Book Review: The Wreck of the River of Stars

The Wreck of the River of Stars, by Michael Flynn

Short Form: Excellent book. Go read it now.

It took me a long time to read this book – about three weeks, which might usually lead one to think it wasn’t gripping or was a chore. Not true, for two reasons related to the reader, not the book. I have a flaw as a consumer of entertainment – I get too emotionally attached, sometimes, to characters, and find it hard to just keep reading when it’s pretty clear there’s an unpleasant doom coming – and, in a story about a shipwreck in space, that’s going to happen. (Heck, I never actually finished East of Eden, even though I love Steinbeck – the sense of doom was just too much. Yea, I’m a wimp.) So, I needed to put down the book more than once. This is a tribute, rather, to Flynn’s ability to create characters a reader can love.

Second, during those weeks, a dear young man, a friend and friend of the family, died suddenly and unexpectedly.  So a story that puts a bunch of young adults in mortal danger was just too much, from time to time. Anyway, on to the book!

Flynn builds a world of interplanetary commerce in the late 21st century. There are settlements and outposts in earth orbit, on the moon and Mars, on the moons or in orbit of Jupiter and Saturn. It’s a time like the last half of the 19th century, of bustling exploration and commerce, when steam engines were added to wooden sailing ships, creating short-lived hybrids, destined to be obsoleted by iron and diesel. The River of Stars, the greatest solar sail ever built, is such a hybrid, only in 21st century space.

In Flynn’s future world, the ocean deep of space was first breached by solar sailing ships, huge vessels with even huger superconducting sails many kilometers across, that took great skill to fly. The early astronauts (Planetnauts? Solarsystemnauts?) developed a culture much like the one among the sailors of the 19th century – great honor is given to the masters of the craft, the captains and sailing masters, with crews of mates under them. On board, your social position is largely determined by your rank and berth. Core people – the sailmaster, the navigator – have more prestige than more peripheral crew – the doctor, the cook. Civilians, on the other hand, are a sort of separate species. This is a dynamic known to all highly specialized teams with concrete goals to achieve.

Vast crews are required to sail these ships. As in the great sails of the 19th century, a ship needed to have on board everything it might take to keep her afloat for months without putting into port. So, in addition to food and water and air, you have machine shops and raw materials for building replacement parts. Like the ships carpenter of olden times, the crew of a solar sail must be able to effect repairs in isolation.

The steam engine equivalent is the Farnsworth cage drive: a fusion drive that generates more power than the sails and requires a much smaller crew. The River of Stars, once the greatest and most prestigious ship of all, on which flew the mighty and famous, has been reduced to a tramp hauler by the introduction of Farnsworth cages. Retrofitted with 4 cages, and stripped of most of its luxury fittings, the ship is classified as a hybrid – the sails remain, but have not been unfurled in 20 years. However, the laws require that the ship maintain a nominal sailing master and crew, more for form’s sake than anything real.

This is the background. The story revolves around the current crew of 14 misfits, put together by Captain Evan Dodge Hand, and one last passenger, for a trip out to Jupiter. Disaster strikes – and the passenger and crew need to pull together if they are to survive.

The first 1/3 of the book seemed a little slow, but that may have been just me, for the reasons described above. Flynn has to introduce us to a large cast of characters, and lay the groundwork for their interactions and, ultimately, their fates. “Ship”, the AI designed to manage all the routine reads and adjustments during flight, becomes yet another character.

All the characters are loveable in some way, even those who seem harsh or cruel. Each has strengths and weaknesses, and many hold grudges or other hurts. These are revealed over time and become factors in the ultimate fate of the ship and its crew. Moments of great beauty and heroism, of the least likely coming through big, of tragic loss – it’s a modern Greek tragedy.

The deftness and poetry with which Flynn unfolds the tragedy is beautiful, and reminded me of Steinbeck in many places. When reviewing Eifelheim, I referred to Flynn’s characters as ‘warty’ – that’s about right. Nobody is a goody-goody, and nobody turns out to have a heart of gold in a sappy way. But some do find unexpected goodness in themselves, and rise to occasions in both surprising yet fitting ways.

