The Long View 2006-12-26: The Children of Men; Geopolitical Broken Windows

One of the most fascinating things about P. D. James’ dystopia Children of Men is that so many people invest so much time and effort into trying to make it a reality.

The Children of Men; Geopolitical Broken Windows

Once upon a time there were two goats that were eating old movie-film from out of a trash bin behind MGM Studios. One goat said to the other:

"Hey, this is a good movie!"

The other goat replied:

"Yes, but it's not as good as the book."

We should keep that cautionary exchange in mind whenever we suspect that a film adaptation has missed the point of the book on which it is based. We should in any case be cautious in commenting about a film we have not seem yet. Nonetheless, the laudatory review that Manohla Dragis wrote for The New York Times regarding the film version of P.D. James's novel, The Children of Men, gives me grave misgivings:

Based in broad outline on the 1992 dystopian novel by P. D. James about a world suffering from global infertility — and written with a nod to Orwell by Mr. Cuarón and his writing partner Timothy J. Sexton along with David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby — “Children of Men” pictures a world that looks a lot like our own, but darker, grimmer and more frighteningly, violently precarious. It imagines a world drained of hope and defined by terror in which bombs regularly explode in cafes crowded with men and women on their way to work. It imagines the unthinkable: What if instead of containing Iraq, the world has become Iraq, a universal battleground of military control, security zones, refugee camps and warring tribal identities?...heavily armed soldiers are ubiquitous. They flank the streets and train platforms, guarding the pervasive metal cages crammed with a veritable Babel of humanity, illegal immigrants who have fled to Britain from hot spots, becoming refugees or “fugees” for short...“Children of Men” has none of the hectoring qualities that tend to accompany good intentions in Hollywood.

Actually, to judge by that review, the film sounds pretty hectoring to me, but hectoring about the wrong things. The novel does mention the sorry state of guest workers in Britain in a world in which there had been no births for over 20 years, but they are barely an afterthought. In fact, violence (unless you count the semi-voluntary euthanasia program) is almost absent from the book. This is, after all, a world without young people. James was not writing science fiction, but she thought through very carefully the economic and cultural implications of a population in which the ratio of elderly consumers to relatively young producers grows ever larger.

James was more interested in making metaphysical than demographic points, as we see in the review of James's book by Alan Jacobs in First Things:

Does the Warden's apparently benevolent despotism give people even a modicum of genuine comfort? Not if they are anything like Theo Faron, who writes in his journal that "without the hope of posterity, for our race if not for ourselves, without the assurance that we being dead yet live, all pleasures of the mind and senses sometimes seem to me no more than pathetic and crumbling defences shored up against our ruins." But Faron is more honest and self-reflective than the majority, who prefer not to think hard thoughts or confront troubling facts.

Still, if you are looking for birth-dearth fiction, The Children of Men is a good place to start. (See also Brian Aldiss's Greybeard. This seems to be one case where, if you plan to see the movie, you should consider reading the book first:

I'm still cranky about David Lynch's adaptation of Dune, but don't get me started.

* * *

Meanwhile, Mark Steyn has more to worry about than cinematic adaptations of his ideas, as we see in this column:

Whatever the “realists” may say, nations talk to each other all the time. Unfortunately, when nation A opens its mouth, nation B doesn't always get the message, no matter how loud and clear it is. Syria and Iran, for example, have subverted post-Saddam Iraq for three years now. Rather quietly at first. But, like a kid playing gangsta rap in his bedroom, if there are no complaints, you might as well crank up the volume. So Iran began openly threatening genocide against a neighboring state. And Syria had one of its opponents in Lebanon, Pierre Gemayel, assassinated.

Syria and Iran are talking, but are we listening?

Likewise, Russia. These days, we talk to the Bear incessantly, to the point of holding the G8 photo-op on Vladimir Putin’s turf. The old KGB man’s pals are also back in the assassination game, not just in his backyard but in London, too...when it became obvious that there was no price to be paid for obstructing American aims, the world got the message. Yet at home too many Americans are wedded to an absurd proposition: that somehow the lone “superpower” can choose to lose yet another war and there will be no consequences, except for Bush and sundry discredited “neocons”; that no matter how America stumbles in the world it can stay rich and happy and technologically advanced even as it becomes a laughingstock in Tehran and Damascus and Pyongyang and Caracas and Moscow and on, and on, and on.

Not so. We are on the brink of a terrible tipping point.

Let me reiterate that I am not sure that Vladimir Putin has poisoned anyone. If you want to worry about Russia, worry about what they are doing to the customers for their natural gas. Still, Steyn's points are well taken, so much so that I am reminded of these words from Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties by Paul Johnson, pages 309-311:

During the 1920s, the civilized Western democracies had maintained some kind of shaky world order, through the League on the one hand, and through Anglo-American financial diplomacy on the other. At the beginning of the 1930s, the system -- if it could be called a system, broke down completely, opening an era of international banditry in which the totalitarian states behaved simply in accordance with their military means...In the 1920s the world had been run by the power of money. In the 1930s it was subject to the arbitration of the sword....A careful study of the period reveals the extent to which the totalitarian powers, though acting independently and sometimes in avowed hostility towards each other, took advantage of their numbers and growing strength to challenge and outface the pitifully stretched resources of democratic order.

(Incidentally, the book was first published in 1983, but the author revised it after 1989. Read the first edition.)

What we see here is not "re-balancing" against one power or alliance by other powers, but a situation in which it became clear that the rules no longer applied, so opportunistic behavior appeared. Call it a geopolitical version of the broken windows effect.

Don't worry, though. I'll try to have a solution by Monday.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Scott Locklin on Quantum Computing: More Support for my Cocktail Party Theory of Science

Scott Locklin has a new post up on quantum computing, Quantum Computing as a Field is Obvious Bullshit. I have to agree, quantum computing [and AI] is largely bullshit, and we should probably nuke and pave the whole field. On a side note, I wonder whether this post functions as an extended reply to this comment thread on Greg Cochran’s West Hunter blog.

Which reminds me, I really should update my cocktail party theory of why science doesn’t work anymore. Locklin makes a much longer and more detailed argument than I did that a major problem for science in the twenty-first century is that too many scientists never actually build anything with their own hands to see whether their ideas work. In the case of quantum computing, the problem is as simple [and as hard!] as aligning all of the optical elements in the system well enough that you don’t introduce errors. A foolish idea has crept into science that such things are the tasks of mere technicians!

The great scientists of the past were often obsessed with problems that would now be derided as mere engineering, however the challenge of applying the powerful ideas of science to the real world often informed further theoretical advances. Since I’ve worked for years in manufacturing, I think you also learn a lot by trying to have someone else follow your instructions, and still make the thing work every time. Your idea of what a big problem is changes once you try to make it happen, either in the lab or the factory, and that is exactly what modern science doesn’t seem to want to do.

I love this image because of the silly conceit that AI research is the example of the hardest thing people do

I love this image because of the silly conceit that AI research is the example of the hardest thing people do

I am of course exaggerating for effect, but you really should try on Locklin’s argument for size. It is fundamentally similar to the reason I don’t worry much about automation taking jobs anytime soon, because I have tried to do it myself, and I know how hard it really is. McDonald’s has been applying automation for almost 80 years, which is why they can successfully put kiosks in their stores to replace cashiers. Lots of people see the kiosks, and wrongly conclude that all such jobs will disappear in a few short years. It just isn’t that easy, because there is a very deep foundation of streamlining, elimination of waste, and optimization of workflows in the background that such people do not see.

Others can imitate what McDonald’s has done in a shorter timeframe, but someone still has to understand what needs to be done and do the work to make it happen. The greatest of fools assume that AI will do this work too.

Locklin also makes an argument that is similar to my reaction to Paul Romer’s Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics:

…the total number of Einsteins in the world, or even merely serious thinkers about physics is probably something like a fixed number. It’s really easy, though, to create a bunch of crackpot narcissists who have the egos of Einstein without the exceptional work output.

It isn’t at all clear that we have really benefited by vastly increasing the number of people who work in research. We should redirect many of the bright and technically minded people who do dead end science like quantum computing into more applied fields. Hell, we would probably be better off if we just convinced them to actually apply what they are doing now. They might learn something useful.

The Long View: War in Heaven/Heaven on Earth

If I could find a reasonably-priced copy of this book, something like the proceedings of the annual meeting of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, I might pick it up. I’m sufficiently intrigued by John’s précis that I want to read all the contributions. I’m also curious whether the Damian Thompson listed is the current editor-in-chief of The Catholic Herald. I suspect so, but a quick internet search didn’t turn up the article in question.

John provides links to his contributions to the Center for Millennial Studies conference.

Soft Landings

The World After Modernity

After the Third Age

Each one is well worth a read, and they can function as a useful summary of John’s thinking on the subject of millennialism at the close of modernity.

War in Heaven/Heaven on Earth
Theories of the Apocalyptic
Edited by Stephen O’Leary and Glen S. McGhee
Equinox Publishing, 2005
290 Pages, US$26.95
ISBN 1-90476-888-1

Millennialism is not a new subject. Casual readers are likely to have encountered the topic in such books as Norman Cohn’s classic (if dated) study of early modern millennial “revolutions,” The Pursuit of the Millennium, or Leon Festinger’s application of Gestalt theory to the evolution and breakup of a flying-saucer cult, When Prophecy Fails. Considered most broadly as the expectation of an imminent, collective, terrestrial, and total transformation of the world for the better, millennialism has long interested not just theologians and anthropologists, but also social scientists, experimental psychologists, literary theorists, and political scientists. In the 1990s, scholars in various disciplines prepared to observe what was expected to be an outbreak of millennialist activity in and around the year 2000. One of the chief venues for discussing the results of this activity was the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, which held international conferences from 1996-2002. War in Heaven/Heaven on Earth is one of three anthologies in the Center’s “Millennialism and Society” series, which contains papers by the Center’s members.

The writer of this review was also a member of the Center. None of the papers I presented at the annual conferences appears in this volume. One is here; another is here; the last is here.

The Center and its conferences provided unexampled opportunities for scholars who otherwise would have had little occasion to encounter each other professionally to discuss their own findings and theoretical models. The result was not quite a general theory of millennialism, but the definition of a set of important methodological and substantive issues. One thing the Center did not provide, however, was a forum for discussing contemporary millennialist outbreaks, since, for the most part, they did not occur. In the 1990s, of course, there were some mass suicides by apocalyptic cults, and attendant to the year 2000 itself there was an extraordinary (and expensive) wave of anxiety about the ability of the world’s computer systems to handle the date change. However, the social reaction to the millennium was not what the members of the Center had anticipated.

In this anthology, Damian Thompson suggests in his contribution, “The Retreat of the Millennium,” that classic revolutionary millennialism may no longer be possible in the developed world. Millennial and apocalyptic idea systems are if anything more easily available than they have ever been, but as entertainment. The “structures of plausibility,” which is to say, the social networks that turn ideas into movements, are so transparent to modern mass communication that self-reinforcing communities of the elect cannot form. To me this seems improbable. Modern communications are quite capable of facilitating the organization of new movements. Often these are movements with apocalyptic premises, though in the West itself these ideas are more likely to have a scientific or pseudoscientific basis. In this anthology, David Redles’s contribution, “‘The time is not far off…’: The Millennial Reich and the Induced Apocalypse,” we see that the Nazi movement in Germany was in many ways a millennialist movement, one that seemed quite consistent with modern conditions, indeed with modern conditions when the only media were the mass media, which one would think would favor consensus rather than cultic views.

One of the dangers of millennial studies is the temptation to expand the concept excessively. Still, one of the great merits of this book is the range of phenomena that the authors usefully treat as millennial. Marc Fonda, for instance, in “Postmodernity and the Imagination of the Apocalypse,” suggests that postmdernism is implicitly an apocalyptic mindset. It does exactly what millennial ideologies do: it “sees through” consensus reality and unmasks it as a fraud; it is at war with the recent past; and it makes its adherents profoundly uneasy. Implicit in every work of deconstruction is the desire for a new synthesis. Postmodernism is a transitional frame of mind that hopes for its own supercession by a new age. That insight chimes very neatly with Joel Martin’s “Before and Beyond the Sioux Ghost Dance,” which develops the idea that millennial movements resemble “rites of passage,” but for collectivities rather than individuals.

The anthology does not neglect millennial movements in the narrow sense. There is Rosalind Hackett’s assessment of the relatively recent Maitasine uprising in northern Nigeria. The movement in question was of doubtful Islamic provenance, (its founder called Mohammed “just another Arab”), but it set the pattern for Christian-Muslim confessional strife unto this day. A real surprise for many readers will be David Cook’s “The Beginnings of Islam as an Apocalyptic Movement,” which looks back to a time when it was not clear that Islam was not just another exotic Christian sect. In any case, the piece argues that early Islam was able to expand as quickly as it did because of its ability to harmonize with the millennial expectations of the Christian communities in the regions it conquered.

A recurrent issue in the study of any millennial movement is how it reacts when events seem to cast its historical scenario in doubt, or even plainly refutes it. This issue goes to the fate of modernity, or so says John Turner in “The Deflating power of Progress,” which argues from a Nietzschean perspective that even the faith in modern science is a millennial ideology that cannot be sustained indefinitely. As Cathy Gutierrez explains in “The Millennium and Narrative Closure,” millennial movements construct history in a novelistic fashion, so that the end gives meaning to all the preceding events. The millennial models are different, however, in that they must always defer closure, or risk disconfirmation. Glen McGhee’s critical piece, “A Cultural History of Dissonance Theory,” observes that Leon Festinger’s concept of “cognitive dissonance” has held up rather well to empirical study, but not his claim that millennial groups commonly react to evidence contrary to their beliefs by proselytizing. (That piece also does an almost perfect back flip by showing how the development of dissonance theory actually resembled the evolution and dissolution of many of the millennial groups it was designed to explain.)

