All the cool kids are doing it, so I figure I’d better knock one of these out. Readers, if any remain, of my overwrought treatment of The Substance of Style (Part I; Part II; Part III) would understandably flee this blog right now, so I’ll try to be less, well, overwrought in my treatment of An Army of Davids …
American polymath Glenn Reynolds — there, I said it! He’s a polymath! If that isn’t good for an Instalanche, nothing is! — has produced a book whose content should be almost entirely familiar to his regular readers. The challenge for me, as a reviewer, is to add anything of value to what those readers already know. So, a brief list:
- Glenn really is a polymath, but it’s getting a lot easier to be a polymath these days. There are, for one of a multitude of possible examples, thousands of amateur astronomers in this country with equipment, expertise, and accomplishments which did not exist outside of lavishly funded and strictly academic settings only one generation ago (thus my suggestion of distributed observing to manage the geopolitical risks of Earth-crossing asteroids). Some subset of those people are undoubtedly equally accomplished in other fields as well — including, not to overlook the obvious, whatever they do for their day job.
- Parenthetically, Glenn does excel relative to the rest of us in terms of time management and speed of composition. You may not have to be Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin to be a polymath in the early 21st century, but it really does help to be able to efficiently utilize what you’ve got, and to cultivate plenty of connections with other people.
- Glenn’s explanation of the synergies between small (or single-member) organizations and large ones is perhaps the best I’ve seen, and reminded me strongly of Antichaos and Adaptation (which I urge you to read). Where I would have wandered off into a lot of impenetrable jargon about changeable, oscillating elements vs frozen elements and canalized functions, though, Glenn just gives real-life examples. Which probably explains why I’m unlikely to have a best-selling book out any time soon.
- If blogs are “me-zines,” then AoD is a “me-book.” That’s why I tolerated the abrupt transition from chapters about blogging, home music production, etc, to nanotech and Martian terraforming, among other things, in its latter section. That transition has struck some reviewers, who are perhaps not as clued in to some aspects of the futurist/transhumanist subculture, as bizarre, and it is a bit sudden. But, hey, it’s all Glenn.
If I ever do something like this, it would probably take the form not of a book but a seminar, or perhaps a retreat, comprising in roughly equal parts presentations/discussions of 1) project management 2) process improvement 3) the GENERATIONS model of American history 4) while I’m at it, some Hayek 5) nanotech and 6) amateur astronomy, interspersed with, so help me God, 7) meditation. Think the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, though without actual Catholic clergy in charge. The physical setting would be something like the Texas Star Party, but with sufficient water pressure in the showers and adequate quantities of TP in the toilets. And much better food. But I digress.
- An unintentionally hilarious review of AoD — not worth linking to, partly because Glenn already did, and partly because it’s just silly — took Glenn to task for not addressing the issue of human nature, or not thinking human nature is bad enough, or not being generally pessimistic enough, or … something. I can’t tell what the point is, and I don’t care. The key quote offered as evidence, from page 268, is:
In some sense, of course, how you view these changes depends a lot on how you view humanity. If you think that people are, more often than not, good rather than bad, then empowering individuals probably seems like a good thing. If, on the other hand, you view the mass of humanity as dark, ignorant, and in need of close supervision by its betters, then the kinds of things I describe probably come across as pretty disturbing.
But of course it is entirely possible to regard, as I do, human nature as indeed something very far from positive, but not thereby be led ineluctably to dystopianism. For one thing, “betters” are not on offer: “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.” (Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address) In the real world, there are other and far better ways to manage the risks of the age we are now entering. I do not deny those risks; but I do say a farewell to kings.
- On to more substantive matters. Glenn’s discussion of Project Orion raises the specter of a Chinese effort, hidden from view, the product of which suddenly appears in the skies, on its way to (say) Saturn someday, with a crew of hundreds and a round-trip time measured in weeks rather than years or decades. Orion was certainly a unique effort, and a 1-meter scale model propelled by conventional explosives did fly to an altitude of 1,000 meters — see The Curve of Binding Energy. But there’s this little problem with nuclear explosions in the ionosphere. I’ve actually mentioned this to Glenn before, and he promptly responded with an e-mail stating something to the effect that EMP can be controlled by proper design of the nuclear explosive. Unfortunately, he does not mention EMP at all in AoD, so those of us who are aware of it are simply left wondering.
I’m also old enough to recall when the Soviets were supposedly going to use a “surge-launch” technique to put a whole flotilla of manned spaceships on a trajectory to Mars one fine day, leaving the US as flummoxed as it was after Sputnik. They didn’t quite pull that one off. I’ll believe in a Chinese Orion when I see it.
- Finally, as for terraforming Mars, I refer you to my own Will Mars Be Off Limits?, and in particular, its invocation of what we might call “O’Neill’s Dangerous Idea”:
Besides, the idea of colonizing planetary surfaces is so mid-20th-century. Let us away to The High Frontier (pp 34-35):
We are so used to living on a planetary surface that it is a wrench for us even to consider continuing our normal human activities in another location. If, however, the human race has now reached the technical capability to carry on some of its industrial activities in space, we should indulge in the mental exercise of “comparative planetology.” We should ask, critically and with appeal to the numbers, whether the best site for a growing advancing industrial society is Earth, the Moon, Mars, some other planet, or somewhere else entirely. Surprisingly, the answer will be inescapable: the best site is “somewhere else entirely.”
But, hey, these are quibbles. I’ve enlisted. The
Albertian Arcturian Order of Leibowitz, or perhaps the Leibowitzian Order of Arcturus, is a unit of the Reynoldsian Army of Davids.
(Written from Homer’s and cross-posted to Chicago Boyz and A Voyage to Arcturus.)