicting a 'realistic' future works only for short time span (maybe 50 to 100 years) because
a) you cannot foresee the next technological or social revolution
b) if you do, your readers will regard it as purely unrealistic :-)

Example:
Jules Verne wrote great SF by extrapolating science of his time into technology of the future. He wrote around 1870 and was right until 1970 (give or take a few decades).

But he could not foresee electronics, automation and computers. Had he done so, his readers would have regarded stories of thinking machines as pure imagination, with no realistic background.

Even the great space stories of the 1950 put man in command of every space vessel, as they could not imagine automated probes exploring the solar system. I guess we can create thrilling stories by extrapolating the presence into the future, but in the end the future will be different from what we imagined.
____

Regarding Tonys and Anthonys waste heat discussion:

I did some number crunching on a very conservative fusion drive, providing acceleration in the milligee range for a 1000 ton spacecraft. The energy density in the reaction chamber was stupendous, so I decided to use part of the propellant for a cooling film along the chamber walls.

While this works technically and carries away a lot of the heat, the ISP of this cooling agent, once expelled from the exhaust nozzle, is by magnitudes lower than the fancy ISP of the fusion process (and consumes much more propellant). So the 'mixed' ISP of fusion + cooling agent is low like a 1950s Nerva engine.

Guess we would need several technological breakthroughs mentioned above to get us something like a decent torchship exploring the solar system ...

Tony said...

Anthony:

"Yeah you can, chemfuel rockets do it all the time. It's just that the amount you can get rid of in that way is dependent on the heat capacity of the fuel, so it's not really useful on any high ISp drive."

What goes out the nozzle is not waste heat, by definition. It provides thrust. If you're thinking of regenerative cooling in liquid rockets, remember that the rocket is designed so that the "cooling" heats up the coolant (usually the fuel) and puts it in the right temperature range for burning in the thrust chamber. The coolant is not in a separate cycle.

Also, chemical rocket engines do absorb a lot of waste heat. They just aren't run long enough to melt.

Geoffrey S H said...

"Those impressive-looking radiators couldn't shed much more than the ship's galley heat."

They might be made out of an improved material...

As for warhammer etc, some writers make cursory knowledge to real physics, sometimes in a way that even advances the plot.
They occasionally have even bigger nods to realism, you just have to look VERY hard.

I would say however, that some of the manual fluff in star wars and warhammer contains good ideas on how a massiva galactic empire would be run. Its an ambition of mine to make a hard sf universe as one that could have its own "wookiepedia".

Byron said...

I have to agree with Milo on this. Getting physics wrong is guaranteed to turn me against a series if it at all pretends to realism. I enjoy Doctor Who, but it abandons all pretense of realism right away. Star Wars has enough to annoy me sometimes.

This is not to say that I demand only real physics. FTL is fine, so long as it's done well. Reactionless drives are OK when done well (Honorverse), even though they break conservation of energy/momentum almost as much as a spacecraft moving like a ship.

What really annoys me is people not understanding space and physics in general, and breaking laws for no good reason. If you choose to write a loophole in relativity, fine, so long as you at least know what you've done. If you want to have spaceships maneuver like ships, at least come up with a plausible reason why.

Anonymous said...

The perfect mix of realism and fantastic elements in a story is different for every reader, so generally you should satisfy yourself that the mix is right and you either have lots of realism and very little fantasy, or lots of fantasy and very little realism. However, no matter what the plot is like, the characters had better 'ring true' to the readers or else you've wasted a good story.

Ferrell

Anthony said...

What goes out the nozzle is not waste heat, by definition. It provides thrust.
Not necessarily. It only provides thrust if it increases the group velocity of the propellant, and there are a number of places the heat can go that won't increase exhaust velocity. Arguably the extra heat might not be actual waste heat, but at worst it's heat that is otherwise unusable.

Thucydides said...

I think the best rule is still "Plot moves at the speed of story"

Space Opera stories tend to be very fast moving, so if getting from point "A" to point "B" is like taking a camel train along the "silk road" in 1100 AD, then readers will fall asleep/throw the book aside/change channels rather than say "Cool. This guy is getting the science right!". The plot demands that you get to planet "X" and save the princess in the nick of time, not in a decade or so.

Realism still has some values; you can use it to get a sense of what sorts of limits you are going to encounter while plotting the story (pouring $800 billion dollars into the Space program all at once isn't going to have any adverse effects on the economy now is it!), and the built in limits of your real or imagined tech might suggest how the story will end (see The Mote in God's Eye), which may be quite handy when wrapping up the loose ends of the plot.

YMMV

Rick said...

Welcome to some new and 'returning' commenters!

On the waste heat quibble, I agree with Anthony. For example, if the exhaust plume is hot, turbulent, or expanding (most likely all three), those characteristics represent waste heat that was carried out in the exhaust without contributing to thrust.

On the broader topic I also tend to agree with Anthony - the primary goal of realism is to avoid 'jarring nonsense.' Some significant fraction of your readers are going to know something about space, or computers, or swordfighting, or whatever. Don't make them think, Oh dear, this author is really not clueful at all!

Tony said...

Anthony:

"What goes out the nozzle is not waste heat, by definition. It provides thrust.
Not necessarily. It only provides thrust if it increases the group velocity of the propellant, and there are a number of places the heat can go that won't increase exhaust velocity. Arguably the extra heat might not be actual waste heat, but at worst it's heat that is otherwise unusable."


If it doesn't contribute to exhaust velocity, it's absorbed somewhere else in the system. You don't just get to magically toss it overboard. And that makes it waste heat that has to be dealt with somehow.

Tony said...

Rick:

"On the waste heat quibble, I agree with Anthony. For example, if the exhaust plume is hot, turbulent, or expanding (most likely all three), those characteristics represent waste heat that was carried out in the exhaust without contributing to thrust."

That's not waste heat. That's inefficient operation. If it's real bad -- like cavitation in the propellant pumps or overpressure in the thrust chamber, the machine tends to disassemble itself violently. If it's just a little inefficient, it's not excess heat one has to worry about generally, but less than expected power.

But there's a funny thing about efficient operation -- in order to extract every last ounce of thrust out of the engine, one has to have the reaction mass interact with the machine in some way. And guess what happens then. That's right -- the machine absorbs heat in the process, heat that doesn't contribute to propulsion.

Anthony said...

That's not waste heat. That's inefficient operation.
What exactly is this distinction you're making? Inefficient operation == production of unnecessary waste heat. And most of the waste heat produced by a rocket does go out the back, producing light, sound, expanding clouds of gas, etc.

To be more pedantic, when you use your propellant flow as coolant, the heat is usually not waste from the perspective of the engine (it's generally doing something useful), but it is waste from the perspective of the system being cooled, much the way an automobile heater takes advantage of 'waste' heat from the engine. As such, the original quote which was being criticized is correct.

Tony said...

Anthony:

"What exactly is this distinction you're making? Inefficient operation == production of unnecessary waste heat. And most of the waste heat produced by a rocket does go out the back, producing light, sound, expanding clouds of gas, etc."

The distinction is that heat that contributes to thrust is not waste, while heat that is absorbed by the machine is.

Light and sound are not waste. They are consequences of exhaust gasses interacting with the atmosphere. You don't have them in space. They may in fact effect the efficiency of rocket operation, but only by being transmitted back to the rocket through the atmosphere. Expanding clouds of gas are also reflective of atmospheric interaction. In space there may be expanding clouds of gass, but once again it has no effect on the rocket, which is going the other way.

"To be more pedantic, when you use your propellant flow as coolant, the heat is usually not waste from the perspective of the engine (it's generally doing something useful), but it is waste from the perspective of the system being cooled, much the way an automobile heater takes advantage of 'waste' heat from the engine. As such, the original quote which was being criticized is correct."

To be equally pedantic, that heat would be waste that would be expelled through the radiator if there wasn't an auxiliary, non-propulsive function for it. All the car heater does is scavenge heat that would normally be tossed overboard anyway.

AR said...

The distinction is that heat that contributes to thrust is not waste, while heat that is absorbed by the machine is.

This is where you're making an error. This is a third category you're ignoring, which is heat that is not absorbed by the ship due to being put into the exhaust, but which does not contribute to thrust.

The only form on energy in the exhaust that contributes to thrust is kinetic energy, determined by group velocity. Heat and pressure do not directly contribute, but merely provide energy that can be converted into kinetic energy by supersonic expansion in the nozzle.

An ideal nozzle, therefore, expels very cold exhaust at exactly ambient pressure, or as close to ambient as possible for vacuum operation. Hence why condensation and freezing in the exhaust are problems for highly efficient, low thrust engines.

The heat energy in hot exhaust, therefore, is wasted energy that does not contribute to thrust but which is not absorbed by the engine.

Geoffrey S H said...

With realism, the one thing I really want in sci-fi right now, is an emphasis on heat radiators on spacecraft. I know I've said it before, but I almost never see them, even in supposedly "hard"-sf.

Thucydides said...

Thinking back to previous arguments (er, posts), you could get painted into the unrealistic "box" if you are using unconventional or unfamiliar technology/tropes.

A particular favorite is the "solar sails are slow" trope. A current technology solar sail can accelerate at 1mm/sec^2, and get to Mars in a rather amazing 120 days. The downside for the "realistic" ship doing this is the ship has to detach from the sail and aerobrake at Mars while the sail continues on a long elliptical orbit and returns to Earth @ 2 years later. Most people refuse to believe this when told for the first time, and would probably reject this outright as a story device, despite the fact it is 100% real.

A good writer might still get away with this (a much better writer than me, anyway), but imagine the other "real" technologies that people will refuse to believe.

Joe Beutel said...

Hm... Seems to me you have a coupla different ways of viewing this.

My personal preference for things like game design, or just telling a story, is to reveal as little as possible. Its all about conserving detail, and most of the time the specifics of the ship's drive are irrelevant. Just don't break any physical laws blatantly (oh no! we're at maximum speed! Hit the afterburners to speed up for a few seconds!) and you're pretty much fine.

In the background, behind the scenes, the stuff the audience doesn't see, its a good idea to have realism in mind... it'll make the whole thing feel more realistic. But revealing too much, especially about the things that are more speculative or could quickly seem out of date (technology, for example), its best to leave things to the reader's imagination.

Other times, the point of the story is exploring a tech advance. Here it doesn't matter how everything else works, or why this tech advance works... its about exploring the results.

And finally, sometimes (I like to think of this as the "James Bond Method") part of the appeal of the action, plot, or whatever, IS the exploration of cool technology. I'm telling a story about space Coast Guard fighting smugglers in intense close quarters... its a BENEFIT if I bring in cool things like use of combat drones, 'boarding cannons' (small guns on my ship that are designed to be targeted by troops on the boarded ship that are meant to penetrate walls and act as a support gun), infrared vision, etc... the technology is part of what makes it fun. But what matters here is more what the tech does, not how it came about.

All 3 can coexist. But the fundamentals of it are simple:
1) Don't break the laws of physics that we actually understand.
2) Anything that you are changing (like, say, adding in a 'magnet' equivalent for gravity) should be explained slightly but without too much detail- let them know whats going on, but don't take away from the story.
3) Technology shouldn't be less than it is today (unless you have a really good excuse) but future technology is pretty much up for grabs. Generally a good idea to keep the details only to the operation/effect of the important bits of equipment and/or any tech that has an important effect on the society as a whole (often ties in with 2).

Look at how Mass Effect handles this (its a soft space opera that tries to be as hard as possible, kinda):
1) Laws of Physics are at least generally adhered to, and get a nod here and there as part of background events and scenarios- creates a feel of realism even in a space opera setting, which makes the whole thing more 'right' feeling.

2) The element zero thing isn't explained much- we know the basics of what it does (its a special type of matter than can be negative, positive, or zero mass, based on how you run electricity through it), and its effects on society (see 3). Thats all the info needed, and by not going into too much detail you don't risk breaking physics. It can just be something we havent seen yet.

3) Effects of E0 are explored in depth, but most of the individual gadgets and tech assumptions are really based on Rule of Cool, with E0 being a good excuse... there are some details, but mostly the effects are mentioned (with some minor details on how E0 makes it works, but not enough to frequently clash with engineering ideas.) We don't know WHY accelerator cannons dominate over missiles (its not even that specific on whether this is true or not), but we know that big ships use long accelerators on bullets that have E0 so they can be acclerated faster...

End effect- you get the cool, romantic setting you desire, with the ability to explore cool tech and stuff (not really possible if you throw physics out), while also satisfying everyone's BSometer...

Anonymous said...

Hmm...yes sometimes less is more (interesting). Stories are like a stew; the meat and potatoes are plot, setting, and charaters; the spices are details of realism, fatastic elements, and the plausible/BS ratio.

Ferrell

Rick said...

Welcome to another new commenter!

(I got rid of a duplicate post.)

One thing I'd add to this mix is that there are people who want to write (and read!) technowank for its own sake, whether or not it contributes to a story as such. This does not lend itself to good stories, but considering the subject matter of this blog I can't entirely sneer at it, and it has its own canons for whether it is done well or not.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



I like reading well-thought out settings and plots, with logic that the reader can follow rather than a jumble of random stuff as it suited the writer that moment, whether the logic is based on real science or on comprensive made-up rules.

Anonymous said...

Milo, that would be the difference between a stew you finish and are left wanting more, and the bowl you don't finish. :)

Ferrell

jollyreaper said...

.

jollyreaper said...

So, when I arrived at the conclusion that the whole world is artificial and has been created by someone very very powerful to test or study humans, the subsequent scenes are quite creepy instead of enchanting.
Particularly when I realised that the test results would indicate a species which is adaptive, violent, quite irrational and uncaring, divided and clearly expansive...


That was my first personal theory. Clarketech aliens doing some experimentation. The space smurfs are already human hybrids given that they are tetrapods and everything else on the planet are hexapods.

The second personal theory is that Pandora is a post-singularity planet. The environment has been returned to a pristine state with a few improvements with the bulk of Pandoran civilization living within the simulation spaces of the planetary supermind. Unobtanium is a post-singularity material created with clarketech which explains why it doesn't occur naturally elsewhere in space. Us mining it for use as a super-conductor is about as ignorant and brutal as savages cutting down power lines to burn the wood and melt the copper to make tools and weapons.

As a general aesthetic rule for my scifi, if the alien looks anything like a Star Trek alien (human with a bumpy forehead, talking terrestrial animal, etc) they're going to be human-derived, either from genetic drift or deliberate engineering. If they're alien-alien, they'd better be incomprehensibly weird and alien. Green-skinned Orion slave girls just don't pass suspension of disbelief.

jollyreaper said...


On the broader topic I also tend to agree with Anthony - the primary goal of realism is to avoid 'jarring nonsense.' Some significant fraction of your readers are going to know something about space, or computers, or swordfighting, or whatever. Don't make them think, Oh dear, this author is really not clueful at all!


Yeah. You can have dragons and magic in a story and people will accept it but put in an Anakin/Padme romance and people will reject it because people just don't act that way.

You can sometimes get away with doing things different from how they are now just to illustrate how different things are in the future but give a reality check towards how it was in the past. For example, girls as young as 14 were married off to men twice their age in the US and nobody batted an eye, that's how things were done. Likewise, young men could attain very high rank in the Army. I believe Custer was a general in his early 30's. If you do good world-building, you can explain how that sort of thing comes about.

What would never make sense is something like the new Trek movie where Kirk goes from just out of the academy to captain in the course of a movie. You could maybe have him be an acting captain if there have been mass casualties and he's the seniormost officer alive. He'd still be relieved of command once he got the ship back to base but good performance would see him on the command fast-track.

As a personal aesthetic choice, I hate reading stories with pure monsters as characters. Pure monsters aren't interesting. They're into pure evil, there's nothing to sympathize with, no way to identify with them. All they do is brutalize and bring misery to everyone else around them.

*spoiler for Mars Trilogy*









spoiler








Just started on the trilogy. It's gotten such good reviews it seemed very wrong for me to have never read it. I'm at the beginning and am already irritated with the Frank character. He seems like a pure monster. While certainly this sort of person has existed and will always exist and will cause major problems for human societies, it's no fun reading about them. I'll have to see if there's justifications for his behavior or anything to grant him more depth but he just seems like a self-centered force of destruction.

Tony said...

Let's see...

1. Can we not call magitech "Clarketech"? Yes, Clarke made the observation that advanced technology and magic can have the same qualities from certain points of view, but in his own writings he took great pains to justify future technologies within the physical universe as we know it.

2. Can we also not try to justify Avatar? It was pure dreck and we should leave it at that.

3. WRT pure monsters as characters, I think that's just bad writing. We know that even Hitler and Goering had genuine justifications for what they were doing, even if those justifications were rationalizations that only appealed to themselves. And the people that carried out their orders were otherwise normal pwople just doing what they needed to do to gain and maintain power. The term "the banality of evil" was coined specifically to describe what ordinary people would do under certain circumstances. If one has a seeming monster as a character, one has to put the reader inside his head and make the reader walk around in his shoes.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Jollyreaper:

"If they're alien-alien, they'd better be incomprehensibly weird and alien."

Speak for yourself, but I much prefer aliens that are comprehensibly weird.

jollyreaper said...


1. Can we not call magitech "Clarketech"? Yes, Clarke made the observation that advanced technology and magic can have the same qualities from certain points of view, but in his own writings he took great pains to justify future technologies within the physical universe as we know it.


You say tomato, I say inverse tachyon modulated vine-ripened fruit.

2. Can we also not try to justify Avatar? It was pure dreck and we should leave it at that.

I'm sorry but the world does not accede to your demands.

3. WRT pure monsters as characters, I think that's just bad writing. We know that even Hitler and Goering had genuine justifications for what they were doing, even if those justifications were rationalizations that only appealed to themselves.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CompleteMonster

I really liked the German film Downfall and how Hitler and his henchmen were portrayed. Bad writing usually gives you Joker characters who have supernatural powers of evil.

I think it's a point of quibbling. If you look through the tropes list, you'll see a whole army of monsters. But I can't think of any whose stories were actually interesting. Complete monsters exist, there are plenty of them in real life. They usually aren't as omnipotent as they are in the movies. But they're just boring as characters.

I'd classify Hitler as a human monster. My own term, puts him on a man-sized scale. When growing up his name was given enough dread and fear as freakin' Satan. You forget that he was only a man, not the boogeyman. And There's an actual psychology to get into with him, explanations and motivations. The larger context of what he did and why is central to the great shape of history around WWII. But it can get so boring so quickly.

The Complete Monster can be recognized by these signs:
The character is truly heinous by the standards of the story, which makes no attempt to present them in a positive light.
The character's terribleness is played seriously at all times, evoking fear, revulsion and/or hatred from the other characters in the story.
They are completely devoid of altruistic qualities. They show no regret for their crimes.
Tropes Are Not Good; the Complete Monster can sometimes be indicative of lazy writing. A villain with no redeeming qualities can be viewed as exceedingly simplistic. A poorly-executed Complete Monster will also fail to engage the audience.


I really don't want to read a story featuring psychopaths torturing people to death for shits and giggles. An interesting villain almost by definition would have to be something other than a complete monster.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Jollyreaper:

"Complete monsters exist, there are plenty of them in real life. They usually aren't as omnipotent as they are in the movies. But they're just boring as characters."

The purpose of monsters is not to have an interesting story to tell themself, but rather to spur the heroes into action. They serve as a motivator in a mainly hero-centric story.

In that sense, they serve exactly the same purpose as a natural disaster.

(This may also be why so many of them are, as you mentioned, near-omnipotent. It's harder to buy an ordinary human psychopath as being threatening enough to indirectly drive a long series of events by his mere presence.)

If you want to story to actually focus more on the villains rather than just using them as a plot device, then yeah, interesting motivations are a must.

Though there's always the segment of the viewers who will forgive any number of a complete monster's crimes as long as he looked stylish enough while committing them.

jollyreaper said...


The purpose of monsters is not to have an interesting story to tell themself, but rather to spur the heroes into action. They serve as a motivator in a mainly hero-centric story.


True. I just don't like them to get unrealistic advantages that smack of author intervention. A Keyzer Soze is an unlikely sort of villain whereas an Al Capone is more plausible. And a henchman for a villain might fall into complete monster territory but he's not a major antagonist, just another form of attack dog.

In that sense, they serve exactly the same purpose as a natural disaster.

But can be so much less interesting because they're so obviously artificial constructs.

(This may also be why so many of them are, as you mentioned, near-omnipotent. It's harder to buy an ordinary human psychopath as being threatening enough to indirectly drive a long series of events by his mere presence.)

That's why you keep the main driver in the background. Realistically, front-line soldiers in any sort of fight are going to have a high mortality rate. Leading from the front doesn't make a whole lot of sense in a realistic setting. Being the ring leader who keeps out of sight and calls the shots sending others to risk their necks, then you can keep a villain like that around for a while.

If you want to story to actually focus more on the villains rather than just using them as a plot device, then yeah, interesting motivations are a must.

I just get very bored with seeing exactly the same old story. Even if it's been done well in the past, it's been done so try something new. I love Lord of the Rings but I never want to read another fantasy with a Dark Lord trying to conquer the entire world in the name of Evil. You can't top Sauron and he couldn't top Melkor so why try at this point?

The one twist on this that appeared interesting is a comic book called Unredeemable. It asks what do you do when an ersatz Superman goes crazy? So you've got the ersatz Justice League scrambling to survive while the former hero of the Earth goes axe-crazy on everyone he knows. It's strongly implied that the godlike powers he possessed slowly drove him mad.

Though there's always the segment of the viewers who will forgive any number of a complete monster's crimes as long as he looked stylish enough while committing them.


Yup. And I'm not one to forgive atrocities based on style points. I can understand a writer's desire to keep a character around as part of the meta-plot but that has to be balanced against the rational actions the characters should undertake. If Batman finds himself incapable of killing the Joker due to his moral constraints, why not just snap his neck and leave him paralyzed?

Rick said...

I very much agree with the point about 'monsters' being boring characters. In fact I'm struggling a bit with a character who worked more or less okay as a mustache-twirling villain - so long as he was mainly off stage, playing an incidental function - but who seems far too limited to work as a major character in the sequel.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"You say tomato, I say inverse tachyon modulated vine-ripened fruit."

That would be fine, if that is indeed a factual description of a tomato. But magitech isn't Clarke's invention. He just gave advice on how to handle it in writing fiction.

"I'm sorry but the world does not accede to your demands."

And, fortunately for everybody, people are known by their fruits. If you want to figure out ways to justify the unjustifiable, you're free to do so -- as long as you don't mind ghettoizing yourself.

"http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CompleteMonster"

It's significant that there's no "Real Life" segment for that trope.

jollyreaper said...


I very much agree with the point about 'monsters' being boring characters. In fact I'm struggling a bit with a character who worked more or less okay as a mustache-twirling villain - so long as he was mainly off stage, playing an incidental function - but who seems far too limited to work as a major character in the sequel.