Albert Baumgarten’s “Four Stages in the Life of a Millennial Movement” shows how millennialist groups often survive their earlier histories as active apocalyptic movements to be come stable social institutions. They may maintain their millennialist ideas in some form, but interpret and background them in a way that makes ordinary life possible again. This is also a key point in “Roosters Crow, Owls Hoot,” the contribution by the Center for Millennial Studies cofounder, Richard Landes. Millennial ideas are often a part of the social environment; their influence depends on the success or failure of the proponents and opponents of an apocalyptic interpretation of current events. Ted Daniels actually begins this anthology with a discussion of the role of prophets and the conversion experience in sparking millennialist movements. “A Cups Catastrophe Model of Cult Conversions,” by Leslie Downing, applies a Gestalt model to the process of sudden conversion.

The end of the world disappointed many of the participants in millennial studies in the year 2000. In retrospect, that seems to have occurred not because the subject lacked value, but because of a failure to imagine the ways in which millennially motivated behavior would manifest itself in the 21st century. I would argue that the final contribution to the book, Charles Strozier’s “From Ground Zero: Thoughts on Apocalyptic Violence and the New Terrorism,” errs on the side of being too metaphorical. The War on Terror and the Clash of Civilizations have more than incidental apocalyptic elements. We ignore them at our peril.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Nobody's Home by Tim Powers: Book Review

Nobody’s Home: An Anubis Gates Story
by Tim Powers
80 pages
Published by Subterranean Press (2014)
ISBN 978-1-59606-670-0

Nobody’s Home is a beautifully illustrated little chapbook that is set in the world of Tim Powers’ 1983 novel The Anubis Gates. This is a Regency England ghost tale, taking place in the wild and woolly pre-Victorian London that could barely govern itself, wilder even than the London of Jack the Ripper. At a mere eighty pages, this is a tightly crafted story, one that moves along at a steady pace without too many distractions.

Since I am a big Tim Powers’ fan, I am curious how this book would come across to someone who isn’t familiar with The Anubis Gates, or even Powers’ general secret history style of writing. In my own experience, this can go one of two ways. You are either fascinated or deeply confused by his work. I suspect that Nobody’s Home would be much the same. I have conflicting evidence for this.

I think I would describe this book as something like fanservice, because Powers has returned to the setting of one of his greatest books more than thirty years later. Not only has he returned to a setting he has previously established, he has also incorporated the mechanics of ghosts and hauntings he narrated so convincingly in Expiration Date, the second book in the Fault Lines trilogy.

In addition, Subterranean Press puts out lots of fancy editions of Tim Powers’ books, many of which, like this one, have a list price of $35 USD for an eighty page book. This is a beautiful volume, but that seems a little steep! The market would appear to be devoted fans like myself.

On the other hand, I find that many of the reviews of this book dwell upon how short it is, or that it doesn’t dwell upon the mysteries of Powers’ fictional world at sufficient length. Since most of these reviews seem to be written by fans of Powers’ work, that makes me think that this is, in fact, a decent introduction that isn’t too convoluted. I would hope that with more than thirty years of experience, Powers would be able to craft something intriguing and accessible to more casual readers, while still offering the Tim Powers’ experience to his many fans.

With that in mind, I can say that I was rather satisfied by how Powers’ blended the time-traveling world of The Anubis Gates with his later ghost stories into a harmonious whole. I found it rather fun, and I wasn’t sad that this wasn’t a novel, because the novel already existed. I suppose I’m just strange.

I would be willing to lend this short story to someone who had never read Powers, in the hope that it might be intriguing enough that they would look up his other works. I also enjoyed this book as an artifact, in how it was clearly crafted for a fan like myself. This was a fun book, and I hope that it can be enjoyed in the spirit that spurred its creation.

My other book reviews

Other books by Tim Powers

Last Call
Expiration Date
Earthquake Weather

Forsake the Sky

Hide Me Among the Graves

The Long View 2006-12-20: Space Marines; Dissimulation; The Fall of Civilization

Space Marines, Anspach and Cole Style

Space Marines, Anspach and Cole Style

John Reilly links to Orson Scott Card’s Ornery American website in this post, which I hadn’t thought about in a very long time. When I see Card mentioned on Twitter, usually it is in combination with an adjective like “deplorable”, but in today’s context that mostly means he was insufficiently enthusiastic about gay marriage fast enough. I doubt many people mean essays like this one, which was written by a lifelong Democrat who was pretty jazzed about the War on Terror in 2006.

Which, I suppose makes sense, since the Democratic Party in practice has turned out to be as enthusiastic about projecting American power abroad as the George W. Bush administration was in 2006. Being on board with that isn’t a problem, although the timing might be awkward if anyone other than me read old stuff. Card is now beyond the pale for reasons entirely other than foreign policy.

Space Marines; Dissimulation; The Fall of Civilization

Space Marines? Very zippy. (HT to Instapundit):

The proposal, part of the Corps’s push toward greater speed and flexibility, is called Small Unit Space Transport and Insertion, or Sustain. Using a suborbital transport—that is, a vehicle that flies into space to achieve high travel speeds but doesn't actually enter orbit—the Corps will be able, in effect, to instantaneously deliver Marine squads anywhere on Earth. The effort is led by Roosevelt Lafontant, a former Marine lieutenant colonel now employed by the Schafer Corporation, a military-technology consulting firm working with the Marines. Insertion from space, Lafontant explains, makes it possible for the Marines—typically the first military branch called on for emergency missions—to avoid all the usual complications that can delay or end key missions. No waiting for permission from an allied nation, no dangerous rendezvous in the desert, no slow helicopter flights over mountainous terrain. Instead, Marines could someday have an unmatched element of surprise, allowing them to do everything from reinforce Special Forces to rescue hostages thousands of miles away....

The Marines expect to fly a prototype in 15 years, most likely a two-stage system using a carrier aircraft that will launch a lander into orbit from high altitude....According to international agreement, a nation’s airspace extends 50 miles from the Earth’s surface, just short of low orbit. A spacecraft would allow the U.S. to step over other countries and insert forces where they’re needed.

As that article points out, there would probably be some sentiment for redefining sovereign air space upward if the technology really existed to deploy conventional force over the 50-mile limit. As for the suborbital-transport concept itself, the term "flying brick" comes to mind. This is not so different from proposing to shoot the infantry out of a cannon and hope they will meet a friendly reception at the point of impact.

* * *

Here's a bit of fraud that is easily disposed of:

Some Muslims in Baltimore County say lessons involving Islam being taught to seventh- and 10th-graders in public schools are inaccurate....The [school] resource sheets state the Muslim prophet's "main goal was to get people to accept Allah and to spread the faith of Islam. Muhammad justified his attacks to his followers by explaining that to weaken those who opposed the spread of God's word was a virtue, and that those who fell in battle would be rewarded in heaven. Thus, the idea of the jihad became the holy war of the Muslims against 'the unbelievers.'"

This reference [says a representative of the Baltimore chapter of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee]inaccurately portrays Islam as a religion that embraces the use of force.

"Islamic teachings explicitly forbid coercing others to adopt the Islamic religion. Suicide is forbidden. The taking of innocent lives is forbidden. Yet the curriculum would have students believing otherwise," [the representative] said.

The concept of "forced conversion" in this context does not forbid the imposition of special taxes and civil disabilities on non-Muslims. In other words, pressure to convert is not proscribed. Quite the opposite: the jizya tax [also spelled jeziya or jizyah] on dhimmis is a feature of orthodox Muslim statecraft. The point is by no means theoretical. Hamas, for instance, is keen to impose the jizya on non-Muslims in the Palestinian territories, not least in Bethlehem.

* * *

How Our Civilization Can Fall is the title of a useful essay by Orson Scott Card. He takes his readers on a brief excursion through the twilight zone of postmodern historiography, which tried to argue, during the 1980s and '90s, that civilizations do not "fall"; they just become differently civilized. He gives that nonsense such answer as it deserves. He then goes on to consider the case of fifth-century Rome and of the Eastern Mediterranean at the time of the Minoan collapse. Neither provides a precise parallel to anything that can happen in the modern world. He does, however, find particular significance in the collapse of a society's strategic hinterland, the areas that are normally affected the least by catastrophe. Then he offers this scenario:

For a century, America has been the great cushion to absorb the shocks that might have brought down western civilization. ...As with Rome, the American military has been the wall behind which a system of safe trade has allowed an extraordinary degree of specialization and therefore mutually sustained prosperity....

Here's how it happens: America stupidly and immorally withdraws from the War on Terror, withdrawing prematurely from Iraq and leaving it in chaos. Emboldened, either Muslims unite against the West (unlikely) or collapse in a huge war between Shiites and Sunnis (already beginning). It almost doesn't matter, because in the process the oil will stop flowing.

And when the oil stops flowing, Europe and Japan and Taiwan and Singapore and South Korea all crash economically; Europe then has to face the demands of its West-hating Muslim "minority" without money and without the ruthlessness or will to survive that would allow them to counter the threat. The result is accommodation or surrender to Islam. The numbers don't lie -- it is not just possible, it is likely.

America doesn't crash right away, mind you. But we still have a major depression, because we have nowhere to sell our goods. And depending on what our desperate enemies do, it's a matter of time before we crash as well....What we don't make for ourselves anymore is ... everything else. We don't produce steel. We don't make most of our own computer equipment. We have exported our textile industry... That's when we find out just how much of our new "service" economy is smoke and mirrors, dependent entirely on the surpluses generated by the global system of trade.

And our own oil production cannot meet the demands of transportation and production at current levels...

We will go back to the rails. Only we won't have the money to rebuild and refurbish the railroad system -- it will only be able to limp along.

It will look, even inside the United States, amazingly like the shrinkage that happened at the time of the fall of Rome.

Then, and only then, will America look -- and be -- vulnerable to any kind of intervention from the south. Economies that are still somewhat primitive will recover faster than economies that are absolutely dependent on specialization.

It takes two generations for the dark ages to reach America. But they will come, if we allow this nightmare to begin. Because once you reach the tipping point, there's no turning back, as the Emperor Justinian discovered.

This is too economistic, I think, and the economic model misstates the case. It conflates depression with famine. A depression is a phenomenon of chaotic systems, essentially an information crisis. Recovery is difficult, because the control mechanisms have been corrupted. At any rate, that was the experience of the United States in the 1930s and Japan in the 1990s. In a genuine famine (as distinguished from one created as state policy) the price system is likely to convey information just fine, and the message that it conveys is "You are all going to die unless you do something clever right now." As a rule, people respond to this information with alacrity.

Let me put it this way: no civilization ever fell from lack of stuff.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-12-18: Class of the Year; Past the Apogee; The Latin Mass

This post by John J. Reilly was written about six months before the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum was published, giving universal permission to celebrate the Mass in the Latin Rite according to the pre-Vatican II rubrics. I have a pending review of the book A Bitter Trial, containing letters between Evelyn Waugh and other famous Catholics about the liturgical changes that came from Vatican II. It will be interesting to reflect on how things have changed in the last twelve years.

Class of the Year; Past the Apogee; The Latin Mass

I have won the Time Man of the Year award for the second time in my life, according to this report:

NEW YORK (AP) - Congratulations! You are the Time magazine "Person of the Year."...The annual honor for 2006 went to each and every one of us, as Time cited the shift from institutions to individuals - citizens of the new digital democracy, as the magazine put it. The winners this year were anyone using or creating content on the World Wide Web. ...It was not the first time the magazine went away from naming an actual person for its "Person of the Year." In 1966, the 25-and-under generation was cited; in 1975, American women were named; and in 1982, the computer was chosen.

The awarding of honors to classes of people was one of Ayn Rand's nightmares. On the other hand, I am also reminded of the time Norway awarded itself the Nobel Peace Prize in a show hosted by John Cleese. The show was entitled Norway, Land of Giants.
It was a joke. I think.

* * *

But speaking of nightmares, consider Past the Apogee: America Under Pressure, which Charles Krauthammer delivered at the Foreign Policy Research Institute's annual dinner last month:

When I wrote the article “The Unipolar Moment” (Foreign Affairs, Winter 1990/91), it achieved some renown because, remarkably, I was the only one saying at the time, that in fact, with the end of the Cold War, the United States would end up as the unipolar power, the dominant, hegemonic power in the world. There would be none even close to us in ranking. The old bipolar world would yield not to a multipolar world but to one with only one great influence, and that would be us. ...

Sept. 11 ushered in the second era of this unipolar era, which I would call the era of assertion, where the power that had been latent in America shows itself. I would date this era from 9/11 to the March 14, 2005, a date probably unfamiliar to you and not particularly renowned in our history today, but a date that I think will be remembered by historians as the apogee of American power, the peak of the arc of the unipolar era. ...

The Bush Doctrine held that besides attacking the immediate enemy who had perpetrated 9/11, it would have to engage in a larger enterprise of changing the underlying conditions which had given birth to this idea of Islamic radicalism, and to change the conditions that had allowed it to recruit and breed, particularly in the Arab world.

Let me interject that the Iraq War should be viewed as continuous with the Serbian War of a few years earlier: both were expressions of the original concept behind the United Nations, an organization grown too crooked to act even as a mask for serious efforts to carry out its original purpose.