BTW: if I ever get cats, Ratline and Satterwaithe are in play as names.

Flynn has mentioned a couple times on his blog that this book was more a critical than a financial success. I can kind of see that. It was not an entirely easy read, but required a bit of reader investment. I suppose he can take comfort in how Melville was eventually vindicated for Moby Dick (talk about requiring reader investment). Well, I guess that Herman having been dead for a while when that happened could be seen as a downside…

All in all, the book is a masterpiece. It’s a sad masterpiece, a Greek tragedy, but ultimately beautiful and moving. That Flynn achieves all this in a hard science fiction setting is remarkable. Yard Sale of the Mind says: check it out.

Politicians say the Darnedest Things

You know this big kerfuffle about domestic violence in the NFL? How we have suddenly noticed that huge, violent men who make their livings trying to break each other in half, who take delight and pride in their ability to inflict and absorb pain, whose entire self-image from the time they’re 10 or so has been built upon this mastery of violence – sometime – you’ll be shocked to hear this – sometimes, not all of them are able to keep clear the distinction between their personal lives and their professional lives. Sometimes, some of them try to use the solutions that have worked so well at work at home. So, they punch out their girlfriends, whip their 4-year-olds, and, in the case of O.J., murder their wives.

A professional football player doing needlepoint in his spare time. Not to be confused with…

Sane women, one would hope, would not tolerate violence directed at them. Therefore, one suspects the sort of women who do put up with it are possibly not quite sane. Not blaming the victim, but pointing out that a grime sort of natural selection is in play in determining what sort of woman is most likely to find herself in violent situations with a pro football player. In a world where we all tend to worship the athlete, and the prom queen is supposed to date the quarterback, this could be very confusing and conflicting for anyone. Misery upon misery.

Collateral damage to America’s favorite game.

Anyway, a number of players have been suspended/banned this season, curiously highlighting the distinction between ‘incidents’ and ‘diagnosis’ mentioned in an earlier post. However, one team has pushed back, the least likely team in terms of location: the San Francisco 49ers. One of their players was arrested on a domestic violence charge, but not charged, and the team so far refuses to suspend or release him. Wiser heads have speculated that the 49er’s brass knows something we don’t, something that inclines them to be more circumspect.

… a football player doing his job: attempting to break another football player in half.

This outrages the usual suspects. I’m not making this up: I heard Nancy Pelosi on the radio say that the 49ers should not hide behind due process.Hide behind due process. In other words, this player should be punished based on presumed guilt before he’s even been charged with a crime – a sentiment shared by lynch mobs, fascists and soviets everywhere. An elected official in a putative Republic admonishing a private company not to let being fair to the accused nor the as yet unknown facts of the case get in the way of doing what strikes us as right at the moment. What’s that German phrase for the sunset of the West?

Obligatory footnote: this post is a commentary on our expectations and on what an elected official can say without her constituents immediately launching a recall campaign, not on football per se. Whether or not we consider football a fine thing, we are crazy if we think such a violent game won’t attract men and women who are attracted to violence (and let’s not even talk about what the PEDs do to you).

Vaccines and Autism: This is Starting to Get Really Weird

You know, I have very well developed ‘just stay out of it’ instincts – as a kid, older siblings would fight, people start yelling, and my self-preservation instincts kick in, and I whistle off into the corner and mind my own business.

Those instincts have failed me.

There’s just way way way way WAY too much (understandable) emotion running high in this issue. People are not rational. Even those trying to be rational are usually wrestling a tiger just off-stage. And I have tons of sympathy – If any of my kids were autistic, it would be really, really hard to be objective.

What I’m getting at: my feeble attempts to look at the evidence, look at the methods, and pronounce science or Science! on the web on this issue are so doomed. So, so, doomed. So, with any luck, this will be the last thing I’ve got to say on this topic.

Dr. Stacy Trasancos has responded to Dr. William Briggs’ analysis of Theresa Deisher’s paper on the link between vaccines and autism. I was struck by how little effect Dr. Briggs’ criticisms had on Dr. Trasancos take on the paper. In a very restrained and polite way, Briggs pretty much ran it through the wood chipper: in Aristotle’s famous phrase, her premises are false and her conclusions do not follow. So, he’s calling bad science on the paper. Politely, precisely, as a complete gentleman – but damning it nonetheless.