You run into the Hannibal Lecter problem. Hannibal remained an interesting character so long as he was an antagonist. The moment he was turned into a protagonist, the author was stuck with the problem of wanting to make him sympathetic. He wasn't content with leaving Lecter a completely repellent monster. Instead he was made into someone whose views you could sympathize with even if you feel he goes a little too far in acting on them.

The best way of handling this sort of thing I've seen is a Sympathy for the Devil route where the villain can credibly argue that his side of the story has been grossly misrepresented and the reader has a sense that he's telling the truth.

The problem with this sort of gambit is if it really doesn't seem to fit with the character as portrayed up to this point. Like if your villain has already not just kicked the dog but raped it and burned down the orphanage, he can't really claim to be the victim of a misunderstanding. You really have to be careful in the writing of a character like that so any nasty stuff attributed to him could have a plausible explanation. It's the difference between Han shooting Greedo first and Han tying Greedo to a chair and going to work on him with a knife for hours before dousing him in acceleration and setting him on fire; the first act is a bit of cold-blooded self-defense while the second is just psychopathic sadism.

One of the first times I encountered this and really enjoyed it was with the old Riftwar novels. You had this character Guy Du Bas-Tyra setup as a betrayer and traitor to the throne, a nogoodnick. But he turns out to have been loyal opposition who was done wrong and is still willing to do his duty to the throne, even when banished in exile.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Jollyreaper:

I find it interesting that you claimed to want "incomprehensible" aliens, but hate complete monsters. In my opinion, natural disasters, complete monsters, and incomprehensible aliens all serve the same plot role - they are a threat that cannot be reasoned with. Natural disasters cannot be reasoned with because they are unintelligent and cannot talk. Complete monsters cannot be reasoned with because doing evil is all they care about, and so no amount of bribery, threats, or philosophical arguments will get them to stop being evil. And incomprehensible aliens can't be reasoned with because we don't understand them well enough, and they don't understand us well enough, to be able to open any sort of negotiations.

If we can open negotiations, then, even if the things they want are very different from the things we would want, they are already in one sense comprehensible aliens. Not only in that we understand what they want, but in that we even have enough common ground with them to have the shared emotion of wanting things, and that they recognize negotiation through dialogue as a valid method of attaining their goals. (Azathoth doesn't want anything. He just creates or destroys at random, uncaring.)


"Being the ring leader who keeps out of sight and calls the shots sending others to risk their necks, then you can keep a villain like that around for a while."

If he's such a complete monster, though, then why are people following him? I can see people following an evil leader because they buy the state rhetoric that spins their actions in a good light, or because they appreciate the stability that his reign of terror brings. But he has to be doing something that his own soldiers can perceive as good if they squint right.

If Mr. Meanie announced in a televised speech that his political platform entails pursuing the utter destruction of Earth through causing the sun to go supernova, I really can't see that many people agreeing to cooperate with him.


"I love Lord of the Rings but I never want to read another fantasy with a Dark Lord trying to conquer the entire world in the name of Evil. You can't top Sauron and he couldn't top Melkor so why try at this point?"

One thing about Sauron and Melkor type characters (including... well, Sauron and Melkor) is that there's often something "primordial" about those characters. They seem less like arbitrary author fiat because they're unique and epic figures that factor into the world's creation myth, as opposed to being "some ridiculously overpowered guy who showed up one day and started causing trouble".

This causes an obvious problem for writing a sequel. Killing Satan is something you can only really do once in the world's history. And any future villain will appear pathetic by comparison.

jollyreaper said...

Complete Monsters appear more often in fiction but there are of course many serial killers and tyrant-kings who would quality. You have a few real-life example listed under Obviously Evil.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ObviouslyEvil

Thucydides said...

Continuing the drift into monsterdom; part of what makes a "monster" is propaganda.

We all know that Adolf Hitler was the epitome of evil, but how many people remember that smiling "Uncle Joe" Stalin outdid hitler in the mass murder department by a factor of 20:6? Chairman Mao gets a free pass despite perhaps being the all time mass murder champion, with death tolls estimated as high as 65 million.

Perhaps people have done more exotic murder with their own hands (think of Vlad "the Dragon" Tepes) which seems more horrifying to us, but bureaucratic murderers can exceed anything in scale and scope that individuals (however sadistic or methodical) could ever achieve.

Second aside; leading from the front is appropriate in various times and places; Alexander III was both a "lead from the front" warlord and also a prototype mass murdering dictator (we remember him as Alexander the Great for his military accomplishments, not his methodical destruction of cities, social and political structures and tribes in Asia). There is no reason to suspect that changes in future technology or cultural memes might not make "leading from the front" a desirable trait again. Imagine a future where cyberwar and hyper jamming negates drones and high tech weaponry, for example.

Third aside, WRT Avatar, I have followed temptation and tried to "rationalize" a story "as it should have been" based on the conditions shown in the movie, but came up with something totally different. As an intellectual exercise it may be fun, but YMMV.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Thucydides:

"We all know that Adolf Hitler was the epitome of evil, but how many people remember that smiling "Uncle Joe" Stalin outdid hitler in the mass murder department by a factor of 20:6? Chairman Mao gets a free pass despite perhaps being the all time mass murder champion, with death tolls estimated as high as 65 million."

Stalin and Mao also stayed in power much longer than Hitler did. How do those numbers look like if you adjust for duration?


"There is no reason to suspect that changes in future technology or cultural memes might not make "leading from the front" a desirable trait again."

In recent times offensive technology has been advancing faster than defensive technology. It would be cool if that reversed, but it doesn't seem very likely. Destruction simply is inherently easier than protection or healing, due to entropy.

jollyreaper said...

I'd have to check my history books but I'm pretty sure it's been hundreds of years since an English monarch took the field in command of an army. Over 400? Frankly, the accounts of the Middle Ages astound me with accounts of rich nobles fighting for the honor of taking part in great battles. In modern times the aristocracy are the ones keeping their kids out of wars with deferments. The only real exceptions in modern times were countries that still felt the call of feudal tradition like the Germans in WWII with titled nobles serving as officers.

I think part of the reason for leaving from the front is needing to bring the personal force of will since alliances were greatly dependent on direct fealty. The duke of so and so might be willing to follow the king but not submit to any other joint command. And the field of battle was relatively constrained, not like the hundreds of miles fronts seen in modern times.

But the point about lethality is also well-spotted. Given my druthers, I'd rather be a king with bodyguard on a medieval battlefield than a general making a frontal assault in any modern war.

The other factor is that the king had to be in direct observation of his men and relay orders with signals and runners while the 20th century general had to command from the bunker with information streaming in to him. And it really wasn't possible for the political leader l have a direct hand in the military operations. Set overall objectives, yes. Messing with strategy, not do much without screwing things up. See shades of Hitler micromanagement.

I really can't imagine a situation where directly risking the leadership of a polity would be necessary. It's difficult enough to imagine command officers directly exposing themselves to danger. I think the highest rank we lost in Iraq was a lt col and he was taking big risks going out on patrol with his men. You have to go back to the 19th century to see generals explaining themselves on the battlefield.

On any future battlefield, I can only see generals getting killed through lucky stikes or as a result of catastrophic defeat. If decapitation strikes became effective, hq's would simply have to be better-protected and hardened. Only junior officers would be routinely exposed to enemy action.

I could be wrong but I'm hard pressed to come up with a suitable scenario.

Rick said...

A couple of factors account for Hitler's special circle of hell. Naked aggression that started a world war is one; the sheer craziness of the Final Solution is another.

Relatively speaking Stalin and Mao's crimes had a degree of brutalist logic, and also fit within the history of brutal imposition of central authority over the historic Russian and Chinese empires.

There is an analogy here to the cultural - and literary - treatment of serial killers versus gangland killers. Our reactions are more complicated than a straightforward count of victims.

Rick said...

I seem to recall that the last British monarch to command on the battlefield was one of the early Georges, but it was a bit of a special case.

Generally, in European warfare kings ceased leading personally around 1500. Which coincides pretty closely to when guns - both artillery and side arms - began dominating the battlefield. At the same time, other developments gave early modern monarchs much more of an administrative infrastructure than medieval kings could call upon.

So on the one hand, kings faced a situation where their bodyguards couldn't really protect them in combat. On the other hand, they could raise troops that had institutional loyalty, unlike mercenaries or semi-independent nobles. Personal royal presence on the battlefield thus became both unsafe and unnecessary.

jollyreaper said...

I would agree with the logic thing. Even gangsters like the Zetas are operating under a kind of logic. They do horrific things but it's business. People operating under pure crazy don't make any kind of sense.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Jollyreaper:

"The only real exceptions in modern times were countries that still felt the call of feudal tradition like the Germans in WWII with titled nobles serving as officers."

WWI too. I'm pretty sure the Red Baron was a baron :)


"I think part of the reason for leaving from the front is needing to bring the personal force of will since alliances were greatly dependent on direct fealty. The duke of so and so might be willing to follow the king but not submit to any other joint command. And the field of battle was relatively constrained, not like the hundreds of miles fronts seen in modern times."

Good point. I had always assumed that the change in attitude regarding leading from the front came with the increasing danger associated with being anywhere near an enemy (note also that, title nobility or otherwise, officers learned to stop wearing their decorations on the battlefield once sniper rifles showed up), but communications also have something to do with it. Modern technology makes it much more feasible for someone to effectively lead an army from a great distance.



Rick:

"A couple of factors account for Hitler's special circle of hell. Naked aggression that started a world war is one; the sheer craziness of the Final Solution is another."

Yeah, it's rather cynical of me to say this, but I really don't think the rest of the world ganged up on Hitler to stop his genocides. That was just propaganda spin that the politicians used to keep public opinion in favor of the war. The real reason for Hitler's downfall is because he tried to take over the world, and so other nations saw him as an existential threat to themselves, and fought back in self-defense.

In a way, I could say that trying to take over the world was the best thing Hitler had ever done. If he had been content simply murdering all the Jews etc. in his own country, without invading anyone (or at least not major powers), he'd probably have stayed in power much longer and made an even bigger bodycount, while people outside Germany write it off as "somebody else's problem".

Geoffrey S H said...

"I seem to recall that the last British monarch to command on the battlefield was one of the early Georges, but it was a bit of a special case."

George II, Dettingdon, 1740's.

Anonymous said...

I did actually like Avatar, and thought that the explanation behind the Na'vi's evolution was reasonable. If I had one slight problem, it was that their facial expressions, and reactions such as tears and laughter were too human.

If I had been Cameron, I would have had the Na'vi be the descendants of a previous colonizing expedition who had engineered features of Pandoran life (perhaps the monkey-like Prolemuris that in Cameron's version are the closest relative to the Na'vi) into their children to allow them to survive without technological aids.

The story could have been virtually unchanged, since it is plausible that the (probably one-way) starship that brought the ancestors of the Na'vi to Pandora might not have been followed by another for centuries, long enough for a limited population to regress to a stone-age level of technology, and develop a culture and religion based upon neurally linking to animals and trees.

If more starships capable of a round trip from Earth to Pandora and back again arrived and started mining unobtanium, the cultural gap between the 'natives' and the new arrivals, as well as their competing goals, could lead to the tense situation we saw in the film.

R.C.

jollyreaper said...


WWI too. I'm pretty sure the Red Baron was a baron :)


I was going with the latest war I could think of. Naturally, the Prussian nobility was involved in the first go-round. :)

As for his title, it's rather complicated. "All legitimate children of a Freiherr share his title and rank, and can be referred to as Baron; inheritance of the title is not restricted by primogeniture as is the baronial title in Britain and most Latin monarchies (France, Portugal, Spain, much of Italy). The wife of a Freiherr is titled Freifrau (literally "free lady"), and the daughter of a Freiherr is called Freiin (short for Freiherrin). Both titles are translated in English as "Baroness". Female forms of titles have been legally accepted as a variation in the surname after 1919 by a still valid decision of the German former High Court (Reichsgericht)."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freiherr

jollyreaper said...


Good point. I had always assumed that the change in attitude regarding leading from the front came with the increasing danger associated with being anywhere near an enemy (note also that, title nobility or otherwise, officers learned to stop wearing their decorations on the battlefield once sniper rifles showed up), but communications also have something to do with it. Modern technology makes it much more feasible for someone to effectively lead an army from a great distance.


I think it must also be the case that many of the nobility wholly and sincerely believed in their own religion. We kind of operate off of Voltaire's cynical take on God, "If he did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." We assume that the nobles are all cynical realists and only their pawns and vassals could believe in such nonsense. And certainly there have been atheists and freethinkers throughout history. But religion, pride, and machismo can drive even a wealthy man to acts of recklessness. Some people are wholly committed to the religious worldview and we have trouble accepting that.

It's sort of like the same disbelief the West had with the Kamikaze. We made up rumors of pilots being handcuffed to the controls, drugged and brainwashed to conduct their suicide missions. We couldn't believe that intelligent young men could go so willingly to their deaths. We could only wrap our heads around it if vile coercion explained it all.

It'd be interesting to do a real study of how today's suicide terror groups operate. The pattern tends to be organizers in the background who keep their own skins safe who recruit, train, and deploy the suicide attackers. I think only the Chechens have had a few examples of leaders going in with the suicide mission. I believe a senior leader went with the Beslan school attack.


Yeah, it's rather cynical of me to say this, but I really don't think the rest of the world ganged up on Hitler to stop his genocides. That was just propaganda spin that the politicians used to keep public opinion in favor of the war. The real reason for Hitler's downfall is because he tried to take over the world, and so other nations saw him as an existential threat to themselves, and fought back in self-defense.

In a way, I could say that trying to take over the world was the best thing Hitler had ever done. If he had been content simply murdering all the Jews etc. in his own country, without invading anyone (or at least not major powers), he'd probably have stayed in power much longer and made an even bigger bodycount, while people outside Germany write it off as "somebody else's problem".


It's absolutely amazing to read the favorable pre-war press coverage the fascists received in the West.

Really good quote on it here:

http://www.thiscantbehappening.net/node/886

It was 1931, and Butler was giving a breakfast speech on “how to prevent war” to a gathering at the Philadelphia Contemporary Club. In the speech, he told about an unnamed journalist who had interviewed Mussolini while riding with him in a speeding Fiat touring car. When a peasant child dashed into the street, the car plowed right over him.

“My friend screamed,” Butler told his audience. “Mussolini put a hand on my friend’s knee. ‘It was only one life,’ he told my friend. ‘What is one life in the affairs of a State?’”

(cut)

jollyreaper said...

Smelling gossipy blood, the US press ran the story heavily, and Il Duce was furious; he denied the story categorically. Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State Henry Stimson sympathized with Mussolini and defended him. General Butler was ordered to publicly apologize to Mussolini. When he refused, he was court-martialed. In the end, the raw and eloquent Butler went public and won the day, humiliating Stimson and Hoover and keeping his rank and position in the Marine Corps. [See Maverick Marine: General Smedley Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History by Hans Schmidt for a wonderful account of Butler’s life.]

The anonymous journalist Butler cited riding with Mussolini turned out to be Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., the magnate’s son who traveled the world as a journalist during a time when the US business class was keen on people like Mussolini.

The New York Times and Time magazine both supported Mussolini’s side of the story and editorialized that Butler and the US government owed him an apology. The New York Tribune wrote this: “The Fascisti movement is – in essentials – a reaction against degeneration through Socialistic internationalism. It is rough in its methods, but the aims which it professes are tonic.”

Colliers magazine published stories that emphasized the post-WWI chaos in Italy and Il Duce’s strong-man charms that “represented the triumph of law and order over anarchy and radicalism. ...‘Normalcy’ was the catchword of the times, for Italy as well as for America.” [John Higgins, Mussolini and Fascism: The View From America.]

Vanderbilt insisted on remaining anonymous during the Butler episode in 1931, but in a 1943 book – after Mussolini became an official “bad guy” in the US capitalist pantheon – Vanderbilt ‘fessed-up and recounted the tale, supporting Butler’s story. What Mussolini actually said was apparently a bit different from the words Butler had put in his mouth. Here’s Vanderbilt’s version:

I heard a shriek and saw a group of children waving flags. I turned my head quickly. There was a shapeless little form lying in the road back of us.

“Look, Your Excellency,” I shouted.

“Never look back, my friend. Always forward,” he answered without turning his head, and we roared on into the night.

jollyreaper said...


The story could have been virtually unchanged, since it is plausible that the (probably one-way) starship that brought the ancestors of the Na'vi to Pandora might not have been followed by another for centuries, long enough for a limited population to regress to a stone-age level of technology, and develop a culture and religion based upon neurally linking to animals and trees.

If more starships capable of a round trip from Earth to Pandora and back again arrived and started mining unobtanium, the cultural gap between the 'natives' and the new arrivals, as well as their competing goals, could lead to the tense situation we saw in the film.


Interesting idea. Probably would have pushed the story a thousand years into the future to account for the idea of an STL colony ship making it out there and then having enough time for the crew to engineer children who can go native and then have humans get out there with ships capable of round-trips later. Probably the only way to explain it would be to have the colony ship be one of the last big tech efforts before a human tech collapse and it took that long for us to work our way back up to building starships. Or maybe it wouldn't be a general tech collapse but economic malaise such as has seen the US lose ability to send astronauts into orbit.

Having human-like navi is complicated but that scenario seems just as complicated in a different direction. I prefer going the ancient astronaut route because that puts the requirement for advanced genetic engineering off on them and doesn't require humans developing star travel technology and then regressing for a long period of time.

Tony said...

Rick:

"Generally, in European warfare kings ceased leading personally around 1500."

Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden was killed leading cavalry at Luezen in 1632. His successor Charles XII led his troops on the battlefield, up to and including Poltava, where he shared the field with Russian Tzar Peter I.

Frederick II of Prussia (AKA Frederick the Great) led his troops in person in the Seven Years War.

Napoleon of course led his troops in person throughout his career. But his opponents weren't exactly slackers. Austerlitz is also referred to as The Battle of Three Emperors. In addition to Napoleon, Alexander I of Russia and Francis II of Austria were present on the field commanding.

President Madison had been present at Bladensburg in 1814, though he didn't command.

Even the thouroughly modern Abraham Lincoln, the master of the telegraph, felt it necessary to go to the front at Fort Stevens when a Confederate raiding force approached Washington in 1864.

During WWII, Churchill felt it necessary to remain at his post in the capitol during the Blitz, as did the King and his family.

"In modern times the aristocracy are the ones keeping their kids out of wars with deferments. The only real exceptions in modern times were countries that still felt the call of feudal tradition like the Germans in WWII with titled nobles serving as officers."

Really? Several US Presidents fought in the Civil War. Theodore Roosevelt notoriously fought in Cuba. His sons fought in both WWI and WWII. Truman fought in WWI. Kennedy, Ford, and Bush 41 fought in WWII. Eisenhower of course commanded vast armies and air forces. Some of these men were definitely self-made. But the Roosevelts, Kennedys, and Bushes were definitely part of America's de facto aristocracy.

As for other heads of state, well, we still see British future sovereigns take service seriously, to the point of volunteering for combat assignments. Even the Queen, though she couldn't fight, served as an auxiliary motor mechanic during WWII. Her father, George VI, fought at Jutland.

Hitler famously deprecated anyone who hadn't been a "frontkampfer" ("front fighter") in WWI, old line Prussian officers included. Mussolini was often accused of creating a "trenchocracy" of men who had fought on the Austrian front in WWI. Both were lower middle class at best in pre-war times, but their service convinced them that only combat soldiers could be trusted to lead in their new orders.

As for European aristocracies in general, the British made officers almost exclusively out of public school boys from the formal aristocracy and upper middle class, for as long as they could. The French, though suffering from the disease of republicanism, made many officers out of former noble families. In Italy, Austria, and Russia, officers were essentially aristocratic.

"...the 20th century general had to command from the bunker with information streaming in to him."

Once again, really? Hundreds of generals on all sides were killed in WWI. They may not have been leading infantry charges sword in hand, but they were, many of them, still in artillery range of the enemy. The good ones -- and there were more than a few -- also visited the front line trenches regularly. Heck, Winston Churchill served as a battalion commander in the front lines for several months as a personally imposed pennance for his hand in Gallipoli. He could have easily been killed there.

WWII saw a lot of generals risking themselves in combat. US Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. was killed by enemy artillery on Okinawa, for example.

jollyreaper said...

Really? Several US Presidents fought in the Civil War. Theodore Roosevelt notoriously fought in Cuba. His sons fought in both WWI and WWII. Truman fought in WWI. Kennedy, Ford, and Bush 41 fought in WWII. Eisenhower of course commanded vast armies and air forces. Some of these men were definitely self-made. But the Roosevelts, Kennedys, and Bushes were definitely part of America's de facto aristocracy.

They were young men then, not presidents. The topic was not about leaders who had faced fire as young men but leaders of major polities directly commanding their forces on the battlefield.

Youth can of course be expected to do crazy things. Perhaps I should have been more clear when speaking of nobility. But the talk was of senior leaders. So this would be kings, heads of noble houses, etc.

Artillery and air raids do raise the possibility of getting killed in rear areas. There's the famous case of Lord Kitchener lost with his staff on an armored cruiser in WWI.

Did some googling.

"Nearly 1,100 U.S. Army generals served at some point during World War II, and of those about 40 died during or immediately following the war. Not all were in combat units, and some were not in enemy territory when they died."

There was a major general killed in Vietnam when his chopper crashed. Reports conflict over whether it was mechanical trouble or enemy fire. And I see another sites lists 5 major generals total for the war.

The highest-ranked casualties I'm seeing from our current wars are due to mortar and suicide attacks hitting behind the front lines. While these are certainly wartime casualties, they did not occur during combat operations. We're losing colonels but so far no generals. And the nature of the current conflicts is far different from total war like WWII with sweeping maneuvers and cataclysmic battles. It's all attrition warfare, insurgency.

The trend we're seeing is towards fewer casualties overall and less attrition from the higher ranks.

Tony said...

Re: jollyreaper

I was addressing several things in one post. But I addressed each distinctly.

I first addressed Rick on his assertion that kings stopped going to battles around 1500, which is simply not borne out by facts.

The discussion of Presidents' military experience was directed at your assertion that only the Germans required their aristocracy to fight in 20th Century wars. I demonstrated with facts that this was not the case. The Roosevelts, Bushs, and Kennedys, all de facto American aristocracy, sent their sons to war in both world wars. It's only been since then that deferments (to the degree that they were necessary) have been regularly used to keep the sons of the wealthy and influential out of combat.

Finally, I addressed the idea that general officers weren't put at risk in modern war. The US had relatively few killed in WWII, that's true. But other combatants had many. A total of 223 German Army general officers were killed in action or died of wounds. 136 of these were in command of divisions, corps, and even armies (three of them!) when they were killed/wounded. The Luftwaffe and Waffen SS also had several generals each KIA/DOW. There were also several dozen missingi n action, most of whom were probably killed by enemy fire.

