Friday, May 31, 2019

Love is not self gift

When I was in Regnum Christi, one of the recurring themes we talked about a lot was that love is self gift. It's not a feeeeeling (said in a contemptuous tone). It's the decision to desire the best for the other and work toward their benefit. You don't need any feelings at all!

I ate this up, to the point that it even became a theme in one of my first novels. (One of the many reasons it'll never see the light of day.)  It served me pretty well in a situation where you weren't allowed to pick your friends. Feelings were irrelevant. You simply chose to care about others' benefit. I think I treated people well, within the limitations placed on us, but I got very little enjoyment out of any of my relationships. I felt like no one actually liked me, they were being charitable to me, which isn't the same thing. I wanted to be chosen.

Love, of course, is best when it's two-sided. So you give to the other person and they give to you. So why was there so little joy? Why did I not feel loved? And what does that say about relationships where the other person can't do anything in return-like a parent-child relationship? Can it be satisfying or is it all one long sacrifice, hoping that one day they'll be mature enough to love you?

I think I've cracked the puzzle by dividing love into two parts: caring about the other person, and delighting in them. You should like the other person. Their existence and presence should make you happy. You should see the goodness that is already present in them and appreciate it.

Well, I'm sure this is obvious to 90% of you, but I'm going to keep going just to hash it out for myself. If you find it helpful too, great.

For me, knowing that the people who love me delight in me is important and a major part of my happiness. When I was a kid, my mother would often grin at something I did and say, "that's such a Sheila thing to do." I wasn't able to do much for my mother, but the thought that I delighted her by existing and being myself made me feel worthwhile-like I was a net positive in the world.

Whereas no one would be very happy being loved like this: "Here is the dinner I made you. You should know that I made it, not because of any superficial feeeeeelings I might have, but because I have made an act of the will to work for your benefit." It makes us feel unworthy of love - like the service done for us has more to do with them than it does with us.

That said, the delight only, without the service, wouldn't be ideal either. Imagine a friend who always talks about how much they like you, how fun you are to be around, how they look forward to hanging out - but whenever you need some help moving a sofa or getting a ride to the doctor, they're not there for you. You'd soon realize what they are there for is their own emotional satisfaction only, and if it's not fun, they're gone. It's still validating to think you're a fun person, but you'll be closer to the friends that are there for you.

When Jackie was born, I loved her for three months purely as a choice. I took care of her, she lacked for nothing, but I didn't delight in her at all. She seemed like a screamy potato. Then one day, she smiled for the first time, and for the first time, I liked her. Suddenly all the work she required was more of a joy, so much easier to do. These days she is even more of a delight, to the point that I even enjoy our evenings together sometimes, when she's supposed to be in bed. She's fun to be around. I think every child should know that they're fun to be around, that they make their loved ones happy.

I do believe delight can be, in some sense, a choice. You can choose to see the good in another person and appreciate it. This feeds love. But often, we don't have to try, because the goodness in another person is there to see.

Missing service or delight aren't the only ways love can go wrong. If our delight is focused on superficial details about a person, it'll end when they change. Yet, of course, we don't have access to their inner essence, to love that instead. We just approximate as best we can. And sometimes we find we were wrong, that the person whose honesty we loved was actually a liar, and the friendship ends.

Likewise, our desiring-the-good should be focused on their actual good, not a false approximation. Usually it should involve the person's agency, helping them be who they want to be and accomplish their goals, not paternalistically deciding what their real benefit is and imposing it on them. But love does have room for an occasional intervention, when we tell a person that their desires aren't going to do them any good in the long run. There's a balance there.

So there's a great deal more to say on the topic of love besides that it involves delight and desiring the good of the other. But I do think it's a basic definition and a place to start.