In my foolish hope to keep things cricket, I tried in the comments section to point this out very gently, as follows:

Thank you for this post, and for turning to Dr. Briggs for analysis. However, it seems to me that you missed a couple significant points in his criticism.

First off, I’m an educated layman – my first love, back in grade school, was science, but I pursued philosophy and a little math in college. So my understanding and analysis tends to be more conceptual than anything specifically related to the domain. I’m the anti-Bones: I’m a philosopher, not a doctor. And I’m a father of 5, so I get the importance of this question.

So: a key point in Dr. Brigg’s analysis is that the paper does not make a critical distinction between *incidents* of autism from *diagnoses* of autism. This is, in itself, a hopeless flaw – do not pass go, do not collect $200. One cannot conclude that the increase in diagnoses is representative (entirely, partly or even a little) of an increase in incidents. May be. May not be. One certainly can’t tell from this.

Yet, you repeat that claim – that incidents of autism are on the rise – here in this post. It may very well be true. But it may not. One would certainly never know based on this paper – no valid conclusions can be drawn from it one way or the other. That’s not good science.

Second, based on this paper alone, it is incorrect to say that Dr. Deisher is doing good science. This paper presents very poor science: good science doesn’t include the methodological problems and poor use of statistics present here, as Briggs explained. She may do very good science elsewhere, but not in this paper, based on Brigg’s analysis. Aside: the very poor quality of medical research in general is not an excuse for this – just because Dr. Deisher’s paper looks good in comparison does not make it good in itself.

This is getting long, sorry. Couple more things:

It’s pretty clear that there are really only two general approaches to answering the question: does vaccine X cause autism? 1: experiment on children (I’m against this); 2: select a large pool of people who are sufficiently homogenous in all ways except that some have taken vaccine X, some have taken some other vaccine, and some have taken no vaccine. Then establish a very specific consistent protocol for diagnosing autism, and have every person in the pool so assessed by a third (blind) party. Then check it out: do those in the group who took vaccine X have a higher incidence of autism, as diagnosed using a single consistent independent method, than those in the other groups? If so, there’s a correlation in the real world between autism and vaccine x. Causality could only be established once we have a tested theory, but the correlation alone would be enough for *me* to decide to not use vaccine X. Such a study would completely outweigh and obviate Dr. Deisher’s paper.

Saying “Wakefield was discredited” is like the British calling WWII “the late unpleasantness”. Understatement doesn’t do it justice. if I weren’t morally obliged to oppose the death penalty, I’d want him hung, drawn and quartered.

With all this in mind, this post still seems to have a bit of the ‘she’s a saint, therefore her science is good’ vibe about it – otherwise, why mention what a wonderful human being Dr. Deisher is? No doubt, she is wonderful – but if we’re going to discuss science, perhaps it would be best to leave such information out?

Thanks, keep up the good work.

Yep, I even threw in a ‘keep up the good work’ – I’m referring to the rest of her blog, the few bits of which I’ve read are, in fact, good work. But that was weaselly, in retrospect. The particular post to which this comment was appended wasn’t good work. It was actually kind of frightening, coming from a scientist.

Then, in the comments, Simcha Fisher rolls out the 75s and lays down withering fire.  I think the screen was smoking as I read it. And, in retrospect, she’s, well, right. What Dr. Trascanos is saying is an embarrassment to both science and Catholics: that criticism of the science needs to take into account who is making the claims, and if that person is good and on the right side, we cut them slack for their science.

It doesn’t get any wronger than that. Lysenko standing on his head.

A 75. Simcha rolled out several.

Now, off to whistle in the corner.

Simcha Fisher’s Science Post: the Gift that Keeps On Giving!

