Monday, December 29, 2014

How Did Scrooge Get Rich?

Scrooge was rich, and a man of business. What was his business? How did he get so rich?

Our first clue comes in the first paragraph: "...and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to." That is to say, he could easily raise money on the London Stock Exchange, where bonds, commodities and other investments were also traded.

There is one reference to his warehouse. Given his wealth, this implies some wholesale element to his enterprise.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge a young couple who owe him a debt they cannot immediately repay, saved from ruin by his death.

For more information, we might look at Nicholas Nickleby, where Dickens gives us a more detailed view of another greedy and covetous Dickensian businessman, Ralph Nickleby.  His main line of business is stock manipulation. Historically, there were plenty of 19th c. examples:  Drew,  Fisk and Gould will do for starters. The loose rules of the era provided opportunities to cheat even sophisticated and cynical investors like Cornelius Vanderbilt. For the naive or even average investor, so much the worse.

Ralph Nickleby, like Scrooge, also profits from moneylending.  Because of the plot we know some details of one of the debts owed to him: a bit under a thousand pounds, owed by a spendthrift gentleman. It is likely that Scrooge's lending was on a similar scale: a practical man like Scrooge would much rather lend 1,000 pounds to one man than 50 each to twenty.

It would be ludicrous to claim that Scrooge's miserly nature did  "a great deal of good". It simply pushed a bit more money into the already ample market of London capital seeking investment opportunities, at the cost of reducing demand for goods and services.

Some of the investment, like Ralph Nickleby's predatory stock manipulation, was probably actively bad. The purchase of previously issued shares and bonds, or existing ground rents, would only have benefitted the sellers of those assets, typically not very needy. Only when the investment financed an actual productivity improvement was the impact clearly good.

In contrast, redeemed Scrooge immediately puts money into the pocket of a street urchin, a poulterer, and a cabdriver. It did them good, surely, and penny for penny, probably more good than any of unredeemed Scrooge's careful investments.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Why Libertarians Can't Have Nice Things

So, just in time for the holiday, I read another libertarian essay on why the unredeemed Ebenezer Scrooge wasn't so bad:
So, why is Scrooge supposed to be so in need of redemption? Well, he refuses to contribute to the comfort of the poor (and even suggests that they should die, to reduce the surplus population!), he begrudges his clerk a paid vacation at Christmas, and he’s a merciless creditor, demanding payment when it’s due from his debtors. And he shuns the company of his fellow man, except to the extent required for him to be in good standing with the business community. 
But these are hardly serious moral failings. 
Well, actually, they are. In Christian terms, Scrooge at the time of the visitations is entirely lacking in charity. Not just in the common sense of giving to the poor when you can bloody well afford it, but in the broader Christian sense of loving others as himself. He has no friends. His clerk's wages, working conditions and benefits are the worst he can get away with. He doesn't tip Christmas Carolers. He repeatedly snubs his nephew, apparently his only living relative. Earlier, his fiancee has released him from their engagement because she believed he loves wealth more than her, and he does not contradict her. Children know better than to ask him the time of day on the street, and seeing-eye dogs drag their blind masters out of his path. If he continues on this track he's going to die alone and unloved.

So, the Gospels, St. Paul, and Dickens are in broad agreement that his pre-visitation afterlife prospects are not good. The lack of charity is pretty much a show-stopper.

But, you may say, that's just Christian dogma, which I reject.

Look, going in, you knew it was A Christmas Carol, not An Objectivist Carol. You were warned.

Second, the Golden Rule is so broadly believed among so many different religious and ethical traditions that it may well be a valid moral intuition. At least, it will do till something better comes along, even if you don't believe in Yahweh, Jesus or Mohammad.

And unredeemed Scrooge is an epic fail at the Golden Rule.

One of his happiest memories is working for a moderately benevolent employer,  Fezziwig.  Fezziwig spends a modest sum on the Christmas party, lets off work early on Christmas eve, and generally treats his employees generously in small ways. It was a golden memory for young Scrooge. When it's his turn to be boss, unredeemed Scrooge does nothing of the sort.

Another happy memory for Scrooge is being rescued from a cheerless boarding school by his younger sister Fan. She died in childbirth, and you might think that he could show some warmth to his nephew, her son, but no.

There's a concept in economics called diminishing marginal utility. If you are $1 away from starving to death, another dollar is immensely valuable. If you are Bill Gates, another dollar isn't worth noticing. Even though the absolute value in money the same.

It then follows that a moderately charitable rich man, like redeemed Scrooge, can improve the net subjective welfare of his society a lot by even a moderate tithe of his wealth to the less fortunate.

But also, if you treat others as you would like to .be treated, they are more likely to respond in kind.

Long story short: don't be unredeemed Scrooge. Be redeemed Scrooge, or Fred, or Bob Cratchit,  or the Fezziwigs.

God bless us, every one.

Monday, December 08, 2014

A Good Week in Space

During the first week in December:

On December 1, NASA's Dawn spacecraft captured an image of Ceres. It does not yet rival images from Hubble, but wait for it. Dawn did a spectacular job mapping Vesta, and will do the same for Ceres, if all goes according to plan.

On December 2, (EST) Japan launched their Hayabusa 2 spacecraft to visit an asteroid, drop off landers, and return with a sample.