And if you're my friend, and instead of "I love you" I say, "I like you" - I'm saying something that's very meaningful to me. I don't mean "like love, but less." I mean, "I'm not hanging out with you out of selflessness, I'm doing it because you are a joy to me." Any kindness I do for you (such as it is-I could do better on this part) springs from that joy.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Natural law and the state

I promised reader Ficino that I would write this post.  It came up because of an exchange that I've heard a few different times, on different subjects.  It goes like this:

Atheist: You shouldn't try to enforce your religion by law!
Catholic: Ah, but that's not my religion I'm enforcing by law!  It's my Thomistic philosophy.  Since philosophy is rationally provable, that makes it nonreligious and therefore okay to enshrine in the law.

Most non-Catholics find this argument completely ridiculous because Thomistic philosophy isn't something they're familiar with in the first place, and it sounds suspiciously like a religion.  I would argue that Thomistic philosophy is, in fact, indistinguishable from a religion.

For instance, the claim that this philosophy is rationally provable is something that many religions also claim.  Catholics especially.  They believe that is it possible for unaided reason to know the existence of God.  From there, I am not sure belief in the Catholic Church itself is supposed to be rationally provable, but it's at any rate assumed to be likely.

Like a religion, Thomistic philosophy is not actually provable.  I've gone back and forth with Thomists and what it usually comes down to is something like this: "We can prove xyz from first principles, but the first principles themselves you just have to accept.  But you have to accept something without any proof, something to base later beliefs on, and we think our first principles are reasonable to accept."

The trouble is, this argument could be used for almost anything.  You have to accept something without proof, to base later beliefs on . . . so why couldn't this first belief be that the bible is divinely inspired?  Or that Joseph Smith found golden tablets?  Or that Muhammad was visited by an angel?  What makes "all things have a final cause" any different from these premises?

Now it's true that we have to make moral judgments in order to decide what should be enshrined in law.  To some degree, it doesn't make sense to criticize "legislating morality," because that's what we all do.  Yet there are some versions of morality we don't want to legislate.  Some people believe that polygamy or child marriage are moral.  And the rest of us say, "We don't want that, because it's strictly part of your religion."  But is that really why we don't want it?  I'd say we don't want it because it's against our own morals.

Personally, I believe in an Enlightenment morality based on rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And this is the moral code enshrined in our country's founding documents.  Can I prove this morality is better than natural law?  Perhaps not.  Especially not to people who have an attachment to natural law which stems from religion.  (Because people normally come to a belief in natural law because they are already Catholic.  It's pretty rare for it to happen the other way around.)  But neither can you prove to me, or to a majority of voters, that natural law is better.  You can say your system is provable, but that doesn't make it so.  To me the claim that "if you read this long book by Ed Feser, you'll understand and accept the proofs" is no different from "if you read the Book of Mormon, you'll feel a burning in the bosom and know that it's true."  It's a big claim, and yet in both cases you can find people who have read the books and not been convinced at all.  So it's possible that there is an error in the proofs.  In any event, the jury is out on whether your metaphysics is actually rational and provable. 

The real issue is that the dichotomy between "Catholic morality that comes from natural law" and "Catholic morality that comes from Scripture" is artificial.  Catholics don't actually see them as different (all are obligatory) and non-Catholics don't see them as different (all are religious).  And Aquinas himself, working this stuff out, ruled out any conclusions of natural law that might be opposed to Scripture or Catholic teaching of his time. 

And Catholic teaching itself never says that those moral laws that are known by faith shouldn't be enforced by law, while those known by reason should be.  The traditional teaching of the Church is that the existence of God is known by reason.  Therefore it would follow that it could be a crime to fail to worship God.  The modern Church has come out in favor of freedom of conscience, but as little as a hundred and fifty years ago, it taught that error has no rights and that it is legitimate to establish a religion or criminalize heresy.  And honesty, this view is more consistent with the inital assumption that anything a Catholic thinks is provable by reason can be legislated.  Yet I doubt the people arguing that it's valid to (for example) ban homosexuality on natural-law grounds would like to come out and say that what they want is a Catholic theocracy.  It's likely that they don't want that, but according to their arguments, I can't see why not.

