John was interested in Fortean phenomena. While this subject provides plenty of opportunity to poke fun at the credulous, every so often fish and frogs really do rain from the sky. One might also note that the spectacular electrical phenomena known as sprites and blue jets have been observed for over a century by pilots, but such reports were widely dismissed until someone managed to catch one on camera.
Cold fusion and reactionless thrusters keep disappointing everyone, but there is a big enough payoff in these things that federal agencies with no sense of humor keep funding small experiments in the hope of a breakthrough.
I am disinclined to dismiss data out of hand. I am also disinclined to give an n of 1 more weight than it deserves. I think John understood this pretty well.
Apropos of nothing in particular, here are some science stories I have been following. They are not quite fringe science. All they have in common is that, if they have substance, the world will never be the same again.
Talking to Extraterrestrials: I have my own, rather convoluted ideas about the likelihood of detecting extraterrestrial intelligence with radio telescopes. The fact is, though, this is one of those questions about which almost all speculation is equally ill-founded. The matter is bound up with fashions in evolutionary theory and often driven by bad metaphysics. There really is no way to settle these issues other than by experiment; that is, to just search.
Let us assume that signals are detected, and the source is near enough for an exchange of messages. This leaves us with the problem of communicating with a non-human intelligence. The difficulties in this connection may have been underestimated. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein went so far as to say that, if a lion spoke, we could not understand it. The idea is that understanding language is as dependent on the nature of the hearer as on the structure and use of the language. Even creatures as closely related as a human being and a lion experience the world so differently that they could not be expected to devise a common code.
Scientists often skip over this problem by asserting that "mathematics is a universal language." This position is known as Mathematical Platonism. It is one of the perennials of philosophy, but so is the position that mathematics is just another arbitrary language. John Barrow, in his wonderful book Pi in the Sky, considered whether and to what degree mathematics is culturally conditioned. He even considered the possibility that we might contact extraterrestrials who have no concept of a "theorem." He came down, grudgingly, on the side of Platonism, though he admitted he had no answer for the old objection that there is no obvious way to connect the Platonic world to this one.
I write about this now because I recently came across some research from Yale that might cast light on the matter. The study concerned the way that autistic people watch movies. Both the autistic subjects and the normal control group were highly intelligent and verbal. Nonetheless, the researchers found that the two groups watched movie dialogue differently. The normals watched the eyes of the characters, while the autistic people watched the mouths.
As with so much else about autism, probably we are just seeing an extreme manifestation of ordinary behavior. If you watch a film in a language you do not know well, for instance, you might find yourself looking at the mouths, too. In any case, what seemed to be happening was that the normals assembled what they saw on the screen into the integral Gestalt we call a person. The autistic people were processing information, without integrating the behaviors they saw into persons. Autistic people can do that, of course, but it takes work.
This could be the kind of problem we might have with extraterrestrials, and they with us. We might be able to mirror signals that refer to the same physical events, but we would not see what the events meant, or indeed that they meant anything. At least initially, the flow of data would not suggest mind or consciousness. We would be lucky to spot the flow as artificial. At that point, we might do well to send for special education teachers.
Black Light: I fell for Cold Fusion from the time when the claims to have produced it first surfaced in 1989. There were so many other wonders in that year; the discovery of a perpetual source of virtually free power seemed to be natural. I was inclined to attribute the early skepticism about the discovery to malice and jealousy on the part of the skeptics. The subject still makes me grumpy.
I still think that, if I wait long enough, some table-top physics will come along to change life as we know it. The best contender at the moment is "black light," ultraviolet radiation produced by an excited plasma. Black Light Power, a New Jersey company, has already built some interesting batteries and generators using proprietary Black Light technology. Even more interesting, NASA has invested some money to pursue Black Light. The technology's proponents say they can make a hydrogen plasma rocket engine that will work in the atmosphere.