On December 5, NASA launched their unmanned test flight of an Orion spacecraft on an almost flawless mission to a apogee of 3,600 miles. A spacecraft capable of carrying humans hasn't been this far from Earth since Apollo 17 in 1972.

As a taxpayer, I appreciated the live transmission of images of the receding earth and parachute deployment from inside the spacecraft, and capsule reentry and parachute deployment from a circling drone. I didn't get this during Apollo. This is good policy. I like to see what I am paying for. If I can, I will pay more cheerfully.

On December 6, New Horizons awoke from hibernation on Pluto's doorstep.  Given the vast scale of our Solar System, awaking on Pluto's doorstep means the closest approach will be in July.

We will see amazing things, if we are patient.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014


It was excellent, but flawed. I was glad I saw it in a theatre, in IMAX.

It was one of a small class of excellent science fiction movies where the science is important to the story and mostly actual science.


It repeatedly pays tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the few films in the same category. But in 2001 the first and last parts of the movie are about alien science so advanced that they are, for us, indistinguishable from magic. And for the last, so incomprehensible that you can't understand what's going on without buying the book.

The middle third of 2001 does not violate science, except when it does. The moonbus follows a very  unlikely trajectory because that is easier to film.  If such a craft existed, it would have been launched in a ballistic trajectory from launch to destination, with no effort to maintain constant altitude.

According to the book, it was a surface vehicle, with very limited ability to launch over obstacles. Also not easy to film.

Discovery had no radiators because the director thought the audience would mistake them for wings.

Doing good cinema and good science at the same time is hard. I count Contact in this select group, but still  its wormhole opening technology was close to magic.

My biggest complaint about Interstellar is that at times it was hard to understand important words spoken.

There are some plot holes, but fewer than some people think. The ice that astronauts walk on on the second planet is probably unreasonably strong. Keeping the secret space program secret would be difficult if all the launches came from the base used for the final launch, but perhaps there were other, more remote launch sites.

Some have complained that if the Ranger spacecraft can reach orbit with a single reusable stage, why do they need a big two stage chemical rocket to get it into Earth orbit?

It seems that according to the film's site, the landers use both chemical and plasma rockets, and NASA has fusion reactors as a power source. If the reactor uses He-3, the limited supply would explain the two stage chemical rocket to reach Earth orbit.

Mapping Science Fiction in Three Dimensions

I think it is helpful to think of mapping Science Fiction in three dimensions.

The first is science truth. At one extreme, all of the science agrees with we now know about science, and no science is violated in the telling of the story. This hardly ever happens in Science Fiction movies, except in science docudramas, like Apollo13, or The Right Stuff. Which you should watch if you haven't yet done so.

Even the hardest of Science Fiction cinema almost always contains some dramatic license.

At the middle of the range, there's speculation about science that isn't obviously impossible, and if the story presents some speculation as fact, the story respects the logical conclusions from the speculation.

At the other extreme, the story completely contradicts what we actually think we know about our universe. For example, the story proposes that all of Earth's plant life is extinct, except in greenhouses in space.  Just outside the orbit of Saturn.  Yes, Silent Running, I'm looking at you. Or yarns in which radioactivity creates giant ants or web-slinging superheroes.

The second dimension is science relevance. If the story assumes that science will somehow allow us to make artificial people and that has an important impact on the narrative, that's one end of the scale. For example, Bladerunner.

If science allows us to make blasters that are remarkably similar to modern firearms except for the pewpewpew and the bright bolts of light, that's the other.

The third is narrative quality. Is it a good story, or not?

Sticking to movies, you can have a film that is excellent at science truth and science relevance, but mediocre at narrative, such as 2010: a Space Odyssey.

Or the reverse, such as the first two Star Wars movies.

You can also have a movie in which the science truth has gone stale with time, like Destination Moon.

A strong enough narrative can carry a story with poor science truth and science relevance. A Scanner Darkly is essentially a story about 1970s drug culture with some very speculative Science Fiction chrome bolted on. It's still a good movie.

Monday, December 01, 2014

My Pitch for a Buck Rogers Remake

Buck Rogers is put into suspended animation after being overcome by a mysterious gas while exploring a mineshaft/being frozen after crashing on a glacier/mumblemumble. He awakens in the 25th century to discover a world just beginning to claw its way back to advanced civilization after the centuries of barbarism that followed the collapse of society after the SpamBot Wars.

Little has survived from the old civilization, and much of it irrelevant to recreating modern technology. Among the most treasured of the Historical Documents is a series of illustrated texts that show the technology of the the 20th century: rockets with tail fins, analog gauges and vacuum tube electronics, rocket belts, leather flying helmets, and so on.

The engineers of the reborn civilization use the Historical Documents to recreate the technology of the past, tail fins and all. They quickly discover that single stage spaceships could not achieve interplanetary travel, or the flying belts the performance shown in the texts, through chemical rocket power alone. They deduce that the rockets were used only for maneuvering and rapid acceleration: the ancients must have had some other form of of primary propulsion!

This spurs them on to the research that accomplishes what they believe be the rediscovery of the Reactionless Drive. (Like the most practical form of artificial gravity it's something of a misnomer, but the important thing is that you don't need to carry reaction mass on board. Newton is not dissed.)

Dieselpunk hijinks ensue.

No Twiki.