Those of us who aren't Catholic may do better to simply say that unless a law can be defended from the first principles in our founding documents, it isn't valid.  As a nation, we already have a basic moral philosophy.  It might be very general, so that complex arguments may be required to lead from there to any specific law, but it has the advantage of having already been accepted by the nation at large.

A small, religious minority who feels they have a better answer, who would like to legislate not based on life, liberty, and happiness, but on beliefs that are not general to non-members, should in my opinion stick to making rules for their own members.  I think that Catholics would acknowledge this if we were talking about, say, Muslims.  And they wouldn't at all buy the notion that a certain rule wasn't from the Quran, but rather worked out by Averroes from pure reason.  If it's really reasonable, the argument will have to be made by appealing to life, liberty, and happiness.  If it can't be--perhaps it's reasonable only based on first principles the rest of the country doesn't accept.  And in that case, it's indistinguishable from a religious argument.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

"Suffering doesn't even rank"

The other day, I read an interesting Facebook post by a Catholic writer saying that suffering may be bad, but it's not the worst thing ever. It's not even in the top ten.

I had a knee-jerk reaction against this, because so much of my own experience of Catholicism involved either ignoring suffering or seeking it out. I would suffer a headache rather than take ibuprofen, partly "for souls" but also partly because it seemed superficial to care about whether my head hurt. Because in the broad scheme of things, if it wasn't going to keep me or anyone else out of heaven, what does it matter?

Now some of that is just toxic Regnum Christi stuff. Like how they didn't help the poor because converting people has a bigger eternal effect for your efforts. It was so efficient it was inhuman. I don't want to paint all of Catholicism with that brush, because often Catholics care a great deal about preventing suffering, for instance in ministries to the poor.

But here was a Catholic saying the same thing, so I know it's certainly an idea that's out there. So I asked, well, what's on the top ten list then? What's immoral, if not causing suffering for other people?

Her answer was a personalist one: sin is treating people like things. I don't, per se, disagree; Granny Weatherwax says the same in the Discworld books, which are basically my scriptures. But it's just kind of vague. What specific things do humans deserve that things do not?

Right now a guy is working on my car. I paid him to do it. Am I using him like a thing, because I really only want car work out of him and not a relationship? Does it count as treating him like a person because I'm paying him? Because he has the freedom to turn me away? Because I exchanged some friendly banter when I came in? Saying "treat him like a person" doesn't guide me very much.

As I've said before, I have three moral values: life, liberty, and happiness. So it would be a sin to kill someone, to violate their free choice in some way, or to cause them suffering. I like this rubric because it is a lot more clear, as a guide, than treating people like people.

My friend argued that this doesn't cover all the things that are morally wrong. What about statutory rape? The child may consent to it and enjoy it! My feeling is that we ban it because it is very likely that in these cases consent is not truly free (since the child is accustomed to obeying adults) and because in many cases, suffering happens later, when the relationship becomes abusive or when it ends and the child finds they were scarred by it in some way. It's not because there is an objective reality, apart from the victim's agency and happiness, which makes statutory rape wrong. Age is a number - but we set that number at a level we hope will prevent suffering and manipulation.

Of course, I realized after awhile that we weren't really talking about examples like that. Hanging over everyone's head right now is the question of abortion. I like to sidestep that question by talking about birth control - like, if we all agree that women should have agency over their own bodies AND fetuses should not be killed, then naturally we'll want birth control to be widely available, because it will serve both of these ends. It's only when denying women reproductive agency is a more important goal than saving babies that anybody would oppose birth control. (Unless you think birth control causes abortion, but I've addressed that elsewhere.) But this conversation can be had if we stick to moral goods that are clearly defined like life, liberty, and freedom from suffering. We can ask how to preserve as many as possible of these goods for both women and the unborn.

When you instead talk about "treating people like things," it becomes very unclear. Is demanding a woman become or stay pregnant when she doesn't want to, treating her like an incubator? Or does her decision to freely take a pill and then engage in sex turn her into a sex doll? Which actions are worthy of a human and which aren't? This rubric brings us no closer to an answer.

