Shards of Honor

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I heard good things … somewhere … about Lois McMaster Bujold's "Vorsokigan Saga". This book was billed as #1 (of 16) in the series, the Kindle version was relatively cheap, so:

Bottom line: not my cup of tea. It's billed as a "science fiction romance", which might have been a red flag if I'd been willing to pay attention to it.

In the future, humans occupy numerous star systems, but they're always on the look for more. Unfortunately, they've also splintered into warring factions, each with its governing system (the ones described in detail here are lousy) and cultural oddities.

Cordelia Naismith leads a survey team from Beta Colony checking out a new planet, when—darn!—her crew's site is attacked by a strike force from Barrayar, led by the mysterious Aral Vorkosigan. As it happens, Vorkosigan is betrayed by his own side, leaving him, Cordelia, and an injured Betan crewman to hike 200 peril-filled kilometers to a Barrayaran encampment to set things right.

Wouldn't you know it, during this trek Cordelia and Vorkosigan develop a grudging respect. And yes, it eventually turns gooey. This doesn't end the peril for either.

There is a lot of political intrigue, painstakingly described. Most of which I found boring. (Hey, we've got plenty of that in the Summer of 2024 USA.) Other than a few violent encounters, there's a lot of talking.

With a Dull Pencil and a Blue Pen

Nate Silver responds to this tweet:

Silver chastises Ms. Schulze: Blaming the media is what got Democrats into this mess.

I’m sorry, but if you can’t see why this is a huge story, I have to question what we in the business call your “news judgment”.

Commercial news outlets like the New York Times face conflicting pressures on which stories they pursue — because although they might claim to cover “all the news that’s fit to print”, there are limitations on time and space. On the one hand, news organizations want to cover stories they deem to be objectively important: those that affect a large number of people or which could shape the future course of world events. They see these as important to their mission and good for their brands — and less cynically, journalism tends to attract smart, idealistic people who endure perpetually chaotic career prospects because they think they’re doing something socially redeeming.

On the other hand, these outlets want to run stories that are compelling: that will bring them clicks, subscriptions and advertising revenues. So in places like the Times, there’s typically a mix of “eat your spinach” stories that are important but not compelling to a wider audience (say, reports of a war or famine in a far-flung country that most readers have never heard of) — as well as stories that are compelling but not important (say, the Taylor Swift beat or how best to grill a hot dog1).

The Biden story is a rarity: it’s a walkoff grand slam in both departments.

Silver goes on to provide six reasons the story is important, followed by six reasons why it's compelling.

By the way, Jennifer Schulze wrote last month about a news story she didn't like: OPINION: The WSJ attack piece is a reminder to beware of political attacks masquerading as journalism. Her first paragraph:

The Wall Street Journal this week featured a news story about President Joe Biden that reads like a Republican attack ad. This article appears to be about the president’s declining mental acuity, but it’s really Trump campaign propaganda.

Needless to say, this take did not age well.

Also of note:

  • It's difficult to "fact check" incoherent babble. But Jim Geraghty dug and dug into the Stephanopoulous interview, and he's Fact-Checking Some of Biden’s Interview Answers. In the Disconnected From Reality Department:

    Mind bogglingly, Biden could not clearly answer whether he watched the debate afterwards.

    GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And– did you ever watch the debate afterwards?

    PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I don’t think I did, no.

    Either the president did, or he didn’t, or he watched excerpts. This is not testing the president’s memory from months or years ago. This is asking a basic question about the past two weeks, and Biden cannot say for certain that he watched the debate.

    Biden then claimed, “After that debate, I did ten major events in a row, including until 2:00 in the morning after the debate.”

    No, Biden did not. Biden did an event at the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta at 11:10 p.m. Eastern Thursday night, and then just after midnight, the president made his appearance at the Waffle House, where, despite suffering what he now calls “a really bad cold,” he shook everyone’s hands.

    The president’s next event was at 12:30 p.m. Friday, the rally in Raleigh, N.C. At 4:30 p.m., the Bidens flew to New York City, where they delivered remarks at the Stonewall National Monument Visitor Center opening ceremony. At 8:30 p.m. Eastern, Biden attended a campaign reception in New York City.