As first mentioned in a post here. I make the distinction between using a practical approach to evaluating scientific claims – namely, deciding who you trust – to using a philosophical approach – namely, analyzing first if the what is being claimed can even in theory be known via the methods of science, and second, if so, what steps would need to be taken to obtain that knowledge. If it can’t be known via science (e.g., what ought to be done) or the steps needed to know it have not been taken, we owe the claim no allegiance, no matter how qualified and trustworthy the people making the claims are.  My approach eliminates from serious consideration about 90% of what is popularly presented as science (instead, it’s Science!, that brand of popular voodoo used by our betters to impress us peons and keep us in line.)

There can be a huge overlap in these methods, but they are fundamentally different. Used well, they should reach about the same conclusions. At least, that’s the idea.

Now, due at least in part to activity in the comboxes involving Simcha and Stacy Trasancos in the controversy over claims that vaccines that use stem cells from aborted babies cause autism, Dr. Trasancos has asked Dr. Briggs to weigh in on the subject: 

Stacy Trasancos asked me to review her post “Why Are Catholics Criticizing Dr. Theresa Deisher?“, and in particular the paper “Impact of environmental factors on the prevalence of autistic disorder after 1979″ in Journal of Public Health and Epidemiology by Theresa A. Deisher and four others (Trasancos has links to all the material).

The Statistician to the Stars (SttS from now on) is a brilliant practitioner of the Philosophical approach. While not uninterested in the researcher’s qualifications to do the research, such considerations are rarely enough to determine anything. Instead, he starts with definitions (making the baby Aquinas smile) and then works through *precisely* what is being asserted and *precisely* what steps were taken to reach the conclusion. Then he evaluates if such steps are adequate for the claims made, and then, as a bonus, what steps one would need to have taken in order to support the claims made.

It’s a thing of beauty.

It is Deisher’s (implied) claim that vaccines created (in part) with stem cells “harvested” from the human beings killed for being inconveniences to their mothers are causing an increase in the rate of autism.

OK, that’s a big deal. So break it down, SttS:

There are several matters of interest people are having a difficult time keeping straight. Here’s a list:

  1. Whether it is, or under what circumstances it is, ethical to kill human beings still living inside their mothers.

  2. Whether it is ethical to use the tissue from these killed human beings, considering this tissue might lead to more efficacious or cheaper vaccines (which will surely save lives).

  3. Whether these vaccines might cause any form of autism.

  4. If so, how likely is it to contract some form of autism from these vaccines.

  5. Whether it is ethical for Deisher to investigate these claims, given that she might personally benefit (monetarily or spiritually or whatever) from identifying this cause of autism.

  6. Whether Deisher is a liar, cheat, or a fraud.

That about sums it up. SttS remarks that 1 & 2 are outside the range of this discussion, that the answer to 5 is ‘Yes’, and 6 is ‘No’. The bulk of his post therefore concerns 3 & 4. Rather than just cutting and pasting the whole post, go there! Read it! 

So, to sum up the results of the Philosophical Approach to this issue:

1. Yes, the methods of science are in theory adequate to determining this issue;

2. The steps needed have not yet been taken.

What are those steps?

Deisher nowhere measured which vaccines each child received and which child developed autism, which is the only way to demonstrate potential causality. She only (crudely, too) measured various rates of diagnoses. To conclude the changes in these rates must be from the one cause she posited is to commit the epidemiologist fallacy.


Obviously, experiments cannot be run on children to see which vaccines might cause which disease. But vastly superior epidemiology can be performed. Specific records on children (including medical history, genetics, etc.) can be kept, tracking when and what kind of vaccines, and so forth. And because this has become a public concern, such things are being done.


I am (often painfully) aware that I do not think like most people. Perhaps for most people, the practical approach – reasonably deciding who to trust – is better or at least more achievable. It’s true that you don’t need to know anything at all about science to use it. But I’ll stick to the philosophical approach, because I do know a little bit about science, and it seems to give better results.

More Science! News

Antarctic ice should set record, but Arctic dwindles

Here’s the gist of the nub:

Multiple factors — including the geography of Antarctica, the region’s winds, as well as air and ocean temperatures — affect the ice around the world’s coldest continent.