It seems to me that demanding a person follow an abstract set of rules, like "the natural law," even at the cost of their happiness, free will, or even life, is the real objectification. We treat a person like an abstraction, an idealized human who ought to work the same as any other human. If x is good, it should be good for everyone! So we can safely ignore your expressed wishes and the real life results, so that our theological framework isn't threatened.

Treating a person like a person means acknowledging that avoiding suffering is a legitimate goal they may have, and that they have a right to take it into account even if you don't think it's all that important. It also means they may have goals which are more important to them than avoiding suffering, and because they're not an animal or a child, they get to make that judgment for themselves. Whether their higher goal is having a child or writing a book or proving string theory, we can't override that because we think we know what's best. We may think having a baby may make them happier than proving string theory, but we can't override their wishes. Or we may think they shouldn't have a baby because they're too poor or too disabled, that it won't make them happy. But if they want to, they can. That's treating people like people.

So, I think I can get behind "don't treat people like things," but for me that expands past not treating them like tools or robots. We also shouldn't treat them like theological abstractions. Or like children in a world where we're the real adults, better equipped to say what's best for them than we do. I think the best way to do that is to drill down more specifically on what rights a person has.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Kindness isn't taking the side of the oppressor

I'm pretty liberal these days. I've mentioned before that I got into liberal groups thinking, "Hooray! At last, a place of tolerance and less thought policing!" Hahaha. People are people, and in groups there are things they pretty much always do. Policing the group boundaries is a part of that, and you don't necessarily need a list of dogmas or an Inquisition to do it. In fact, all the lack of those things does is make it harder to tell what offenses are going to get you in trouble.

One of the dogmas of progressivism is that if you are the victim of oppression, you are allowed to be angry. No one is allowed to tell you not to yell and shout, because that's tone policing. And I agree with this on a basic level. Obviously if you're suffering pain and trauma, you need to be able to express that. Being rushed toward forgiveness is unhelpful.

What bothers me, though, is that more and more things are considered tone policing. Anger is virtuous. Kindness is "both sides" rhetoric, which takes the side of the oppressor.

I have two examples lately. The first was when Melinda Selmys wrote a post about how some women in the white nationalist movement may be victims of ideological abuse, and so you might consider, if you feel safe doing so, maintaining some sort of distant ties.

She was met with rage and accused of "hugging Nazis." Jewish people said that she should let them decide whether she could maintain ties with such a woman or not. After all, the only reason she could be so casual is that she's not a victim of their oppression.

I felt and feel that Melinda's bona fides as an opponent of white nationalism are clear. She's not saying it's okay to be a white nationalist or that they're not that bad. She's saying that you might be able to rescue someone from a toxic belief system and that's a good thing to do. Attacking her feels like friendly fire. If you're going to attack and demonize your allies for not drawing exactly the lines you do, you'll wind up with a lot fewer.

The second instance is a post in a group of autistic people and some of their parents. I'm a little nervous sending parents to this group, even though it's incredibly educational, because they often get yelled at for mistakes they make out of ignorance. I don't want to introduce parents to autism acceptance and immediately turn them off it because the group demonizes neurotypical parents.

Someone said as much in the group this morning. Something like, hey, let's remember that not all parents who come in here being ignorant are the enemy. They just don't know we don't like puzzle piece symbols and ABA or why, so let's instruct them kindly instead of yelling at them and kick them out of the group.

So naturally everybody yelled at her and kicked her out of the group. Anger isn't just allowed, it's a requirement. Kindness isn't just unnecessary, it takes the side of the oppressor. The only way liberation has come is through "fighting for it."

I understand that nonviolence and gentle outreach isn't the answer to everything. Sometimes you have to push harder than that. But when you're a tiny minority and you're not armed or otherwise in an advantageous position, you can't win simply by being madder than everyone else! You may manage to shame other progressives into not arguing with you, but you're not actually converting very many people.

Having and voicing your feelings is important. But winning is also important. If you want to end the injustice you're dealing with, you need converts. And converting people doesn't happen simply by spraying out your raw feelings and shaming them for not liking it. It doesn't happen by stereotyping everyone who is not in your group as oppressors even when they're potential allies, and attacking them for being ignorant about something they've never heard of before.