After that, of course, was the swift initial victory in Iraq, in which the capital fell within three weeks. After that was a ripple effect in the region. Libya, seeing what we had done in Iraq, gave up its nuclear capacity; then the remarkable revolution in Lebanon in which Syria was essentially expelled. And that demarks the date that I spoke of. March 14 is the name of the movement in Lebanon of those who rose up against the Syrians and essentially created a new democracy—fragile, as we will see. You have all of these events happening at once: you have the glimmerings of democracy in the elections in Egypt, some changes even in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and of course what we had in January 2005 was the famous first election in Iraq, which had an electric effect on the region. That winter-spring of 2005, I think, is the apogee of this assertion of unipolarity and American power.

For a variety of reasons, however, the initial impulse dissipated:

Since this [is] an evening honoring Benjamin Franklin, I want to recall to you one of his most famous statements. When leaving the Constitutional Convention, he was asked what they had accomplished. His response was “A republic, if you can keep it.” What we have done in Iraq is given them a republic, but they appear unable to keep it.

This judgement could yet prove premature. Be that as it may, though, I am extremely skeptical of this assessment:

What is becoming clear is that the overall international strategic situation in which we had unchallenged hegemony for the first decade and half the unipolar moment is now over. We are seeing on the horizon the rise of something that is always expected in any unipolar era, which is an alliance of others who oppose us. ...What I think we are beginning to see now is Iran positioning itself at the center of a regional alliance against us, again with the—Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, Sadr—looking to overawe the entire region with the acquisition of nuclear weapons, which would make it the regional superpower. And Iran is receiving tacit backing for its regional and anti-American ambitions from two great powers: Russia and China. That, I think, is the structure of the adversary that we will be looking at for the decades to come.

Russia is supporting Iran, of course, but for commercial rather than strategic reasons. As for China, the remarkable thing is how little influence it attempts to exercise in the Middle East. The United States has, arguably, lost the Kantian Mandate of Heaven that perfect communion with the UN once afforded. We must wonder, though, whether the United States or the mandate has been discredited.

We have all been reading too much into the results of the recent congressional elections. They cannot signify the snapping of imperial over-stretch among an exhausted electorate, for the excellent reason that the electorate has been asked to sacrifice nothing. We also know for a fact that the country does not regard the loss of American lives in Iraq as intolerable: the military has been having no trouble meeting recruiting or reenlistment goals. George Bush was reelected in 2004 because he promised not to be Lyndon Johnson, a promise he broke. As for the behavior of the Republican Congress, the less said the better.

* * *

If we must over-interpret an election, this may be a good place to start:

Ultra-conservatives close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have failed to sweep twin Iranian elections with embattled moderate forces recording a respectable performance, initial results have showed. ...Centrist cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani appeared to have sprung a surprise by reaping by far the most votes and beating a hardline rival in the election for the Assembly of Experts, the body that chooses the supreme leader.

The chief reason to discount models in which Iran becomes the linchpin of an anti-American coalition is that the Iranians don't really have the inclination or, one suspects, the capacity for the political cohesion that would be necessary for such a role.

* * *

As for events in Iraq itself, I am not overly comforted by this report:

Civil war or not, Iraq has an economy, and -- mother of all surprises -- it's doing remarkably well. Real estate is booming. Construction, retail and wholesale trade sectors are healthy, too, according to a report by Global Insight in London. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports 34,000 registered companies in Iraq, up from 8,000 three years ago. Sales of secondhand cars, televisions and mobile phones have all risen sharply. Estimates vary, but one from Global Insight puts GDP growth at 17 percent last year and projects 13 percent for 2006. The World Bank has it lower: at 4 percent this year. But, given all the attention paid to deteriorating security, the startling fact is that Iraq is growing at all.

This development is as morbid as what is happening in Venezuela: in both cases, a transitory pure-consumption economy is masking the disintegration of productive activity. The real news here is that oil production in Iraq is recovering, which is some evidence that the government there really can do things that engage its enthusiasm.

* * *

At First Things, meanwhile, Fr. Neuhaus has commented on the Affair of the Blue Mosque, the incident during Benedict XVI's recent visit to Istanbul in which the pontiff prayed, or perhaps simply engaged in a moment of reflection, at a noted place of Muslim worship. Fr. Neuhaus comments chiefly by quoting John Allen of The National Catholic Reporter on the matter. Allen, of course, noted it would be absurd to read syncretism or relativism into anything done by Joseph Ratzinger. Fr. Neuhaus then goes on to say:

But a gloss is really not necessary.

To that I can only reply, "Yes it is." What the pope did was understandable; it may even have been unavoidable. However, it would be a grave mistake to think that it was costless.

* * *

In happier Benedictine news, we see from the latest rumors that the general permission to celebrate the Tridentine Latin Mass may be just days away. Reporters in the New York area who would like to see what an established Tridentine revival can look like might visit Holy Rosary parish here in downtown Jersey City. After the Sunday Mass in Latin, which usually ends around 11:15 AM, there is coffee and munchies in the basement. I am not really the guy to talk to, but you can contact me or the parish to set up interviews with some people who are.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-12-13: Waiting for the Mahdi; AH and Iraq; Christmas Kitsch

Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi in 2016  Mostafameraji [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi in 2016

Mostafameraji [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

I note that Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi did win election to the upper house in Iran in 2006, but that his party did not gain a majority in the legislature. The Wikipedia article is broadly consistent with Dr. Timothy Furnish’s description that John J. Reilly quotes here, but as this is pretty far outside my knowledge base, I don’t have much to add besides that.

I do like John’s use of Bayes’ Theorem in explaining millenarian decision making. In light of new information, what was previously crazy might not actually be crazy at all, if the new information is true.

John links here to a Youtube video of Julius Evola, and the years were not kind to the man. He actually looks a bit like Grandpa Munster in the film footage, whereas in his youth he was a rather dapper Dark Lord.

Finally, despite John’s caustic comment on the perennial Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life, I think Niall Gooch has the best defense of the movie’s merits.

Waiting for the Mahdi; AH and Iraq; Christmas Kitsch

As if the US Congressional elections were not exciting enough, an impending vote in Iran could be even more important, if we are to believe Patrick Poole:

A showdown over the control of the Islamic Republic of Iran is underway as the December 15th election of the Assembly of Experts, the top political body, rapidly approaches. The election of the Assembly of Experts has been a particularly contentious issue in Iran, as the traditionalist hardliners have already invalidated many candidates representing both the moderating party led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and the burgeoning extremist party led by President Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi.

The burden of that piece is that a victory by Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi would be unfortunate, because he is a millenarian of the first water in an eschatological tradition that views the eschaton as something one should help to bring about, not just to wait for. I cannot evaluate that assessment, since this is one of those areas I know only through secondary sources. However, Timothy R. Furnish of Mahdiwatch has a Ph.D in Islamic millenarianism, and he has this to say:

I think that his taking the helm there would virtually ensure eventual war with Israel and/or the U.S., for two reasons: Mesbah-Yazdi's geopolitical views – which include approval of first-use of nuclear weapons – make him perhaps the ultimate Shi`ite jihadist; and his eschatological fervor, which brings to mind previous historical examples of bloody Mahdist movements, such as Ibn Tumart of 12th century Morocco and Muhammad Ahmad of 19th century Sudan.

For my part, I would say that only very rarely does millenarianism in power take the form of a man with a plan who makes a nuisance of himself while trying to carry out a step-by-step agenda that leads to the eschaton. Rather, it encourages risk-taking by denigrating the importance of the present state of things, which is seen as merely transitional. It's really an instance of Bayes' Rule: a policy that might seem too risky in ordinary time appears less hazardous because of the added information about a possible future provided by the millenarian model.

* * *

Niall Ferguson seems to have become interested in Alternative History because the First World War, whose economic history was his original concern as a scholar, cries out for such an analysis. That's because it was obviously a war of choice, at least of choice about how and when the war broke out. That is also true of the Iraq War, which has also occasioned a great deal of AH speculation, either about the war itself, or about alternative-historical parallels. David Warren here favors us with an example of the latter:

I was rewriting history, while walking along some cold lakeshore the other day. My thought was: if Churchill had only come to power in 1937, Chamberlain would have been installed to replace him in 1940.

Had Churchill been in power, and refused to sign Munich, he would have been blamed for the outbreak of war.

I can just hear the prattle in an English pub, circa 1950. "He pushed Hitler to it! Had it not been for Churchill, Hitler would have been satisfied with the Sudetenland, and England would never have had to surrender. Everything was Churchill's fault!"

Today, everything is Bush's fault.

Actually, Germany's strategic position was much worse in September 1938 than a year later, when the war in Europe actually began. Russia was still unfriendly, there would have been time to send Poland serious support, and an invasion of Czechoslovakia would not self-evidently have been an easy matter. A war begun in 1938 would have been confused and tentative, but it might have been the better solution. One suspects the same will turn out to have been true of the Iraq War. Would 2008 really have been a better year if a nuclear-armed and millenarian Iran were then demanding that Saddam Hussein's government come clean about its WMD programs?

* * *

But if Bush is not to blame, then how about this fellow? Yes, unless I am mistaken, that is no less a person than Julius Evola (compare his picture here) speaking about the metaphysical significance of Dada. Here he is speaking in French with Italian subtitles. I'm working on it.

* * *

You think America is forgetting the meaning of Christmas, do you? Well, according to Jeff Jacoby, matters are much worse across the Atlantic:

FROM THE land that produced "A Christmas Carol" and Handel's "Messiah," more evidence that Christianity is fading in Western Europe: Nearly 99 percent of Christmas cards sold in Great Britain contain no religious message or imagery...But some Britons, not all of them devout, are resisting the tide. Writing in the Telegraph, editor-at-large Jeff Randall -- who describes himself as "somewhere between an agnostic and a mild believer" -- announces that any Christmas card he receives that doesn't at least mention the word "Christmas" goes straight into the trash. "

May I suggest that "A Christmas Carol" was the top of the slippery slope of which the "Seasons Greetings" card is the bottom? "A Christmas Carol" is a sentimental ghost story, excellent of its kind, but in no way intended to reinforce the religious significance of Christmas: rather the opposite, I suspect. In this it resembles Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, a nightmarish tale of existential dread.

And what have I done for Christmas art? I did this poster.


Anybody have a problem with that?

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Fst and Selection

Fst by number of migrants

Fst by number of migrants

Greg Cochran had an instructive Twitter exchange on Fst and adaption, which he expanded into a blog post at West Hunter.

Genetic similarity is usually described using the statistic Fst, fixation index. The fixation index is a useful number, but it doesn’t mean what a lot of people seem to think it means.

There are a variety of ways to calculate genetic similarity. Let’s look at the definition Greg gives:

Fixation index, via Greg Cochran

Fixation index, via Greg Cochran

N sub e m stands for number of migrants, with the sub e probably reminding you that it is a representation of people who not only moved into a new location, but successfully had kids, along with some simplifying assumptions. Since this is about gene flow, the mechanism is reproduction. If we take this formula, we can see what Fst looks like by number of migrants:

A plot of Fst values

A plot of Fst values

So when Greg says that the number of migrants per generation needed to keep populations genetically similar is 1, he is describing where the knee of that plot is. You get real big changes in Fst to the left of that point, but the plot is basically flat as the numbers of migrants go up.

I think I can see why people get confused. One migrant per generation seems trivially small. And it is! But what does this degree of genetic similarity really mean? Wikipedia has a chart taken from the International HapMap project:

Fst across the world

Fst across the world

An average number of migrants per generations equal to one gets you approximately the genetic distance between white Mormons in Utah plus some Italians (CEU) and the Yoruba people (YRI).

Yoruba dancers  Ayo Adewunmi [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Yoruba dancers

Ayo Adewunmi [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

In this context, we can see that similar is far from identical. Other than obvious differences in appearance, sub-Saharan Africans like the Yoruba often differ from Europeans in things like malaria resistance or salt retention, so there are real differences in addition to real similarities. In theory, Fst goes from zero to one, but in practice we see numbers of 0.16 or less.

Much of the argument on Twitter was whether you could get any real genetic differences by selection with an average number of migrants per generation around 1. It certainly seems possible to me! Fst is a pretty high level model, and in general is calculated looking at lots of different loci. For selection to occur, you only need the frequency of one gene to change [for simple adaptions], which could readily happen without affecting Fst estimates at all. Based on this, Fst isn’t real useful in determining whether selection occurred. You would be better off looking for selection directly.

Cobra book review

by Timothy Zahn
236 pages
Published by Baen (2015)

When I read the cover blurb for this book, I expected something like the Blackcollar series: military sci-fi about super soldiers, cyborgs in this case instead of pharmaceutically enhanced ninjas. That impression is completely wrong. While there are some battle scenes in this book, that isn’t really the focus. This isn’t really military sci-fi at all, but rather speculative fiction about politics using super soldiers as a thought experiment.

This is the second book I’ve read recently that looks at the problem of how a society would change if people appeared within it who were faster, stronger, and generally more dangerous than the norm. The first, Heroes Fall, was in the superhero genre. The reaction of that society to superhumans in their midst is mostly adulation, with a few generally ignored naysayers. The corruption of society is subtle and slow, underneath the public fanfare.

For the Dominion of Man, the seventy-world setting of Cobra, their cyborg super soldiers were created [perhaps in a bit of a panic] to help win a war, without much thought for what would come afterward. Men with unusual strength, automated reflexes, and lasers built into their fingertips are not universally loved once demobilized, especially when accidents and misunderstandings that escalate into things far worse start to occur.

Don’t poke the cyborg, even if he  is  a drifter

Don’t poke the cyborg, even if he is a drifter

I was reminded of David Morell’s First Blood, a novel that really captured the struggles of Vietnam veterans to find a place back home, or the ending of The Hurt Locker, when Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. James stands bewildered by the endless varieties of breakfast cereal in a supermarket. Men who did everything their government and society asked of them come home to find that they no longer have a home to return to.

