Thoughts from a Cosmonaut

Valentina Leonidovna Ponomaryova is a former Soviet cosmonaut: with a background in applied mathematics, she was selected in 1962 as a member of the first group of women cosmonauts.  Never got to fly a mission, though–she’d been scheduled to fly on Vostok 6, following Valentina Tereshkova’s scheduled flight on Vostok 5, but “Ponomaryova did not respond with standard Soviet cliches in interviews and her feminism made the Soviet leadership uneasy” and the crew assignments were altered. She later worked in orbital mechanics.

Interesting interview with her here.  Particularly interesting, IMO, are her thoughts about the respective roles of humans vs automated systems in spaceflight.

In the United States, spacecraft technology developed on the basis of aviation, and the respect for and trust in the pilot, characteristics of aviation, naturally transferred to spacecraft technology. In the Soviet Union, spacecraft technology was based on artillery and rocketry. Rocket scientists never dealt with “a human on board”; for them, the concept of automatic control was much easier to comprehend.

and

There is no doubt that, despite a large number of extraordinary and emergency situations, the Gemini and the Apollo programs were completed successfully because in the United States from the very beginning manned spacecraft were designed with orientation toward semi-automatic control systems in which the leading and decisive role was given to astronauts. The Gemini guidance system was already semi-automatic, and the Apollo guidance system was designed in such a way that one astronaut could perform all the operations necessary for the return from any point of the lunar orbit independently from information received from the Earth.

The opposites eventually met: semi-automatic systems constituted the “golden mean” that Soviet and American cosmonautics approached from two opposite directions: the Soviets coming from the automatic systems, and the Americans, one might say, from the manual ones.

Applicable to systems of many kinds in addition to spacecraft, I think, and many American organizations seem to be departing from the ‘golden mean’ in the direction of too much dependence on automated systems which are insufficiently understood and supervised.

The Politician as Bully

Peggy Noonan, in a WSJ column which is actually worthwhile (rare for her these days, IMO) writes about aspects of Andrew Cuomo’s behavior which she says demonstrate a deep weirdness:

The culture of his office was rife with fear and intimidation. A victim: “It was extremely toxic, extremely abusive. If you got yelled at in front of everyone, it wasn’t any special day. . . . It was controlled largely by his temper, and he was surrounded by people who enabled his behavior.” Everyone feared retaliation for speaking out, so they didn’t.

But there is deep weirdness beyond that. He ordered one aide to memorize the lyrics to “Danny Boy.” She testified he “would pop out” of his office and ask her to start singing. A footnote says it was not the only time the governor asked her to sing. The aide found herself writing to a former staffer, “He just asked me to sing Bohemian Rhapsody so. We aren’t far off from a bedtime story.” He asked her to do push-ups in front of him…

I was reminded of a passage in one of the Hornblower novels in which the protagonist, as a new midshipman, finds himself on a ship with a sickly and disconnected captain and a midshipmen’s mess ruled by a bully, Simpson.

Simpson had apparently always been an ingenious tyrant, but now, embittered and humiliated by his failure to pass his examination for his commission, he was a worse tyrant, and his ingenuity had multiplied itself. He may have been weak in mathematics, but he was diabolically clever at making other people’s lives a burden to them. As senior officer in the mess he had wide official powers; as a man with a blistering tongue and a morbid sense of mischief he would have been powerful anyway, even if the Justinian had possessed an alert and masterful first lieutenant to keep him in check while Mr. Clay was neither…

Significantly, it was not his ordinary exactions which roused the greatest resentment — his levying toll upon their sea chests for clean shirts for himself, his appropriation of the best cuts of the meat served, nor even his taking their coveted issues of spirits. These things could be excused as understandable, the sort of thing they would do themselves if they had the power. But he displayed a whimsical arbitrariness which reminded Hornblower, with his classical education, of the freaks of the Roman emperors. He forced Cleveland to shave the whiskers which were his inordinate pride; he imposed upon Hether the duty of waking up Mackenzie every half hour, day and night, so that neither of them was able to sleep — and there were toadies ready to tell him if Hether ever failed in his task.

Noonan:

Here’s my thought when I finished the report. As America becomes stranger and our culture becomes stranger, our politicians become stranger. As their power increases (I can close a whole state down; I can close a country!) so do the stakes.

As politicians gain more and more power…especially arbitrary power…the kind of people who become politicians changes.  Francis Spufford, in his book Red Plenty, writes about those who sought and achieved power in the Soviet Union.  He notes that:

Read more

Across the Great Divide

Peter Watson, The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New (New York: Harper Perennial, 2013)

As my reviews tend to do, this one will highlight some negatives, but which I will get out of the way early on. Peter Watson is a highly successful author and journalist who has rather more than dabbled in archaeology along the way. I am … somewhat less of an authority. Nonetheless, The Great Divide is kind of a mess, but one that ends up being sufficiently thought-provoking to be worth the effort.

Fun stuff first—shout-out to Jim Bennett for recommending the book; and here are my ideas for relevant musical interludes while reading the following:

Read more

“You Play with My World Like it’s Your Little Toy”

Watching a series of European bureaucrats…pompous, arrogant, and extremely unattractive European bureaucrats…asserting the need for a global ‘great reset’, I was reminded of the above line from Bob Dylan’s song.