The problem is that the technology may require ripping up 20th-century physics. The Black Light people say they have found classical solutions for quantum phenomena. They say they are getting energy from hydrogen atoms below the ground state. They have peer-reviewed articles documenting some novel effects. I don't understand the claims well enough to say whether the hair-raising physics has to be correct for the technology to work.
As we say in New Jersey, it's nice work if you can get it.
Lost Civilizations: When people claim to have found a lost civilization, they are usually either (1) lying; (2) failing to recognize the remains of some known culture; or (3) mistaking natural formations for artificial ones. I was thus somewhat surprised that last year's reports about submerged megalithic structures off western Cuba's Guanahacabibes Peninsula have not gone away. The observations were made by a Cuban-Canadian partnership looking for sunken treasure ships. What they found, using sonar and robot submersibles, looks like an extensive area of roads, walls, and pyramids. A sunken city is not by itself so remarkable. The problem is that this one is 2,000 feet down.
Even in the geologically unstable Caribbean, there is no obvious way this could have happened. The region in question probably once connected Cuba with Central America, but that was on the order of 50,000 years ago. At that time, there were no civilizations. There were some barely human hominids in the eastern hemisphere, but no one in the west.
The odds are still strong that the find will turn out to be natural structures after all. If they are not, then no doubt special explanations will be found to fit the subsidence into known history. Huge, submarine landslides are not unheard of: a ridge might have slid into the sea just a few thousand years ago, raising a great tsunami in the process. To discover that such a thing had happened would be wonder enough.
The alternative is too disconcerting to be wonderful. We would not be talking about Atlantis anymore, but of a city out of Lovecraft.
If I hope John is remembered for something, it would be his indefatigable efforts to wrest the idea of world government away from the kooks. It seems likely that some sort of universal state is the political future of the West, although how likely and how universal are matters of some uncertainty. John felt it was pretty likely, and what we do over the next two or three generations will have a lot to do with how it all turns out.
|How Civilizations Die (David Goldman, also known as "Spengler," gives us another Demographic Dreadful.)||The Katechonic Commonwealth (A comparative approach to the Western Universal State.)||The Origins of Political Order (Francis Fukuyama explains the origins of the state.)|
|Caritas in Veritate (Benedict XVI's specifications for an ecumenical polity.)||Rites of Peace (Adam Zamoyski recounts the oddly neglected Congress of Vienna.)||The Next 100 Years (George Friedman does a geopolitical projection of the 21st century.)|
||Empires of Trust (Thomas Madden updates the analogy of Rome to America for the 21st century.)|
|The Return of History (Robert Kagan makes short work of Fareed Zakaria and Francis Fukuyama.)||The Post-American World (Fareed Zakaria reveals an Indian future for America in an anti-apocalyptic model of history.)||The Nomos of the Earth (Carl Schmitt reveals how the Belgians unhinged the Eurocentric world.)|
This was definitely John's least popular enthusiasm. There is just about no easier way to get a guffaw or a snicker than talk about spelling reform. Nonetheless, John did. He was even on CNN once for this I think.
August 27, 1906: On this date, President Theodore Roosevelt directed Charles A. Stillings, the Public Printer of the United States, to use 300 simplified spellings in all the executive-branch documents printed by his office. The documentation for this characterically bold initiative is here made available online for the first time.
Click Below For:
To contrast the president's lucid and manly views with the obscurantist sophistries of the Dark Lord of Lexicography, click on the image of Dr. Samuel Johnson:
Click here Spelling Reform Links
Various Schemes to Reform English Spelling
Famous Dead People Who Have Promoted Spelling Reform
Fiction, Nonfiction in Reformed Spelling
Spelling Progress Bulletin Samples
John was not a scientist. He never pretended to be one. I think that gave him a certain clarity of vision. I always respected his views on science, because he approached it as an interested outsider. This may be the shortest of his topical collections, but one of my favorites. This is an area where I had read most of the books before John reviewed them, but I did manage to learn a few things from John.