There are a lot of ways toward liberation. Some people want to march in the streets. Some people invite a prominent neo-Nazi to Sabbath dinner till he changes his ways. And I totally understand that not every way is for every person. And that we shouldn't act like radical outreach is the only way and that all black people have to hug KKK members in order to convert them.

But if you do want to do those things, you shouldn't be shamed by your own side for it. These things are risky but they do sometimes work. And does it matter how your liberation comes so long as it does?

Well, that's what I think anyway.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Fact-checking The Martian

So, I got The Martian (the book) from the library and am gobbling it up.  I did have some initial resentment because there were few vivid sensory descriptions, no evocative emotions, and little character development in the first few chapters.  I just got a very nice rejection the other day because my novel doesn't have those things in the 50 pages the agent read.  And I was like--but you see, my character is very cold and cerebral, she isn't going to be pouring out evocative descriptions and feelings!  You should be picking up on her personality by the lack of those things!

And Andy Weir, in this book, does exactly the same thing and gets away with it.  Grr.  I'll tell myself it's because my book, too, can get away with it and I just haven't sent it to the right person yet.

Anyway, it does okay for itself, science-wise.  Lots of stuff about Mars and the methods used by the astronauts to set up their visit.  All very plausible.  But there were just a few times that I found myself shouting at the book because it got something wrong, and not just a bit inaccurate, but a huge problem that our main character should notice.

Mark Watney, the main character who is marooned on Mars, is a botanist and an engineer.  I know basically nothing about engineering, but it turns out I know kind of a lot about botany, and specifically about artificial closed ecosystems.  Mainly because they've played a pivotal role in my latest two novels.  It just maddened me that Mark is in a perfect situation to close the loops on the carbon, nitrogen, and water cycles, and he mostly does not do that.  When he does try to do it, to some small degree, he doesn't do a very good job or account for the most basic things.

Realizing he doesn't have enough food to last till he's rescued, Mark decides to start growing his own.  This is a great idea.  He only has three sproutable items in his food supply: potatoes, peas, and beans.  He decides potatoes are the best choice because he can get more calories per square foot of garden that way.  He's not worried about any other nutrients, you see, because he has a big ol' bottle of vitamins.

That's where I started getting annoyed.  Calories and vitamins aren't the only things you need to live.  You also need protein.  Most of us don't worry too much because there is plenty of protein in any normal diet.  But if you don't get protein, you'll get protein deficiency or kwashiorkor, which causes muscle wasting and poor healing.  You really have to get some.

One potato is 163 calories and gives you about four grams of protein.  If we assume he eats about nine per day, he'll only get 40g of protein, and he should be getting 56g at a bare minimum.  Does he ever worry about this?  Does mission control?  Does he have trouble carting around heavy weights in a spacesuit?  Nope, never!

If you're ever in this scenario, plant the beans.  Probably the smartest thing is to diversify the indoor garden and do some of each thing.  I'll forgive him for not doing peas, though--odds are good they're split.  Split peas won't sprout.  An extra advantage of both peas and beans is that you can, if you have to, eat the leaves also.  Potato leaves are toxic, so there's all this plant matter that has to be simply thrown away.

The last annoyance here is that Mark freeze-dries his potatoes because if left inside "they will rot."  Has Mark ever owned a kitchen?  As long as it's cool and dry, the potatoes will be fine.

So much for the choice of potatoes.  What about the rest of the farming project?

Well, plants need a few basic things: carbon dioxide, light, water, various minerals (especially potassium and phosophorus), and nitrogen.  Mark, being a botanist, just says they need carbon dioxide, water, soil, and soil bacteria.  There's a great deal of fuss over him having this tiny little bit of bacteria and inoculating the soil and mixing in his own feces for it to decompose, because as we all know (because he told us) plants can't grow without soil bacteria.