The British were, like us fairly low on general officer losses, but they, like us, were in better control of their fighting fronts than the Germans were. The Soviets, even in an ultimately winning effort, lost at least 300 KIA/DOW/MIA.

The Japanese lost many generals due to both their warrior philosophy and an inability to withdraw anybody from isolated island battlefields. Perhaps most famously, they lost their Navy CinC, Yamamoto, to enemy air action while on a front line inspection tour.

Are we clear so far?

Now, when speaking of current Indian Wars, of course few if any generals are at great risk, though the 1st Marine Division CP did come under direct fire attack at one point during Desert Storm. But that's little different than 19th Century colonial wars, where generals were rarely on the battlefield.

Let us have another major power war -- not toally out of the question -- and I wouldn't be so sure that generals would be all that safe, at least up to the level of corps commander.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Jollyreaper:

"And certainly there have been atheists and freethinkers throughout history. But religion, pride, and machismo can drive even a wealthy man to acts of recklessness. Some people are wholly committed to the religious worldview and we have trouble accepting that."

And how many nobles/leaders today are driven to fight on the front lines personally for religious/ideological reasons?

I can't believe that out of all the military and paramilitary leaders of today, none truly believe in their professed causes.

Jim Baerg said...

Tony "disease of republicanism"

I'm not sure how seriously you meant that, but see this defense of Athenian democracy vs Spartan 'aristocracy'.

http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/2011/11/move-over-frank-miller-or-why-occupy.html

Eth said...

I would agree with the logic thing. Even gangsters like the Zetas are operating under a kind of logic. They do horrific things but it's business. People operating under pure crazy don't make any kind of sense.

They don't make any kind of sense because pure crazy is often an invention. Humans always operate under some sort of internal logic. Crazy people simply have a logic which is incompatible with out own.
But it is possible to create a complete monster completely mad but still believable. Nolan's Joker is such an example. He is mad, but a very believable madness. In fact, a psychologist could even precisely tell you how he works.
(He is an extreme form of a pervert. Which means he has no moral constraints and no empathy whatsoever, seeing people as object instead of persons; he also takes his kicks by having power on others and being in a position of dominance, but the contrary will tend to cause him breakdowns)
Also, while an extreme and extremely brilliant/intelligent example (it's a movie, after all), he is still not unrealistic, nor invincible; he can make mistakes and is defeated at the end.
The result is an utterly evil villain with no other goal than causing havoc and suffering (and prove than others are not better than him), but still a great character.
But that's difficult to do. And done poorly, people will easily disregard such villain lazy writing.

Also, it is possible to make non-human complete monsters. They are monsters precisely because they don't think like humans, not obligatorily because they serve or incarnate some 'Evil'.
For example, some time ago, I read a story where the main bad guy is revealed being a demon. His goal, other than simply spreading havoc and suffering for quite similar reasons than above, is to free mankind from empathy, that he sees as a ridiculous flaw. From his point of view, that's not evil but simply spreading his own morality to everyone. An altruistic demon, if you want.
It works because, while not human, he is still an internally logical character, which we can understand if not appreciate (he is still utterly evil with no sympathy potential whatsoever).

On the other hand, I find the 'force of nature' incarnation of evil very difficult to do right without looking like lazy writing, and I tend to avoid it as much as possible. When needing a 'force of nature' type of menace, faceless enemies are easier, like an unknown army destroying everything on its path.

The trend we're seeing is towards fewer casualties overall and less attrition from the higher ranks.

Fewer military causalities. Civilian causalities tend to be ridiculously hign, proportionally. In such attrition wars, it is easier to unprotected attack civilian targets, as well as using them as shields.

jollyreaper said...


They don't make any kind of sense because pure crazy is often an invention. Humans always operate under some sort of internal logic. Crazy people simply have a logic which is incompatible with out own.


Actually, this gets complicated and goes by degrees.

Baseline villain, he's a rational person like yourself who has a conflict of interest. You might be able to work out an accomodation with him like rational people. That would make him more antagonist than villain.

Then there's your logical but wrong people would be people with a religious belief. While they might otherwise operate in an organized, logical, and intelligent fashion, some part of their thinking is nuts and drives the conflict. "God gave this land to us!" "No, he gave it to us!" A compromise might never be reached because the gap between faith and reason is impassable. If it is passable, they go back to rational antagonists.

Push religion far enough and you get Andrea Yates. She thought she was a child of the devil and the souls of her children were at risk. Let them live, they go to hell with her. Kill them, they go to heaven. Makes sense within her worldview but is crazy by any external POV.

Now, how do you differentiate between Andrea Yates who we all know is crazy and Abraham who was fully prepared to sacrifice his only son to God because he heard voices? One is a loon facing life in prison and the other is a patriarch of the church. What's the difference between hearing the voice of God from a burning bush or from the neighbor's dog? One makes you Moses, one makes you Son of Sam.

But then you get psychopaths who have no elaborate internal logic, no justification. They just do what they do from impulse. It's not like in Crime and Punishment where the protagonist does something terrible to prove an elaborate social theory. Jeffrey Dahmer had no great plans. He just liked killing and eating people.

Defenders of religion will argue that someone like an Andrea Yates is really just a pure monster like Dahmer and the religion she was raised with has no more bearing on her crimes than the language she was raised speaking. If a serial killer sends a note to the cops, does this serve as an indictment of the English language? If not, then religious allusions shouldn't either.

jollyreaper said...

Personally, I find it a wicked, gray area and conclusions are not easy to draw.

I would say that your pure axe-crazy killers are captured or killed quickly because they don't have the self-control to remain hidden between sprees. Your more methodical serial killers can keep it going for a lot longer than that. Some might have elaborate justifications, others not.

Professional killers might enjoy the work and find a socially-appropriate outlet for their desires. Stalin's top executioner had tens of thousands of executions credited to him directly. Not signing death orders, mind you, but actually pulling the trigger.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasili_Blokhin

Some of these people don't have a passion for the work but realize they don't mind it and it's something not many others can do. It pays well. Of the Mafia hitmen we know of, for example, some have had careers lasting decades.

But it is possible to create a complete monster completely mad but still believable.


I love the movie but the Joker is pure Hollywood. As the song jokes, "he commits his crimes in such an orderly manner. Does he have it written down in an evil day planner? And his henchmen are so psycho and expendable, but also so dependable."

Nolan's Joker is such an example. He is mad, but a very believable madness. In fact, a psychologist could even precisely tell you how he works.

His plans are too grandiose to pull off in real life. The closest I've ever seen from looking at history are the sorts of psychopaths that are employed by authoritarian regimes.

Consider how rare Columbine-style massacres are. There are certainly a lot of disaffected youth but it takes a rare combination of ambition, intelligence and nihilism to pull off something like that. You'll usually have one kid shooting a few people but not usually a team and not with the addition of pipe bombs and improvised explosives. Very rare.

On the other hand, it's easier to provide a platform for that kind of psychotic behavior when you take these kids, give them guns and tell them it's ok to shoot certain people.

The Norway shootings are much like the Oklahoma City bombing. There was a political agenda, the killer had his reasons worked out, and was completely in possession of his mind. He knew what he was doing and felt it was worth it.

jollyreaper said...


On the other hand, I find the 'force of nature' incarnation of evil very difficult to do right without looking like lazy writing, and I tend to avoid it as much as possible. When needing a 'force of nature' type of menace, faceless enemies are easier, like an unknown army destroying everything on its path.


Yeah. I aesthetically don't like that. I prefer to see good and evil as human judgments of actions and evil cannot be done without being a conscious act of will. A hurricane blowing down your house is an act of nature, unfortunate but without malice. A guy in a bulldozer knocking down your house on purpose, that's evil. Of course, there's also the evil of indifference such as not caring for the consequences of one's actions.

If we consider the example of ultimate power like Sauron's Ring, I prefer to look at the ring as something without personality or will. It exists as power. The whole question of temptation and corruption exists solely within the mind of the bearer. (yeah, that's not how Tolkien wrote it but if I have a talisman of power in a story, that's how I'd write it.)

A human character might take on the devil's role as a tempter and seducer but I really dislike the idea of eeeeyvil as a cosmic force with personification. If Lovecraftian entities are involved, they remain beyond our conception of good and evil thought we probably won't like being in their proximity. Plutonium isn't good or evil but high doses of ionizing radiation don't make us happy campers.

Tony said...

Jim Baerg:

"Tony "disease of republicanism"

I'm not sure how seriously you meant that, but see this defense of Athenian democracy vs Spartan 'aristocracy'.

http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/2011/11/move-over-frank-miller-or-why-occupy.html"


Hmmm...

I used "disease of republicanism" with tongue planted firmly in cheek. But during the late 19th Century and early 20th it was seriously considered a particularly French disease, even in Great Britain's parliamentary democracy. French popular opinion was famous for its volatility and the vulnerability of French policy to that opinion was notorious -- and notoriously manipulable. Wiki "ems dispatch" for the prototypical example.

The French army was considered a bastion of conservatism against which all of the passions of the moment ebbed and flowed. It was in many cases the refuge of the former aristocracy (which is why I brought it up to begin with). To many in the army, republicanism was just another thing that had to be endured. French officers considered themselves to have much more in common with the officers of other great powers than they did with the conscripts they led.

So, yes, "disease of republicanism" -- it was appropriate to the subject.

I haven't read any of Brin's work lately, but I hope this isn't an example of his current standards. For example:

"...young citizens, clumsily feeling their way ahead toward saving their country..."

That's what the Occupy X movement is made up of? For all his vitriol and past very distant relationship with the truth, Miller IMO comes much closer with "louts", "unruly mob", "Woodstock-era nostalgia", and "putrid false righteousness". And while it is unfair to paint this loutish mob as rapists and thieves, they certainly have suffered rapists and thieves to be among them.

Aside from that, where exactly does Brin demonstrate that Occupy X yout's are better than Spartans? He doesn't. He just uses them as an opening wedge into what he wants to really talk about -- the Sparta of Leonidas vs. the Athens of Themistocles. That alone is shabby enough.

But then he uses lies to refute lies. The Pesians weren't necessarily invading at Marathon. There was a sense in which their expedition was simply punitive. Athens's support of the Ionian Greeks was certainly not a defensive policy. The expedition's main goal was to defeat Athens and gain formal submission, not to occupy and rule.

Also, Themistocles's rowers weren't "volunteers". They were paid men. And, at the time, rowers weren't full citizens. They didn't get the vote until Pericles's time, several decades later. Even under Pericles an escaped Spartan slave would not have been a citizen, but a metic, with very limited rights.

Tony said...

And I just love this disclaimer:

"Historical note: Yes, the Athenians had their faults too! They owned slaves, though far more gently than Sparta. Women had few rights - though the legend of Lysistrata was born there. After they lost Great Pericles, their democracy fell into the kind of populist foolishness that we see in America today, idiotic foreign adventures and callousness toward neighbors. But all of that came later. And at their worst, they kept the basic virtues that are at-issue in this matter of "300"... and in my response. Fierce pride in citizenship."

Oh brother.

The Athenians had slaves, but that was okay, because they didn't have the brutal police state of the Spartans.

They treated their women as semi-chattel, but that was okay too, because their theater once put on a play about sexual politics.

And what is this "populist foolishness" we see in America today, if it doesn't include your precious Occupy X waifs?

As for "fierce pride in citizenship", would that be the 20% of adult male population who were allowed to vote, even after Pericles granted the vote to the rowers?

Tony said...

Re: force-of-nature monsters

Either your monster is an intelligent being, or its a real force of nature. An intelligent being can be Evil (even if he sees what he is doing as good -- I'm looking right at you, Mr. Sandusky). Even if a character seems as uncarring as a natural disaster, there's a reason for what he does, somewhere in there.

But a true force of nature is nothing more than a tragic occurrence, to the degree that it affects people negatively. (Forces of nature can be fortunate too, you know.) One needs some intelligent being associated with the natural occurrence for Good or Evil to attach. Perhaps a hero comes along and saves some or many lives. Or a villain uses the occurrence for personal gain, indifferent to how it affects others. Or the anit-hero tries to extract a profit out of the disaster, but winds up helping as well, or instead.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Eth:

"His goal, other than simply spreading havoc and suffering for quite similar reasons than above, is to free mankind from empathy, that he sees as a ridiculous flaw. From his point of view, that's not evil but simply spreading his own morality to everyone. An altruistic demon, if you want."

Umm... if he has no empathy, then why does he care about helping us overcome our "flaw"?

Eth said...

I love the movie but the Joker is pure Hollywood. As the song jokes, "he commits his crimes in such an orderly manner. Does he have it written down in an evil day planner? And his henchmen are so psycho and expendable, but also so dependable."

Sorry I wasn't precise enough here. His resources and abilities are Hollywood, yes. But it's a movie with a guy inspired by a small flying roden... mammal, and terrifying the mob of a whole city, so it's part of the deal.
But as a character with motivations and behaviour, he is perfectly valid, if one of the most extreme exemples. What is not credible is to have such a combinaison of exageratedly perturbed, brillant and resourceful person, as people with only one of them is already very rare.
My point was, you can have a good 'crazy complete monster' as a villain, even if it is quite difficult to do it right.

Then there's your logical but wrong people would be people with a religious belief. While they might otherwise operate in an organized, logical, and intelligent fashion, some part of their thinking is nuts and drives the conflict. "God gave this land to us!" "No, he gave it to us!" A compromise might never be reached because the gap between faith and reason is impassable. If it is passable, they go back to rational antagonists.

It's not exactly religion, I would say, but ideology. You have very religious people which won't let themselves caught by that, and you will have people acting like that for non-religious ideologies, as the XXe century proved to us.
Apart from that, I agree with your description of these two types of villains. I read the describtion 'egoistic bastard' and 'altruistic bastard' for them somewhere.

But then you get psychopaths who have no elaborate internal logic, no justification. They just do what they do from impulse. It's not like in Crime and Punishment where the protagonist does something terrible to prove an elaborate social theory. Jeffrey Dahmer had no great plans. He just liked killing and eating people.

It may not be elaborate indeed, but they still have some internal logic. People don't act purely at random (or if they do, there is a reason why they act at random, if you want). But it can be quite primitive, or stupid. It can be because they like (or even need) to have power over people, and the best way for that is to hurt them. A psychologist may even try to understand how this person became like that, with enough info (and preferably the person's cooperation). But somewhere, it always makes sense from a certain point of view.

Anonymous said...

Some people think that monsters come in two flavors: brain-wired-wrong (crazy), and Ooooh-people-taste-great-I'll-forget-morality-and-do-what-I-want (evil); monsters should be used either to justify the other characters' actions, or give the reader a guided tour of the monster's mind (usually in the form of the monster giving the reader a justification of his actions). In my opinion, monsters exist to give the hero an occasion to rise to greatness, or to give the reader a chance to examine why they aren't monsters themselves. The more human, the more ordinary, a monster appears, the more uncomfortable it makes us, as it comes closer to our zone of safety than a monster that is unhuman, rather than inhuman.

Ferrell

Rick said...

Whew!

Even though it is pretty irrelevant to the main topic, I'll indulge my blogger's privilege WRT the 'Occupy' protesters.

For all their admitted flakeyness they have shifted the US public dialog in a positive direction, and done so essentially without violence or even latent undertone of violence. Even pundits on the right are having to address rising economic inequality, however awkwardly.

Brin makes his own argument pretty clumsily, but the Western philosophical tradition is pretty much a series of footnotes on Athenian oligarchs who detested the Athenian democracy and admired - from afar - the Spartans.

Western historiography is rather a different game, derived from critics but adherents of the Athenian democracy.

I did say 'generally' in my remark about European monarchs before and after 1500. Yes there were noteworthy later warrior kings, but kings involved in direct combat became much less common. (And often token or semi-token, like Henry VIII at the 'Battle of the Spurs.')


On villainy: I'm generally of the school that badness should be internally motivated, but the One Ring is not a morally neutral object. It isn't exactly so much Evil in itself, as its power leadeth unto temptation.

Carry on smartly!

Raymond said...

Following along...

(Rick: I wish Google Wave had stuck around, if only to make these threads more manageable.)

jollyreaper said...

With regards to the One Ring, it's clearly portrayed as radioactive evil. (bet that's already a trope.) it is sentient, has a will and bears the magic power of its master. It plays on the power of those who hold it but it is active temptation and seduction.

Contrast that with alcohol. It is a molecule. Put enough together and it will get you drunk. But alcohol has no will, no motivation, no desires. It exists. Any problem we have with it lives in our own heads. I don't doubt an alcoholic when he says the bottle is calling him. It feels real to him and even if it's only in his mind, our minds are powerful things.

Religious types personify alcohol, not metaphorically but literally. I grew up in churches, a lot of people believe this. Literal spiritual warfare, angels and demons vying for your soul. I had one woman tell me she was praying over her troubled son and by invoking the name of Jesus she saw a shadowy demonic form driven from his body. People take this stuff literally and in all seriousness.

Thucydides said...

This monster thing is taking a life of its own (uh oh....)

I think that as far as aliens are concerned, we may see them as "monsters" because their motivations are alien, and they will have difficulty communicating with us. For a "real life" example, think back to the discussions about intelligent AI and how they might interact with us.

My POV was that AI's would not be very interested in us, since communicating would be quite difficult (electronic "brains" would be working about one million times faster than our brains, other pointed out the concept of "bodies" and even individuality might not translate for an AI.) The would be very interested in the 195 Petawatts of energy the Earth's biosphere intercepts, and could be expected to start crowding out the natural ecosystem in an effort to start capturing a large fraction of that energy.

To us, that would be very "monstrous" (especially as the Earth becomes uninhabitable for organic life), but for the AI's, they would have had generations pass before our actions even register. To them, we would be the slow moving "monsters" trying to hog the environment.

Tony said...

Re: the One Ring

I know Tolkien asserted that it had a malevolent nature, but all it really did was prey on an individual's moral weakness, as any great power does.

Rick:

"...WRT the 'Occupy' protesters.

For all their admitted flakeyness they have shifted the US public dialog in a positive direction, and done so essentially without violence or even latent undertone of violence. Even pundits on the right are having to address rising economic inequality, however awkwardly."


I really don't GAS about either extreme's pundits. The Occupy X kiddies are protesting a symptom. I remember being their age. They have no conception of what causes the problems they rant about, nor do they propose any practical solutions -- on the rare occasion they propose any kind of solution at all. AFAICT, it really is nothing more than ungrateful louts (to the degree that they are themselves college students with all kinds of advantages) engaging in corny "hey-hey, ho-ho..." chants for no better reasons than it's something to feel important about.

If they want to do something really important, they can take courses that actually lead to job skills and get real jobs. Then if they still have problems with the economic system, they can work from there.

"Brin makes his own argument pretty clumsily, but the Western philosophical tradition is pretty much a series of footnotes on Athenian oligarchs who detested the Athenian democracy and admired - from afar - the Spartans."

If that's true, then we have that tradition to thank for a reasonably stable constitutional republic rather than a mobocracy which would have long since fallen of its own absurdities. It wasn't just the wannabe Spartan oligarchs that were disaffected by radical Athenian democracy. One doesn't need to be an elitist to appreciate the fundamental folly in a system that could enable an Alcibiades and cause the judicial death of a Socrates.

"Western historiography is rather a different game, derived from critics but adherents of the Athenian democracy."

Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus, Asia Minor, a Dorian (i.e. Spartan) colony and wrote in Ionian Greek. He may have gotten a lot of his information from Athenian sources, and probably had sympathies with Athens as an actor on the (known) world stage, but he was hardly an Athenian himself.

Thucydides was a born Athenian, but he was also exiled from that state, apparently never to return. He had positive things to say about Athens up until he was exiled, but after that he tended to highlight the failings of its democracy.

I think it would be more accurate to say that Western historiography began under the influence of Athens, but was hardly beholden to it.

AR said...

Rick: For all their admitted flakeyness they have shifted the US public dialog in a positive direction, and done so essentially without violence or even latent undertone of violence.

I would disagree about the violence part, because they are threatening violence to the extent that they promote any form of governmental solution, because the state is legitimized violence and the latent undertone thereof.

This is a point that the Occupy protesters, of all people, should be particularly keen to appreciate.

Tony said...

Any form of real power has the threat of force behind it. That's not a feature of the state alone. Underlying their happy talk, Occupy X is relying on its ability to at the very least fatigue people with their antics. I personally think that they'll either lose interest and fade away or eventually get violent. Or most of them will go home and a small hard core group will get violent. If you don't use force you simply don't have effect.

jollyreaper said...


I would disagree about the violence part, because they are threatening violence to the extent that they promote any form of governmental solution, because the state is legitimized violence and the latent undertone thereof.


Er, what about the skull-smashing that went into shutting them down?

Tony said...

jollyreaper:



What do you think, "This is a point that the Occupy protesters, of all people, should be particularly keen to appreciate," was in refference to?

Anthony said...

"Nearly 1,100 U.S. Army generals served at some point during World War II, and of those about 40 died during or immediately following the war. Not all were in combat units, and some were not in enemy territory when they died."
That is approximately 1 per 10,000 military deaths in WWII. Preserving that same ratio, we would expect 6 in Vietnam and 0.6 between Iraq and Afghanistan. The actual values of 5 and 0 do not seem statistically significant, so I don't think we have reason to think that upper rank casualties are any rarer as a percentage of all casualties as in WWII, we've just had fewer deaths of all ranks.

Rick said...

A bit belatedly, welcome to new commenters!

they are threatening violence to the extent that they promote any form of governmental solution

This is sort of the absolute-zero case of wanting to take the politics out of politics!

A good rule for social institutions is that they must be capable of surviving contact with the primate house. Humans may be apes, but they are capable of all sorts of monkey business.

Tony said...

Rick:

"This is sort of the absolute-zero case of wanting to take the politics out of politics!"

Only to the degree that force is seen as a government prerogative. Politics is and has always been about what I can do if I don't get my way. Certainly levels of force often only extend to who has the most votes (even in oligarchies, consensus is important). But whether we are talking about voting blocks or physical violence, underlying it all is the understanding that nothing gets done without power.

Thucydides said...

Tony is correct (and so is Chairman Mao); power does flow from the barrel of a gun.

When siege technology was very limited and weak, walled city states were quite possible. The growth of large kingdoms and imperial powers that could gather resources from a wider area and reduce walled enclosures killed the idea of a city state for centuries.

The fall of Rome meant there were no powers capable of besieging a city, and Feudal Barons could snub their noses at other Barons and Kings, safe inside their castles. Walled cities appeared again as well.

The development of gunpowder weapons (and the cost which limited them to Royal forces for the most part) tipped the balance to the offense again, and squeezed out most smaller polities.

In the modern world, we see insurgent forces creating "parallel structures" of tax collectors, courts and enforcers in "their" territories, the local governments usually don't have the ability to uproot the structure and enforce their systems on the contested areas. Political movements seeking to overthrow the existing regime also turn to raw power; think of Fascist "Blackshirts" in Italy or Nazi "Brownshirts" (as well as Communist "Spartacists" and Nihilist Freidkorps) fighting for power in Weimar Germany.