His review of a biography of Kurt Gödel is one of his more popular items he wrote, and it was influential in my own views of strong AI. John also was a bit sceptical of Stephen Jay Gould and Malcolm Gladwell, which increased my respect for him. Although I do feel a bit bad for Gladwell now that he isn't a media darling anymore. I guess I just don't like kicking a man while he is down.
I suppose it is hard to have a broader interest than "cosmology." For some reason, I have always believed it to be a virtue to resist limiting my curiosity to things I might actually be able to understand. In any event, here are some pieces I have done about really, really big questions.
2011Being and Time (Martin Heidegger explains the world in terms of Death and Equipment.)2007An Army of Davids (Glenn Reynolds argues for homebrewed beer and transhumanism.)2006Two Scientists (Some thoughts on biographies of Albert Einstein and Marie Curie.)
I think I read Black Hawk Down after I read John's review of it. It has been long enough that I'm not quite sure anymore. Regardless, this is a classic of war journalism, and is worth reflecting on the Battle of Mogadishu twenty-one years later.
Our involvement in Somalia's civil war in 1992 and 1993 is the connection between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the Global War on Terror, even though we didn't know it at the time. Somalia's collapse was what the other end of the peace dividend looked like. We [and the Russians] stopped spending money in Third World shitholes, and some of them imploded from the sudden change in cash flow.
We got involved because this was arguably partly our fault. The original mission was primarily to protect aid workers who were distributing food. Once the famine ended, and most of the troops went home, local political entrepreneurs began looking to fill the power void. If Mohamed Farrah Aidid had avoided targeting local collaborators and UN peacekeepers in his quest for power, likely we wouldn't have bothered to get further involved.
However, Somali rules for war don't include niceties like "non-combatants". All that matters is whose side you are on. If you want a battle where the rules of war were observed to the letter by both sides, you need to go look at Gettysburg. This was definitely not Gettysburg, although it was a pivotal battle in United States history.
In principle, it shouldn't have been. These were routine snatch and grab type missions. Fast rope in, handcuff some guy, toss him in a waiting truck and drive off. In many ways, this kidnapping operation was also a success. The intended targets were indeed captured. Unfortunately, the Somalis seem to have been the first to really exploit the weakness of helicopters to RPG fire. In the firefight that ensued after two Blackhawks were shot down by RPGs, the Rangers clearly gave much better than they got, no matter whose account you credit.
Nonetheless, this was widely perceived as a failure of will on the part of America [which is at least partly the argument of this book]. That may or not be a fair judgement, but public opinion is notably unfair. One might even go so far as to suspect that this event played a role in the formulation of Osama bin Laden's campaign of bombings intended to break the will of the American people. It does seem clear that we were sucked into a war we didn't understand, with unclear goals and an infinite faith that our technological superiority would allow us to eventually prevail. As such, Mogadishu seems to be more typical than not of our never-ending war.
Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War
by Mark Bowden
Penguin Books, 2000
392 Pages, $13.95 (Paperback)
In this account of the battle of Mogadishu of October 3, 1993, Mark Bowden, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, says that he "wanted to combine the authority of a historical narrative with the emotion of a memoir, and write a story that read like fiction but was true." While a theoretical argument can be made that this ambition is impossible, readers will have trouble avoiding the conviction that Bowden succeeded. The book is based on dozens of interviews with the hundred or so Rangers and Delta Force members who spent the night pinned down in an armed and hostile city, as well as with their commanders, elements of the relief column that finally extracted them and a sample of Somali bystanders and militia. These people get to speak for themselves through the author's narrative, which adopts the point of view of the primary sources for each incident in the story. The result is more than a Tom Clancy novel with better characters: the accounts of combat in Black Hawk Down are an important contribution to military history. The book also examines the leadership and tactics that lay behind the engagement. While Bowden, commendably, does not present any easy answers, one could argue that there were in fact glaring errors in these areas.