The bulk of the book is taken up with the search for an acceptable political solution to the problems the Cobras pose to their society. Officially, the Cobras are war heroes. In the public eye, they are mostly objects of fear and loathing. Unofficially, the Central Committee that runs the Dominion considers them a threat; bored and frustrated former soldiers that have more in common with each other than their fellow citizens can become agents of revolution.

While we are treated to brief interludes within the halls of power on the planet Asgard, we mostly see this play out through the eyes of Jonny Moreau, a bright young man who volunteered to go off to war, and found that he was changed forever by the experience. We follow Moreau from young adulthood, when he volunteers for service, into middle age, when he brokers a deal to preserve hard won freedoms and privileges for his fellow Cobras at immense personal cost. I gather there are a number of sequels that follow from this book, as Zahn explores the further implications of Jonny Moreau’s actions at the end of this book.

Since this is hard sci-fi, many of the problems the Cobras face, both in battle and life, stem from the physical consequences of their modifications. During the bootcamp section of the book, the Cobra trainees spend time learning how to pick up unusually heavy things without tearing their ligaments or giving themselves subdermal hematomas. Their bones have been strengthened, and their strength and speed supplemented by servo motors, but the rest of their bodies remain much as they always were.

First and foremost, they are men, and they want the same things as anyone else: a job, a family, a home. Unfortunately, most other people don’t want them around. In a memorable incident in his home town after Jonny comes marching home, a couple of young punks hassle him in a local entertainment center, and then swerve their car towards him when they seem him walking on the street later. Jonny’s programmed combat reflexes take over [literally, COBRA means computerized body reflex armament], he shoots out the tires of the kids’ car and they both die in the resulting crash.

The reason this all happens is that the computer implanted in the brain cannot be removed with causing brain damage, and the finger lasers cannot be removed without amputation, and that was a price the Central Committee was unwilling to pay [or unwilling to be seen to be willing to pay]. Although, I did wonder why they didn’t do something about the power source, which was implanted in the chest, and thus much easier to get to. Much of the other equipment Jonny carried into war was successfully removed, but none of it other than the strengthened bones would work without power. I do remember reading about how much heavier their bodies got, so maybe it was seen as too much of a burden to leave them with limbs too heavy to lift. Perhaps this could have been explored a bit more.

The Central Committee itself is interesting, insofar as it really is an Inner Party. The Central Committee almost functions as a character, one analogous to Lathe in the Blackcollar novels or Thrawn in Heir to the Empire, powerful and far-seeing, capable of predicting its opponents and laying traps. It is also quite good at governing, since the Dominion of Man seems quite peaceful and prosperous. Except, in this case, everything that happens is because the Central Committee made a mistake in even allowing the Cobras to be created. Over the many years depicted in the novel, we see the Central Committee continue to dominate, but also to make critical mistakes at times. I enjoyed how Zahn took a central idea in his style and inverted it, making the the clever and powerful Central Committee the antagonist.

I also liked the broad sweep of the novel, covering several decades in the life of Jonny Moreau. Since the kind of things Zahn wants to explore in this novel take a long time to work themselves out, nothing shorter than a generation would have been adequate. Looking through the blurbs for the many sequels, we will continue to follow the Moreau family as the implications of Jonny’s solution work themselves out over the generations to follow. Overall, this was an interesting novel, and I’m curious to see where Zahn decided to take the society he created in the conclusion of this book.

My other book reviews

Thrawn: Alliances

Other books by Timothy Zahn

Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review
The Domino Pattern: Quadrail book 4 review
Judgement at Proteus: Quadrail book 5 review


Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

The Blackcollar: Blackcollar series book 1 review
The Backlash Mission: Blackcollar series book 2 review

Starcraft: Evolution

Cascade Point and Other Stories

The Long View 2006-12-07: Iraq Study Group; Vladimir the Poisoner; Space Colonization

Alexander Litvinenko dying of polonium poisoning

Alexander Litvinenko dying of polonium poisoning

The Patrick Buchanan article John links to here looks a little batshit [OK, more than a little] in retrospect, given that Vladimir Putin has whacked a number of political enemies inside and outside of Russia in the years since.

Iraq Study Group; Vladimir the Poisoner; Space Colonization

If you insist on reading the whole thing (and I have not yet done so) the report of the Iraq Study Group is here. However, Richard Fernandez has offered what seems to be a balanced assessment at Pajamas Media and at The Belmont Club. He says the report gives a useful description of the situation in Iraq and Iraq's role in the region. The report makes no fewer than 79 recommendations, but he says they come down to these:

* creating a forum at which Iraqís neighbors will be invited to exert their influence in the internal affairs of Iraq;

* linking the legitimization of Iranís nuclear program to any help it can provide to stabilize Iraq; and

* linking Iraq to a comprehensive solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

As the Pajamas Media piece puts it even more briefly:

The intractable is combined with the insoluble.

Is this stupidity or subtlety? As other commentators have noted, the ISG Report is precisely the opposite of a plan for American disengagement from the Middle East, much less from Iraq. The report seems to exclude the possibility of a military withdrawal. Since its explicit recommendations are unworkable and mutually exclusive, they cannot actually be used to embarrass the Bush Administration. The effect, and perhaps the purpose, of the report is nothing more than to give the Administration a few more months to reconstruct the political situation in Iraq.

Readers of Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy will be reminded of the semantic analysis that the Mayor of Terminus ordered done on the statements of the imperial ambassador at the time of the Foundation's first crisis. The ambassador spoke lucidly for a week, the analysis concluded, but did not say a damn thing.

* * *

Oh, that Pat, I thought last week when I saw that Patrick Buchanan was asking whether President Vladimir Putin was the real victim in the poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko, whose last words, almost, were an indictment of Putin. Buchanan wants to know: Is Putin Being Set Up?

Why would the Russian president, at the peak of his popularity, with his regime awash in oil revenue and himself playing a strong hand in world politics, risk a breach with every Western nation by ordering the public murder of a man who was more of a nuisance than a threat to his regime?

Litvinenko, after all, made his sensational charges against the Kremlin that the KGB blew up the Moscow apartment buildings, not Chechen terrorists, as a casus belli for a war on Chechnya and that he had refused a KGB order to assassinate oligarch Boris Berezovsky in the late 1990s. Of late, Litvinenko has been regarded as a less and less credible figure, with his charges of KGB involvement in 9-11 and complicity in the Danish cartoons mocking Muhammad that ignited the Muslim firestorm....

Scotland Yard has yet to declare this a murder case and is looking into the possibility of a "martyrdom operation" suicide dressed up like murder in which Litvinenko may have colluded. The Putin-dominated Russian press is pushing this line, as well as the idea of an oligarchs' plot to discredit Putin and destroy Russia's relations with the West.

I have, alas, reached the point when I suspect any defense of the Russian government to be evidence of creeping Eurasianism. But what, then, to make of today's report, Radioactive spy's coffin barred from mosque:

The final tragedy for poisoned Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko unravelled today as his family were denied the Muslim funeral he had wished for...

Mr Litvinenko, 43, who was poisoned with a lethal dose of polonium-210, converted to Islam shortly before his death in a London hospital exactly two weeks ago.

Was the late Litvinenko a would-be jihadi who had found a way to subvert the enemies of Muslim Chechnya that would be far more effective than a mere explosion? Then this report puts him in an even worse light:

The FBI has been dragged into the investigation of Alexander Litvinenko's death after details emerged that he had planned to make tens of thousands of pounds blackmailing senior Russian spies and business figures. The Observer has obtained remarkable testimony from a Russian academic, Julia Svetlichnaja, who met Litvinenko earlier this year and received more than 100 emails from him. In a series of interviews, she reveals that the former Russian secret agent had documents from the FSB, the Russian agency formerly known as the KGB. He had asked Svetlichnaja, who is based in London, to enter into a business deal with him and 'make money'.

Profiteering and aggressive suicide are not mutually exclusive, though it seems odd to do one while doing the other. But does any of this fit with murder-suicide?

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Dmitry Kovtun, a contact of dead Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko, is in critical condition in hospital from radiation poisoning, Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed source as saying on Thursday.

I am sorry that all these people are dead or sick, and I don't want to blacken anyone's reputation on the basis of mere speculation, but Russia continues to be one of those countries where Occam's Razor does not cut very deep.

* * *

There is news about pleasanter places. As I am sure most of us know, NASA is promising to return to the Moon, this time to establish a permanent base at the south pole, about 2020. NASA has also followed up from a report last year with good (though not incontrovertible) evidence of flowing water on Mars today.

Well, it's nice work if you can get it, but I have been looking at artists' conceptions of lunar colonies for so long that now I wonder why the artists' conceptions are so threadbare. If there is a law against designing a building on the Moon that people might want to live in?


There are good reasons for putting a base at the Moon's southern pole, but I am not comforted by the comparison with the Antarctic bases. Politics and environmentalism prevented serious human settlement of Antarctica; the bases would simply be abandoned if a few countries made trivial changes to their funding of scientific research. Has anyone ever been born in Antarctica? (Well, yes: a few.)

As for Mars, should settlement occur, it will occur not with the sense of beginning the human extraterrestrial story, but ending it. Short of some great breakthrough in physics, it's not clear that the human race could reach any planets outside the Solar System, and none of the other planets within it are suitable for terraforming (assuming that Mars is suitable). Even so, the architecture being considered would be no better than on the Moon. I don't think that modern architecture will be transferrable between planets, however. Martian settlements, should there be such a thing, will not be modern societies

That picture is from the Gobi Desert, by the way, but it looks more Martian than an artist's conception. [BE I can’t find the picture John used to have here, but I’m sure you can find images of the Gobi that match the description given.]

* * *

And what do we mean by genuinely after-modern? The change would be not so much a matter of high theory (the theories would become heirlooms) as of folkways. Perhaps we see this kind of thing happening when David Clarke looks back at some religious interpretations of UFO phenomena:

So why did the demonic theory of UFOs become such a popular explanation from the late 1960s and early 1970s on? And how many ufologists and, indeed, members of the public, give credence to this idea today?

It is, of course, absurd to believe that UFOs are either modern extraterrestrial vehicles or after-modern demons. They are Sidhe.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

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The Long View 2006-12-04: Chaos, Social Darwinism, Patronage Socialism

John J. Reilly poo-poohs criticizing the high cousin marriage rate in the Middle East, but it really is bad…..

Genetics wasn’t really one of his interests, but I thought it was more widely known that cousin marriage makes your kids dumber and sicker than they would be otherwise.

Chaos, Social Darwinism, Patronage Socialism

Does that Other Spengler have the Middle East in a nutshell?

What formerly were civil wars (or prospective civil wars) in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine have become three fronts in a Sunni-Shi'ite war, in which the local contestants are mere proxies. This is obvious in Lebanon, and becoming so in Palestine ...[The new configuration for the region could be something like] the great German civil war, namely the 30 Years' War of 1618-48. The Catholic and Protestant Germans, with roughly equal strength, battered each other through two generations because France sneakily shifted resources to whichever side seemed likely to fold. I have contended for years that the United States ultimately will adopt the perpetual-warfare doctrine that so well served Cardinal Richelieu and made France the master of Europe for a century ...Iran, I warned on September 13, 2005, is running short of oil and soldiers...Its oil exports could fall to zero within only 10 years, according to new studies reviewed in the December 11 Business Week. Iran's circumstances appear far more pressing than I believed a year ago,

We tried very much the policy Spengler suggests, in the long war between Iraq and Iran. One side eventually won.

* * *

Chaos has other advocates. To loose mere anarchy upon the world, in fact, is one of the options that Paul Starobin explores in his National Journal piece, Beyond Hegemony:

As the science writer James Gleick reminds in "Chaos," his 1987 best-seller, "chaos and instability" are "not the same at all." The essence of a chaotic system is not an absence of balance but an inherent unpredictability. Thus, weather patterns and the stock market have a chaotic quality -- but they are not lacking in self-adjusting orderly principles. So it might be in a footloose world without any hegemon.

In this regard, Thomas L. Friedman -- a New York Times columnist, an inveterate optimist, and the advancer of the idea that, as the title of his best-selling book puts it, "The World Is Flat" -- offered an intriguing idea at a recent forum in Washington sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The world of the last half-century has been tracing an arc, Friedman said. The Cold War was the bipolar world, with the U.S. and the Soviet Union keeping things in check, and this stage, he continued, was followed by the unipolar world of American dominance -- which, in turn, is already starting to give way to a decentralized one in which the key force is not any one state or set of states but the technologically empowered individual.

All this is in aid of the latest recrudescence of Declinism, the thesis advanced in the late 1980s by Paul Kennedy to the effect the US would soon be joined by peer powers: Japan and Europe certainly, and perhaps more. Pretty much none of the forecasts that Kennedy made have been borne out by latter events, though the piece allows Kennedy some self-congratulatory quotes. In fact, in the list of prospective peer powers we are given, India is the only one without imploding demographics or a Potemkin financial system or both. Even with regard to Iraq, we should note that none of the supposed poles of a future multipolar world seem much interested in actually planting themselves in the region. The return of Declinism is really just part of a campaign by transnational institutions, and particularly the UN, to use the political embarrassment of the Bush Administration to reestablish their credibility. However, it is only after taking us through speculation about China World and Plurality World that the author takes us to the World World scenario:

It may be that the E.U. model -- more than the talkathon United Nations one -- could serve as the blueprint of a future World Government. Today the euro, tomorrow the universo -- with an image of Kant on the bill? (If you think the restaurant fare is good in Brussels now, wait until it becomes the capital of the planet.) But if the E.U. precedent holds, it could take not only the end of American hegemony but also some kind of global catastrophe -- akin to World War II but on an even larger scale -- to establish a World Government with the power to enforce its own "world security" policy.