In America, too, of course, we have politicians and bureaucrats demanding a Great Reset.  And Dylan’s song, of course, was directed at armaments manufacturers, not at world-resetting politicians and their operatives. Nevertheless, I think the phrase captures well the arrogance of those who believe they have the knowledge, insight, and authority to reorganize the lives of everyone on the planet.  And in their view of things, there isn’t any ‘my world’ for the individual; there is no sphere of individual autonomy and agency which is not to be made available for their interference.  It’s all their world.

In 1931, a book titled The Conscription of a People was published by Katherine, Duchess of Atholl.  It was “a blistering, well-documented indictment of the savage collectivization of life in the Soviet Union.”

The title of the book provides a perfect description of the worldview of the Resetters.  The entire population is to be drafted into an army, assigned to whatever battles and tasks their rulers..far beyond their ability to influence..think most fitting.

 

Book Review: Year of Consent, by Kendell Foster Crossen

Year of Consent, by Kendell Foster Crossen

—-

This is a pulp SF novel from 1954, which has uncomfortable relevance to our present era.

The story is set in the then-future year of 1990.  The United States is still nominally a democracy, but the real power lies with the social engineers…sophisticated advertising & PR men…who use psychological methods to persuade people that they really want what they are supposed to want.  (Prefiguring “nudging”)  The social engineers are aided in their tasks by a giant computer called Sociac (500,000 vacuum tubes! 860,000 relays!) and colloquially known as ‘Herbie.’  The political system now in place is called Democratic Rule by Consent.  While the US still has a President, he is a figurehead and the administration of the country is actually done by the General Manager of the United States….who himself serves at the pleasure of the social engineers.  The social engineers work in a department called ‘Communications’, which most people believe is limited to such benign tasks as keeping the telephones and the television stations in operation.  Actually, its main function is the carrying out of influence operations.

One approach involves the publishing of novels which are fictional, but carry implicit social and/or political messages…via, for example, the beliefs and affiliations of the bad guys versus the good guys. Even the structure of novels is managed for messaging reasons: romance-story plots should not be boy gets girl…loses girl…gets girl back, but rather boy gets girl, loses girl, gets different girl who is really right for him.

Some methods are more direct, although their real objectives are not stated.  One such objective is population control: If the fertility rate is running a little low, advertising is ramped up for a pill called Glamorenes, which are said to create the “rounded, glamorous figure of a TV star…remember–it’s Glamorenes for glamor.”  Actually, the real function of Glamorenes, which is top secret, is to increase a woman’s sex drive and expand the fertility window.  On the other hand, if the birth rate is running too high, the ad emphasis switches to Slimettes for women and Vigorone for men, both of which have a contraceptive effect.  The book’s protagonist, Gerald Leeds, is one of the few who is in on the secret, and when he hears a Glamorenes ad, he realizes that this is the real reason why his girlfriend, Nancy, has been acting especially affectionate lately.

Few people, even at the highest levels of government, realize just how powerful the Communications Department really is.  “Even the biggest wheels only know part of it.  They think the Communications Administrative Department exists to help them–and not the other way around.”

The computer known as Sociac (‘Herby’) accumulates vast amounts of data on individuals, including such things as shopping, dining, and vacation preferences. “Thus, when the administration wanted to make a new move, they knew exactly how to condition the people so that it would be backed. Or they knew exactly what sort of man to put up to win a popular election.” Telephone calls are tapped, but are rarely listened to directly by government agents; rather, they are fed directly to “a calculator” (perhaps a front-end to Herbie) and added to “the huge stock of intimate knowledge about the people.”

Those individuals who resist the conditioning and are found to hold unapproved opinions–or find themselves to hold unapproved opinions–are said to have “communications blocks,” and good citizens will act on their own to request treatment for such blocks. The first level of treatment is the Psychotherapy Calculator, an interactive system which will help the patient change any objectionable opinions and behavior.  But in some cases, the PC determines that stronger methods are necessary, and in those cases, the patient is referred for a lobotomy.  The escorting of patients for mandatory psychotherapy and lobotomy procedures is done by a white-uniformed police force known as the Clinic Squad.

Citizens are, of course, expected to report any instances of unapproved beliefs or actions.  When the protagonist’s girlfriend Nancy overhears one of her colleagues expressing sympathy for a man who is in serious trouble, she reports the girl immediately. (“For the moment I disliked Nancy,” says Gerald.  “Then I felt sorry for her.”)  Nancy herself is concerned that there may be something wrong with her, and has considered reporting herself for voluntary automated psychotherapy.  “If I did have (something wrong with her), I’d want to be purged of it quickly before it could make me do something awful like that poor Mr Shell”…Gerald notes that her hand was shaking as she lifted her glass to finish the drink.

Gerald, the protagonist, works within the Communications Department…unknown to his superiors, he is a member of a resistance organization which aims to overthrow the existing system of government and to restore individual liberty. He must feign agreement when his immediate boss talks about how wonderful the system is and how misguided are those who oppose it:

Never has there been more freedom anywhere than in America today.  We’ve done away with police and even prisons.  Crime has been almost wiped out since we recognized it as a social disease.  We’ve done away with poverty. There are fewer restrictions on people than ever before in the history of mankind.  For the first time they’re really free.

Gerald reflects:

Even if it hadn’t been dangerous, I wouldn’t have argued with him.  He believed what he was saying. His faith was the faith of a Torquemada backed by science.  There was no way to make him see that the social engineers had taken away only one freedom, but that it was the ultimate freedom–the right to choose.  Everything…was decided for them and then they were conditioned to want it.

Read more