The battle of Mogadishu (sometimes called "the Battle of the Black Sea" after the neighborhood in which most of it occurred) was the climax to the UN-sponsored, American-led intervention in Somalia that began in 1992. That country had disintegrated politically when both superpowers lost interest in supporting its tyrannical government after the end of the Cold War. The resulting famine in the south provided several weeks worth of photogenic misery for global television, which in turn led to widespread calls for international humanitarian military intervention. After some delay and despite its better judgment, the outgoing Bush Administration committed 28,000 Marines as the backbone of an international contingent to provide security for famine-relief organizations operating in and around Mogadishu, the nominal capital.
The effort succeeded. The famine ended, and the warring clans into which Somali politics had decomposed largely stopped fighting each other. The new Clinton Administration honored its predecessor's pledge to withdraw American forces from Somalia as quickly as possible. The Marines were brought home, and only a residual American force remained. The peace thereafter was supposed to be overseen by a modest international contingent as the UN assembled a new Somali government. This is not what happened. Clan violence resumed, due in no small part to the ambitions of the Habr Gidr clan and its leader, Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who hoped to dominate any new government. Aidid's forces assassinated Somalis working for the UN and began attacking UN peacekeeping forces. In one incident in July, 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed and their bodies mutilated.
The chief of the UN mission in Somalia at the time, retired US Admiral Jonathan Howe, was outraged by this turn of events and determined to intimidate the Habr Gidr into cooperation. Using his connections in Washington, he contrived to secure the deployment of a special operations force, Task Force Ranger, including a contingent of the legendary Delta Force.
Army Rangers are select paratroopers. Typically, they are about 19 years old, sport brutal crew cuts and go "Hoo Ah!" when they greet each other. (Other sources say they go "Ooh Rah!") While they are a formidable force, the Rangers are not trained or intended for special operations. D-boys, as Delta Force members are called, really are special operations troops. They are older than the Rangers and cultivate a studied indifference to things like rank and uniform. They are also probably the best soldiers in the world for what they do. What they were supposed to do in Mogadishu was raid the residences and bases of the leaders of Habr Gidr. The Rangers would provide a screen while Delta extracted the bigwigs. Any one raid involved about 160 men. They might arrive in Black Hawk helicopters and then leave with their prisoners in a convoy of Humvees and trucks that met them at the target, or they might arrive by convoy and leave by helicopter. These raids occurred for the most part in densely crowded civilian neighborhoods where a substantial fraction of the population was hostile militia. The trick was to get in and out before resistance could be organized.
There had already been a handful of American casualties in Somalia, and one Black Hawk associated with the 10th Mountain Division, the principal US reserve in the country, had even been shot down with a rocket-propelled grenade. Nonetheless, Task Force Ranger managed to complete five raids of this type with only trivial injuries to themselves. On October 3 their luck ran out. Around three in the afternoon, the force arrived in helicopters at the site of a meeting of Habr Gidr notables. They quickly secured some of the surrounding streets and bundled the prisoners into a truck in a small convoy. Then one of the Black Hawks was shot down, crash-landing nearby. The force then had to go to that site to rescue survivors (there were some) and to destroy sensitive equipment. A few minutes later, another helicopter was shot down.
What turned an unfortunate mishap into the biggest fire fight involving American forces since the Vietnam War was that the convoy was unable to find the first crash site. (The second site was soon overrun, despite a last-ditch defense by two members of Delta, and the pilot taken prisoner.) Whether despite or because of the guidance it received from observation aircraft, the Lost Convoy, as it became known, blasted its way up and down the city, narrowly missing its destination on several occasions and taking 50% casualties before arriving back at its base. A relief convoy was soon organized, manned in large part by support personnel, but was similarly defeated by the terrain of the city.
The Somalis' new-found facility with rocket-propelled grenades argued against extraction of the force around the first crash site by helicopter. In fact, three other helicopters had been badly damaged but managed to return to friendly territory. It was not until nearly midnight that a relief column of 500 men could set out, including tanks borrowed from the Pakistanis and armored personnel carriers from the Malaysians. (For a variety of reasons, the interface between the Rangers and the Malaysian drivers was not altogether happy.) This column knew exactly where it was going, and it was big enough to ignore most obstacles in its way. Nonetheless, mostly because of a long delay at the crash site to remove the body of a pilot from the Black Hawk, it was not until after sunrise that the column pulled into a sports stadium that was pressed into service as a field hospital.