The piece actually makes a reference to the way a world government is formed in the Left Behind books, but tactfully omits reference to the Rapture.

* * *

Here is a review of John Derbyshire's review of Mark Steyn's America Alone. (My own review, in length comparable to Derbyshire's, is here.) Derbyshire tells us:

A literary and stylistic gem like America Alone might be utterly wrong-headed; but one would be much more reluctant to think so than one would in the case of a dull, clumsily-written book on the same subject....

For someone so impressed by the book, Derbyshire seems oddly uninterested in Steyn's central argument about the unsustainability of below-replacement birthrates:

Birthrates are dropping everywhere, even in Muslim countries, even in non-Israeli Palestine. This is just a feature of our postindustrial age, and it’s unlikely there is anything we can do about it, or should want to...The earth’s surface is finite, after all...

Does Derbyshire dismiss the concept of social reform? We get a clue to that later. For now, let's see what he says when he's trying to be helpful:

[T]he reader who has traversed those 200 pages has been having different thoughts from the ones Steyn tries to guide him to. For example: Is that original list of options—submit to, destroy, or reform Islam—really exhaustive? How about we just fence it off...

I put the book down at last, though, wondering if it is pessimistic enough. For all his splendid conservative credentials, Mark Steyn has tendencies towards root-causes liberalism. [Quoting Steyn] "John Derbyshire began promoting the slogan 'Rubble doesn't Cause Trouble.' Cute, and I wish him well with the T-shirt sales. But in arguing for a 'realist' foreign policy of long-range bombing as necessary, he overlooks the very obvious point that rubble causes quite a lot of trouble..." Ah, but Mark, there is rubble, and there is rubble. ...I am, in fact, willing to confess myself a collateral-damage armchair warrior, who would be happy to see us trade in our inventory of smart laser-guided precision munitions for lots and lots and lots of old-style iron bombs

Well, maybe not very helpful. In any case, we eventually discover that his embrace of popular sociobiology probably has disabled his ability to think about social issues:

And there are, of course, as must always be pointed out nowadays, the Great Unmentionables...Nothing is about race, because there is no such thing as race. (Repeat 100 times.) It’s about culture—the aether, the phlogiston, of current social-anthropological speculation, whose actual nature is mysterious, but whose explanatory power is infinite...Good, solid scientific studies are beginning to appear that altogether refute the “culture” paradigm. We are not a uniform species...What of those Muslim Middle-Eastern family trees? The ones labeled “Arab Shia,” “Iranian Shia,” “Mesopotamian Sunni,” “Saudi” (that’s the one with a 55 percent cousin-marriage rate), and so on? Can they, with a little help and encouragement, make harmonious, consensual modern societies out of themselves?

I am perfectly willing to believe that the reaction of early 20th-century cultural anthropologists to Social Darwinism occasioned quite a lot of bogus research. However, Social Darwinism was pretty bogus, too; it's still bogus if you recast it in genetic and neurobiological terminology. Just glance above at Spengler's allusion to the Thirty Years' War, when the Germans blew each other up at least as efficiently as the Sunni and Shia of today. Maybe the German genes have changed. More likely, the same genes have more than one mode of expression.

* * *

If you must recast conservatism in Darwinian terms, then start with this item at Right Reason:

[L]arry Arnhart, recently responded on his blog to [RR's] review of his book, Darwinian Conservatism. [RR's] review, which was published under the title, "Natural Law Without a Lawgiver," just appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of The Review of Politics (68.4, pp. 680-82). You can find a pdf of it on [RR's] website....

I'm a great fan of paleontology, and also of popular genetics, but the problem with Darwinism as a pure method is that it explains imaginary animals as readily as real ones. The same, I am afraid, goes for sociobiological accounts of human societies.

* * *

Some political systems are obviously doomed, of course, not least among them Hugo Chavez's patronage socialism:

The boom [in Venezuela] is evident in an economy that has put financial speculation and conspicuous consumption ahead of domestic manufacturing. For instance, foreign automobile companies Ford and General Motors will sell 300,000 cars in the country this year. Economists describe Venezuela as a “harbor economy” because of its lust for imported goods...

Some Chávez economic policies draw inspiration from formulas used with mixed results by countries in the developing and industrialized worlds the 1960s and 1970s. These include price controls for food and gasoline, strict limits on buying and selling foreign currency and caps on everything from lending rates at banks to hourly fees at parking lots....Despite boasting of some of South America’s most fertile land in an area the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined, Venezuela still imports more than half its food, largely from the United States and Colombia. An overvalued currency, meanwhile, has been disastrous for Venezuelan industry with the number of manufacturing companies falling to about 8,000 today from 17,000 in 1998, according to Mr. Guerra, the former economist at the central bank.

Castro promised his people blood, sweat, and tears: he stayed in power by meeting the low expectations he had created. Chavez promises ice cream and lollipops, which he can deliver, until the next collapse in oil prices.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Something Rotten

To start the New Year off, let’s jump into a book review by John J. Reilly of a series I am entirely unfamiliar with!

Something Rotten: A Novel
By Jasper Fforde
Viking, 2004
385 Pages, US$24.95
ISBN 0-670-03359-6

A Review in Dialogue
By John J. Reilly


NURSE: “Doctor, he's starting to come out of it.”

DOCTOR: “Thank you, Nurse Dreadful. Wake up, Mr. Lector! How many did you take?”

PATIENT: “Hunh? How many what did I take? I deny everything. Get me a lawyer!”

DOCTOR: “We have to know how many Thursday Next novels you've read.”

PATIENT: “What makes you think I've been reading Thursday Next novels?”

DOCTOR: “You overdosed on Literary Conceit. We just pumped four liters of Running Gags out of your stomach. The swelling of your Pun Glands alone could prove fatal.”

PATIENT: “Just one, doctor. It was an accident: someone slipped it to me in a pile of used books...”

NURSE: “If he's been reading them since The Eyre Affair, doctor, we might as well just send him to the Obituary wing right now.”

PATIENT: “No, please! I've read only Something Rotten. I can beat this thing. I swear!”

DOCTOR: “It could be tough. We may have to kill off your literary sense entirely with weekly doses of Gender Analysis. First, though, we have to gauge the overload to the High Concept region of your brain. Can you describe the book?”

PATIENT: “Just snatches, doctor. I remember the Cheshire Cat's surprise that an 'alligator' is not someone who makes an allegation. And I remember how wrong I was for thinking that Uncle Mycroft's Ovinator was a machine for processing eggs.”

DOCTOR: “Yes, it may never be safe for you to open an etymological dictionary again. But can you remember anything about the book's premise?”

PATIENT: “It hurts my head!”

NURSE: “If we can get him to Obituaries now, doctor, we can leave the paperwork to the next shift.”

PATIENT: “The premise is that of all the Thursday Next novels. There is a technology called the Prose Portal that lets people travel through fiction like they travel through time in other stories, except that they also travel in time in these books. Thursday Next is the name of an agent for a sort of police force called 'Jurisfiction,' which is dedicated to keeping fiction stable.”

DOCTOR: “What exactly are they guarding against?”

PATIENT: “Left to themselves, the genres will fade into each other. H.G. Wells's Martians might invade Victorian novels, for instance, or the characters in one story might try to merge it with another story. 'King Lear' was originally two separate plays: 'The Daughters of Lear' and 'The Sons of Gloucester.' That merger was stable, so Jurisfiction left well enough alone; and once it was done, it was how literature had always been, as far as anyone could remember. One of the subplots in Something Rotten is about preventing a similar merger called 'The Merry Wives of Ellsinore.' Hamlet has to be taken into the real world for his own protection.”

DOCTOR: “Is this real world like our real world?”

PATIENT: “At rare points. It's always 1988. England was occupied during the Second World War. There are zeppelins rather than jets. Wales is an independent socialist republic. An aging vaudevillian and former freedom-fighter named George Formby is President of England. He is the only thing that prevents Chancellor Yorrick Kaine, a minor character who escaped from a bad romance novel, from becoming dictator. To that end, Kaine foments hatred against Denmark. It ties into the Hamlet business, you see.”

DOCTOR: “And Thursday Next is part of the effort to frustrate Chancellor Kaine?”

PATIENT: “Yes, if she can avoid being killed by an assassin called the Windowmaker.”

DOCTOR: “Could you say that again?”

PATIENT: “The Windowmaker. Doctor, the textual resonance in my ears is getting louder and louder!.”

DOCTOR: “Just stay conscious and you'll pull through. Do you remember anything about Uncle Mycroft's Memory Erasure Machine?”

PATIENT: “I do and I don't. All the details run together: the World Croquet Championship, the home cloning kits, the dodos and the Neanderthals. I seem to remember that Hamlet becomes an alpha dodo before he returns to the play. Doctor, do we have to keep going over this? I'm developing a rictus again!”

DOCTOR: “You should be fine, Mr. Lector, provided you stay on a low-irony diet for the next few weeks. No reruns of The Simpsons; no Marx Brothers movies. Nothing for you but Business Week and books on natural history; maybe some public affairs programs, but not from FOX! You had a close call, Mr. Lector: the least witticism could still push you over the edge. Nurse Dreadful, take this man to the Noam Chomsky Ward.”

The nurse bent over the gurney to push it into the hall, and Mr. Lector glanced at her uniform's blouse. His eyes widened. His body convulsed and arched like a tortured metaphor. Then he fell back. The man was dead.

On the nurse's blouse was a small, black nametag, incised with white lettering. Her first name was PENNY.

The reviewer takes no responsibility for the effects of Thursday Next books on the emotional or physical well-being of readers. Any complaints should be directed to the Toast Marketing Board. That's an inside joke. Another one.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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Serenity City: Heroes Fall Book Review

The Rampage – The Rage of Achilles  Artist:  Andy Duggan

The Rampage – The Rage of Achilles

Artist: Andy Duggan

Heroes Fall: A Heroes Unleashed Novel
by Morgon Newquist
Published by Silver Empire (2018)

I received a free copy of this book via Booksprout. Thanks to the author, Morgon Newquist, for reaching out on Twitter. I’m always happy to review new stuff.

As soon as I finished the first chapter, I was hooked. If this chapter didn’t start life as a short story, I think it could easily have stood alone, and been a damn fine piece of work. Each character comes to life in a few short pages, and the stage is set for everything that follows from the unexplained tragedy of the Rampage. I wept a little bit when I read it the first time, and then I wept again when I read it again at the end, now knowing why.

The question this book asks is: what is the greatest weakness of a superhero?

Achilles’ Heel  No machine-readable author provided. Tasoskessaris assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Achilles’ Heel

No machine-readable author provided. Tasoskessaris assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

One might guess from the eponymous Achilles, the disgraced hero who nearly destroyed the city he was supposed to protect, that each and every superhero has their characteristic weakness, a secret that can be used to defeat them. While this is true, it isn’t as interesting as the realization that heroes [and villains] share our fallen human nature, no matter their powers, and are just as prone to vanity, foolishness, and moral turpitude.

A man who cannot control his passions is forever weak, no matter how much he can lift.

This sets the stage for Newquist’s world-building, which is about the kind of society that would emerge when powers can get you fame, influence, or money, but no one has been granted unusual wisdom or exceptionally good judgment beyond human ken.

In Serenity City, being a superhero is much like being an Instagram personality: a pretty facade hiding a winner-take-all mad dash for endorsements where appearance rules all. Into this cutthroat and remorseless world steps Victoria Westerdale, our young heroine and POV character. She is young, but not young enough not to be disillusioned by the phoniness and media-whoring of the hero business.

This cover shot of Victoria makes me think there must be a “ Boyfriends of Serenity City ” Instagram account that pokes fun at the guy who took the picture when Victoria posed after beating all those guys up.  Cover art by Kasia Suplecka and Steve Beaulieu

This cover shot of Victoria makes me think there must be a “Boyfriends of Serenity City” Instagram account that pokes fun at the guy who took the picture when Victoria posed after beating all those guys up.

Cover art by Kasia Suplecka and Steve Beaulieu

As the story progresses, we learn just how deeply Victoria was wounded by that world, and why she fled from her chance at fame and fortune for a walk up flat in the bad part of town and the night shift at a seedy convenience store. Nearly twenty years after Achilles fought his former friend and colleague Pendragon, devastating the city, Victoria finds herself drawn into all of the unanswered questions that lingered from that terrible day. Her inability to let this mystery go is in part because the answers give her the ability to finally stop running away from her own past.

Heroes Fall is the first novel in a shared universe, funded by a Kickstarter campaign. The other four authors are J.D. Cowan, Kai Wai Cheah, Jon Mollison, and Richard Watts. I’ve previously reviewed a short story by Kai Wai Cheah, so I’m likely to give at least the initial five novels a read. Given how much I enjoyed Heroes Fall, I am looking forward to Newquist’s sequels as well.

My other book reviews

The Long View: Two Scientists

Albert Einstein and Marie Curie

Albert Einstein and Marie Curie

This essay from John is an extended reflection on the lives of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, who were famous at about the same time for about the same reason.

One hundred years later, I note that famous people’s personal lives are approximately as scandalous now as they were then. The mid-twentieth century placed a big premium on at least the appearance of propriety, and perhaps even encouraged it some, but the fin de siècle and Edwardian eras were a little bit more rowdy.