And . . . that's simply not right.  They need nitrogen.  Normally at least some nitrogen is provided by soil bacteria (especially if you planted peas or beans) but most gardeners end up introducing their own because the soil on its own isn't as productive and will wear out.  (Mark points out that gardening as heavily as he is will exhaust the soil, but doesn't really explain why, or that this can be prevented with proper inputs.)  All this fuss about bacteria and he doesn't really need it!  He has two other available sources of nitrogen, maybe three.

1.  In order to farm, Mark needs water.  He has plenty of oxygen, but he needs hydrogen to make the water.  He decides to make it by breaking down rocket fuel, hydrazine.  A molecule of hydrazine has two nitrogen atoms and four hydrogen atoms.  It's horribly explosive, which is the focus of this episode, but at the end Mark has hydrogen, plus most of the nitrogen was released as harmless gas.  But he adds, "Chemistry, being the sloppy bitch it is, ensures there'll be some ammonia that doesn't react with the hydrazine, so it'll just stay ammonia.  You like the smell of ammonia?  Well, it'll be prevalent in my increasingly hellish existence."

Mark, being a botanist, somehow hears "ammonia" and thinks "stink."  I am only a home gardener, but when I hear "ammonia" I think "usable nitrogen."  Of course it's only a tiny bit and Mark doesn't even need it because he has soil bacteria, but when later the soil bacteria die, he could very well produce any amount of ammonia out of the hydrazine.

2.  Of course that's really an excessive amount of work given that every single human has a virtually endless supply of ammonia.  Namely urine.  Mark's is handled by the water reclaimer (we are never told what it does with the stuff it filters out) but if he saves his poop to garden with, he absolutely should be saving his urine too.

In its raw form, urine isn't good for much, but given a little time and some urease enzyme, it'll break down into ammonia.  Much of this will evaporate and be lost (that evaporation is why pee stinks) but some will be useable to put on the garden.  Urease enzyme is basically everywhere, including on your skin.  Mark clearly has some in his environment, because when he has to pee in a bucket, it smells "like a truck stop men's room."  Fresh urine doesn't smell bad unless you're ill. That smell comes from ammonia. How does the nitrogen get into your urine? From digesting the protein in your food. It's a neat little cycle!

So, all he's gotta do is age his urine for a few days and carefully apply to the soil.  As a botanist, he'd probably have a good handle of how much to put on; you wouldn't want to overdo it (i.e. don't go out right now and water the garden with your pee, it'll probably get nitrogen burn and die).  No nitrogen-fixing bacteria required!  Again, he initially had the bacteria so I can see why he didn't worry about this method, but later it seems like it would start sounding like a better choice?

3.  The third option is trying to rig something to get the nitrogen out of the air.  That's how artificial fertilizer is made today, but I admit I don't know exactly how it works or whether it would have been possible for Mark.

The next concern I would have for the plants was lighting.  We're never told if the Hab is translucent, but we are told it has plenty of electricity from the solar panels and several chapters into the gardening thing, he mentions in passing that there's plenty of light.  Which is actually surprising--I mean, who bothers to put broad-spectrum, ultrabright grow lights if you just want the astronauts not to be in the dark?  I thought I'd be up for him removing all the lights from other parts of the Hab and rigging up something to get them as close as possible to the plants, but noooope.  Not even mentioned.  His yields suggest the light was adequate though.

Next quibble is with the water cycle: Mark has gotten himself some water, which he pours on the soil as needed.  The water evaporates and makes the air humid, but that's no problem because the water reclaimer condenses any extra humidity.  There's a minor snag because there's a clog in the reclaimer from "soil minerals."  But the soil never goes into the water reclaimer.  The water evaporates, meaning it leaves all minerals behind.  It's distilled.  WHAT A MYSTERY.

That makes the sum of the farming quibbles.  I had one about how Mark thought he could save energy by going without heat (um, food energy is still energy and cold will increase your metabolic rate!) but as he discarded that plan when he found out how cold it was, I'm gonna let it go.