    So, if you want to count the Waffle House stop, Biden had four events in the following 24 hours. On Saturday, at 1:20 in the afternoon, Biden attended a campaign reception in East Hampton, N.Y.  At 6:20 p.m., the Bidens attended a campaign reception at the residence of New Jersey governor Phil Murphy, in Red Bank. They arrived at Camp David about four hours later.

    In other words, Biden had six events over the next two days, mostly closed-door campaign receptions where the president made brief remarks to the friendliest crowd imaginable. As the Washington Post summarized on Wednesday, July 3, “Biden, 81, has appeared in public four times since a rally Friday in North Carolina — for remarks on a Supreme Court decision, on extreme weather, at Stonewall National Monument in New York and at a Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House on Wednesday — to speak for a total of 32 minutes, exclusively while using teleprompters.”

    In his own mind, a "major event" may include bodily functions. And perhaps also malfunctions.

  • Idiocracy, too, of course. Kat Rosenfield remembers it well: ‘Dave’ Predicted the Biden Debacle.

    Ever since the Great Debate Debacle—and its successor event, the Stephanopoulos Sit-Down That Could Have Gone Better—Joe Biden’s most fervent supporters have chosen one of two tacks. The first is full-on denial: the president is doing fine, they say! Amazing, even! Any blips in his performance were merely the result of poor preparation, or a cold, or some secret saboteur inside CNN who installed a “ghastly pallor and verbal incoherence” filter on the camera in front of him.

    But in the second camp, the one not completely disconnected from reality, an arguably more disturbing idea has emerged: that Biden's fitness for office actually doesn’t matter and never has, because he has good people around him.

    Is the president sane? Competent? Entirely alive? You need not ask yourself these questions, because the president is not the president; he’s just a figurehead, more of a mascot, really—like the Geico Gecko of the executive branch. The actual presidency consists of somewhere between five and 50 people, whose identities may or may not be public knowledge, who stand behind or around or sometimes on top of the president and execute the duties of the office according to their collective wisdom. Did you think, when you pulled the lever for Joe Biden in 2020, that you were actually voting for Joe Biden the singular human being? You fool. You absolute imbecile.

    Dave posited a stroke-impaired president whose chief of staff hires Dave (Kevin Kline) to pose as the head of state; the chief of staff deviously pulls strings from behind the curtain. I remember that it was very earnest in its moderate leftism; Ms Rosenfield reminds us that it was probably also prescient.

  • You probably had already daubed this on your Biden impeachment bingo card. It's a pretty broad category: "Breaking the Law". Jerry Coyne, hardly a right-winger, looks at ht latest WSJ report: the National Institutes of Health, in complicity with universities, appears to be breaking the law by using ethnicity as a criterion for hiring.

    I guess I have to give the usual disclaimers here: yes, John Sailer is a conservative, and yes, it’s an op-ed from the Wall Street Journal, whose op-eds are reliably on the Right. But of course where else will you learn things that the MSM won’t tell you? In this case, we learn that the National Institutes of Health, the largest government dispenser of research funds in America, is apparently funding hiring initiatives involving racial preferences. But how can they do that given that such hiring is illegal under Title VII? (And accepting students on the basis of race was recently deep-sixed by the Supreme Court.)

    The way around this, according to Sailer’s article, is simply to fund “cluster hires,” which gives an institution a pot of money to hire several faculty at once, in hopes that doing so will bring in underrepresented minorities. Well, that’s fine (it casts a wider net), so long as people aren’t hired on the basis of their ethnicity itself.  But in the case of the National Institutes of Health, cluster-hire funding also requires that candidates proffer diversity statements, which of course allow universities to pick and choose using race, which is easily determined from diversity statements. (The University of Chicago prohibits this explicitly based on the Shils Report: our hires and promotions are to be based solely on research, teaching, contribution to the intellectual community, and university or department service).

    Further, beyond the NIH’s end-run around race-based hiring, universities are making their own goals much more explicit, as Sailer found out by using the Freedom of Information Act to see what universities are doing vis-à-vis hiring.

    Professor Coyne provides extensive quotes from the article, but if you would like to RTWT, here's what the WSJ claims is an unlocked link. If you are deeply cynical about Your Federal Government and academia, you may be disturbed, but you won't be surprised.