The way the OWS movement members have threatened violence since their camps were dismantled suggests that some of them are working in the same mind space we saw in the past, something to be watchful about.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"The way the OWS movement members have threatened violence since their camps were dismantled suggests that some of them are working in the same mind space we saw in the past, something to be watchful about."

We'll see...

"Talk is cheap" is fundamentally a statement about where the balance of power lies, between claiming the right and having the might.

Rick said...

By the standards of many if not most countries' street politics, both the OWS occupations and their suppression have involved so little violence that observers might think it was all political kabuki.

And perhaps it an odd way it was. From my center-lefty perspective an important message has been sent - an ill-defined public uneasiness over economic stratification has been given a name, and it has become a factor in the political dynamic.

So at this point OWS has achieved what it could realistically do, while the encampments have become, to the casual urban eye, scruffy gatherings of the usual suspects. So the 'occupiers' will be chivvied away with no real fuss.


More broadly, politics is indeed about power. But political skill is usually about settling matters short of actual violence or even the overt threat of violence.

jollyreaper said...

http://i72.photobucket.com/albums/i191/hissyspit/Hissyspit%20-%202/449542837.jpg

Wall of blue, screaming woman in the middle getting a pepper spray bukkake. These are the images that penetrate beyond rational thought, operating on the lowest limbic levels.

This is not good publicity.

Tony said...

Listening to NPR on the way home from GF's tonight I heard audio from Occupy Portland. Some woman had the mic and was blathering on about what they were "fighting" for, with the crowd repeating in chorus. Also, what do we think "occupy" means to begin with?

Political theater or not, Occupy X is still about force. They made their point? They changed the dialogue? How did they do that? By denying the use of public facilities and streets to other users. By implying that if people find that annoying, they'll really find annoying what comes next if the Occupiers' concerns aren't addressed.

Anonymous said...

When people get angry, they go out and do violent things; when people get frustrated, they go out and do things that sometimes make little sense to others (and sometimes to themselves);anger burns out quickly but frustration just keeps going...

Ferrell

Rick said...

By denying the use of public facilities and streets to other users.

I don't know about other cities, but in San Francisco the denial is purely nominal - the encampment is in an area that previously was used mainly by skateboarders. I doubt they filed a protest.

As for OWS making their point, I've started to hear / read casual use of '99 percent' and 'one percent' from well outside the range of usual suspects. So I credit them with giving name and voice to pretty widespread unease about economic stratification.

Having said that, I don't really want to beat this horse too much more, dead or alive.

Thucydides said...

Back to the One Ring; it is quite clear in LOTR (the book) that the Ring is, in some sense, Sauron himself.

Sauron invested a great deal of his own power into the One Ring in order to control the other Rings of Power. In a sense it can be said that the One Ring contains the sou of Sauron, and he will be physically re embodied when reunited with the Ring. (This point is also made in the movie).

Once again, so long as this is treated in a consistent manner, there is no reason that assumptions inserted into a story (even assumptions like this) cannot be treated as "realistic" in the context of the story.

Eth said...

That's also how I see the One ring.
But in other settings, there may be another way to have an 'evil' object, apart from someone transferring his soul or mind inside it.
The object can be a tool for the creator to continue its 'evil ways'. Let's take a book, for example. By itself, it is not evil - it is processed wood and ink. But what is written inside can be truly evil. Messages of hate, cunning manipulative words... a text can be considered evil, as an extension its creator, even if said creator is not there anymore.

jollyreaper said...

The object can be a tool for the creator to continue its 'evil ways'. Let's take a book, for example. By itself, it is not evil - it is processed wood and ink. But what is written inside can be truly evil. Messages of hate, cunning manipulative words... a text can be considered evil, as an extension its creator, even if said creator is not there anymore.


There's metaphorical evil and literal evil. Even commonplace objects and things can become tainted by association.

Nobody wants to live in a house where there's been a murder or suicide. Even people not susceptible to spiritualist beliefs like hauntings are weirded out. Some bauble like a Maltese Falcon or precious diamond people have killed for will take on a legend far beyond the material significance of their form and this isn't even with the addition of magical or religious significance like the grail, spear of longinus, or splinter of the true cross.

Human bodies aren't an evil thing per se but a chair made of human bones or a lampshade of human skin becomes a thing of evil regardless of whether it comes from the home of Ed Gein or Auschwitz.

Mythology is full of stories of ill-gotten gains bearing a curse. It's not a philosophical point of view such as a mother refusing any help from her gangster son because it would be blood money.

Personally, I try to be more pragmatic. There is no such thing as cosmic evil and no evil is radioactive. Evil comes from an act of will and will can only be expressed by a sentient mind. Temptation exists but it is a weakness of the mind that succumbs to it. Seduction exists but it is the act of one mind suborning the will of another.

Perception is reality and the human mind can reshape the signals of the senses to become whatever it desires. If someone believes a delusion sincerely enough, it becomes their reality even as it destroys them. They will create a devil outside of themselves because they cannot accept the personal responsibility of knowing that what they do comes from within.

Tony said...

Eth:

"Let's take a book, for example. By itself, it is not evil - it is processed wood and ink. But what is written inside can be truly evil. Messages of hate, cunning manipulative words... a text can be considered evil, as an extension its creator, even if said creator is not there anymore."

It's still just words. Even though it's written with evil intent, the message can't do anything in and of itself. It takes a receptive mind and a will to act on the part of the reader for evil acts to continue. For example, many college students over the years have been assigne Mein Kampf as a study of the mind of evil. The book doesn't make them do evil things, because they don't have receptive minds or the will to act on such thoughts. Likewise, I own a copy of Triumph of the Will on DVD. It doesn't make me want to go all SS on the world. I have it and view it as a study of persuasive filmmaking, as well as a historical document.

jollyreaper:

"Perception is reality and the human mind can reshape the signals of the senses to become whatever it desires. If someone believes a delusion sincerely enough, it becomes their reality even as it destroys them. They will create a devil outside of themselves because they cannot accept the personal responsibility of knowing that what they do comes from within."

Perception can create a subjective reality. But there is an objective reality that we all share, and that most of us recognize. Even people who fool themselves or allow themselves to be fooled most often don't remain so forever. The reality of the Guerilla war in Iraq snapped a lot of us out of our delusions about shaping the world to fit American ideals and interests. (I manifestly do not exclude myself from that group, BTW.) The Japanese were dragged kicking and screaming out of their imperial fantasies by the industrial and military might of the US. Many of us SF readers have had to come to terms with the difficulty and expense of manned spaceflight. (Though some of us still seem to be struggling with that...)

jollyreaper said...

Perception can create a subjective reality. But there is an objective reality that we all share, and that most of us recognize.


I'm a firm believer in a solid, objective reality. Moral evaluations are relative to the observer, of course. But the power of magical thinking can cause people to do things that simply don't make any sense under rational analysis.

Even people who fool themselves or allow themselves to be fooled most often don't remain so forever. The reality of the Guerilla war in Iraq snapped a lot of us out of our delusions about shaping the world to fit American ideals and interests. (I manifestly do not exclude myself from that group, BTW.) The Japanese were dragged kicking and screaming out of their imperial fantasies by the industrial and military might of the US. Many of us SF readers have had to come to terms with the difficulty and expense of manned spaceflight. (Though some of us still seem to be struggling with that...)

I think this Orwell quote sums it up so well:

We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, whene we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, is possible to carry this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.

The point is, up until that very moment, within the belief structure, fantasy is reality. For most of us, the reality check is rather immediate. We learn quickly we're not going to be rock stars. We try the good graces of friends and family, we'll soon find ourselves excluded from social gatherings. Within a larger organization, fantasy thinking can be quite successful. Take two young executives looking to rise through the ranks, in a dysfunctional organization the ass-kisser and sycophant will rise while the person who states the unvarnished and unwelcome truth will be shown the door. The wrong-headed thinking will continue to succeed right up until the point management either has a come-to-jesus moment or the company ends in bankruptcy.

WWII creates such stark examples and Japan was one of my favorites. The history that shaped the imperial death cult is something that seems too fantastic to be true. But it explains just how they could go so wrong and how reform from inside was impossible. There's no way Japan could have reformed without getting beaten within an inch of death. Nothing else could have discredited and destroyed those wrong ideas.

Delusional, magical thinking couldn't lead Japan to winning the war but it could lead an entire nation to go along with such an insane idea. And the person who can plant the seeds of such lunacy in fertile minds and give rise to these magical, deluded world views may well be called a wizard.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



I tend to think of "evil artifacts" like this...

Consider alcohol as an example. Being drunk can make you do things you would never do while sober. It clearly changes how you think, not just presents you with a temptation that you can act on or ignore if you wish. Yet I could not carefully craft a drink designed to make you do whatever I want. Being drunk can influence your personality, but not completely rewrite it.

I see many "tainted artifacts of evil" in fantasy as similar. They magically alter your brain chemistry in such a way as to make you more inclined to exercise poor judgement and to give in to temptation. However, there has to be some trace of temptation to begin with in order for the influence to be able to corrupt you. It can't directly order you to murder that guy over there, unless you have some grudge against him or could otherwise benefit from his death.

This is separate from any power that the artifact may or may not offer as a secondary function (to provide the temptation that you may or may not act on).

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

The point is, up until that very moment, within the belief structure, fantasy is reality.

You may see this as a semantic quibble, but I think it's important to have a firm understanding that there is an objective reality outside of one's wishful thinking. Saying that "fantasy is reality" obscures that. Fantasy is always fantasy. Believeing that one's fantasy and reality are the same thing does not make it so.

jollyreaper said...


The point is, up until that very moment, within the belief structure, fantasy is reality.

You may see this as a semantic quibble, but I think it's important to have a firm understanding that there is an objective reality outside of one's wishful thinking. Saying that "fantasy is reality" obscures that. Fantasy is always fantasy. Believeing that one's fantasy and reality are the same thing does not make it so.


Maybe I'm not stating things clearly. Let's say there's a drought. That's a fact. Can my magic ritual make it rain? No, it can't. That's a fact. But can I convince people to go along with the ritual anyway? If I'm some scumbag high priest, I can probably convince them to sacrifice their babies to the harvest god.

If I can convince people of my insight into the thinking of the gods, if I can not only make them fear being informed on by their friends and family but that even in the dark of the night and the privacy of their own thoughts there are supernatural agencies observing them, knowing their secrets. that's a pretty goddamn powerful reality.

If I can convince followers to stage suicide attacks against my enemies and all in the belief that they'll go to a magical fantasy land in the sky after death, that's a pretty powerful reshaping of reality right there.

It can work on a simple level. I tell people they work hard and God will bless them and it's not that bad of an economy, if the weather goes along with me, they'll be successful. They might have worked a little harder with the stimulus of my magical promises but it was all a mixture of hard work and good luck. I take credit for it all.

I can keep this belief going up until true reality asserts itself. If that drought is long enough, people will eventually doubt my powers. I can only convince them the gods are angry at something they did for so long.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

I understand what you're trying to say. I'm just don't think it's particularly accurate to say the unreal = real, even if in one's own mind only. It does make for dramatic narrative, as in: "Hitler made his fantasy reality, if only for a while." But it obscures the fact that no, he didn't make the unreal real -- he just acted on his unreal perception of the world and got away with it for 12 years.
It's a subtle difference, but a very real one.

Rick said...

What a truly interesting question.

I am a bit reminded of the story of the rabbi whose best student returned from the university at Cracow and explained - with much enthusiasm - how he'd learned that the so-called material world was only a perception, etc.

Whereupon the rabbi punched him in the nose, and asked, "So what hurts?"

The story reflects my bias, yet all we have to go by is our perceptions, raising all sorts of complications like cognitive dissonance.

This question can apply, in some ways, to group perceptions as well. How much was a piece of California real estate 'really' worth in the fall of 2007?

Thucydides said...

This "Fantasy vs Reality" tangent reminds me of the "Old Man's War", where it is revealed that each FTL jump is actually a shift to a slightly different quantum universe.

The question at that point becomes, "why not shift the bulk of Humanity to a universe where there are no hostile aliens waiting to eat us?" That would be a very elegant solution to the problems of war and protecting the Human race.

In the context of that book (and I can imagine there are other stories where alternative universes are accessible; Ursula K LeGuin's "The Lathe of Heaven" may be the best example) reality can be subject to wish fulfillment by adjusting the parameters until the external reality and the desired "fantasy" reality converge.

Once again this is a logical construct that works within the authors story, and has logical consequences which must be handled in a consistent manner in order to be believable and realistic for the reader.

jollyreaper said...


The story reflects my bias, yet all we have to go by is our perceptions, raising all sorts of complications like cognitive dissonance.


Yup. I'm biased towards belief in concrete reality but it's our delusions that bring us away from that.

In a human relationship, for example, the other person is a real thing. There are motivations and desires as well as the basic animal needs. But for you the observer, you only ever see of them what you can see or what they let you see. So when that person does something seemingly out of character, is it really so or did you just not know them as well as you thought? You're building a mental model of them but it is in no way complete.

This question can apply, in some ways, to group perceptions as well. How much was a piece of California real estate 'really' worth in the fall of 2007?

There are a lot of assumptions on just how the world should work that we take for granted. We never even question the premise of those assumptions.

When I'm talking about reshaping reality, it's really on the human mental level and upon things that humans have control over. No amount of wishing and jumping around will make Creationism so or invalidate geology so the world goes back to being 6,000 years old like it's supposed to be.

But on the societal level, we can have a nasty reality or a pleasing reality. Reality for most of human existence was the man with the pointy stick telling you what to do in the here and now and the man in the funny hat telling you why you should listen to him or else you'll be in for it in the next life.

jollyreaper said...

In the perception vs. reality argument, how many of us have heard the tale of some former high-roller blowing his brains out because it had all fallen apart? He still had his health, many years left, but he couldn't imagine living not being who he once was. By his view, life was over and he simply made it official. Someone else in his shoes with a different perspective is living a different reality.

Really good quote here, Alan Watts.

"Do you remember the Great Depression? One day everything was going all right. Everybody was pretty wealthy and had plenty to eat. The next day everybody was in poverty. What had happened? Had the fields disappeared; had the dairy vanished into thin air; had the fish of the sea ceased to exist; had human beings lost their energy; their skills and their brains?
No, but on the morning after the Depression a man came to work building a house and the foreman said to him "Sorry chum you can't work today, there ain't no inches." He said "What do you mean there ain't no inches?" "Yeah" he said, "Yeah, we got lumber, we got metal, we even got tape measures." The foreman said "The trouble with you is you don't understand business. There are no inches. We have been using too many of them and there's not enough to go around."
Because what happened in the Great Depression was a slump in money. Human beings are so unbelievably stupid, that they confused money with wealth. They don't realize that money is a measure of wealth, in exactly the same way that meters are a measure of length. They think it is something that is valuable in and of itself. And as a result of that get into unbelievable trouble."

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"In the perception vs. reality argument, how many of us have heard the tale of some former high-roller blowing his brains out because it had all fallen apart? He still had his health, many years left, but he couldn't imagine living not being who he once was. By his view, life was over and he simply made it official. Someone else in his shoes with a different perspective is living a different reality."

They're living in precisely the same reality. One just has a better sense of proportion.

Tony said...

Rick:

"This question can apply, in some ways, to group perceptions as well. How much was a piece of California real estate 'really' worth in the fall of 2007?"

To whom and for what purpose? And under what constraints? I'm personally familiar with a situation where residential property values almost collapsed because there was a landowner's association and its leadership got out of hand. Same land, same houses, same services -- but nobody wanted to buy into a situation where their neighbors could tell them what color tarp they had to put over their hay, and take them to court if they didn't comply.

It sounds trite, but things really are worth exactly what somebody will pay you for them. In California in 2007, people valued property above its long term market value, and they paid for it, come heck or high water. Right now people value it less than its long term market value, and won't pay for it unless they get a low price. In both cases the market tells us what people are willing to pay, but it's only a technical and financial reality. It's not a measure of the land's utility, or that of any structures on it.

AR said...

jollyreaper, the analogy is good but for the wrong reasons. Money is a measure of various things. And how do you suppose anybody is to build anything if their very standard of measurement is tampered with?

The things that the government had done to money and the interest rate that led up to the great depression is like if they made "inches" shorted than before, so that when the carpenter measures the wood they have on hand, they things they have more than they do. Nonetheless, the actual amount required is the same, so that they come up short after construction has already started.

The difference is that the interest rate is a measurement of something implicit to all economic undertakings, which is why messing with it can mess up the entirety of society's capital structure and distribution of labor.

For further reading on this approach, I'd recommend this article on the importance of understanding the role of capital goods and how misallocation of resources driven by tampering with money and interest can cause abrupt drops in real wealth.

Raymond said...

I think for the sake of clarity we should differentiate between the reality we all share and our understanding of it. (Bridging this gap to the best of our ability, of course, is the foundation of science, which either directly or indirectly fuels this very conversation space, depending on how you wish to measure it.)

In the perception-vs-reality argument, reality wins every time. We live in this universe, and no other. Variances in the understanding of market forces and comparative military strength can be harder to determine than, say, F = ma, but the same principles apply (they may, however, require more advanced math).

This is actually my most common beef with fantasy (as opposed to science fiction) and, I believe, the crux of the discussion here - the universe works a certain way, whatever that may be. The essence of "realism" is more about consistent systems than The One True Reality (but violations of common understanding of the working of the universe we live in will be jarring at best, and more likely facepalm-inducing). For SF, I think "realism" is about sticking to what is possible, given current understanding - excluding, granted, however many (or preferably few) things are declared to be possible in order for the story to be set anywhere except Now.

Also, all of you are well-programmed chatbots unless proven otherwise. Alice would be proud, if she could feel.

Raymond said...

"They don't realize that money is a measure of wealth, in exactly the same way that meters are a measure of length. They think it is something that is valuable in and of itself. And as a result of that get into unbelievable trouble."

Ah, the same old fallacy. The Spanish believed that gold was worth what gold was worth, and suffered hyperinflation after discovering the New World. (They also dumped platinum into the sea to stabilize the price of gold.)

If meters changed in length like US dollars changed in price, every plane would crash and every space probe we ever launched would miss by a million miles - give or take, depending on the exchange rate.

AR said...

It's also worth noting that the idea that money is not wealth is only completely true of fiat money, like dollars. When money is a commodity, like gold or cigarettes, it is also a form of wealth in its own right. Discovering a huge stockpile of previously unknown gold would lower the price of gold dental implants, jewellery, and various electronic components.

The same cannot be said of the money accounted into existence by the Federal Reserve.

Brian Mansur said...

Some many juicy comments here to comment on! Where to begin?!

To Rick: What do you mean you haven't read John Lampkin's book yet!? Seriously, it is Good with a capital G. It is heavy on the realism but you'll see immediately a lot of the assumptions it makes with space colonization, FTL, and so on. It does take a serious stab at modeling warfare in space realistically. Of course we know that much of it is still, by definition, largely guess work and handwaving to allow for a story. He makes minimal use of AI's in order to keep people in the seat (I don't even recall so much as a 22nd Century version of Siri in the thing). But overall, I couldn't help but love the book for trying as hard as it did to be "hard" sci-fi. Plus it was just a good sci-fi military thriller story. If you liked Heinlein and Tom Clancy, you'll like John's book, Through Struggle, The Stars.

To Eth: I liked your idea of Avatar's conveniently placed world being a "test" for humanity. In fairness, however, one would think that any being sufficiently advanced to arrange circumstances as such wouldn't need to go to the trouble to see what is already in our often black hearts. Still a chilling idea though (it has a hint of Judeo-Christian in it which always tickles me) and thanks for sharing it.

To Tony and Anthony: I read your posts and I hope you'll forgive me for saying this but I couldn't help thinking of that scene in Megamind where Roxanne spouts, "Girls! Girls! You're both pretty!" Waste heat, as my admittedly non-engineering mind understands it, is defined as something you can't use. Yes, you can cut down on it by tossing it overboard via the thrust nozzle (which as Anthony said is not waste heat by definition).  There, both of you made your points and you may now get me back at a time and place of your choosing with another Megamind quote.

To Francisdrake: You pointed out that predicting a realistic future only works for a short span (50 - 100 years). Ain't that just the truth and you're probably being generous on the numbers. We have a hard enough time accurately predicting what Apple will do next year much less what will be developed in 10, 20 (or/let alone!) 50 years. But you are also right in that we'll get quite a few basic ideas dead on as good ol Verne did.

About the radiators. I would *love* to know how big a radiator would be needed to cool a ship pushing 10,000 tons at 1g. So would probably a lot of other people :-)

About the commentator here who didn't like Robinson's Mars Trilogy's politics … I read the first book 20 years or so ago and I still remember Frank's quip, "Everything is politics" .

Tony said, "2. Can we also not try to justify Avatar? It was pure dreck and we should leave it at that." Couldn't agree more! I think the best part of the whole film was the first few minutes right up to where they landed the VTAC. Then I slowly began to realize that I had already seen the rest of the movie long ago when Kevin Costner played the lead, only with far fewer special effects and a production that probably actually warranted the Oscar it won (been a while since I saw Dances so my opinion could change next time I see it). Hey, but at least the movie gave us one good running gag. Without Avatar we could have never imagined Lang saying, "You are not in Kansas anymore. You are on Terra Nova!"

To Rick: About Total Monsters. I'll try not to make mine too boring in my book ;-) BTW, I don't see anyone mentioning Ghengis Khan in the list of seriously evil dudes. Talk about one horrifically brutal conqueror who arguably would have made Hitler, Stalin and Mao look like weekend warriors if only he'd been around in modern times to do his damage.

To Anthony: The primary goal of realism is to avoid 'jarring nonsense.' I'll try to live up to that maxim in my book. Thanks.

And that's all I got!

~Brian

jollyreaper said...

I'm old enough now to have imagined as a kid what 20 years in ye future would be like and see it in action.

It's also interesting to see the differences between a film shot in year x which isn't a period piece, a film shot decades later set in year x which is a period piece, and futurist films suffering heavily from zeerust.

Pretty much the big changes all come down to fashion. Cars, clothes, hair, manner of speech. Oh, and rampant obesity. Even the buildings that look different do so because some starchitect is trying to do something cute. Shades of decellerando to be sure.

If someone were to ask me what 20 years from now would look like, professional attire would be mostly the same for men, slightly different for women since they are more fashion-mutable, longer hair may be more in style. The kids will probably be wearing something incredibly stupid, the popular music will be worse, and electronics will be smaller. We could see garish tv billboards like from Tokyo everywhere witch cheap oled displays becoming ubiquitous.