Because of Tim Powers’ novel Three Days to Never, I was familiar with Einstein’s martial adventures, but Curie’s were new to me. There is a fair bit here on the context in which both scientists’ work went on, which is handy if you like to see how everything fits together.

Two Scientists:
Common Topics in Biographies of
Albert Einstein and Marie Curie

An Essay
John J. Reilly

Toward the end of 2006, I happened to read back-to-back the biographies of two scientists who rose to prominence around 1900: Denis Brian’s Einstein (1997) and Susan Quinn’s Marie Curie (1996). Albert Einstein’s dates are 1879 – 1955 and Marie Curie’s (born Maria Sklodowska) are 1867 – 1934. To some extent their areas of study overlapped, so it’s not surprising that they often met, or even that their families sometimes vacationed together. Nonetheless, I was struck by the parallels in their lives, so much so that I began to wonder whether the parallels lay primarily in the lives of these contemporaneous people or in the interests of their contemporaneous biographers.

The biographies emphasize that both began as marginal, even bohemian figures, and ended their careers in that eminence beyond emeritus that attaches to the founders of major institutions. Einstein’s prestige saved the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton from becoming just a make-work project for émigré Europeans, while the French state eventually created the Radium Institute to accommodate the Widow Curie. They both won Nobel Prizes: Curie twice, once for physics in 1903 with her husband Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, and again for chemistry in 1911 on her own. She is the only person so far to win two Nobel prizes. Both her prizes were connected with the accomplishment she is famous for, the discovery and refinement of radium. Einstein received his prize in 1921 for his early work on the photoelectric effect rather than for relativity. Both Curie and Einstein became celebrities before the term was invented. Both had scandalous personal episodes that these biographies treated with similar, lengthy sympathy, though Einstein and his executors did a good job of keeping his scandal confidential until long after his death.

Maria Sklodowska’s outsider status rested on being Polish, and a woman, and an agnostic; in the first and third points she resembled her father. She came from a landless branch of the numerous Catholic gentry in the Russian-controlled part of Poland. Both her parents were teachers in Warsaw. Her biographer emphasizes just what an odd place Russian Poland was. The official language of instruction in the schools, even the private schools, was Russian. This led on one hand to the preparation of Potemkin curricula to show the state inspectors when they came to visit, and on the other to remarkably high levels of illiteracy. Still, readers will be struck by how much less onerous the Russian Empire was than Poland’s later status as a nominally independent ally of the USSR. Apparently, people, goods, and money could flow to and from Poland without much difficulty.

When the time came for Maria to consider a place for higher education (which really was impossible for women in Poland at the time), the options were St. Petersburg or Paris: Berlin was not even on the screen. That, perhaps, tells us something about the cultural spheres of influence in Eastern Europe at this period. When Marie, as she was soon known, arrived at the Sorbonne, she was very unusual in being a female student but less so by being a foreigner. The two actually went together: a far higher percentage of foreign students were women than could be found among the native French students.

Einstein was an outsider in part because he was Jewish, but far more because of his personal eccentricities. His family was not observant. His biographer describes how Einstein’s parents took care to dampen an episode of adolescent piety on their son’s part. Einstein was born in Germany, but spent much of his youth in Italy, where his father and uncle operated one of a series of unsuccessful electrical engineering firms. His biographer points out that Einstein was a pretty good nuts-and-bolts engineer. He held several patents, for instance, and continued to freelance as a patent consultant long after he had become a famous physicist. Curie’s biographer makes much the same claims for her subject: after all, Curie received two Nobel prizes for practicing table-top physics on a nearly industrial scale. Later, as a director of a government-subsidized institute, she managed what was in effect a small processing-plant for heavy elements.

Einstein’s early academic career was spent largely in Switzerland, with a brief posting to Prague in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Again, the biographer is keen to make Eastern Europe seem as surreal as possible. In contrast to Curie, he was not a super-student. He was obviously very good at math and physics: he was able to secure just enough faculty patronage to ensure that his weaknesses in other areas were overlooked. He was not aggressive or confrontational, but he had no gift for faculty politics. He was the sort of person who would appear at an important social event not wearing socks. He wasn’t being rude; he would just forget. Once he had colleagues rather than superiors, however, he was able to develop the personal contacts that would secure him an appointment in 1914 at the University of Berlin. There he would remain until leaving Europe for Princeton in 1933.

Pierre and Marie Curie would have one of the great collaborative marriages in the history of science. Pierre Curie was older than Marie (his dates are 1859 – 1906). He came from yet another agnostic family, which was not so odd in academic France at the time, but he was very unusual in not having passed through the great preparatory schools. He was home-schooled; then he just showed up at the Sorbonne and started passing tests. He shared Einstein’s ineptitude for professionally advantageous socializing, but the lack of institutional alternatives to the Sorbonne in the French system may actually have helped to keep his professional progress steady. The Curies had two daughters, one of whom, Irène, would become a physicist and marry Frédéric Joliot: they became another noted husband-and-wife scientific team.

The interesting thing about the personal life of Einstein is that he tried to do just that with one Mileva Maric. She had been a science student, too. Unfortunately, she was not only not a super-student, she was unable to pass the Swiss qualifying exams that would have allowed her to teach science. They would have a daughter out of wedlock, whom Einstein insisted on giving up for adoption. He lost track of the child, but later dreaded the effect on his reputation should she make public her connection with him. He and Mileva married and later had two sons. The trajectory of their marriage seems to have been that, first, they could talk about science; then they could talk about domestic matters; then they could not talk at all. Einstein made no effort to remain faithful, and while he never abandoned Mileva in the sense of leaving her and his sons without support, the tale of the collapse of the marriage does him little credit. They divorced in 1919, against Mileva’s wishes. Albert later married his cousin, one Elsa Löwenthal, who never aspired to be his intellectual equal.

All these people were affected, more or less, by the intellectual fashions of their time. Einstein was mildly interested in spiritualism, at least to the extent of being persuaded that some reports of psychical phenomena were true, but he never pursued the matter. Pierre Curie, in contrast, was an enthusiast and a frequent participant at séances. Marie seems to have been persuaded, too, but like Einstein, she never chose to devote her own time to research in this area. Perhaps in a victory of ideology over the metaphysical impulse, both Curies felt that Émile Zola had said all that needed to be said when he attacked the reports of miracles at Lourdes. It would be inaccurate to call Einstein an atheist, or even an agnostic: he had a strong mystical streak, and though he repeatedly insisted he did not believe in a personal God, he made quite a few references to the Lord that do not seem to have been meant wholly metaphorically.

Einstein and the Curies were “people of the Left” in a general sort of way, but none was particularly interested in politics. Nonetheless, Marie’s academic career after the death of her husband in a traffic accident was affected by the Dreyfusard – anti-Dreyfusard structure which the politics of the Third Republic retained long after the Dreyfus Affair itself had been resolved.

Marie Curie was an obvious candidate when an opening became available for membership in the French Academy. However, there was another, somewhat senior, scientific candidate, one associated with the Catholic Institute, who had respectable qualifications. Curie’s work had been more important, but she was young and it was arguably the older candidate’s turn. This was the sort of question about which reasonable people could differ, but the anti-Dreyfusard press in particular was not in the business of being reasonable. Through some newspaper alchemy, Marie Curie became the candidate of a Jewish-atheist cabal at the Sorbonne, a cabal that sought to undermine French family life by touting the accomplishments of a woman working outside the home. We are informed that, even then, the French were worried about demographic collapse because of low birthrates: a reasonable point, though we should also note that France would have actually lost population in the first half of the 20th century had it not been for immigration from Eastern Europe. For whatever reason, Curie lost the election. That would not have been very important, were it not for the fact that the press had assigned her an ideological category and would react accordingly when she next became a figure of public note.

Marie Curie came close to public disgrace when, not long after the affair of the French Academy, she was revealed as The Other Woman in a different sort of affair, this one concerning the separation of her colleague, Paul Langevin, from his wife.

Langevin was an important physicist: Einstein once named him the person most likely to have formulated Special Relativity if Einstein had not done so first. In any case, by his own account, Langevin had a singularly unhappy marriage. His wife was physically abusive, he said, and extremely jealous; in Curie’s case, with good reason. After the scandal passed and the Langevins reconciled, she demonstrated that she was willing to tolerate her husband keeping an ordinary mistress of lower social status. The Nobel Laureate Curie, however, was at least his equal and a threat to the marriage.

The aggrieved wife went to the press and played the story brilliantly. Once again, the press chose sides; the biographer treats us to long samples of the invective that the reactionary Right heaped on Madame Curie. Entertaining as all this is, we may note that, by concentrating on the many unfair things that were said about her subject, the biographer relieves herself of the need to defend her subject. Curie really was conspiring to break up the marriage of a woman with four children, even if the mother-in-law told the newspapers there were six. In this case, Dreyfus was guilty.

The First World War obviated these matters. Curie soon won great public credit by designing and organizing the production of mobile X-ray wagons for the Allied field hospitals. Meanwhile, Einstein in Berlin continued to refine General Relativity: this biography makes clear the extent to which relativity was always a work-in-progress for him. Robert Heinlein once cruelly remarked that Einstein was a pacifist until his own ox was gored. In the First World War, that had not happened yet, and Einstein found himself more and more alienated from nationalist colleagues at the university. After the war, he tended to blame both sides equally. He generally sided with the moderate Left and maintained an early skepticism toward the Soviet Union. In later years he hesitated to criticize the USSR, however, having decided it was the chief bulwark against Nazism. Curie, for her part, never doubted that the Allies were wholly in the right, and was comfortable with such conventional initiatives as the League of Nations.

The one type of politics that always engaged the enthusiasm of both Curie and Einstein was ethnic. One of the first two new elements that the Curies isolated was named “polonium” after its co-discover’s homeland. Before Polish independence, Curie supported Polish causes to the extent she could do so without getting other émigrés in trouble; afterward, she was understandably made a national hero, and did what she could to promote Polish science and education. Einstein, for his part, was an early Zionist. After the First World War, his triumphal first trip to the United States was actually a fundraising campaign for Zionist causes. Of course, Einstein being Einstein, he could never quite stay on message: he was quite capable of describing Zionism as an effort to establish a Jewish homeland that would not necessarily be in the Middle East.

Curie made fundraising trips to America, too. The biographer seems rather scandalized that she let herself be taken in hand by one “Missy” Meloney, the editor of The Delineator, one of the major American women’s magazines of the era. This was a pro-family publication which made much of the fact Curie was raising two children. Nonetheless, the magazine saw no reason why Curie’s being a mother meant that she should not have the radium she needed for her institute, so a tour was organized to raise money to buy a gram of it. The gram, or rather the key to the lead-lined box in which the gram was kept, was presented to her by President Harding. A decade later, President Hoover presented her with another. Some people just attract hard-luck presidents, it seems.

Though Einstein and Curie were scientific celebrities during the same decade, and in large part because of their receptions in the United States, there was a difference in how the public viewed them. Neither of the Curies had ever dealt with the press very well, at least until Missy Meloney came along. They gave interviews, but favored one-word answers, and usually let reporters know they would be happy not to see them again. Einstein could be short with the press, too, but he quickly perfected the persona of the Trickster Sage. People wanted to know his opinions about everything. It was one of Einstein’s great strengths as a human being that he resisted the temptation to believe that he was omniscient just because everyone assumed he was. Nonetheless, he produced more than his share of quotable quotes on a wide range of subjects, most of them tactful and none with intent to cause offense. He was politely ironic, at a distance, to Adolf Hitler.

As for Marie Curie, Einstein knew her and liked her, but he remarked in correspondence that she was a grouch. If there are treasuries of the wit and wisdom of Madame Curie, her biographer does not mention them. She gave intelligent answers to intelligent questions about the medical uses of radium. For the most part, though, no one seemed much interested in what she had to say.

Einstein and Curie in later years were notable for their solicitude in helping young scholars get the support they themselves never had. As an academic bureaucrat, Marie Curie in particular was in a position to offer not just recommendations but jobs. Perhaps that is a predicate for biographies like these: you must produce a class of associates willing to talk about you.

A final point: Everyone knows that Einstein’s brain was removed from his body for study. Most of it is still in one jar, but parts have gone missing. From this biography I learned that Einstein’s eyes were taken, too: his ophthalmologist dropped by the morgue at the university hospital in Princeton where Einstein died and asked politely for them. They are now in a closet somewhere in New Jersey. Madame Curie died relatively young of what seems to have been anemia caused by radiation poisoning. You can read her notes at the Bibliotéque nationale if you have a mind, but to see some of the material you must sign a waiver of liability: it’s still “radioactive,” a term she and Pierre coined.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Is the rate of production of useful ideas really dependent on the number of people involved?

Paul Romer at the Nobel Memorial Prize Ceremony  By Bengt Nyman from Vaxholm, Sweden - EM1B6039, CC BY 2.0,

Paul Romer at the Nobel Memorial Prize Ceremony

By Bengt Nyman from Vaxholm, Sweden - EM1B6039, CC BY 2.0,

Conversations with Tyler is one of my favorite long reads at the moment. This recent talk with economist Paul Romer [recent winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics] overlaps nicely with many of my current obsessions [including English orthography!]. Today, let’s look at the rate of production of useful ideas. Romer brings up a paper by Bloom, Jones, Van Reenen, and Webb “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?“.

The model used here is a pretty simple one:

Here is what Romer says on the subject:

Chad Jones has really been leading the push, saying that to understand the broad sweep of history, you’ve got to have something which is offsetting the substantial increase in the number of people who are going into the R&D-type business or the discovery business. And that could take the form either of a short-run kind of adjustment cost effect, so that it’s hard to increase the rate of growth of ideas. Or it could be, the more things you’ve discovered, the harder it is to find other ones, the fishing-out effect.