The toll for the Americans was 18 dead and several dozen wounded. The figure usually given for deaths among the Somalis is 500. The most disturbing feature of the book is the account of the casual killing of civilians.
Since the objective of capturing the Habr Gidr notables was achieved, the Rangers insist to this day that the mission was a success. By most accounts, Mohamed Farrah Aidid was indeed deeply shaken. After the dispatch of an aircraft carrier and some diplomatically phrased threats from Admiral Howe, the captured pilot was released. However, such support as remained in the US for the Somalia intervention collapsed. The raids by Task Force Ranger ceased. The US withdrew entirely a few months later. Aidid was back in the diplomatic loop until his assassination in 1996. (His son, oddly enough, is a veteran of the US Marine Corps Reserve.) Somalia in the year 2000 remains a legal fiction.
Black Hawk Down is not about high politics. Still, Bowden does have some sensible if debatable things to say about who was responsible and what, if anything, should have been done differently. He is something of a partisan of the Task Force Ranger commander, the now retired General William F. Garrison. Bowden debunks the strange stories that had arisen in which Garrison is pictured as conducting the battle from a high-flying helicopter, and says that his extensive interviews with the members of the force did not reveal the unhappiness with Garrison's style of command that other writers have alleged.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that a unit under Garrison's command was being sent out to perform what was pretty much the same maneuver, time after time, in the same area. It really is predictable that, in such circumstances, the enemy will develop counter-tactics. There may have been some good reason Task Force Ranger had to persevere with the snatch-and-grab strategy, or perhaps the operations themselves were significantly varied. If so, however, these things are not apparent from the text.
The battle of Mogadishu was prominent among the reasons for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, but Bowden finds the decisions made by the Bush and Clinton Administrations at least defensible. Aspin was most faulted for turning down the initial proposal to include heavy armored vehicles in the residual force the US was leaving after the Marines pulled out. Later, when Task Force Ranger was deployed, it did not ask for armor, for the excellent reason that they were not an armored group. Still, one could argue that the dispatch of Task Force Ranger should have caused a reassessment of the decision not to send armor, since obviously the new force would have far more occasion to get in trouble than the force originally contemplated. The estimate that the armored vehicles could not have reached Mogadishu by October 3 in any case is probably exaggerated.
As for President Clinton, Bowden finds that, despite reports to the contrary, he was following developments in Somalia before October 3 as closely as could be expected. Clinton had approved the task force on expert advice, and the experts never gave him any reason to think that there was a fundamental flaw in the strategy. Bowden suggests that, after the primary goal of relieving the famine had been achieved, the US would have been better advised to have suffered the renewal of civil war. He quotes an anonymous source at the State Department as saying people in places like Somalia "don't want peace. They want victory." On the other hand, he also echoes what seems to have been the universal opinion among the veterans of the battle: having taken a position in Somalia's civil war, the US should have continued the policy until Aidid was killed or captured. There is certainly a very good argument that the Clinton Administration's decision to withdraw simply promoted the idea that the US, or at any rate President Clinton, would not persevere in any military commitment that could involve even small casualties.
While there is little to quarrel with in these assessments, there is one point of my own that I would like to add. What was Task Force Ranger doing? Was it a war? A police action? A safari? I don't understand where a strategy of repeated kidnapping raids into a city the attacker has no intention of governing fits into the categories of political science. Were we trying to annoy the Somalis into responsible self-government?
The task of special forces is to make assaults that are sudden, surprising and limited. Such operations can be an invaluable component of a larger campaign. The special forces operations in this instance, however, were the whole of the campaign. This was something like using a scalpel to cut down a tree. At the end of the attempt, the tree will still be standing, and the effect on the scalpel is predictable.