Depending on how peak oil goes, our future is likely to have a lot less cheap energy in it. The dour 50 year prognosis is less profligate expenditure of energy with denser urban centers. The suburbs might see retrofitting to make them more city-like with McMansions subdivided into multiple living units, vendors setup locally since moat people won't have gas cars.

Even if we cracked cold fusion tomorrow and could cheaply replace all fossil plants with nearly free electricity, building electric cars still gobbles a lot of serious resources. I don't see how this is sustainable in the long-term.

Rick said...

Then I slowly began to realize that I had already seen the rest of the movie long ago when Kevin Costner played the lead

That was my reaction, without even seeing 'Avatar.' Been there done that.

Genghis and the Mongols have an awful reputation, but also a vague one, due to choosing mostly non-European victims.

Some very important phenomena are 'magical' in the sense that belief is crucial to their existence. Political power, broadly speaking, is one of them. Yes, it 'grows from the barrel of a gun.' But what gives one middle aged guy with a pistol the ability to order thousands of young guys with rifles to risk their lives?

Money falls into the same class, I suspect. Yes, it originates from tokens, but once true banks exist, extending credit, the connection becomes increasingly oblique.

It is interesting, by the way, how the Turing test has pretty much fallen off the geek-culture radar since the Internet came along and made the test scenario an everyday experience.

Tony said...

Rick:

"Some very important phenomena are 'magical' in the sense that belief is crucial to their existence. Political power, broadly speaking, is one of them. Yes, it 'grows from the barrel of a gun.' But what gives one middle aged guy with a pistol the ability to order thousands of young guys with rifles to risk their lives?"

My question would be what makes it magical? It's just a human thing to follow a leader. We all do it.

"Money falls into the same class, I suspect. Yes, it originates from tokens, but once true banks exist, extending credit, the connection becomes increasingly oblique."

Misunderstanding money leads to magical thinking. But money itself, if understood, is just a tool, a lubricant to economic activity.

AR said...

Money, properly understood, is a commodity. Nothing more, nothing less.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



"It is interesting, by the way, how the Turing test has pretty much fallen off the geek-culture radar since the Internet came along and made the test scenario an everyday experience."

It is interesting that most of our grief comes not from humans trying to figure out how to tell a robot from a human, but rather from robots trying to figure out how to tell a robot from a human!



Tony:

"It's just a human thing to follow a leader. We all do it."

It's also a human thing to betray your leader and start serving a different one if you think the new leader would serve your interests better.

Tony said...

AR:

"Money, properly understood, is a commodity. Nothing more, nothing less."

Uhhh...no. Some commodities can be used as money because small, portable amounts have realtively high market values. Fiat money is not a commodity, because it has no intrinsic value. It does have extrinsic value, because it is a widely accepted as representative of real commodity and labor value.

Milo:

"It's also a human thing to betray your leader and start serving a different one if you think the new leader would serve your interests better."

When that happens, it is the result of one of two things, and each one has its own result. In one case, the betrayed leader is losing his grip, and he is quite rightly abandoned and replaced. In the other, those that betray him are wrong in their assessment of his abilities, and they pay for their mistake.

Raymond said...

Tony:

What is this "intrinsic value" you speak of, given that you also said this:

"...things really are worth exactly what somebody will pay you for them..."

...and those two are pretty mutually exclusive positions.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"What is this 'intrinsic value' you speak of, given that you also said this:

'...things really are worth exactly what somebody will pay you for them...'

...and those two are pretty mutually exclusive positions."


WRT commodity money? They're not mutually exclusive at all. Any commodity has utility in and of itself. Gold, for example, has both industrial and artistic utility. Platinum, silver, and even copper likewise. THis has been true for as long as these commodities have been used for money. The mere fact that different people will give you different value in exchange for a given ammount of a commodity doesn't rob it of intrinsic value derived from utility.

Fiat money, on the other hand, has no value in itself, except perhaps as art long after it has been taken out of circulation, or as shitpaper, if confidence in the fiat authority collapses. Its value is based entirely on confidence in the fiat authority. And that confidence is reposed in the ability of the fiat authority to come through with real commodity money when requested, even (as in the case of US legal tender) if only at the level of international bank exchange.

Raymond said...

Tony:

If we're including artistic value as "intrinsic" (not that I disagree about including artistic value in such calculations), then surely the value of even fiat money as a medium of convenient exchange when backed by law should be included, as well? I don't have any requirement to accept American currency at my work (although we frequently do), because it's not legal tender here. Might as well be shitpaper, as far as Canadian law is concerned. And that's the real power of state-issued fiat currency: its use as money is sanctioned and enforced by law. Not because of its convertibility to or from anything else outside the boundaries of the state, but because I'm obliged to accept it as a form of payment. If we're going to assume a utilitarian approach to value, then that enforced acceptance has value, too.

Also, gold has a pitifully low industrial value compared to its price - a scant ten percent of its usage is for industrial purposes, and as jewelry its value is propped up by the investment considerations. It's practically another form of fiat money these days.

AR said...

Though the natural development of money may require that the commodity have some other value to start with, being used as money creates its own demand for the commodity for use as money. This raises the price of the commodity above what it otherwise would be, sometimes to the point that its value is derived almost entirely for its use in exchange.

An example of this would be the money used by pre-Gulf War Iraq, which ceased to be backed but which continued to function as money even past Gulf War II: Gulf Harder. In this way it became a sort of commodity money; its use was not mandated by any political power and it could no longer be arbitrarily inflated. Nonetheless, people choose to use it as money solely because of the value it has as money.

In regards to fiat money, the value derives not from promised backing, as modern money does not have any connection to gold whatsoever. The international bank transfers you talk about formally ended decades ago. It derives from legal tender laws, and the fact that the government demands it as payment of taxes.

Also, it says nothing to say that money has no value "in itself," because strictly speaking nothing has any value in itself. Value is subjective.

Raymond said...

AR: Damn convergent posts. You put that better than I.

Tony said...

AR:

Horsefeathers.

You want to know why US $100 bills are so valuable outside the United States? Because at some point in the future they can be redeemed for valuable goods in the US. They have no commodity value. If the US economy collapsed, or confidence in the US government failed, $100 bills would become worthless, even in the US. They. Have. No. Intrinsic. Commodity. Value.

The same can be said for every other fiat currency -- it has the strength of internal and international confidence in the fiat authority and its underlying economy. See Euro for an example of what happens when that confidence fails, even a little bit.

Also notice that commodities like precious metals have gone through the roof in market value over the past few years. That's because confidence in the fiat money has fallen, while confidence in the intrinsic utility of the commodities -- and thus their value -- has not.

Also, saying that nothing has value in itself is pure BS. Value is derived from utility. Sometimes it's just aestheic utility, as in a painting, or a piece of music. Sometimes it's utility in application, as with precious metals. But whatever the utility is, it has value to somebody. Even if people disagree about what that value is, they don't disagree that there is a value.

But fiat money only has value to the degree that there is confidence in the fiat authority and its underlying economy. If the US economy really tanks, or if the US government somehow folds, dollars will be worth nothing or near nothing. Gold will still have aesthetic and industrial utility. Land will still have productive utility. art will still have netertainment utility. But dollars? what utility does a piece of printed paper have if the people who say it's supposed to mean something aren't taken seriously?

WRT the Iraqi dinar, between ODS and OIF it was the fiat money of Iraq. It was money because Saddam said it was, and gainsaying Saddam was not a good idea. But note that the pre-ODS Swiss-printed dinar was considered to be worth much more than the post-ODS domestically printed and highly-inflated dinar. International sanctions and inflationary issuance undermined confidence in the issuing authority.

Now, after OIF, the dinar didn't collapse because the people then in charge created a new dinar and set its value at 1 old dinar or 1/150th of a Swiss-dinar. (Talk about confidence making a difference in the value ofa fiat money...) There was no time at which the dinar itself had any intrinsic utility. It had only the utility that confidence in the issuing authority could give it.

Raymond said...

Tony:

Something else from a horse.

You know what intrinsic value a metric ton of copper ingots have to me? None. Can't do SFA with 'em myself. Don't even have enough room to store them inside where they won't corrode. Painting I don't like? Worthless to me. Don't want it burning my eyeballs. Now, if these things have value to someone else, I can sell them for something I do have use for. But there we have money again, unless the only liquid currency I accept is livestock. To me a $100 dollar bill has more value than the ugly painting I sold for it (even if it is an American hundred), because I know I can use that money somewhere else for something I do want. I'm not sure if that meets your criteria for utility, but it sure as hell meets mine. Then again, relativity of utility is what we're talking about...

Thucydides said...

The ton of copper still has intrinsic value even if you, yourself, cannot do anything with it. That is the reason you can trade it for cattle or something else (as ancient Cypriots did; the copper ingots were cast in the shape of a stylized ox hide; indicating that you could get an ox anywhere in the Bronze age middle east for one of these ingots).

OTOH, if you were to magically appear in the Bronze age with a basket full of USD, Euros, RMB or any other paper currency you would quickly starve. The paper itself would be very interesting and people would be fascinated by the artwork, but the novelty value would wear off quickly enough once people discovered it was only useful as decoration and to start fires.

Now there is a certain subjective value even to commodity money; do you get the large ox or a small one for each ingot? If the local Wanax is in the market for bronze to equip his armies, he might be willing to offer more oxen, or throw some nubile slaves into the deal to secure the copper (or he might just kill you and take the entire boat load); offering a shipment of Uranium will get you laughed out of the Megaron, since no one would have any idea of what to do with it (like oil before the 1800's).

Tony's point is you can only use the $100 USD where everyone important agrees it is a token of value (or at least a majority of people with influence); since enough people around the world still agree with that it is valuable in the way $100 CAD or 100 Pounds Sterling is not.

Raymond said...

Thucydides:

Of course the $100 bill is only worth something if others agree it is - then again, those ox-hide-shaped copper ingots wouldn't necessarily buy a whole animal now, either. My point is that the "intrinsic" utility of copper (or an ox, or yellowcake uranium) is relative as well. And as you mention, they could kill me and take it - the idea that you "own" that copper disintegrates along with the collapsing government which not only issued the money in question, but backed your property rights alongside. Your land isn't worth anything to you when you're kicked off it at gunpoint. Your gold isn't worth anything to you when it's seized as tribute (well, maybe your continued existence - maybe). So all these arguments of "fiat currency isn't worth anything if the government issuing it collapses" run parallel with the "property rights disappear when the government collapses" ones, and both have the same dependency: a functioning government with a measure of confidence from the governed and a method of enforcing the law.

Tony said...

Raymond:

You miss one very important fact here -- people will kick you off of your land at gunpoint or relieve you of your copper precisely because they have intrinsic utility, whether or not a government sanctions them. Similarly, if you have no use for a sh!tload of copper ingots, somebody else does, and they will give you something you value for them. Same-same a painting you don't like.

What you're refusing to accept here is that fiat money only has utility in direct relationship to confidence in the fiat authority. If the fiat authority loses public confidence, or goes away altogether, so does the utility of the fiat money. But copper ingots and bad paintings still have utility.

That's what you're missing -- value may be to a large degree subjective, but utility is objective. There's a known use for copper, artwork, and land whether or not papaer money exists. Paper money, on the other hand, has no known use without a backing authority that people form a consensus to have confidence in.

Thucydides said...

One aside, property rights in the end are secured by yourself. As the nasty saying goes; when seconds count, the Police are only minutes away...

Yes we as a society have all agreed that a professional force employed by the State is a better way to secure property rights and liberty than the alternatives (carrying out personal vendettas or hiring mercenaries, for example), but legal notions like "self defense" and the so called "castle laws" in some jurisdictions recognize that the citizen has the right and sometimes duty to take matters into his/her own hands.

The local town bully wants to drive you off your land? In the United States you have the Second Amendment on your side (in Canada, you might have to make do with a baseball bat). Even if the greater Polity collapses, local groups or gangs will get together and take steps to secure property rights to their own satisfaction. (In the so called Dark Ages, the end of the Pax Romana led to the growth of local warlords and eventually the Feudal system; a continent wide example of the principle).

And of course the local warlord will probably want some easily used token of value, money issued under his own fiat...

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Tony:

"Paper money, on the other hand, has no known use without a backing authority that people form a consensus to have confidence in."

However, a backing authority is known to exist, therefore paper money has a known value.

The backing authority has an established track record that can be read in the history books to form an informed opinion of its reliability. This too is known.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"And of course the local warlord will probably want some easily used token of value, money issued under his own fiat..."

This is precisely what happened in Kurdistan. Apparently, the value of the pre-1990 dinars printed on the Swiss plates was propped up by the Kurdish provisional government in northern Iraq refusing to accept inflationary "Saddam" dinars in payment of public debts. With a static money supply, inflation never set in and the value of the "Swiss" dinar just kept rising in relation to the inflationary "Saddam" dinar.

Raymond said...

Tony:

"What you're refusing to accept here is that fiat money only has utility in direct relationship to confidence in the fiat authority. If the fiat authority loses public confidence, or goes away altogether, so does the utility of the fiat money. But copper ingots and bad paintings still have utility."

I'm not refusing anything except an inherent difference in commodity status between fiat money and anything else which is bought and sold.

There are certainly ways in which the utility of fiat money can be eroded or destroyed - you've mentioned many, and I agree, and would probably add more - but copper can corrode, oxen can die, paintings can fall out of favor (or decay) and land can be irradiated (or turned into a battlefield, which destroys the short-term value at least). For a commodity to have a means of losing its value doesn't place it in any special category.

I'm confused as to your objection; is it the intangibility of fiat money, the abstraction, or the inherent reliance on larger systems? If the first, well, do you think the Greenwich Mean Time standard has what you would term "intrinsic" utility? If the second, what about the concept of "goodwill" which appears on corporate balance sheets the world over? If the third, and using my useless-to-me ton of copper once again, how does it hold intrinsic utility unless there's a deep and liquid enough market to find a buyer, a transport network to move it, and a market which demands enough things made of copper that the ton sitting in my parking spot won't go unused or unbought)?

There are differences in scale, perhaps, and in scope, and in possible utility at a given technological level, but I don't see any difference in principle. Indeed, as you say, money only has utility in direct relationship to confidence in the fiat authority. But copper as a commodity only has utility in direct relationship to its continued consumption in a variety of processes and products, and the same or similar can be said of any tangible commodity you can name.

Thucydides said...

Your objections are a bit weird.

GMT or the Prime Meridian are artificial constructs like fiat money, and can (and have) changed over time. An old Tintin comic revolved around this fact; only when they realized the old chart was based on Paris as the 0 meridian did they find the sunken pirate treasure. As systems get larger and more complex, agreements are made about various things both abstract (like money,) or concrete (standardizing on right hand threads). Larger systems provide the liquidity and depth of markets that make commodities even more valuable (a ton of copper won't do much good on a desert island).

Commodities have intrinsic value because you can do something with them. You correctly note that this can change with time (copper in the Bronze age was worth an Ox because you could alloy it with Tin to make Bronze, today copper is valuable as an electrical conductor), but this usually takes pace over an extended period of time. Fiat money and other artificial constructs can can change much more rapidly.

Raymond said...

Thucydides:

Of course constructs like GMT can and do change over time - my argument was not about permanence, but about the (intuitively grasped) utility of certain types of intangible things. GMT is useful - it should therefore pass your "commodities have intrinsic value because you can do something with them" test.

"Fiat money and other artificial constructs can can change much more rapidly."

Can, but not all necessarily do. The US dollar has been in continuous existence, without replacement, since the National Banking Act of 1863 - despite the various changes in backing (bimetallic, silver, gold, Bretton Woods), a one-dollar bill from 1863 is still legal tender at face value of one dollar. And it's not like commodities with "intrinsic" value are any less volatile; compare the price of gold (whose industrial uses is a mere ten percent of demand, and which has a long history of use as money) with the far more volatile price of platinum (whose demand is overwhelmingly industrial in nature).

Raymond said...

Thucydides, addendum:

Also note that the value of a ton of copper on a desert island (without the infrastructure to smelt it into anything) is not "low", it is precisely zero. Unless, of course, it's a conceptual art piece you've sold to someone as a commentary on intrinsic value...

Tony said...

Raymond:

Once again you're refusing to recognize the difference between utility and value. Copper, even on a desert island, has utility somewhere, even if not on that desert island. In fact, you're errecting a straw man with that example, simply because something with as much utility as refined copper would never find it's way out to a desert island to begin with.

Standards as a class have recognized utility, but the utility of a specific timekeeping, measurement, or other standard is totally derived from convention. Just ask people who invested in Betamax what they think of the utility of that standard.
Likewise fiat money as a class has a recognized utility in lubricating value transactions. But fiat money as a specific currency has no utility that is not by convention.

And that is the key difference between fiat and commodity monies. One's value is based on a widely recognized convention. The other's is based on intrinsic utility.

BTW, the perishibility of many commodity assets often requires ongoing investment to avoid. That is true. But no amount of ongoing investment in a fiat money will preserve its utility against the collapse of a fiat authority.

Raymond said...

Tony:

Argh. I'm not "refusing to recognize" anything, I'm disputing your definitions and relations. You're differentiating (starkly) between value and utility, whereas I'm claiming the two are inextricably intertwined. What is value if not the difference between my utility and yours?

Perhaps it's a definition thing (yet again). From Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Cannan edition, I.4.13 (retrieved from http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN1.html#nn84):

"The word VALUE, it is to be observed, has two different meanings, and sometimes expresses the utility of some particular object, and sometimes the power of purchasing other goods which the possession of that object conveys. The one may be called 'value in use ;' the other, 'value in exchange.' The things which have the greatest value in use have frequently little or no value in exchange; and on the contrary, those which have the greatest value in exchange have frequently little or no value in use. Nothing is more useful than water: but it will purchase scarce any thing; scarce any thing can be had in exchange for it. A diamond, on the contrary, has scarce any value in use; but a very great quantity of other goods may frequently be had in exchange for it."

And no, this isn't an appeal to authority, just an attempt to agree upon the terms under discussion. I'm using the "value in exchange" version, derived in whole or in part from differing utilities, as measured by the price to be had in exchange. Which, I'll point out, agrees with your previous comment about things being worth exactly what you pay for them.

I'll also add, if you're using the "value in use" version, that you should include all the external systemic dependencies of said use in your model - and that means a ton of copper on a desert island (however it got there) isn't worth the same as a ton of copper in a smelting plant.

"In fact, you're errecting a straw man with that example, simply because something with as much utility as refined copper would never find it's way out to a desert island to begin with."

Ask the shipwrecks and their cargoes what they think of "never" finding their way somewhere in- (or barely-) accessible.

Tony said...

Raymond:

Smith's "value in use" is what I'm referring to as intrinsic utility, while his "value in exchange" is what I mean by value. There's also extrinsic utility, which is what fiat money has.

BTW, note how flawed his example is. Water only has little value in exchange because it was in unchallenged oversupply in 18th Century Edinburgh. Try that rhetorical legerdemain in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert and see what people think. Likewise, the lack of value in use that Smith ascribes to diamonds only applies if one confines the definition of "use" to industrial applications. And then only if you exclude cutting and polishing, which make extensive use of diamonds. Even if you exclude all industrial uses, one has to admit that the application of diamonds to aesthetic displays like jewelry is still an indication of utility, if only for something that Smith might classify as a frivolity.

WRT shipwrecked copper, please. You're invoking misadventurous misplacement as if it means something to the generally recognized utility of a commodity. ganbatte!

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Industrial-grade diamonds are typically of much lower quality than gem-grade diamonds, though. And, these days, they're often artificially produced, further reducing their price compared to "real" diamonds.

Raymond said...

Tony:

I am trying. I'm only using the Misadventures of Caroline the Copper Ingot to illustrate that what you're labeling as "intrinsic" utility is dependent on the tools, time and skill required, and especially the location suitable to the use of all three. And now that we've come to an agreement on terms, I think I know what we're debating: I'm saying all utility is extrinsic, because all utility is dependent on things other than the thing itself, and therefore the utility of fiat money being "extrinsic" is insufficient as a demarcation of commodity status.

Raymond said...

Tony, addendum:

I do realize Smith's example was imperfect and localized - this merely strengthens my point, however. The recognized utility of diamonds in his time and place was, shall we say, primarily aesthetic. His utility was not our utility. His value was not our value, nor the value of Bedouin wanderers or Polynesian fishermen.

And I'm slightly confused: you include aesthetic utility in the intrinsic category, but utility as a medium of exchange in the extrinsic one. As aesthetics have a whole host of external dependencies, why the differentiation?

Tony said...

Raymond:

"And now that we've come to an agreement on terms, I think I know what we're debating: I'm saying all utility is extrinsic, because all utility is dependent on things other than the thing itself, and therefore the utility of fiat money being "extrinsic" is insufficient as a demarcation of commodity status."

This is how I make the distinction: if confidence in a fiat authority breaks down, rude people with guns won't rob you of your paper money, while they will rob you of your land, your food, your wife, your daughters -- even your copper ingots. Yes, there is a certain degree to which the value of intrinsic utility is enhanced by a large market and readily available means of production. But intrinsic utility itself never totally disappears.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"And I'm slightly confused: you include aesthetic utility in the intrinsic category, but utility as a medium of exchange in the extrinsic one. As aesthetics have a whole host of external dependencies, why the differentiation?"

Not quite. I would certainly include the usefulness of commodities as portable means of exchange in the "intrinsic" class. But that is still a secondary utility that only derives from primary industrial or aesthetic utility.

Fiat money's utility in exchange is totally dependent on confidence in the fiat authority, and only to the extent that the fiat authority can:

a. Return commodities in exchange for fiat notes or instruments, and/or

b. Protect and promote an economy which can -- and willingly does -- return commodities in exchange for fiat notes or instruments.

WRT aesthetic utility being dependent on externalities, not really. Aesthetic utility often derives from relative scarcity. Silver jewelry can be quite pretty, but does not have the aesthetic utility, as measured by market value, that gold does. Likewise, diamonds have more perceived aesthetic utility than gold.

You might argue that that's all a matter of convention. Once again, not really. People often make a big deal about how the Mayans and Aztecs didn't see why the Spanish were so interested in gold. Really? Then why was gold a metal used for royal and religious decoration, but not for pisspots?

Just because enhanced aesthetic utility often derives from relative scarcity WRT materials equally suitable for an application, that doesn't make it any less real or any less commonplace. Gold has high aesthetic utility everywhere, as do diamonds.

Raymond said...

Tony:

Those rude men with guns won't take the (heavy) copper if they don't have a fence (or control of the appropriate production facilities). And before that fiat authority collapses, thieves and druglords prefer cash, precisely because of its greater utility in untraceable exchange.

Perhaps we should include a "personal consumption" clause in the "intrinsic utility" categorization? (Let's not, however, get into an economic discussion of the market value of rape.)

"Silver jewelry can be quite pretty, but does not have the aesthetic utility, as measured by market value, that gold does. Likewise, diamonds have more perceived aesthetic utility than gold."