Next, a small chemistry quibble.  When Mark makes the water, he describes the chemical formulas in terms of liters: "50 liters of O2 makes 100 liters of molecules that only have one O each"; "Each molecule of hydrazine has four hydrogen atoms in it.  So each liter of hydrazine has enough hydrogen for two liters of water."  But . . . that's not how it works.  Volumes aren't used for much in chemistry because different substances vary in density.  You'd need to be measuring in grams, or better yet, moles.

The last and most obvious problem is how Mark recharges the rover with solar panels.  He has to spread them out to soak up sun, so he can't drive while charging.  He starts at dawn, drives until the batteries run out--four hours--and then spreads out the solar panels.  It takes them twelve hours to charge.

How long is the day on Mars?  Isn't Mark going to run out of daylight?

Mars's day is under an hour longer than ours, so on average it gets twelve and a half hours of daylight.  Let's say it's summer.  Mars's axial tilt is a bit more than ours, but not by a lot.  The latitude of Mark's camp is 31 degrees north, about the latitude of Houston.  Houston gets fourteen hours of daylight on the summer solstice.  Even if we give Mark another half hour for the Martian day length, and another half hour for the planet being slightly more tilted, I just don't think he's going to have time to charge up those panels before the sun goes down.  And I'm not sure they'll charge as fast those last few hours, with the sun getting low!

And then Mark takes another rover trip months later. So if the day was over 12.5 hours on the first trip, it's not now.  There's even a day where he drives eight hours, charges his panels, and runs out of daylight when they're only 70% charged. How do they get 70% charged in only 4-6 hours if it takes 12 to charge them fully?

It's especially annoying given that Mark could have just gotten up earlier and driven at night.  Why waste precious sun when your panels aren't up?  (Does the rover have headlights, I wonder?)  Did the author simply not remember that solar panels need sunlight? He gets that dust storms affect them, but seems to assume a day that's any length he wants for the plot.

That's all the errors I caught. If there are engineering problems, I wouldn't catch them.

So did it ruin the book for me? Actually no. I enjoyed nitpicking it. I guess it's the same impulse that makes people love Star Trek while publishing whole books of the errors in it.

I even grew to like Mark Watney. He's not a wildly emotional guy, he's a wisecracker. Which ends up helping him not go off his nut when he's alone on Mars.

So I'd definitely recommend the book. But Andy Weir, if you're planning another book involving farming in space? Call me first.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Is it right to walk away from Omelas?

This post is about this story by Ursula LeGuin. You should go and read it, and come back. It's not long.

Okay, so you get the gist: a city where everyone is happy, but by some mysterious mechanism, this is all caused by a little child being locked in a dirty closet and mistreated. Everyone in the city knows it, but if they show the child any comfort, the city's happiness will be destroyed.

Some people, the "ones who walk away from Omelas," leave the city when they find out. They don't want the happiness that comes from torturing a child. And of course that's the course we are expected to agree is moral.

But when I read the story, I wondered why they just left. Why didn't they save the child? Is it really enough to refuse to participate, when there is a child you know is in utter misery?

I guess the question that raises is, do you have the right to take away the happiness of everyone in the city? And how much happiness would you be taking away? If the child is rescued, does the whole city devolve to that level of misery, or simply become a more average city?

Or would the people just grab another child and put it in the closet?

Would you still rescue the child even if you knew they would? Just because you had to do what you could?

There was a Doctor Who episode to this effect. The city was powered by torturing a starwhale, and each citizen had the choice to vote against it, or forget it was happening. Most people chose to forget, and at first it seemed that that was that. Not enough people wanted to release the starwhale. And it was pretty fair, because it seemed the city might not survive at all if they let the starwhale go.

But the Doctor, of course, does not accept moral dichotomies. If presented with a trolley problem, he'd find a way that everyone lives. So naturally it occurs to him that he doesn't have to abide by the people's vote, he can singlehandedly free the starwhale. But is that right? What if the starwhale destroys a city full of children?

I'm curious what you guys would do.  Walk away? Free the child? What facts would affect your choice? What would you do if you were ignorant of what might happen?
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