  • The latest scare tactic. John Hinderaker writes about the Democrat pretend-freakout about "Project 2025": Demonizing Heritage.

    In an odd tactical decision, the Biden-Harris campaign has chosen to demonize the Heritage Foundation and tie that organization to Donald Trump. Heritage has published the 2025 Presidential Transition Project. It is a compendium of recommended conservative policies, intended to be “the conservative movement’s unified effort to be ready for the next conservative Administration to govern at 12:00 noon, January 20, 2025.”

    Donald Trump has nothing to do with the Heritage Foundation, and had nothing to do with Project 2025’s Mandate for Leadership. Some of the policies recommended by Heritage, such as free trade, reduced tariffs, and nationwide limitations on abortion, are at odds with Trump’s policies. Nevertheless, the Biden campaign finds it worthwhile to demonize Heritage:

    I thought Heritage had gone full-MAGA, but as Hinderaker notes, they seem to be unafraid of (for example) free trade.

    The Project 2025 PDF book runs to 922 pages. The "Contributors" section runs to 7 single-spaced pages on its own. I haven't read it; I doubt any of the freaked-out critics have either.

Recently on the book blog:

The Weirdness of the World

(paid link)

An impulse grab off the "New Books" shelf of the Portsmouth (NH) Public Library. Author Eric Schwitzgebel's overall thesis is expressed in the title: the world is weird. Since he is a philosopher, he rigorously defines his terms:

contrary to the conventional, ordinary, and well-understood.
contrary to common sense—i.e., something that people without specialized training confidently but perhaps implicitly believe to be false
doubtful in the sense that we are not epistemically compelled to believe it
both bizarre and dubious
Theoretical wilderness:
a topic on which every viable theory is wild

You get the idea: Professor Schwitzgebel is kind of out there, but in a way that's entirely plausible. And a lot of fun. One of his chapters argues, from materialistic precepts, that the United States of America is a conscious entity; this manages to be both hilarious and profound.

Do we live in a simulation, run on a supercomputer by an alien nerd, just for fun? (Illustrated with a figure captioned: "God stumbles over the power cord". Oops!)

One chapter is "The Loose Friendship of Visual Experience and Reality". Which has the launching point expressed in federal regulation:

Each convex mirror shall have permanently and indelibly marked at the lower edge of the mirror's reflective surface, in letters not less than 4.8 mm nor more than 6.4 mm high the words “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.”

Don't think about this too hard while driving; could be fatally distracting. Schwitzgebel argues that the required wording is wrong. At length.

He writes on his experience with ChatGPT, and observes: "The darn thing has a better sense of humor than most humans."

And in a very thought-provoking chapter, he considers what our moral obligations should be toward AIs that develop consciousness. Snippet:

Or suppose we could create an AI system so cognitively superior to us that it is capable of valuable achievements and social relationships that the limited human mind cannot even conceive of—achievements and relationships qualitatively different from anything we can understand, sufficiently unknowable that we cannot even feel their absence from our lives, as unknowable to us as cryptocurrency is to a sea turtle.

Maybe that won't keep you awake at night, but it's something to think about in the dark when you can't sleep.

I'm kind of used to the world's "weirdness", since I studied me some quantum mechanics back in the day. Here's the relevant Feynman quote, from one of his lectures (to a general audience) on quantum electrodynamics:

What I am going to tell you about is what we teach our physics students in the third or fourth year of graduate school—and you think I'm going to explain it to you so you can understand it? No, you're not going to be able to understand it. Why, then, and I going to bother you with all this? Why are you going to sit here all this time, when you won't be able to understand what I'm going to say? It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don't understand it. You see, my physics students don't understand it either. That is because I don't understand it. Nobody does.
Similarly, I didn't find Schwitzgebel's argument about the "consciousness" of the USA to be all that wacky. It didn't seem that different from: Adam Smith's invocation of the Invisible hand; Hayek's Knowledge Problem; or Leonard E. Read's essay "I, Pencil", in which the titular character claims, perceptively, "not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me."

Ah, but "the market" knows how. And does so, cheaply and in abundance.

So: A wonderful book. I found it tough going in spots, but in most parts wonderfully accessible and insightful.