This isn't universally true - after the fall of the western Roman empire (with its enormous silver production) and before the discovery of rich silver deposits in the Americas, silver commanded a higher price than gold. Same thing with much of Egyptian, Polynesian, and western African history. Mansa Musa's pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, with the gold he brought and traded for souvenirs, destabilized gold prices in the Middle East so badly it paid for the Renaissance (due to, frankly, currency speculation by the emerging merchant class of Italy, which later funded the artists we all know and love).

IOW, measuring aesthetic utility by market price is a mug's game, and a circular argument unrelated to "intrinsic" utility.

Raymond said...

Tony, addendum:

"Then why was gold a metal used for royal and religious decoration, but not for pisspots?"

There were plenty of kings, I'm sure, with gold pisspots. You're lumping displays of wealth in with personal aesthetics, and displays of wealth are very much a social and market construction.

Rick said...

It is a curious and entertaining phenomenon that in the current era of pure fiat money the price of gold has been so remarkable unstable. Which leads me to suspect that central banks stabilized gold, rather than vice versa.

The problem of the Euro seems to be not so much that it is a fiat currency, as that it is not quite clear whose fiat stands behind it.

Which is more than I really wanted to say about gold hype and all that, but given the drift of the thread I had to say something.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"Those rude men with guns won't take the (heavy) copper if they don't have a fence (or control of the appropriate production facilities)."

The copper's market value may be less, but it still has intrinsic utility in that it is copper and does have uses that aren't arbitrarily defined. At the very minimum it can be used for brass to make propellant casings in ammunition, or electrical wiring. If we're going al post-apocalyptic, you can use copper directly for black powder propellant casings. If further reduced to muzzle-loading technology, copper can be used in percussion caps. And, oh yeah, bronze can be used for black powder cannon barrels.

Similar arguments could be made for any non-precious commodity you care to name.

"And before that fiat authority collapses, thieves and druglords prefer cash, precisely because of its greater utility in untraceable exchange."

And they're left with a lot of nothing if the fiat authority ever does collapse, except for maybe guns and ammo, which may help them get other stuff worth considerably more than funny colored bits of paper.

"Perhaps we should include a 'personal consumption' clause in the 'intrinsic utility' categorization? (Let's not, however, get into an economic discussion of the market value of rape.)"

I see not point in a personal consumption clause. Intrinsic utility is defined by an item's usability in and of it's physical self. The nature of the use is irrelevant.

I personally see no market value in rape. The market value of attractive females, however, is certainly well established, whether the female benefits herself or her owner (1) does, and whether she is used for production or simple recreation.

1. Before anybody gets all scandalized, yes, some females, under certain social conditions, are very definitely owned by men, either de facto or de jure.

"This isn't universally true..."

It is universally true right now, and has been for several centuries, thanks to the levelling effect of the global market. (As an aside, shouldn't it give any educated person the giggles whenever some smelly college kid in need of a shave and a haircut moans and groans about "globalization" like it's something new?) In cases where the value relationship of various precious metals was locally different, it's universally true that it was due to relative scarcity, not to radical changes in phsyical utility.

"IOW, measuring aesthetic utility by market price is a mug's game, and a circular argument unrelated to 'intrinsic' utility."

Ummm...wha-a-at? The whole point of markets is to find imbalances in relative utility and create conditions through which they can be exploited. But different assesments of utility do not rob an item of intrinsic utility. They just create a mechanism by which intrinsic utility can be maximized in application.

"There were plenty of kings, I'm sure, with gold pisspots. You're lumping displays of wealth in with personal aesthetics, and displays of wealth are very much a social and market construction."

You know, Raymond, you're the last person I would have expected to fail to understand that I was talking about common people's pisspots.

In any case, displays of wealth are hardly a construction. They exist everywhere and at all times. That's because displaying wealth -- even conspicuously devaluing it, as in potlatch -- is simply a non-violent display of power. And the human relationship to power is about the most unconstructed thing that exists WRT people, except for (maybe) sex.

Tony said...

Rick:

"It is a curious and entertaining phenomenon that in the current era of pure fiat money the price of gold has been so remarkable unstable. Which leads me to suspect that central banks stabilized gold, rather than vice versa."

I would have thought it would be glaringly obvious that the volatility of gold prices reflects the unchanging estimate of gold's utility, compared to constantly changing confidence in the utility of various fiat monies.

"The problem of the Euro seems to be not so much that it is a fiat currency, as that it is not quite clear whose fiat stands behind it."

Uhhh...no. The problem with the Euro is that it is backed by a composite fiat authority that is made up of governments representing economies that have wildly varying public perceptions of reliability. Everybody knows that Germany, France, and (to a lesser degree) Italy are relatively reliable economies. Spain, Greece, Potugal, Ireland? Not so much. The question isn't who stands behind it, because the large, stable economies drive the bus, and always have. The question is what they are going to do about (right now) Greek unreliability.

Raymond said...

Rick:

"It is a curious and entertaining phenomenon that in the current era of pure fiat money the price of gold has been so remarkable unstable. Which leads me to suspect that central banks stabilized gold, rather than vice versa."

See the infamous "Cross of Gold" speech by William Jennings Bryan in 1896, and the surrounding panic and political fights over inflation of the dollar due to the bimetallic standard and grossly increased silver production. (Said speech, btw, is said to have been the inspiration of the Wizard of Oz.)

Any central bank issuing either precious-metal coinage or convertible notes has to work at maintaining the price or amount of the backing commodity at or around the face value of the currency - if it goes too far below, you get inflation, and if it goes any higher, you get melting down of coins or runs on banks.

Raymond said...

Tony:

"I would have thought it would be glaringly obvious that the volatility of gold prices reflects the unchanging estimate of gold's utility, compared to constantly changing confidence in the utility of various fiat monies."

Not obvious in the slightest, nor particularly true. Gold production is currently declining as its price surges - a strange phenomenon for such an intrinsically valuable commodity, no? The primary drivers of gold's recent price increase have been speculation (as investors note the rising price and declining production, and wish to get in on the action) and hedging in currency markets (given gold's usual role in modern times as a reserve currency). Both of these, it should be noted, are functions of gold's use as money, not anything your definition of intrinsic utility would encompass.

"If we're going al post-apocalyptic, you can use copper directly for black powder propellant casings. If further reduced to muzzle-loading technology, copper can be used in percussion caps. And, oh yeah, bronze can be used for black powder cannon barrels."

All of which presupposes someone in your post-apocalyptic gang has the tools and knowledge required to do any of the above, or can at least rederive them. Otherwise, it's a lump of quickly-greening metal you're spending energy to lug around for no particular utility.

The post-apocalyptic genre, in fact, plays with this idea repeatedly (I'd consider it a defining feature of the genre). What are various things worth, when you lack the infrastructure to use them as we've become accustomed to?

"I see not point in a personal consumption clause. Intrinsic utility is defined by an item's usability in and of it's physical self. The nature of the use is irrelevant."

"The whole point of markets is to find imbalances in relative utility and create conditions through which they can be exploited. But different assesments of utility do not rob an item of intrinsic utility. They just create a mechanism by which intrinsic utility can be maximized in application."

So we're limiting the category to physical things, ignoring the larger systemic requirements for use and the nature of the user? And we're dismissing relative utility as a function of the larger market, and focusing on the uses of the physical object, but then using that view to determine what is or is not a commodity as far as the market is concerned?

I don't think that's a definition of "commodity" with much...utility. (Sorry, had to.)

"You know, Raymond, you're the last person I would have expected to fail to understand that I was talking about common people's pisspots."

Oh, I understood just fine. And yes, displays of wealth are really displays of power. But the nature of those displays, and the commodities used for same, are a function of local scarcity and cultural priorities, and therefore while the concept may be universal (and unconstructed), the specific manifestation is very much a market affair. You're the last person I would've expected to fail to differentiate those two.

"The market value of attractive females, however..."

...are versions of rape as far as I'm concerned, and therefore the can of worms I hoped to keep sealed. Not that I disagree with your historical view, just that I find the ensuing discussion...distasteful.

Raymond said...

Tony:

"As an aside, shouldn't it give any educated person the giggles whenever some smelly college kid in need of a shave and a haircut moans and groans about "globalization" like it's something new?"

Not so much the giggles as an existential dread. The next time I hear the Occupy * and their ilk demand something concrete and potentially useful (like the dismantling of foreign tax havens or the end of flags of convenience in global shipping) will be the first.

Thucydides said...

Lets put this in simpler terms; wuld you, as a deep sea salvage team leader, head out to the desert island to salvage a ton of copper or a treasure chest full of Confederate money?

Tony said...

Raymond:

"Not obvious in the slightest, nor particularly true. Gold production is currently declining as its price surges - a strange phenomenon for such an intrinsically valuable commodity, no?

On what timescale do you want to make that assertion? The current "low" production rate is still 60% higher than the 1970 peak of the Bretton Woods regime. Given the long lead time from production decision to actual production, plus the volatility of market placing a break on new investment, I'm comfortable to let things spin out for a few more years before entering a WTF?! mode.

"Both of these, it should be noted, are functions of gold's use as money, not anything your definition of intrinsic utility would encompass."

Gold's usefulness as money is not mere convention. It has recognized intrinsic utility. And it is from this utility that its utility as an exchange medium derives.

"All of which presupposes someone in your post-apocalyptic gang has the tools and knowledge required to do any of the above, or can at least rederive them. Otherwise, it's a lump of quickly-greening metal you're spending energy to lug around for no particular utility."

Why limit things to a single gang of brigands? Somebody they know will have a use for the copper. Perhpas they're even speculators, going around looking for stuff on a list of valuable items put out by some local city state.

"So we're limiting the category to physical things, ignoring the larger systemic requirements for use and the nature of the user? And we're dismissing relative utility as a function of the larger market, and focusing on the uses of the physical object, but then using that view to determine what is or is not a commodity as far as the market is concerned?"

You're overthinking things here. We're recognizing that though inherent utility may be valued differently in different markets, it still exists as a matter of fact. Commodities are things with which something useful can be done, or out of which something useful can be made. Fiat money does not meet this definition. It's merely an accounting system resting on convention.

"Oh, I understood just fine. And yes, displays of wealth are really displays of power. But the nature of those displays, and the commodities used for same, are a function of local scarcity and cultural priorities, and therefore while the concept may be universal (and unconstructed), the specific manifestation is very much a market affair. You're the last person I would've expected to fail to differentiate those two."

Gold -- and we should say gold in almost every context -- was an example of the concept, Raymond, not the concept itself.

"...are versions of rape as far as I'm concerned, and therefore the can of worms I hoped to keep sealed. Not that I disagree with your historical view, just that I find the ensuing discussion...distasteful."

We have to recognize that under certain circumstance -- some of them by no means in the past -- women, both as individuals and as a class, find it convenient to trade sexual favors or even their reproductive capacity for security.

I find that neither rape nor distasteful. It just is. And, viewing things strictly technically, they're just trading on their inherrent utility to achieve something or things they find usful to themselves -- the aforementioned security, pretty clothes, enough to eat for their offspring, servants, even affection from those they trade their so-called virtue to. All of those have real utility and can have a value set on them.

Rape, on the other hand, is taking from a woman about the only thing she inherrently has to give without giving her any valuable consideration in return. Not only is it theft, but it's robbery, given that it usually has to involve a violent taking..

Tony said...

Raymond:

"Not so much the giggles as an existential dread. The next time I hear the Occupy * and their ilk demand something concrete and potentially useful (like the dismantling of foreign tax havens or the end of flags of convenience in global shipping) will be the first."

I try to have a sense of proportion about these things. When Occupy X starts attracting people who know how to use guns and how to organize militarily -- among which I am not including disaffected former service members who are just generally unhappy people -- then I'll start to worry

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"Lets put this in simpler terms; wuld you, as a deep sea salvage team leader, head out to the desert island to salvage a ton of copper or a treasure chest full of Confederate money?"

We have to recognize that Raymond chose copper for the very specific reason that it's about the only monetary metal that would present marginal or negative return on salvage.

Raymond said...

Tony (and Thucydides, by extension):

"We have to recognize that Raymond chose copper for the very specific reason that it's about the only monetary metal that would present marginal or negative return on salvage."

Not just that, but that so much of its value as presently understood is derived from tangible uses not involving pure decoration, and not its use as money (for the last two or three thousand years, anyways).

Raymond said...

Tony:

"I try to have a sense of proportion about these things. When Occupy X starts attracting people who know how to use guns and how to organize militarily -- among which I am not including disaffected former service members who are just generally unhappy people -- then I'll start to worry"

Oh, I'm not worried about that, I'm more generally worried about the seeming disconnect between what much of my generation sees as constructive action and the complex reality we inhabit. I hear their empty slogans, and weep at the paucity of thought they represent.

"On what timescale do you want to make that assertion?"

On the same timescale as the price fluctuations you attribute to a lack of confidence in fiat currencies, and to the attendant fluctuations in the stock and commodity markets which intertwine in the investment landscape - ie a few years.

"Gold's usefulness as money is not mere convention. It has recognized intrinsic utility. And it is from this utility that its utility as an exchange medium derives."

Hardly. Gold's "intrinsic utility", outside of decoration, is quite limited - and this is a good thing for a currency. If the (non-decorative) demand for a substance's tangible uses is high, this makes the currency more volatile, as the substance in question is removed from circulation faster, and tighter controls on production are required to keep the currency stable. If the substance has so many uses, then attempts to stabilize the currency by manipulation of the substance's supply inflict real, direct harm on the economic activities the currency exists to facilitate.

And yes, there are ways to do the same thing with fiat currency - the advantage is that its only demand is as a medium of exchange, and the supply is inherently under the control of the fiat authority. The reason commodity-backed money still has traction is that some people value the money-supply inertia it represents; the reason it was abandoned was that inertia becoming a liability.

As for decorative uses, since gold (in particular, but similar arguments can be made about silver) is malleable and corrosion-resistant, it's easy enough to recover from jewelry and the like, and therefore those uses do not entirely remove the currency from circulation. The price of gold jewelry rises to accommodate its investment value not because gold is that much prettier than other substances, but because of the ability to recover the metal for monetary use later.

If intrinsic utility were truly the basis of commodity money, why was steel so uncommon as currency? Why haven't the world's banks switched to platinum and/or iridium (which are rarer and sturdier, and also make prettier jewelry, IMHO)? Why was copper phased out as currency in almost every society capable of acquiring gold in large enough amounts?

(And yes, I know you were using gold as merely an example. I'm not, precisely because the different properties of gold compared to other commodities which might be used for money, and because those differences have led gold to its current association with the very idea of commodity-backed money.)

Raymond said...

Tony, cont'd:

"You're overthinking things here. We're recognizing that though inherent utility may be valued differently in different markets, it still exists as a matter of fact. Commodities are things with which something useful can be done, or out of which something useful can be made. Fiat money does not meet this definition. It's merely an accounting system resting on convention."

Fiat money meets this definition so long as the issuing authority exists and retains a modicum of confidence. Copper meets this definition so long as it is not corroded to hell. Gold meets this definition at present so long as demand for it as currency or as a hedge against currency remains - if it were reduced in demand to the things we can make out of it (without the implications of wealth preservation currently implicit in gold jewelry), its price would collapse faster than the Euro has.

If fiat money were truly merely a method of accounting, its value would remain as fixed and agreed upon as meters or GMT.

"We have to recognize that under certain circumstance -- some of them by no means in the past -- women, both as individuals and as a class, find it convenient to trade sexual favors or even their reproductive capacity for security."

Of course - and I'm not against uncoerced prostitution. But in the context you were using, speaking of rude men with guns taking wives and daughters, that's not an economic transaction, that's rape and slavery - neither of which I'm willing to discuss the market value of, even though I know they exist even today.

AR said...

The reason commodity-backed money still has traction is that some people value the money-supply inertia it represents; the reason it was abandoned was that inertia becoming a liability.

Oh really? I think not. That's occasionally been put forth as the justification but is hardly the reason, nor has it proven to be true in retrospect. Recessions have not become any less frequent or severe since the founding of the Federal Reserve, after all.

I'd recommend What Has Government Done to Our Money? for a more in depth look at a non-Keynesian theory of money, and the history of fiat money in the West.

Raymond said...

AR:

That was the reason given at the time, not my personal commentary. Reading through the link, so give me a bit (but I'm starting to suspect I'll disagree with his conclusions).

Thucydides said...

Non precious metals have been used for currency for several centuries (consider the "Nickel" or the copper penny), until relative values changed (Nickels and pennies may still be made with alloys containing a trace of these metals or a coating, but are no longer made of the metal itself).

Raymond, I have no dispute with the idea that commodities change in relative value over time as markets change, new uses are discovered and so on. What I am disputing is the idea that fiat money can be treated the same way commodities can be.

You can go back to prehistory to see the pattern of trade in commodity items; flint from certain quarries was found in sites hundreds of kilometers from the source since it had intrinsic value as material to make high quality tools. Even today flint has some utility (mostly as an ignition source), but a skilled artisan who trained himself in the art of neolithic tool making would still find value in that material today. (since the market for neolithic tools is tiny, there would not be a lot of monetary value, but if said person was trying to gather food with these tools, then the value to him would be huge).

OTOH, if you came up with a handfull of paper currency from ancient China, it would have a small value to collectors, but have no value in any supermarket on Earth since the backing authority of whatever Dynasty issued it is long gone.

Units of time and measure may be arbitrary, but since they are based on or describe physical constants they cannot be manipulated the same way fiat currency can be (imagine an exchange trading futures in inches vs centimeters). It would take a change in the universe itself to make the relationship between inches and centimeters change, while the value of the USD, Euro , RMB or any other currency either compared to each other or the amount of goods and services they can buy is based on the combined and ever changing value judgements of human beings.

Thucydides said...

Bringing us back to the initial post:

Since value is based to a large degree on ever changing human values and judgement, what is considered "realistic" will also vary between individuals, and the values themselves will be based to a large extent on the underlying culture the individual comes from.

Even within cultures there will be a spectrum of opinions and values, even the American posters on this blog often clash about various ideas and issues. The one thing I think most of us can agree on is that any idea being introduced into a setting (story, movie, TV shoe, Internet game, etc.) needs to be internally consistent and applied in a consistent manner throughout the setting.

Tony said...

Raymond:

You seem to be ignoring or dismissing (I can't figure out which) the fact that -- as subjective as it can be at times -- aesthetic utility is a real thing. If we can't get beyond that, we have nothing to discuss.

WRT what is and isn't rape, I think you're being just a bit culturally chauvinistic. Women to be a lot more pragmatic than men when it comes to sexual politics. If a condition exists where the strong men get all the women, the women will accomodate themselves to that and what they freely give (within the limited context of freedom that such an arrangement implies) is hardly rape.

AR:

Gotcha -- you're one of the Mises cranks.

Tony said...

Raymond:

WRT the Occupiers. That's another facet of my sense of proportion. Since the advent of mass politics, every generation has had to deal with its ration of intellectually vacant but emotionally appealing tomfooleries. Most of your generation will grow up and recover. Those that don't will join the 2051 edition of impotent protest and be laughed at just like we laugh at the hippies around the fringes of the Occupiers.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Tony:

"Women to be a lot more pragmatic than men when it comes to sexual politics."

I would rather say that people who occupy a socially inferior position tend to be more pragmatic in general. Beggars can't be choosers.

Rick said...

I would have thought it would be glaringly obvious that the volatility of gold prices reflects the unchanging estimate of gold's utility, compared to constantly changing confidence in the utility of various fiat monies.

The price of gold was south of $300 in 2001. (It had spiked much higher during the last gold hysteria in 1980.) Have prices (in 'fiat' US dollars) in general increased by a factor of 6 in the last decade? The price of gold seems mainly to be a pretty good measure of economic anxiety levels.

As economist Brad DeLong has snarked, in a real post-apocalyptic scenario the valuable things to have would be ammo, sewing needles, and bottled water.

Tony said...

Rick:

"The price of gold seems mainly to be a pretty good measure of economic anxiety levels."

And "changing confidence in the utility of various fiat monies" is a technical description of economic anxiety.

Thucydides said...

As economist Brad DeLong has snarked, in a real post-apocalyptic scenario the valuable things to have would be ammo, sewing needles, and bottled water.

One of my economics instructors had a stark example from Argentina during the hyperinflationary 1970's; people would rush out to buy goods and stockpile them every payday. Yards would be filed with cars, stoves and other durable goods while the house was full of shoes, canned goods etc. The purpose, as you might have guessed, was to have a stock of trade goods to barter with rather than try to buy things with rapidly depreciating pesos. While the pesos became worthless, shoes or other goods retained value due to their intrinsic worth. No word if anyone stocked bulk metals in their yard, but that does not seem to be outside the bounds of possibility.

Rick said...

And "changing confidence in the utility of various fiat monies" is a technical description of economic anxiety.

Only of one type of economic anxiety. In the US the 'Great Recession' was triggered by doubts about the actual value of real estate, not the dollar. In fact, interest rates on US Treasury bonds indicate that they are pretty much the safest of safe havens.

Tony said...

Rick:

"Only of one type of economic anxiety. In the US the 'Great Recession' was triggered by doubts about the actual value of real estate, not the dollar. In fact, interest rates on US Treasury bonds indicate that they are pretty much the safest of safe havens."

Real estate was the vehicle, not the problem. The problem, as it often is, was too much money chasing too few quality goods. So poor goods were substituted and sold as quality goods. Now all of the money is in the wrong place, and people with money in more or less the right place suddenly start acting like every place is the wrong place, because that's safer in the short term. The people with money to lend simply lost confidence that there would be a reliable economy to repay any but the most conservative investments -- like T-bills.

IMO, this is almost a perfect example of the utility of fiat money being based on public confidence.

Raymond said...

AR:

I tried, I really did, but I'm not buying that Mises thing. The narrow view of inflation's causes, the handwaving away of the effects of deflation, the vilification of reserve fraction banking and central banking, not to mention the global-conspiracy overtones of its treatment of fiat money - it was all too much for me to take it seriously.

Thucydides:

"...if you came up with a handfull of paper currency from ancient China, it would have a small value to collectors, but have no value in any supermarket on Earth since the backing authority of whatever Dynasty issued it is long gone."

I suspect you might be mistaking cash for the money it represents.

You can also say the same things about stocks, bonds, t-bills, mutual funds, income trusts, land deeds, corporate charters, radio frequency allocations - all things which have uses and are bought and sold.

"What I am disputing is the idea that fiat money can be treated the same way commodities can be."

Why not? You can buy it, sell it, and stockpile it; it has a utility measurable by the market; it's portable and transferable. Can some physical commodities outlast a regime upon which some abstract commodities depend? Certainly. Happens frequently. Can some abstract commodities outlast some physical commodities? Certainly. US dollars or British pounds sterling have outlasted a great many of the physical commodities they bought. The Hudson's Bay Company has been in continuous operation since 1670 (and hopefully you remember enough of your Canadian history to know how many changes of government and currency have occurred since then). Shares in Ford Motor Company have outlasted (in existence, not necessarily value) almost every car they ever built.