The amount and volume of ice in Antarctica depend on a complex relationship among air, water, wind and ozone depletion, involving natural and man-made influences, scientist Ted Scambos of the data center said this year.

Two studies in recent years concluded that changing wind patterns were responsible for the expanding sea ice, Scambos said.

Got that? Multiple factors interacting in complex ways are responsible for the growing sea ice around Antarctica. But:

Arctic sea ice extent, overall, has been steadily diminishing over the years because of man-made climate change.

“Over the years” by the way, means since 1979 – a tiny sample size of 35 years, compared, for example, with the 100,000 or so year cycle of glaciation and interglacial periods that have occurred within the current several million year long ice age.

So, with no sense of irony (or dishonesty): more ice than ever (over the last 35 years) at one end of the globe is explained away as the result of complex interactions of multiple causes, while less than average sea ice (in the lowest 20% of our 35 year sample) is the result of human caused global warming pure and simple.

Right. Isn’t Science! wonderful?

A committee has been formed to investigate.

5 Simple Things You Can Do to Improve the Liturgy at Your Church

1. Show up for Mass 5 minutes early. After reverently genuflecting, kneel and pray: for all those among your family and friends who, though claimed for Christ in baptism, have stopped attending Mass regularly or at all. Do all this in perfect silence.

2. Cheerfully show reverence in all you do. Genuflect, cross yourself, move with quiet purpose.

3. Cheerfully, lovingly and with respectful reserve participate in all the goofy yet non-heretical stuff they may do at your parish: if they greet each other before Mass, do it – but do it with a smile and a nod, not a bear hug. If you can get away with silence without offending anybody – and you probably can – do it. If they hold hands at the Our Father, and people near you reach out to take your hand – do it. No making faces, or choosing that moment to Make a Statement. The person that offers you his hand is not the enemy. Do not fight them, or take this moment to ‘educate’ them. Be the grown up.

Wherever you are at Mass, no matter how ugly the church and clueless the people around you, believe you are here – because you are.

4. Sing the songs that are not out and out heretical as best you can – and if you can’t sing them, be quiet without making faces or assuming a posture of disgust.

5. Stay after Mass for 5 minutes, and pray again for the souls of those of our fellow Catholics who no longer attend Mass. Pray that you may be a channel of God’s grace to them, and not a stumbling block.

All around you it may seem to be going to hell – people yakking and milling around, sauntering in and plopping their poorly-dressed derrieres in the pews without so much as acknowledging that they are in a holy place, fidgeting and checking their phones all Mass long, chewing gum, on and on – these are your brothers and sisters, not your enemies. They are like sheep without a shepherd. You are the one sheep with a clue, following as best you can the one true Shepherd.

If you lead by example, and endure in good cheer for as long as it takes, for years, for the rest of your life, things will get better. Maybe not in your lifetime, but probably after as little as a few months. Not perfect; not, perhaps, even very good – but better. At least, that’s my experience, after following, with mixed results, the leadership of my wife in this respect.

My Blogroll Dudes and Dudettes Have Been on Fire Lately

In addition to the Simcha Fisher essay talked about in the last post, highlights include:

Chaos Manor, talking about police (mis)behavior, ISIS and our ignorance of Russia’s history and motivations, insofar as those are two separate things;

Touched, not whacked with a hammer.

The Curt Jester looks at a letter from Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois on proper liturgical practices. Read only the excerpts so far, but very good stuff, reminds me of Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy (not coincidentally, no doubt) which we are reading now in our reading group, and upon which I will comment when done.

The Crescat has an idea that I hope to get to soon: 10 paintings that most touched your life. That seems a very good thing to think about, especially in this ugly age.

John C Wright, in his usual non-confrontational and non-controversial way, takes the intellectual hammer to a few issues and delicately pounds them into a quivering pulp. Feminism, the concept of right wing political correctness, writing encouragement for the timid, and a little light channeling of GKC. 

TOF and the Statistician to the Stars are both attempting to translate Thomism into Modern – a task complicated by both Newspeak and the well-trained Pavlovian response of the well-schooled mind: if I don’t understand it, it can’t be important.

Anyway, there’s actually good stuff to read on the interwebs! Who knew?