I’ve had some thoughts myself about whether it really is harder to find new ideas, but I wonder whether the model posited is really telling us anything interesting. The equation has the form of a rate [research productivity per researcher] multiplied by the number of researchers. But per the notes in the paper, research productivity is defined as TFP growth divided by research effort, which is proxied by the number of researchers scaled by wages. This just cancels out the number of researchers, and gives us something like growth equals research productivity with an average wage fudge factor.

Number of researchers = people who work in IP generation

Number of researchers = people who work in IP generation

These things are anti-correlated, given the way they are described.

These things are anti-correlated, given the way they are described.

What it looks like to me is the rate of intellectual discovery is flat to slightly declining [when defined as equal to TFP growth], and that the number of people involved is completely irrelevant once you reach some relatively small threshold. I think the growth model referenced above is mostly useless for what it purports to be about.

That is a pretty bold statement, but I stand by it. My prediction is that you would get about the same rate of growth if you took most of the people doing “research” and had them do something else. On balance, they contribute nothing. [Or in my darker moments, I suspect a net negative contribution is possible….] When I think about this, I’ve made a number of simplifying assumptions, so let’s look at those.

#1: Innovation and scientific discovery are almost wholly the product of a few brilliant minds

This growth model matches up with other kinds of growth models in economics. When you are talking about how fast you make stuff, it is pretty plausible to think that adding more people will increase the overall rate of making stuff, even if you account for differences in ability. This is because given a method of production, there really isn’t much absolute difference in ability to make stuff. You can probably useful model such things as a random normal, which works well in general linear models.

For intellectual activity, this doesn’t seem to be the case. The distribution of accomplishment is nothing like ability. In practice, a tiny fraction of scientists produce the vast majority of results, with a distribution that looks something like a power law distribution. This isn’t a particularly obscure result, but it doesn’t seem to enter into the model.

How Jones et al. attempt to compensate for different levels of ability

How Jones et al. attempt to compensate for different levels of ability

What was done instead was an attempt to account for variations in productivity by looking at average wages. But again, this has the wrong form. Wages don’t vary as much as productivity does, or in the same way.

#2: The roles of the most innovative researchers are already filled by the most productive people

I think this one is arguable, but close enough, especially for the kind of outsize talents that really drive Solovian growth. Especially in a meritocratic age, the vast majority of bright, talented people already get a chance. To a first approximation, the most talented people are already doing what they are good at, so if you add more people, you are going to be adding researchers with a small probability of adding anything of huge impact. This is true even if you find smart people to do more research, given assumption #1.


I can think of plausible arguments that should count against my argument above. I’ve made some of them before.

#C1: We aren’t talking about science, but engineering

The data behind the Lotka curve and other similar metrics mostly looks at unusual accomplishments, like publishing a lot of papers or winning big prizes. However, the data Jones et al. are looking are are mostly about total factor productivity growth, which is pretty clearly applied science, or what most of us call technology and engineering. This of its very nature is more diffuse, and needs a broader range of talents to actualize than a seminal paper does.

#C2: The historical rates of accomplishment in technology growth probably should be discounted because important things were left out

It is easy to build great things fast if you don’t need to worry about fracture analysis or environmental impacts. I’m sometimes horrified by the huge costs borne by the public during the Industrial Revolution, but I don’t face the choices they did either. Modern engineering is more labor intensive than it used to be because we have to integrate a much more comprehensive body of knowledge. And consequently, accidents of all types, environmental pollution, and infrastructure disasters are all less common than they used to be [with a huge caveat for China].

I take this as a justification for including all of the extra people who get paid to generate intellectual property. To be fair, not everyone involved in STEM work in the US falls into this bucket, and depending on how broadly IP is defined, it could also include a lot of non-STEM workers too.

#C3: Sectors like Pharmaceuticals seem to show this pattern of declining efficiency

Eroom’s Law

Eroom’s Law

On balance, I still think it is a little off-base to inflate the number of effective researchers so heavily over the last 90 years. When you take everything into account, I think even in technology, real advances are more Lotka curve like, but you also need a lot more people to get things done, but not 20 or 30 times as many, which is what Figure 1 from the Jones paper implies.

Pharma does look bad, but if you look at something like how much better imaging is, which heavily leverages Moore’s Law, medicine as a whole has developed quite a lot of new technology. What you get for it is another story, of course.

The Long View 2006-12-01: Benedict in Istanbul; Transcendent Liturgy; Great Days


I will admit I haven’t thought deeply about whether Turkey’s admission to the European Union would have in fact been good or bad. I do find Pope Emeritus Benedict’s acts less alarming in retrospect than John did at the time.

Some random thoughts:

  • Turkey wouldn’t have been part of the Schengen zone, so travel wouldn’t have been much different, nor would the 2016 migrant crisis have been much different. There were too many people to cross in normal ways, so the tragedies would probably have still happened.

  • If Turkey had adopted the Euro, it would have made Greece’s financial crisis look like nothing. I can’t imagine that Germany would have actually agreed to put Turkey in the Eurozone, but hey, weirder things have happened.

  • John J. Reilly’s point about religious liberty might have been interesting. Maybe the Orthodox Christians and other religious minorities would have benefited Or maybe they would just pack up and leave with easier access to more welcoming lands. I find this one harder to guess.

  • If you think of the EU as a new Christendom, which its founders assuredly did, then admitting Turkey is strange. If, like most people now, you would never even think of this connection, then being opposed for symbolic reasons is instead strange.

The EU flag represents Mary’s crown of stars.  It’s not even subtle .

The EU flag represents Mary’s crown of stars. It’s not even subtle.

  • I’m not sure that the current situation with Syria would really be much different either if the EU border was involved. Turkey is already in NATO.

Benedict in Istanbul; Transcendent Liturgy; Great Days

The Pope took the turban, or so I thought in bleary dismay when the clock radio woke me up with a report like this:

Pope Benedict wound up a fence-mending visit to Turkey on Friday amid praise from the local press for visiting Istanbul's Blue Mosque and praying toward Mecca "like Muslims". ...Catholic officials also presented the mosque visit, where Benedict stood in silent prayer while Istanbul Grand Mufti Mustafa Cagrici prayed aloud, as a key moment of reconciliation... "I would compare the Pope's visit to the mosque to Pope John Paul's gestures at the Western Wall," said veteran Vatican mediator Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, referring to Pope John Paul II's prayers at Jerusalem's Western Wall in 2000.

"Yesterday, Benedict did with the Muslims what John Paul did with the Jews."

This irenic gesture can be theologically defended, and Fr. Jonathan Morris of Fox News duly defended it a few hours later, but you know there's a problem when your friends are using the title: The Pope in a Mosque — Dialogue or Idolatry?

Promoting the positive elements in other religious traditions is not the same as sanctioning their creeds or whitewashing differences. It is to encourage all people of good will to seek and follow the truth in as much as God reveals it to them, in his own timing and mysterious ways.

The goodness Pope Benedict will be promoting today here in Istanbul is not the Quran or the prophet Mohammad; it is the honest piety of many Muslim believers. He believes that when they pray, if they do so sincerely, the same God who listens to him in papal robes and to the homeless man with no robes at all, also listens to them.

To put it more briefly, our relationship to God as "thou" must be distinguished from our knowledge of God as "it," which is lucky, because the latter always needs work. And in fact, it is not likely that the principal author of Dominus Iesus is going squishy on religious relativism. The problem is that, in Istanbul, the pope's job as a statesman collided with his job as a pastor, to the great detriment of the latter. This was true even of his diplomatically defensible hedging about the the admission of Turkey to the EU:

Pope Benedict and the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians said on Thursday minority rights must be protected as the EU expands and appeared to jointly support Turkish membership if it protected religious liberties. ....Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians, strongly supports Turkey's membership in the EU and two days ago the Pope did an about-face from his previous opposition to Ankara's bid.

We have to sympathize with the patriarch's position. He wants Turkey to join the EU because then he will be able to appeal to Brussels over the head of Ankara about the oppression of Christian minorities. However, Benedict knows as well as anyone that the admission of Turkey would be a catastrophe from which Europe might never recover. Indeed, he knows this better than almost any other Western statesman, and a lot of the public respect he had garnered was based on the fact he seemed to be the only political figure note who was willing to be publicly realistic on this subject.

The pope has now lost that respect. He has dismayed his own flock. He has alienated other Christians who admired his fortitude. And the irony is that the journey to Istanbul will advance Christian-Muslim relations not one centimeter. You cannot placate the implacable.

I have every confidence that Benedict will repair the damage. If he does achieve final reconciliation with the Orthodox, the current dismay might even have been worth it. I have my doubts, though: reconciliation is not really in Patriarch Bartholomew's gift.

* * *

History should be irrelevant to religious practice, much less current political questions. The remarks by Father Chrysogonus Waddell in Adoremus are really a sober appreciation about the relevance for today of the 12th-century movement for the reform of liturgical music, but I cannot resist sharing this ghost story:

There are numerous stories from medieval monastic literature which take for granted a connection between our sacred music and the music of heaven. ...Which brings me to a very similar account from the twentieth century. When the great French musicologist Nadia Boulanger lay in a coma just a few days before her death, Leonard Bernstein came to visit her, despite that fact that any kind of communication was absolutely impossible.

Suddenly she spoke: “Dear Lenny …” He searched his mind anxiously for the right thing to say, and then heard himself asking: “Do you hear music in your head?” Instant reply: “All the time.” Bernstein continued: “And what are you hearing at the moment?” He thought of her preferred loves. Mozart? Monteverdi? Bach? Stravinsky? Ravel? Long pause. And then: “One music … with no beginning, no end.” She was already there, wrote Bernstein, on the other side.

And this is the great challenge for the contemporary composer of sacred music: to write music that already anticipates and shares in that music from above; a music that has no beginning and no end; a music that draws us even now to the other side.

We don't usually think of the liturgy as an empirical science, but perhaps we should. The view would be fruitful even if you regard the whole thing as a product of neurochemistry.

* * *

Speaking of dismay, the ever more despondent Victor Davis Hanson entitled a speech he delivered at the Claremont Institute's annual dinner in honor of Sir Winston Churchill Losing the Enlightenment (or at least he called the print adaptation that), and suggested that a "civilization that has lost confidence in itself cannot confront the Islamists." He does, however, end on this note:

So let me quote Winston Churchill of old about the gift of our present ordeal:

"These are not dark days: these are great days--the greatest days our country has ever lived."

I do not think that yet speaks to our condition. I am reminded much more of this passage from Oswald Spengler's The Hour of Decision, about an earlier phase of the same crisis:

We live in one of the mightiest ages in all history, and no one sees, no one realizes it. We are experiencing a volcanic eruption that is without parallel. Night has set in, the earth trembles, and streams of lava are rolling down over entire nations - and we send for the fire-brigade!

I strongly suspect that, if Spengler had lived longer, he would have wound up on Churchill's side, but that's another story.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-11-28: The Wall; Justice; the Red and the Green

Gilets Jaunes

Gilets Jaunes

While the alliance of Western Muslims and Western Leftists generates a lot of press, both now [cf. Michel Houellebecq’s Submission] and in the past, actual proletarian uprisings stubbornly refuse to follow suit.

The Wall; Justice; the Red and the Green

Are you troubled by the wall of separation between church and state this Christmas season? Has the ACLU declared a jihad against your town's Christmas creche? Well, Fr. Neuhaus has these words of comfort for you in the December issue of First Things:

As we all know, "the wall of separation between church and state" is in the Constitution. Except that it isn’t. Daniel Dreisbach, professor of law at American University in Washington DC, reflects on the damage that has been done by "constitutionalizing" the phrase found in Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Baptist association of Danbury, Connecticut. He writes:

A wall is a bilateral barrier that inhibits the activities of both the civil government and religion—unlike the First Amendment, which imposes restrictions on civil government only. In short, a wall not only prevents the civil state from intruding on the religious domain but also inhibits a religion from influencing the conduct of civil government. The various First Amendment guarantees, however, were entirely a check or restraints on civil government, specifically on Congress. The free press guarantee, for example, was not written to protect the civil state from the press, but to protect a free and independent press from control by the national government.

Actually, the idea of a First Amendment "wall of separation" between government and the press is not as strange as might at first appear. The principal of "petrolism," after all, is that the state will not interfere in the affairs of civil society if civil society promises not to interfere with affairs of state. That sounds fair.

* * *

There is even more about fairness in that December issue of First Things, such as this review by Justin Shubow of William Ian Miller's An Eye for an Eye:

A professor of law at the University of Michigan whose previous books concerned topics as disparate as courage, disgust, and Icelandic blood feuds, Miller here offers an "antitheory of justice," a concrete, unsystematic look Ask how people historically have perceived and achieved justice through revenge. To the extent that there is a unifying theme in this meandering but fascinating essay, it is that the mercantile diction of obligation—of payback and owning up, of settling accounts and obtaining redemption and--cuts to the heart of our deepest intuitions about right and wrong. So, too, does the closely related language of measurement and valuation.

May I suggest that this is important? For several decades now, informed opinion of all political persuasions has more or less accepted John Rawls's premise that "justice is fairness"; that is, that what people mean when they say that they have been treated justly is that they have been treated according to procedures that are unbiased in such a way as to minimize the role of chance. If this new study is to be believed, however, a natural-language investigation of the term "justice" shows that it actually means no such thing. Someone should turn this antitheory into a proper theory.