Every commodity has required externalities - some are more extensive than others. To use the Argentinian stockpiles you mentioned, the electric stoves and washing machines require a larger electricity infrastructure - which, as Iraqis immediately following OIF could tell you, can fall right alongside the regime backing the fiat notes. (Hopefully not for long, but then you can usually say that about any economic meltdown.) Cattle require grazing land. Metals require tools to work with. Crude oil requires an extensive refinement and transport network. Et cetera.

If you and Tony both would be satisfied with me differentiating between the typical properties (as a class) of physical and abstract commodities, would that end this eternal definition battle?

Raymond said...

Tony:

"You seem to be ignoring or dismissing (I can't figure out which) the fact that -- as subjective as it can be at times -- aesthetic utility is a real thing. If we can't get beyond that, we have nothing to discuss."

I'm neither ignoring nor dismissing aesthetic utility - I'm trying to differentiate it from monetary utility. When buying a gold necklace, the monetary value is included in the price, due to the low entropy of recovering the gold from that particular aesthetic configuration. Similar things happen with other precious metals. And while the aesthetic utility of gold is fairly well-established, it isn't the primary driver of gold's price. Sufficient rarity, corrosion resistance, high density, low-entropy conversions between shapes, easy storage, wide acceptance as currency (at least among financial institutions) - these have at least as much, if not more, to do with the price at any given time.

Also, I'm disputing the "intrinsic utility" terminology, because I believe it to have too many errant assumptions. I think "potential" utility is a better term.

"Real estate was the vehicle, not the problem. The problem, as it often is, was too much money chasing too few quality goods."

Bull. Real estate was the goal, at least of the consumer-driven portion of the meltdown, and it was actively encouraged by US government monetary policy. Real estate was frequently mistaken for a capital good, when in fact it frequently isn't.

"The people with money to lend simply lost confidence that there would be a reliable economy to repay any but the most conservative investments -- like T-bills."

T-bills are inherently a short-term investment - their popularity is not nearly so much indicative of long-term economic anxiety as worries about short-term volatility. If the interest rates (and spreads) on long-term US bonds were larger, then I might buy that argument. As it stands, it's much more about short-term hedges and safe havens until the political machinery sorts itself out. (This, by the way, I've been formally educated in, so this isn't just me spouting off apropos of nothing.)

Thucydides said...

Why not? You can buy it, sell it, and stockpile it; it has a utility measurable by the market; it's portable and transferable.

Only so long as the political authority that deems it valuable (and public confidence in said authority) continues. Ming dynasty cash was money in the Ming dynasty; today it is decoration. A chunk of flint can be valuable today as a striker for a firestarter; skilled artisans can make it more valuable by shaping it into an artifact (where the added value comes from your desire for neolithic hunting gear or abstract sculpture...).

No one is disputing the externalities that add or subtract value to physical items, but even without an electrical infrastructure you can still dismantle a stove or washing machine for its component parts or as refined metal for other uses. A shipping container of Argentinian Pesos in that era would rapidly be as valuable as a shipping container of recyclable paper for the mill the residual value of the money turned out ot be the intrinsic value of the paper it was printed on...)

Tony said...

Raymond:

"I'm neither ignoring nor dismissing aesthetic utility - I'm trying to differentiate it from monetary utility. When buying a gold necklace, the monetary value is included in the price, due to the low entropy of recovering the gold from that particular aesthetic configuration. Similar things happen with other precious metals. And while the aesthetic utility of gold is fairly well-established, it isn't the primary driver of gold's price. Sufficient rarity, corrosion resistance, high density, low-entropy conversions between shapes, easy storage, wide acceptance as currency (at least among financial institutions) - these have at least as much, if not more, to do with the price at any given time."

Let's not confuse price and utility, Raymond. Gold's utility hasn't increased sixfold over the last eleven years. (And if you look at a price chart, it's actually surprisingly how steady the price increase has been over that time. There's a pretty obvious acceleration in the rate of change since 2007, but nothing frighteningly dramatic.) But people's confidence in gold retaining its market value has certainly increased. I'm sure very few investors think of it in terms of solid expectations of gold's continued utility, but that's basically what they're acting on.

"Also, I'm disputing the 'intrinsic utility' terminology, because I believe it to have too many errant assumptions. I think 'potential' utility is a better term."

What really bothers you so much? That "full" utility -- by some undefined (buy you or anybody else) standard -- may not be realized? Gee. With fiat money, if you have no effective fiat authority, there's no utility whatsoever, potential or real. With commodities, 25% utility realization or 75% are both measurably superior to zero utility. I literally can't comprehend why you object to this most simple and real distinction.

"Bull. Real estate was the goal, at least of the consumer-driven portion of the meltdown, and it was actively encouraged by US government monetary policy. Real estate was frequently mistaken for a capital good, when in fact it frequently isn't."

The consumers didn't drive the market. The loan packagers did. The consumers just bought what was set in front of them. The real market was in loan derivatives. It was the loan derivatives that were insured by the credit default swaps, not the loans themselves, much less any real estate.

If anything, the problem was that the real estate wasn't treated like capital assets, with the loan priducers doing all the normal due dilligence to ensure the buyers could repay -- like you might do for a ship or a plane or. The loan producers just repackaged and resold their loan inventories, and packaged them such that investors couldn't just buy good loans, they had to buy tranches full of crap as well. As long as the investors were willing to invest in thin air (or maybe hot air), the loan producers could keep creating crud that would never pay off.

But of course it couldn't last, because it was the investment equivalent of marketing arsenic laced food as clean, top quality product. Eventually everyone got sick.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"T-bills are inherently a short-term investment - their popularity is not nearly so much indicative of long-term economic anxiety as worries about short-term volatility. If the interest rates (and spreads) on long-term US bonds were larger, then I might buy that argument. As it stands, it's much more about short-term hedges and safe havens until the political machinery sorts itself out. (This, by the way, I've been formally educated in, so this isn't just me spouting off apropos of nothing.)"

Sigh... If you wouldn't take things out of context, maybe we could get somewhere. The complete quote:

"Now all of the money is in the wrong place, and people with money in more or less the right place suddenly start acting like every place is the wrong place, because that's safer in the short term. The people with money to lend simply lost confidence that there would be a reliable economy to repay any but the most conservative investments -- like T-bills."

Notice the bit about "safer in the short term"? Anybody that got a C or better in Econ 101 could tell you that the theoretically correct response is to produce only relatively safe loans, but not to define "realtively safe" as "almost a sure thing". But that's what the people who still had money left after the shakeout did. So they ran to safe investments like government securities.

BTW, T-bills may be individually short term investments, but as a class of investment you can keep churning them as long as you want. A lot of people have their banks do just that for them, and only get as involved as shoving their quarterly statements into the I'll-get-around-to-that-eventually pile of mail.

Raymond said...

Thucydides:

What is true of flint isn't true of meat, given enough time to spoil. Externalities are externalities; they may differ in scope, source, domain, and duration, but the principle remains. Your insistent terminology assumes an implicit permanence and resilience which dramatically curtails the list of things which you'd call "commodity", frankly far too much to be useful. Do you have a term, then, which describes the set of all things not covered by your definition but which are treated as commodities by the larger market?

As for our Argentinian washing machines, the utility of the object when the supporting infrastructure is present is greater than the materials which may be extracted, and is valued higher thus. When that infrastructure goes away, that utility goes with it, and value relationship is reversed. That the gulf between those is greater with paper monetary instruments than washing machines is a difference of degree, not principle.

And, since I'm not ignoring aesthetic utility, those useless Argentinian pesos retain some, however small. My uncle, an accountant and former CFO, has a framed share certificate from Bre-X on his wall, to remind him of that class of folly. He paid a thousand times what the share was worth (a penny). Small "intrinsic" utility, yes, but resolutely non-zero.

Raymond said...

Tony:

"But people's confidence in gold retaining its market value has certainly increased. I'm sure very few investors think of it in terms of solid expectations of gold's continued utility, but that's basically what they're acting on."

I think it's solid expectation of gold's continued utility as a financial instrument, which I think is more a monetary utility than any aesthetic or "intrinsic" one.

"What really bothers you so much?" [...]

The insistence of essence, mostly. I'm not fond of essentialism in most forms. (I know you and I differ on this, and probably won't ever agree on much in this area, but I think the entertainment and intellectual utility of these little debates is high, so I continue.)

Also, an essentialist view of utility frequently leads to an essentialist view of value and a misunderstanding of financial constructs, which in turn can lead to misunderstandings such as labor theories of value, which can lead (and have led) to the things you spent a good deal of time fighting against. (And despite how it may seem, I'm not nearly so much of a free-market cheerleader as I may be coming across here. I'm Canadian, after all.)

"The consumers didn't drive the market. The loan packagers did. The consumers just bought what was set in front of them. The real market was in loan derivatives. It was the loan derivatives that were insured by the credit default swaps, not the loans themselves, much less any real estate."

Almost right, but you're ignoring the housing demand which fueled the cheap (at first) loans. As the real estate demand soared (due to said cheap loans' availability), housing prices were subject to a pretty classical speculative bubble. The real damage was in the deferred terms, which caused the bad loans to multiply in the first place.

"If anything, the problem was that the real estate wasn't treated like capital assets, with the loan producers doing all the normal due diligence to ensure the buyers could repay -- like you might do for a ship or a plane or."

Due diligence has to be performed for any loan, not just those for capital goods. (One of my big problems with that Mises screed was the failure to recognize bad loans as another form of inflation, btw.) Part of the problem, and what I would argue was the biggest driver on the consumer side, was the insistence on treating real estate as primarily an investment, which made consumers (and the issuers of the loans, alongside) overconfident in the consumers' ability to repay, or failing that, the likelihood of recovering the loans' value upon default. Primary housing (ie housing you occupy, as opposed to renting for profit) is a strange asset, with elements of both consumer and capital goods - and most consumers don't really understand that (such as how their lovely new renovations won't always add value, or how overpaying for the property isn't just a matter of waiting a couple extra years before selling).

Raymond said...

Tony, cont'd:

"The loan producers just repackaged and resold their loan inventories, and packaged them such that investors couldn't just buy good loans, they had to buy tranches full of crap as well. As long as the investors were willing to invest in thin air (or maybe hot air), the loan producers could keep creating crud that would never pay off."

Investors could, but usually didn't, because they bought derivatives instead of the loans themselves (wherein they could be choosier). Then the recursion really started going, and by the time you got to the corporate asset-backed paper, there wasn't any practical way to properly assess the risk.

Banks here in Canada stayed away from both offering the kind of deferred-interest loans which started the whole thing, and the derivatives which turned out to be built on sand. We came out of the whole thing smelling like roses. (With the prominent exception of CIBC, but even then it wasn't enough liability to kill more than a couple quarters' worth of profit.)

"Notice the bit about "safer in the short term"? Anybody that got a C or better in Econ 101 could tell you that the theoretically correct response is to produce only relatively safe loans, but not to define "realtively safe" as "almost a sure thing". But that's what the people who still had money left after the shakeout did. So they ran to safe investments like government securities."

I noticed, and I'd agree with you on the whole - but that's a very different thing than lack of confidence in the fiat authority itself. See below.

"BTW, T-bills may be individually short term investments, but as a class of investment you can keep churning them as long as you want. A lot of people have their banks do just that for them, and only get as involved as shoving their quarterly statements into the I'll-get-around-to-that-eventually pile of mail."

T-bills fell into the "cash" category in the asset breakdown, when I got my securities license. Yes, you can continuously turn them over, but given the low interest, face-value anytime redemption and pretty liquid market, they're just a slightly-better-interest bank account. Misrepresenting them as something like bonds was negligence, as far as my instructors were concerned. Thus it seems a little strange to hear you argue on the one hand about a lack of faith in the currency, then use as an example an instrument almost identical to currency to back it up.

Also, as of close today (1 Dec 11), US Treasury bonds of 2-year to 10-year maturity are trading at slightly below face value, with yields thus slightly above coupon. When inflation-indexed, 10-year maturity bonds are trading with a yield of zero. 30-year bonds are still trading above face value. Hardly seems like a massive crisis of faith in the long-term economic outlook (nor the long-term currency value) to me. (Short-term worries, yes - and I think you're mostly right about money being in all the wrong places.)

Raymond said...

[Edit:

"Investors could, but usually didn't, because they bought derivatives instead of the loans themselves (wherein they could be choosier)..." should read

"Investors could, but usually didn't, because they bought derivatives instead of the loans themselves (wherein they could be choosier) due to the enhanced returns..."]

Thucydides said...

There is no special word that I am aware of that differentiates commodities like wheat from commodities like iron ore, they are all traded at the commodities desk.

The fundamental argument isn't based on externalities or time horizons, but utility. You can do something or potentially a lot of things with a commodity, either directly by consuming it or turning it into a product or service, or indirectly through trading the commodity for something you want more. A machine broken down for parts may be less "valuable" than the working item, but you are still getting value. Indeed, if the power outage is caused by some massive disaster and unlikely to be restored, then you might be better off with the component parts and materials. So long as there is a functional issuing authority, fiat money simply greases the wheels by making transactions simpler and eliminating the potential for mismatched trade goods (I have a copper ingot from Cyprus, but you have no oxen...)

Since we are on a Science Fiction blog, imagine we are stuck together during the Zombie Apocalypse. Surviving all odds, we finally locate Tony's fortress and negotiate to enter and join with Tony, Rick and all our other friends from the board. Is Tony going to want my can of peaches, or your wallet full of cash? (Extra points if you recognize the movie reference...;))

AR said...

Raymond: One of my big problems with that Mises screed was the failure to recognize bad loans as another form of inflation, btw.

Would you mind clarifying this point? My understanding is that Austrian economics holds all loans to be a form on inflation under fractional reserve banking, and now that I think about it, I can't think of any form of economics that doesn't feel the same way.

Raymond said...

Thucydides:

"The fundamental argument isn't based on externalities or time horizons, but utility."

All utility has externalities. Everything's part of a larger system. The fact that you're insisting one type is more relevant than another, then insisting the externalities don't matter, is confusing.

"Indeed, if the power outage is caused by some massive disaster and unlikely to be restored, then you might be better off with the component parts and materials."

Which is exactly what I said. This same process happens with money and washing machines both - there's just a greater difference between the in-system and out-system utility with money. Degree, not principle.

"So long as there is a functional issuing authority, fiat money simply greases the wheels by making transactions simpler and eliminating the potential for mismatched trade goods (I have a copper ingot from Cyprus, but you have no oxen...)"

Maybe it's just the fact I work in the automotive industry, but the utility of lubrication seems pretty obvious. If it's not, then let me state clearly: lubrication has utility, physically and metaphorically.

"...Zombies..."

When the can of peaches has been eaten, what then? Who's producing more? Or hell, who's gathering more? Not much of an economy there. Not much there there, either.

You keep harping on this idea about money's lack of "intrinsic" utility once the supporting system is gone - which I haven't argued against in the slightest. All I'm saying is that the same argument can be extended to pretty much every commodity, in one fashion or another. Within the boundaries of the system, however, there's utility in a convenient medium of exchange, and so it can be treated as any other commodity within the system.

AR:

"Would you mind clarifying this point? My understanding is that Austrian economics holds all loans to be a form on inflation under fractional reserve banking, and now that I think about it, I can't think of any form of economics that doesn't feel the same way."

Expansion of the money supply is not in and of itself inflation. Inflation only occurs when the money supply expands faster than wealth is created (or when wealth is destroyed faster than the money supply is contracted).

Loans are for a purpose, generally, and there's an expectation they will be used as capital for wealth creation - ie expansion of production and/or the means of production, acquiring assets likely to appreciate faster than the interest accumulates, etc. (The last one, btw, is the thought behind home mortgages as well, not just business loans. Also, the potential productivity of money re-loaned up to the fractional reserve limit is otherwise an opportunity cost if the whole amount is left to sit in the bank.) So as long as the money lent is being invested productively, it's not inflationary. If the debtor loses money on whatever the loan bought, but can still repay the loan, it's his loss, but also not necessarily inflationary. When the debtor cannot repay in full, however, and the assets seized do not recoup the amount of the loan once sold, then essentially the loan producer has overpaid for the assets seized, wealth has been destroyed without a corresponding drop in the money supply, and thus the process is inflationary.

(Also, as a side note, a certain level of inflation is expected, essentially the cost paid by the economy as a whole for a certain lubrication of labor markets and money-supply flexibility. Trying to keep inflation at zero will usually damage the economy in greater proportion than the inflation reduced - this is known as the "sacrifice ratio" - and the main reason why most central banks these days try to keep inflation in the 2-3 percent range.)

Tony said...

Raymond:

"All utility has externalities. Everything's part of a larger system. The fact that you're insisting one type is more relevant than another, then insisting the externalities don't matter, is confusing."

This boils it all down to the essential disagreement, I think. And the answer seems pretty simple to me. Commodities are not dependent on any specific externality. And most of those can be managed by the potential users as a matter of routine, even if any given user may not be as efficient as theoretically possible. Also, lack of some of the externalities does not rob the commodity of utility, because others can often be substituted.

Fiat money is dependent on a very specific externality, one that is in relatively short supply, and one that robs the money of all utility the minute it is removed from the equation.

To both me and Thucydides -- and apparently to everybody that commonly uses the terms in question -- that is a very real and informative distinction.

BTW, essentialism is pretty much the philosophical underpinning of object-oriented programming and successful database design. Seeing as I do both for a living, I'm pretty much locked into a lifelong search for the essential nature of things.

Having said that, I appreciate that things are not always one thing and one thing only, and that their utility is often a complex subject. But everything is what it is, and recognizing what "is" is seems pretty basic to me.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"Almost right, but you're ignoring the housing demand which fueled the cheap (at first) loans. As the real estate demand soared (due to said cheap loans' availability), housing prices were subject to a pretty classical speculative bubble. The real damage was in the deferred terms, which caused the bad loans to multiply in the first place."

I'm not ignoring the real estate demand. I'm just taking note of the fact that just because a potential demand exists, that doesn't mean you have to create a product for it. Here's my SNL skit version of the thought process that somebody must have gone through about ten years ago:

The real estate market's on fire. We need to find another way to juice it.

We're already giving mortgages to all of the acceptable risk candidates we can find.

Maybe we need to think a different way about "acceptable risk".

And how do we do that?

Well, what if we made loans that we wouldn't accept the risk on, but sell that inventory to investors who will accept the risk? Once we've sold it, it's not our risk any more.

And just how are we going to do that?

Ummm...okay, check this out -- we create a family of derivatives that have built into them a tranche for the new loan inventory. We'll advertise it to investors as "high-risk, high-reward". And they won't really pay that much attention to it because the other tranches will be much larger and have traditional levels of risk associated with them. Besides, they'll just insure their investments like they always do.

Where are they going to get insurance for that?

Oh, reinsurers will back almost any risk if they can generate a steady cash flow out of it. Besdides, it can't all go tits up all at once, can it?

And that's more or less exactly what happened. Nobody held a gun to the banks' heads and told them to service a highly speculative, boom-dependent market. They just lost their minds and went ahead and did it.

Tony said...

Raymond:

BTW, thinking about utility and externalities from an entity-relationship point of view, one can in general model the world such that everything's utility exists in a one-to-many relationship with some set of externalities. I can't think of a single thing that exists in a zero-to-many relationship with a set of externalities. At the very minimum there needs to be a recognition of what a thing is good for.

So I have to agree that you're right there, as far as that goes. Where fiat money is different, however, is that it is the only thing in the class of "means of exchange" that requires a specific externality -- a recognized and responsible fiat authority -- in all cases to have any utility whatsoever. Compare this to other common means of exchange:

A chunk of gold? If you don't know how to make jewelry out of it, you can still use it in electronics.

A silver coin? If nobody accepts it as money, you can still melt it down and make jewelry out of it, or use it in photographic processes, or in electronics, etc.

Copper? Bronze, brass, pure copper -- all have multiple uses.

For all of the above and any other physical commodity you care to name, the worst case in general is that you can find somebody that has a use, and who also has something that they will trade you for the commodity item(s) that you possess. Even taking your example of perishable agricultural products, like meat, the lack of preservation tech doesn't rob the item of utility. It merely constrains it to a relatively short time period.

With fiat money, if you don't have the backing fiat authority, there is no utility that anyone can find for it. In addition, there's nobody to go to that has the use that you don't have. The money has zero convertability, immediately or in the future.

So, going back to our entity-relationship exercise, I would in fact probably talk myself into placing fiat money not in the class of commodities with utility, but in the class of externalities, in that it improves the utility of commodities if available, but has no utility in and of itself.

AR said...

Raymond: Expansion of the money supply is not in and of itself inflation.

I disagree. Inflation is expansion of the money supply, regardless of the rate of wealth creation, because in any case, prices will be higher than they would be had the money supply not been expanded and the effects are essentially the same, particularly the devaluation of cash savings and the transfer of wealth to the inflating party and their immediate partners.

Though I do of course agree that trying to keep inflation at 0% is bad, but that's just a special case of it being bad to artificially keep any economic parameter anywhere.

Raymond said...

Tony:

Ah. Progress. We approach a common ground, or at least a middle ground we may camp on opposite sides of.

"BTW, essentialism is pretty much the philosophical underpinning of object-oriented programming and successful database design. Seeing as I do both for a living, I'm pretty much locked into a lifelong search for the essential nature of things."

That seems to be the root of so many differences of opinion between you and I. I'm far more fond of functional programming, myself (with a splash of imperative for quick-and-dirty), I prefer prototypes to classes (given a halfway decent implementation [not Javascript]), and I rather hate rigid relational dbs for all the reasons you likely believe in them (nodb FTW). I doubt either of us will ever convince the other in this regard. But as long as we can agree on the definitions at hand, I'm game if you are.

"Commodities are not dependent on any specific externality. And most of those can be managed by the potential users as a matter of routine, even if any given user may not be as efficient as theoretically possible. Also, lack of some of the externalities does not rob the commodity of utility, because others can often be substituted."

And I'd probably agree about that being an important difference of properties between physical and abstract commodities. See below.

"So, going back to our entity-relationship exercise, I would in fact probably talk myself into placing fiat money not in the class of commodities with utility, but in the class of externalities, in that it improves the utility of commodities if available, but has no utility in and of itself."

I'd probably define a template of "commodity", have both "physical commodity" and "abstract commodity" classes inherit from it, and ensure the abstract commodity class has a property of "authority" which gets eval'd during whatever long-term planning code I'm running. (Monetary instruments aren't the only paper commodities dependent on the larger legal and financial structure, after all - you'd also have to include stocks, bonds, derivatives, land titles, contracts, corporations, et cetera ad nauseam.)

Raymond said...

Tony, cont'd:

"Also, lack of some of the externalities does not rob the commodity of utility, because others can often be substituted."