* * *

Meanwhile, the Wreck of Europa draws ever closer, if we are to believe the most recent issue of The Weekly Standard. I note particularly this item, Another French Revolution? The rioters and their admirers--on the right and the left, by Michel Gurfinkiel of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute in Paris:

Indeed, there are intellectuals on the left and right who relish the prospect of a new French Revolution, and welcome the suburban rioters as its spearhead. Nothing is more revealing, in this respect, than the success of a feverish political novel, Supplément au roman national (A Sequel to the National Narrative), by 28-year-old author Jean- ric Boulin. Published two months ago, it forecasts a "social and racial" revolution in France in 2007. First a wave of suicide bombings in Paris. Then martial law. Then, finally, the great rebellion of the French poor: the native underclass, the Arabs, and the blacks, who unite under the green flag of Islam and the tricolor of France and march on Paris--as a sort of Commune in reverse. Boulin gallantly supports such an outcome. [Despite the support on the Left for the unrest, this is just a novel. Nonetheless] it would be wise not to write off entirely the possibility of a green-red alliance. There is a historical precedent in the spread of Islam itself, in the 7th century. ...Even the green flag of Islam was borrowed from non-Arabs: It was originally the symbol of rebellion in Byzantium, the equivalent in its day of the red flag in ours.

Scary stuff: should we be comforted or disconcerted by the fact it is old scary stuff? Note this passage from Oswald Spengler's The Hour of Decision, a book published in 1933 that treats of the menaces posed by the White Revolution (the radical European Left) and the Coloured Revolution (what we would now call the Third World, plus Russia, but minus Japan, which seemed to drift to Europe in Spengler's later thought):

But the greatest danger has not yet been even named. What if, one day, class war and race war joined forces to make an end of the white world? This lies in the nature of things, and neither of the two Revolutions will disdain the aid of the other simply because it despises its supporters. A common hate extinguishes mutual contempt. And what if some white adventurer - and there have been many such - whose wild soul cannot breathe in the hothouse of civilization and seeks to satiate its love of danger in fantastic colonial ventures, among pirates, in the Foreign Legion - should suddenly see this grand goal staring him in the face?

The leftist masses of Spengler's day have largely evaporated, and when he talked about the extra-European menace, he seems to have been thinking more about colonial revolt than immigration. Still, to the extent there is an ideological merger of the Red and the Green, he seems to have foreseen it.

On the other hand, think how pleasantly surprised he would be by Benedict XVI. He represents the sort of unflustered return to tradition that Spengler thought was the hope of the West.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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Cascade Point and other Stories book review

Cascade Point and other Stories
by Timothy Zahn
405 pages
Published by Bluejay Books (1986)
ISBN 0-312-94041-6

Since I am working my way through Timothy Zahn’s back catalogue, when I saw this short story collection containing “Cascade Point”, the novella for which Zahn won the Hugo, I knew I needed to check it out.

Like my previous review of J. G. Ballard’s short fiction, each short story has its own mini-review, along with a mini-score out of five stars. I’ll conclude with my overall impressions of the collection.

This book can be bought used, or you can find another, more recent ebook that contains several of the same stories.

The Berlin Wall  Pudelek (Marcin Szala) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

The Berlin Wall

Pudelek (Marcin Szala) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

The Giftie Gie Us ****

A post-apocalyptic tale from the end of the Cold War, with the title inspired by Robert Burns’ poem "To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet at Church". This was a serious throwback for me, with the final conflagration being a nuclear war over oil. The other thing that surprised with with vivid memories was a reference to the strength and permanence of the Berlin Wall. When I was a kid, those tropes were commonplace, but now they are dated enough to shock me.

Each story in this collection has a short afterword written by Zahn, and here he mentions that this was his first run in with the First Law of Science Fiction: there are no truly “new” ideas. Zahn’s trick in this story is nearly the same as “Anasazi”, a short story by Dean Ing published at nearly the same time. It also ends up being the same as Tim Powers’ much later Three Days to Never.

Which I don’t think matters much, and neither does Zahn, since he says this was also his introduction to the Second Law of Science Fiction: it is what you do with an idea that matters. I think Zahn wrote a believable story here about finding love, and common humanity, in the midst of disability and ruin. I’ve said before that I enjoy Zahn’s moral realism. This is an early example of just that.

A moonscape by Chesley Bonestell

A moonscape by Chesley Bonestell

The Dreamsender **

This one was even more of a throwback than “The Giftie Gie Us”. With its setting, the Moon, and antagonists, mostly deadly serious military men, “The Dreamsender” felt like a 1950s juvenile. This was only Zahn’s second story he sold, so he can be forgiven for trying out different styles to see what fit.

One of the weakest stories in the collection, but still fun.

Evaporating black holes were theorized by Stephen Hawking in 1974

Evaporating black holes were theorized by Stephen Hawking in 1974

The Energy Crisis of 2215 ***

This is the closest thing to hard sci fi I have come across in Zahn’s work. His afterword says this story came out of a series of lectures at the University of Illinois in 1979. In the novels I am familiar with, Zahn typically wears his education in physics lightly. Here, it comes to the forefront, providing a wealth of technical details about a power plant that uses a captured black hole as a power source.

I also liked the way in which Zahn subverted the trope of the anti-science politician here. Jerry Pournelle used to complain frequently about Senator Bill Proxmire, who campaigned against the kind of pie-in-the-sky projects that Jerry liked. I think Jerry even used to write unflattering caricatures of Senator Proxmire in his books. Zahn takes a more Machiavellian approach here, which is a minor theme of many works in this collection.

CRISPR technique  J LEVIN W [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

CRISPR technique

J LEVIN W [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Return to the Fold ****

With the recent revelation that a researcher in China used the CRISPR technique to genetically engineer human children, this story could have been written yesterday. This is a fantastic exploration of what it would feel like to be a human engineered for a purpose by other men.

…what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument. – C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

Tied up in this naked exercise of power are genuine moral dilemmas about the sacrifices necessary for as grand a project as interstellar trade. I appreciate his approach to character motivation here, which feels like “let’s see what person would do in this situation”. Characters panic, make mistakes, connive, save face, and repent. Not bad for 37 pages.

The Shadows of Evening ***

This one blurs the line between sci fi and fantasy. The setup is clearly sci fi, with a crashed colony ship, but the mysterious shadow that grows upon any bit of refined metal or mechanism more complicated than a lever feels like magic. The people of Vesper managed to survive this massive handicap, and even learned to fight back, developing a mental technique that could disperse the shadow temporarily. A guild of Shadow Warriors is formed to allow a modest level of technological development by mastering the difficult technique.

Things go on this way for generations, until a new, easier technique is developed. The Shadow Warrior guild is not impressed, used to challenges from frauds and charlatans. Except this time, the Disciples of Light are actually on to something.

Change is hard, especially when it destroys your livelihood. The real action here is psychological, in the reactions of Turek, the grizzled veteran of many years struggle against the shadows, when someone comes up and takes it all away from him.

Not Always to the Strong ***

A previously unpublished followup to “The Shadows of Evening”. The Disciples of Light have unleashed a technological revolution on Vesper, but technological revolutions easily turn into political ones when technology is used to make new and better weapons.

Zahn spends some time looking at the unintended consequences of sudden flood of technology, and also at the character of the now marginalized men who sacrificed to give their fellow men a better life than they otherwise would have had.

In the afterword, Zahn expresses some regret he never got a chance to expand on this storyline. I would have liked that too, as a reflection of technological development and human choices, this could have been an interesting twist on the usual kind of rising from the ashes story you get in post-apocalyptic fiction.

The Challenge *****

This is videogame fiction a loooong time before there was videogame fiction. Zahn says as much in the afterword. The story itself was fun, but even more fun is seeing what Zahn guessed right and what he didn’t.

Good guesses:

  • Online videogames supporting the more mundane activities of the Internet through advertising

  • Multiple screens with heads up displays

  • Competitive level building

Not so good:

  • The interface is all text! You have to type out your actions like Zork. This would be really interesting to see if it existed now. I expect you could get really fast with practice, but this is so different from either joystick or mouse and keyboard control.

  • The numbers of people involved are so small. The most popular game in the world only has a few thousand fans. I can’t see how the ad budget works out. Nick Cole’s Soda Pop Soldier and Pop Kult Warlord reflect how big games could get as entertainment.

I enjoyed this one a lot. A prescient guess about the future, with a little bit about the consequences of electronic entertainment thrown in.

The Cassandra ****

A sci fi tale of social ostracism, disability, and sacrifice. In the afterword, Zahn notes this is one of the few tragic stories he has written. I had also noticed Zahn’s preference for the upbeat, but I think this one comes off well.

One of the best parts of this story is the working class supporting character who ends up training the outcast Alban to work in a commercial kitchen when he can’t find any other work. That guy feels just like people I have met in real life, which is my usual standard for good characterization.

Dragon Pax *****

I think this is plausibly a precursor to the Heir to Empire books. Zahn takes a hard, Machiavellian look at war, politics, and survival. And it’s got dragons. It asks much the same question as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, what would you give up to ensure that ordinary people can enjoy the fruits of order and prosperity? This story makes what would be a Straussian reading of the events in question, if you weren’t in on the secret.

I almost said there aren’t any real benevolent dictators, but then I remembered Lee Kuan Yew, who at least demonstrates that the concept isn’t purely a fantasy of Plato. At the very least, it doesn’t work out well often. But often enough, you can find examples of some hard bastard who did some good. Which explains the popularity of the argument, “yeah, but he’s our bastard”.

Job Inaction ***

Sci fi writers sometimes come up with interesting ideas about technocratic solutions to social problems, and this is a competitor to universal basic income, with a 1980s flavor. Zahn tried hard to come up with something that would work, even though he wouldn’t like it.

Teamwork **

Another throwback story, this one reminded me quite a bit of Ballard’s collection, except it has a happy ending. A psychological story with a thin veneer of 1950s era B-movies. I didn’t really find much of interest here, but this clearly isn’t where Zahn invested his storytelling long-term.

The Final Report on the Lifeline Experiment *****

A moral thought experiment along the lines of his later Soulminder, itself a collection of short stories expanded to novel length. This explores the debate over whether fetuses are human, using the world’s only verified telepath as the investigator. I found Zahn’s story subtle and provocative, which is not where you really expect these things to end up.

Cascade Point *****

I can see why they put “Cascade Point” at the end. I probably would have been tempted to stop reading after I got here, because this was really good. Zahn deserved the Hugo for this. I also think his success here established [or reinforced?] his style, because “Cascade Point” feels like the Timothy Zahn I know and love. Most authors have a style, and this collection was fun to read precisely because I got to see Zahn trying on different styles early in his career. This one is clearly the best fit.

The story and characters are both familiar, and yet unexpected. Zahn’s characters are fully fleshed out, which is remarkable in so short a work. This could have been a novel, but being longer wouldn’t actually make it better [which is how I feel about Ender’s Game too, but Card went ahead and made it a novel anyways].

Zahn’s idea for faster-than-light travel here is more interesting than just about any that I have ever come across. Probably this is because we both have an education in physics, but I find his topological method of transforming a rotation into linear motion to be absolutely fascinating.

To then find a way to work in not only the convenient psychiatric patient subplot, but also the more interesting character development the ship’s crew undergoes as they claw their way back from the abyss is why Zahn has now been writing books for a living for almost forty years.

Ben’s final verdict *****

I am glad I picked this volume up. I got to see a different side of Timothy Zahn, as he explored different ways of telling stories. I also got to see the story that first made him famous, and justly so in my opinion. As a fan, I love this book, and I think any other fan of Zahn probably will too.

The blurb in the back of one of the most recent Zahn books I read said he is the author of nearly 100 short stories and novellas. I have my work cut out for me.

The Path of the Martyrs Book Review

Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732  By Charles de Steuben - Unknown, Public Domain,

Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732

By Charles de Steuben - Unknown, Public Domain,

The Path of the Martyrs: Charles Martel, The Battle of Tours and the Birth of Europe
by Ed West
Kindle Edition, 496 pages
Published June 26, 2018 by Galaxy's Edge

How could I not review a history book that starts off with the Battle of Tours? I only picked Charles de Steuben’s painting of the battle for my site banner.

West has written the kind of book I would give to a teen-aged boy that I think would end up being quite interested in history for its own sake, but needs an introduction to the subject that is neither stuffy nor boring. Perhaps the young man in question has heard bits and pieces of the chansons de geste through popular culture, perhaps knows of Beowulf or the Song of Roland, and is curious to know what really happened.

Quite a bit happened in the seventh and eighth centuries in France, and most of what did happen is not only epochal, but rather exciting, scandalous even. This is the spirit that West captures in his book. In order to capture the breath and scale of what was going on in the world, West does make some detours in both time and space. While this makes the narrative skip around a bit, I think the context it provides is crucial in understanding, for example, exactly why it was so surprising that the unlettered Franks stopped the advance of the Umayyad Caliphate in 732.

Saint Boniface felling Donar's Oak  By Bernhard Rode - Self-photographed, Public Domain,

Saint Boniface felling Donar's Oak

By Bernhard Rode - Self-photographed, Public Domain,

West also has the time point out less romantic facts like it was the Catholic Basques who killed Roland, Lord of the Breton marches in Roncesvalles, rather than the Muslims, and to highlight the rather unecumenical stance of St. Boniface when he chopped down Donar’s Oak. We get to see history, not legend nor hagiography here.

I read this on Kindle, and I found the footnotes were well-implemented, but I did find a number of typos. This sort of thing seems to be common in short little ebooks of this type, and the meaning is always clear from context, so it doesn’t bother me much. Ed West’s short little history book is pithy, irreverent, and above all, fun. I think you could spend 99 cents in many worse ways.

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