Fair enough - and I'd use duck typing in the eval method accordingly.

"For all of the above and any other physical commodity you care to name, the worst case in general is that you can find somebody that has a use, and who also has something that they will trade you for the commodity item(s) that you possess. Even taking your example of perishable agricultural products, like meat, the lack of preservation tech doesn't rob the item of utility. It merely constrains it to a relatively short time period."

I'm not quite so sure crude oil (for example) could be lumped in with copper quite so readily, given the (rather specialized) infrastructure required for crude oil and the like - and frankly, if I've got only a barrel or two of crude, the independent utility is pretty minimal. Cattle are a little closer, but enough of my family have had cattle for long enough for me to know how much other stuff goes along with keeping or even just selling them. Also, I consider a shorter time period functionally equivalent to the time constraints on spending currency before it loses value (different causes, same principle of effect).

IOW, not even all physical commodities are the same in terms of independent utility, and if creating a comprehensive taxonomy we would be remiss not to differentiate accordingly.

"With fiat money, if you don't have the backing fiat authority, there is no utility that anyone can find for it."

Aside from a minor aesthetic utility (since I'm not ignoring it), quite true. However, it's rare to have people with quickly-devaluing money not make every attempt to move their wealth into something else which will outlast the issuing authority. It's a transitional concern, for sure - but if you get to complain about copper ingots abandoned on a desert island being unrealistic, I get to complain about pesos left to rot in the same vein.

WRT your SNL version of the meltdown, I'd say you're right as far as the loan issuers and derivative packagers went. Just don't forget it takes two to tango, and the US government has been on record for a long time about encouraging home ownership (even when it doesn't make economic sense).

Raymond said...

AR:

"I disagree. Inflation is expansion of the money supply, regardless of the rate of wealth creation, because in any case, prices will be higher than they would be had the money supply not been expanded and the effects are essentially the same, particularly the devaluation of cash savings and the transfer of wealth to the inflating party and their immediate partners."

Not in the real world it isn't, because nobody tolerates their wages going down even if their purchasing power goes up. This isn't something acknowledged by the Austrian School's cute little a priori model, but even a number of the Austrian adherents admit a certain expansion of the money supply to keep pace with growth is necessary to prevent the (empirically well-demonstrated) problems of deflation. Hell, even Steven Horwitz admitted full-reserve banking would in one fashion or another incur the same macroeconomic costs as fractional-reserve banking and the inflation associated with it.

Declaration of biases: I'd probably be lumped in with the post-Keynesians, I'm sympathetic to endogenous money theory, and I'm a big believer in things like hyperbolic discounting and applied information theory.

Anonymous said...

=Milo=



Raymond:

"I'm not quite so sure crude oil (for example) could be lumped in with copper quite so readily, given the (rather specialized) infrastructure required for crude oil and the like - and frankly, if I've got only a barrel or two of crude, the independent utility is pretty minimal."

All flammable materials can be used by a low-tech society for warmth, cooking, smithing, etc. Also, molotov cocktails are not hard to make if you have the right materials.

I do think that there are some materials that wouldn't be useful for much of anything until you develop the proper technology. I can't come up with anything that a stone age tribe would use helium for, and pretty much the only thing they'd be able to do with uranium is poisoning their enemies (and there are bound to be more efficient and safer to handle poisons).

Machines are more likely to be of use than (some) raw materials, since even if you can't actually operate the machine, chances are some component of the machine will be worth salvaging. But not necessarily the component you'd expect. To a post-apocalyptic band without access to electricity, I think the most valuable part of my computer would be the metal case it comes in.

AR said...

Raymond, what empirically well-demonstrated effects are you referring to?

America experienced steady deflation thru the entirety of the 1800s while standard of living rose. The problems commonly cited as an example are those associated with the great depression, in which extensive intervention and price-controls were used to actively prevent the downward adjustment of wages that everybody knew would otherwise happen but which few acknowledged as necessary for recovery. Pretty much exactly whats been happening with housing prices since the crash and which continues to prevent proper liquidation.

People are completely willing to accept their wages going down, as they frequently and freely do when the situation warrants and when there's nothing to stop them.

Thucydides said...

It seems we are violently agreeing on something for a change (which is nice, if a bit unusual)

The only issue I have with the SNL skit about the housing crisis is the idea that there was no "gun to the head" of the banking industry. The Carter era "Community Reinvestment Act" explicitly put the gun to the head of the banks, but the act was largely ignored during the Reagan and Bush 1 administrations. The Clinton Administration began to enforce the CRA, and various hustlers like "Countrywide" began to figure out how to make profits from subprime mortgages (through the various mechanisms of "bundling" subprime mortgages with real ones in financial instruments). Once the system was gamed, the cycle began to accelerate, and the two GSE's "Freddy" and "Fannie" pumped more money into the system, speeding things up and rapidly inflating the bubble still more.

The banking industry had the regulatory gun pointed at them if anyone complained they were discriminating against minorities (and groups like ACORN and their like were quite willing and able to bring actions against the banks), while they also had the perverse incentive of high profits and a "guaranteed" backer (Freddie and Fannie) to get deeper into the market.

Greed, Fear and easy credit did the rest. The history of most crashes follows a similar pattern the South Sea Bubble started when the British Government granted a trade monopoly and the ability to convert government annuities into shares to the South Sea corporation; the low margin requirements to purchase the shares and high liquidity relative to the annuities made them very attractive so shares got bid up to improbable levels [especially since the underlying trade monopoly had yet to carry out any trade at all], once people got spooked and started to sell there was a stampede and huge crash.

In 2400 when people write of the Solar Crash there will be a similar story of manipulation fo the 3He market...

Jim Baerg said...

Raymond: "duck typing in the eval method"

Is that a method in the medical field for determining who is a quack?

Tony said...

Jim Baerg:

Is that a method in the medical field for determining who is a quack?

It's a programming language feature. It derives from that pithy wisdom that if something walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, the int's a duck. In programming it means that if an object has an attribute, you can invoke it without knowing what the object is, specifically. For example, all objects derived from the type Vehicle might have a PassengerCapacity attribute. So, say your application has the derived types Plane, Train, and Automobile. In non duck-typed languages, one has to know wether you're dealing with a Plane, Train, or Automobile before you invoke any attributes. In a duck-typed language, you can just invoke the PassengerCapacity attribute on any old object you want. If it posseses that attribute, you get the value, if it doesn't you get an error.

It's basically a philosophical distinction. In duck-types languages, you're saying that the programmer would never invoke an attribute of an object at runtime unless he had ensured that it was of the correct type, either through program organization or explicit runtime type checking. In non-duck-typed languages, the type of an object has to be explicitly established before any attributes can be invoked, or compilation fails and you don't have a program to run.

Rick said...

If they devoted 10 full episodes of 'Big Bang Theory' to an ongoing argument about economics, now we know more or less what it would sound like.

Rick said...

The consumers didn't drive the market. The loan packagers did. The consumers just bought what was set in front of them.

Why let all those local real estate hustlers, flippers, etc., off the hook? Wall St. was merely the pimp for the real estate bordello.

The real estate market is enormous, so the bubble energy was enormous, but historically the market has been fragmented. Location, location, location, after all. Securitizing mortgages was an eminently rational lubricant (ahem), so long as the market was rising ...

Finding a way to blame it all on ACORN is truly creative, but also a truly desperate stretch that does not pass the laugh test. Subprime and all that was merely the frothy top of the wave.

Tony said...

Rick:

"Why let all those local real estate hustlers, flippers, etc., off the hook? Wall St. was merely the pimp for the real estate bordello."

I'm not sure there's a hook to put them on. They were a symptom. The fundamental problem was a (some would say radical, I would say significant) change in the definition of "acceptable risk". None of the leafs did that. That was a few branches up the tree.

If you're an entrepreneur way out on a leaf, are you not going to play the market for what its worth if there's a way to do it? And what's wrong with that if you do?

Tony said...

Raymond:

"That seems to be the root of so many differences of opinion between you and I. I'm far more fond of functional programming, myself (with a splash of imperative for quick-and-dirty),"

The problem for me is that functional programming is just an implementation of an impractical philosophy. With functional programming, every time you do an operation on data, you wind up making copies and returning the copies, so that the input data is never mutated. That's ridiculously inefficient of time and memory space, especially with large lists. It's neat theory, but it's not industrial strength in application.

"I prefer prototypes to classes (given a halfway decent implementation [not Javascript]),"

Classes are prototypes. They're just rigid ones that force you to know precisely what you're doing at all times. Moving on to practical matters, the problem with runtime mutability of data structures is that they can't satisfy contracts. That's a non-starter when working with complex, modular systems.

"and I rather hate rigid relational dbs for all the reasons you likely believe in them (nodb FTW)."

I have to admit that I had to think about what you meant by "rigid". Then I realized that you must mean free mutability of entity structure, as opposed to mutability only at design time. I think I appreciate why you feel that way, but as a professional software designer and implementer I have to tell you that your preferences reflect a very theoretical, impractical view of software and how it should work. Software is just a tool and it has to satisfy the first requirement of all tools -- it has to do good work. The things you like in software are all the kinds of things that hackers love, but that people who write software for a purpose find useless.

Nothing personal, Raymond. That's just how it is.

"I doubt either of us will ever convince the other in this regard. But as long as we can agree on the definitions at hand, I'm game if you are."

I really don't want to sound superior here, but it seems to me the big difference here is that to you software is a neat toy that needs to be aestheitcally satisfying, while to me it's a tool that needs to accomplish a mission, no matter what it looks like.

"And I'd probably agree about that being an important difference of properties between physical and abstract commodities. See below.

I'd probably define a template of 'commodity', have both 'physical commodity' and 'abstract commodity' classes inherit from it, and ensure the abstract commodity class has a property of 'authority' which gets eval'd during whatever long-term planning code I'm running."


IMO if it's an "abstract" commodity, it's not a commodity at all. It's something else. If you wouldn't mind playing in my ballpark for a moment, let's take that as a given and see if we can't discover what type of thing that might be. My initial suggestion is that fiat monies and their related instruments should fall in the class of commodity performance enhancer.

Thucydides said...

Groups like ACORN simply found one way to cash in on the CRA (shakedown lawsuits); mortgage hustlers like Countrywide found another and crony capitalists (particularly the various people running Freddy and Fannie and "earning" $100 million dollars) found a third way. A look at the political career of Barny Frank will be very instructive in role of the GSE's.

Farther down the food chain were the others like real estate speculators and "flippers", who could not access things like the mortgage derivative market but could cash in on other parts of the housing bubble. Even companies like Lowes and the Home Depot were huge beneficiaries of the real estate bubble, although they certainly did nothing to create it.

No, the root is politicians who created the perverse incentives like the CRA (and even farther back in time by allowing mortgage interest payments to be written off against taxes), creating the conditions that started the housing bubble.

Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises: Charles P. Kindleberger, Robert Aliber, Robert Solow is a very good book which looks at financial crashes over a long period of time and generally you can discover the roots of most financial crashes are in political manipulation of the markets for whatever reason (remember the South Sea Bubble and the 2008 housing bubble crash were results of well intentioned government programs).

Raymond said...

Milo:

I should've used natural gas as my example instead, as despite its useful flammability, the storage and transport infrastructure required to make use of it is decidedly nontrivial.

Rick:

If Big Bang Theory spent more time with economics (and less time on bad Star Wars jokes and insulting geek caricatures), I might watch it.

"Why let all those local real estate hustlers, flippers, etc., off the hook? Wall St. was merely the pimp for the real estate bordello."

I, for one, don't. Quite a number of people even as far back as 2006 were saying how unsustainable it was (I was one of them, FWIW). And frankly, systemic risk evaluation is part of the job at every level of the financial industry - the fact that those issuing the subprime loans ignored (or obtusely offloaded) the risk makes them equally guilty in my eyes.

And like I mentioned earlier, the Canadian banks steered clear of the whole thing, since the consensus in the financial sector here was that the risk wasn't transparent enough. Worked like a charm.

AR:

As per the figures here ( http://www.minneapolisfed.org/community_education/teacher/calc/hist1800.cfm ), while the 19th century was deflationary overall (in terms of prices, anyways), it was anything but steady. The volatility of prices in the 19th century is striking in comparison to the latter half of the 20th.

In the modern era, certainly, there's also the asymmetry of price and wage deflation, both in terms of rapidity (prices respond more quickly than wages) and elasticity (wages deflate more by layoffs than pay cuts).

And the most immediately obvious point, when looking at the data, is to note that the most significant source of inflation was major wars, against which no monetary system stands a chance.

"The problems commonly cited as an example are those associated with the great depression..."

I was actually referring to the more contemporary Lost Decade of Japan, in which the money supply was expanded as much as the system would permit, and still deflation continued - as much due to psychological factors as economic ones.

"Pretty much exactly whats been happening with housing prices since the crash and which continues to prevent proper liquidation."

What disallows proper liquidation is the nature of mortgages, which are difficult to liquidate when property values drop so precipitously - one of the reasons home ownership shouldn't be placed on the pedestal in currently inhabits in the US (and Canada).

Raymond said...

Tony:

"The problem for me is that functional programming is just an implementation of an impractical philosophy. With functional programming, every time you do an operation on data, you wind up making copies and returning the copies, so that the input data is never mutated. That's ridiculously inefficient of time and memory space, especially with large lists. It's neat theory, but it's not industrial strength in application."

First, and perhaps I should clarify here, I'm talking more about Erlang and Scala and Stackless Python, rather than Lisp or Scheme. Even I find linked lists cumbersome on the whole.

Second, and more importantly, time and memory are cheap these days, compared to bandwidth (both network and storage). And quite frankly, whenever you're working with distributed systems of any type, you're dealing with copy-on-write by default (and usually when dealing with flash memory, too, given its particular efficiencies). Virtually all the newest filesystems are copy-on-write or log-based (or both), and both distributed filesystems and distributed object storage systems are append-only or copy-on-write, since that's what the real-world industrial-strength data workloads entail. (Don't believe me? Go read the many filesystem and datastore papers from Google, Amazon, Sun, etc., all saying the same thing. Or look at the increasing market share of column-oriented databases.)

"Classes are prototypes. They're just rigid ones that force you to know precisely what you're doing at all times."

Well, more like know ahead of time.

When I first learned C and C++, one of the things that confused the hell out of me was why dynamic dispatch was so damn hard to set up. I mean, I obviously know now how to do it, but at the time, I couldn't fathom why the language made it so hard to load code at runtime. It seemed to me to be the most logical approach to a number of things, even early on.

"Moving on to practical matters,
the problem with runtime mutability of data structures is that they can't satisfy contracts. That's a non-starter when working with complex, modular systems."


I always hated contracts. They're rigid and brittle. And frankly, with security concerns, distributed systems and heterogenous data (all ubiquitous nowadays), runtime type-checking is something which either has to be or should be done regardless - so why spend so much time trying to ensure at compile-time what can't be counted on at runtime?

Raymond said...

"I have to admit that I had to think about what you meant by "rigid". Then I realized that you must mean free mutability of entity structure, as opposed to mutability only at design time."

At my day job I labor under the tyranny of three separate, overlapping systems, none of which talk to each other much, and all of which are only mutable by disparate, distant programmers and DBAs to which I have no recourse. Such is true of a great many systems used by a great many workers. It's all well and good to try and design things well ahead of time, but the end user always has needs you haven't forecast - and when uptime is so prized, changes at (re)design time are too inflexible and slow IMHO for real-world usage.

Conditions vary, exceptions pop up, workarounds multiply, and cobbled-together one-offs are far more common than most db programmers and admins are willing to admit.

To use my particular case, our three main systems are:

- a parts catalog, with diagrams and (often incomplete) supercession data (proprietary, and difficult to extract data from)
- an inventory, billing, and accounting system (with pretensions of being the One True System, like almost all dealership management systems)
- a global ordering system and warehouse interface, now integrated with the larger information store at the brand level (with similar pretensions at OTS status)

There are a plethora of resolutely local concerns - backordered parts, incomplete supercessions, custom pricing, dealer-specific policies, and various other temporary and/or localized exceptions - and each system is so insistent on the inviolate nature of its schema that we spend an inordinate about of time punching information into multiple systems, writing ourselves notes, and using Excel (shiver) as our lowest-common-denominator information manipulation mechanism.

This pattern repeats itself across the corporate landscape.

"I really don't want to sound superior here..."

Then don't. Yours is the logic of distant DBAs the world round, often conflicting with what their end-users value. Nothing personal, Tony. That's just how it is.

"...but it seems to me the big difference here is that to you software is a neat toy that needs to be aesthetically satisfying, while to me it's a tool that needs to accomplish a mission, no matter what it looks like."

Merely a difference of opinion about the means to accomplish the real-world mission - I could accuse you of the same aesthetic satisfaction WRT OOP and contracts, as we seem to disagree on what constitutes a neat toy and what tools we believe the end-user requires.

"IMO if it's an "abstract" commodity, it's not a commodity at all. It's something else. If you wouldn't mind playing in my ballpark for a moment, let's take that as a given and see if we can't discover what type of thing that might be. My initial suggestion is that fiat monies and their related instruments should fall in the class of commodity performance enhancer."

They have the equivalent buy() and sell() methods, with attendant (instanced) purchase_cost and (global) market_value properties. The tangible_use property would probably inherit from recycled_paper. So as far as I see it, even if we don't call them commodities, they would naturally inherit from the same parent class as commodities do. (The fiat_money class, in particular, is required in most buy() or sell() methods of other classes in most branches. Perhaps we could/should separate that from other financial/legal constructs.)

I'm trying, I really am, but I'm not seeing it.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"First, and perhaps I should clarify here, I'm talking more about... Even I find linked lists cumbersome on the whole."

I'm not concerned with the specific implementation of an enumerable (list-type) collection. Modern programming languages optimize the implementation to the task, and/or let the programmer choose which implementation he wants to use.

"Second, and more importantly, time and memory are cheap these days, compared to bandwidth (both network and storage)."

Time is never cheap. That's why languages like C# and Java provide char array-based stringbuilding tools, so that you don't have to copy a string every time you append to it. They save measurable time with large collections that require mutation of character-based data.

Similarly, memory is never cheap. Even on industrial strength web servers you can build collections that can overrun available resources, if you're not careful. If you don't run out of memory, if you're trying to keep a large store of concurrent, constantly changing data loaded in memory, you want to minimize its memory footprint, because you have other processes that have to use it that you would rather not have to cache miss into virtual memory stored on disk. Copying arrays, lists, whatever all over the place doesn't help.


"And quite frankly, whenever you're working with distributed systems of any type, you're dealing with copy-on-write by default"

Serializing data across the network is an entirely different issue from what I'm talking about.

"Virtually all the newest filesystems are copy-on-write or log-based (or both)..."

Storage and memory are not the same thing. I'm talking about memory, which is always a limited resource, and within which you don't have to accept copying on mutation if you don't want to.

"Well, more like know ahead of time."

Most of what you need to know, you have to know ahead of time. Even with runtime type checking, you have to know what types to check for and what to do with them given you current state. And knowing what to do WRT state requires you to know at design time what kind of states, both in kind and degree, that you can get yourself into. More on this in a bit.

"When I first learned C and C++, one of the things that confused the hell out of me was why dynamic dispatch."

I'm not sure what the big deal is here. At most you have to check type to figure out what to call. Most of the time, if you've done your design correctly, you don't even have to do that.

"I always hated contracts. They're rigid and brittle."

Rigid? Yes. But they're rigid precisely because you are trying to make your code more robust and durable. So I really can't in any way accept that "brittle" accusation.

"And frankly, with security concerns, distributed systems and heterogenous data (all ubiquitous nowadays), runtime type-checking is something which either has to be or should be done regardless - so why spend so much time trying to ensure at compile-time what can't be counted on at runtime?"

Because not every -- in fact, not most, in my experience -- of the interfaces you build need or even want unpredictable data. And even at that a good half of the code I right is purely defensive, validating the data tye and going from there to validate that it is within domain and range.

Also, with heterogenous data, you don't try to analyze it beyond verifying general type. You rely on the supplying user or application to give you a reasonable amount of metadata in a known format.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"At my day job I labor under the tyranny of three separate, overlapping systems, none of which talk to each other much, and all of which are only mutable by disparate, distant programmers and DBAs to which I have no recourse...

There are a plethora of resolutely local concerns - backordered parts, incomplete supercessions, custom pricing, dealer-specific policies, and various other temporary and/or localized exceptions - and each system is so insistent on the inviolate nature of its schema that we spend an inordinate about of time punching information into multiple systems, writing ourselves notes, and using Excel (shiver) as our lowest-common-denominator information manipulation mechanism."


Like I said, we'd get back to this. There is a whole list of portability vs. utility issues that programmers have to deal with. Generally we try to put the unpredictable or at least changeable into data. But even with the best domain knowledge, you simply can't program to every set of local circumstances. About the best you can do is provide for user-defined data. But because you can't predict at design time what the data is going to be shaped like, or what it's designed to represent, you can pretty much only give the user the capability to do basic CRUD with it, plus maybe some simple calculations and aggregations.

So, if your apps don't give you say, five user-defined attributes on each entity, then I would agree that they're poorly designed. But poor design is not the fault of the tools, which pretty much support anything you want to do, if you want to put the effort into it.

Also, your software systems presumably persist data in accessible industry standard database formats. What's keeping you from writing local utilities to fill in the holes, leveraging the data you already have in your existing systems?

"This pattern repeats itself across the corporate landscape."

It's generally not through negligence or incompetence that it happens, however. Everything has its limits. The more general a tool you try to build, the less of a fit it makes in many specifics. It's a balancing act. I think you need to appreciate that.

BTW, I do agree with you about the arrogance of One True System architectures. But that isn't me, or most programmers I know. So let's not broad-brush things.

"Then don't. Yours is the logic of distant DBAs the world round, often conflicting with what their end-users value. Nothing personal, Tony. That's just how it is."

General utility inherrently conflicts with local completeness. As stated above, it's a balancing act. And, as stated above, there's nothing keeping local programmers from leveraging and extending general systems, as long as they're built with industry standard compnents.

But those industry standards don't come out of nowhere. They come out of what works. OOP works. Relational DB systems work.

"Merely a difference of opinion about the means to accomplish the real-world mission - I could accuse you of the same aesthetic satisfaction WRT OOP and contracts, as we seem to disagree on what constitutes a neat toy and what tools we believe the end-user requires."

You could accuse me of aesthetic prejudices, but you'd be wrong. I use the tool that works for the job. If I have to write tight, efficient server-side code, I use a compiled, object-oriented language, simply because that's the best tool. I've also written website code for money in PHP, which is essentially a scripting language. (Albeit one with a lot of under-the-hood power thanks to the implementation of the runtime engine and specialized capabilities (e.g. DB access) in C++.) If I have to do stuff client-side, then I use JavaScript. If I can get content from real-time feeds, I go on the web and get it. If I have to store periodic updates in the database, then I do that.

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