The Long View 2007-01-26: The Dead Hand of the Seventies Flexes but Is Mitigated by Scientific Advances

The end of low mass stars

The end of low mass stars

I have never bothered to closely follow popular science news for two reasons:

  1. It is often confused, at best

  2. Even when it is well-reported, whatever results are covered tend to be invalidated over time

Nothing here strikes me as especially dumb, but I like to wait for the dust to settle.


The Dead Hand of the Seventies Flexes but Is Mitigated by Scientific Advances

Homer Simpson himself once characterized the 1970s as "a dark time when folly and madness ruled the earth." Now Mark Steyn sees that decade's return:

“It feels like August,” wrote National Review’s editor, Rich Lowry, about eight months after 9/11. August 2001, that is: he meant America’s war on terror seemed to have lost its urgency and the “sleeping giant” appeared to be resuming his slumbers. Five years on, it’s worse than that: it feels like the Seventies.

But it does not feel like the Seventies. The characteristic of the Seventies (and the Sixties after 1965) was that all the West's establishments, political, artistic, and spiritual, abdicated their historical moral authority. At least in public, they deferred to the superior wisdom of "the kids," or simply embraced chaos. That is not the case today. The establishments know more or less what they are doing. They are far more guilty.

* * *

On a happier note, we are getting closer to a reliable projection for the ultimate fate of Earth. Lee Anne Willson of Iowa State University has been doing the math:

The life-giving, aging star we orbit is using up its fuel supply and will collapse within 7 billion years. Before that, though, there will be an agonizing period of repeated swelling, as the sun grows into a red giant. How giant?...

"Earth will end up in the sun, vaporizing and blending its material with that of the sun," said Iowa State University's Lee Anne Willson. "That part of the sun then blows away into space, so one might say Earth is cremated and the ashes are scattered into interstellar space"...

Willson and her colleague George Bowen studied other red giants, medium-sized stars like our sun that are near death, and used their findings to calculate the fate of Earth.

"If the sun loses mass before it gets too big, then Earth moves into a larger orbit and escapes," Willson told SPACE.com. "The sun would need to lose 20 percent of its mass earlier in its evolution, and this is not what we expect to happen."

I had read an estimate that the sun would in fact lose enough mass to allow Earth to rise to a sustainable orbit. Now I'll have to change my plans.

But what about the moon, you ask?

During the red giant phase the Sun will swell until its distended atmosphere reaches out to envelop the Earth and Moon, which will both begin to be affected by gas drag—the space through which they orbit will contain more molecules.

The Moon is now moving away from Earth and by then will be in an orbit that's about 40 percent larger than today. It will be the first to warp under the Sun’s influence...

If left unabated the moon would continue in its retreat until it would take bout 47 days to orbit the Earth. Both Earth and Moon would then keep the same faces permanently turned toward one another as Earth’s spin would also have slowed to one rotation every 47 days....

[T]he drag caused by the Sun's extended atmosphere will cause the Moon's orbit to decay. The Moon will swing ever closer to Earth until it reaches a point 11,470 miles (18,470 kilometers) above our planet, a point termed the Roche limit.

“Reaching the Roche limit means that the gravity holding it [the Moon] together is weaker than the tidal forces acting to pull it apart,” Willson said.

I had read that solar tidal forces would continue to slow the rotation of Earth even after the day became equal to the month, causing a tidal drag that would draw the Moon to the Roche limit irrespective of friction from the evaporation of the Sun.

I am sorry, but I find this question troubling. Can't these people keep their story straight?

* * *

Speaking of troubling thoughts, there are few more troubling than the ones mentioned recently by Wesley J. Smith at First Things in the comment Zoos: Not for Children Anymore:

Perhaps it is wrong for me to comment about a movie I have no intention of seeing: But if this review of the new semi-documentary Zoo is accurate, it apparently has a sympathetic take on “the last taboo,” meaning bestiality. (”Zoos” in this context don’t refer to animal viewing facilities but are apparently the chosen moniker of people who like to have sex with animals. It is a take off on zoophilia. Who knew?)

Surely this is not the last taboo. That would be consensual cannibalism, of which there have been a few incidents in recent years. Actually, if the courts discern an autonomy right to suicide, it would be hard to see what the objection to this form of self-expression would be. Certainly it would present fewer objections than bestiality, where the consent of the animal is always in doubt. The limiting factor, perhaps, is that any society that really did not see a problem with the practice would already be so chaotic that it would make little difference what the law said.

Getting back to the Seventies for a moment: this film will have to be very strange indeed to be stranger than Equus (1977).

* * *

A scientific cliche' may be about to bite the dust: String Theory may be falsifiable!

[R]esearchers at the University of California, San Diego, Carnegie Mellon University, and The University of Texas at Austin have now developed an important test for this controversial "theory of everything"...at the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, a subatomic particle collider scheduled to be operating later this year at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, or CERN....

"The beauty of our test is the simplicity of its assumptions," explained Grinstein of UCSD. "The canonical forms of string theory include three mathematical assumptions-Lorentz invariance (the laws of physics are the same for all uniformly moving observers), analyticity (a smoothness criteria for the scattering of high-energy particles after a collision) and unitarity (all probabilities always add up to one). Our test sets bounds on these assumptions"...

He added, "If the test does not find what the theory predicts about W boson scattering, it would be evidence that one of string theory's key mathematical assumptions is violated. In other words, string theory-as articulated in its current form-would be proven impossible."

If those pesky W bosons do scatter as theory predicts, that does not prove that String Theory is true, just that it will live to face further tests. That is the best that can be said for any theory.

* * *

On the other hand, there is disturbing news from Mars:

Dried up riverbeds and other evidence imply that Mars once had enough water to fill a global ocean more than 600 metres deep...Some scientists have proposed that the Red Planet lost its water and CO2 to space as the solar wind stripped molecules from the top of the planet's atmosphere. Measurements by Russia's Phobos-2 probe to Mars in 1989 hinted that the loss was quite rapid....Now the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft has revealed that the rate of loss is much lower...Its measurements suggest the whole planet loses only about 20 grams per second of oxygen and CO2 to space, only about 1% of the rate inferred from Phobos-2 data...If this rate has held steady over Mars's history, it would have removed just a few centimetres of water, and a thousandth of the original CO2.

As the link explains, it is possible, even likely, that the rate of solar-wind erosion has not been constant over time. Still, there is an apparent anomaly in the lack of a modern Martian hydrosphere.

Or is it lacking? Once again, the Seventies extend a hand of dementia into the 21st century, and I recall the lyrics of the song A Horse with No Name (1971):

An ocean is a desert
with its life underground
and a perfect disguise
above.

And no, that was not recorded by Neil Young, but by America.

* * *

Finally, here is the strangest item in a post notable for strange items:

Bush Pushes Health Care Plan

He's doing it again. He won re-election in 2004 because he assured people he would not lose the war in Iraq; then he spent months promoting a Social Security reform that was incoherent and repulsive. Today, he just lost an election, he pleaded with the Congress and the public in the State of the Union Address to let him win the war in Iraq, and the first thing he focuses on is that nitwit health-insurance proposal.

This is beyond satire.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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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 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

The Berlin Wall

Pudelek (Marcin Szala) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

CRISPR technique

J LEVIN W [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/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 Long View: The Years of Rice and Salt

N = 1

N = 1

This book review is the source of one of my favorite cocktail party theories: a number of seemingly well-established sciences are built upon an n of 1. In a grand sense, geology and biology fall into this category, since the big theories like plate tectonics and evolution depend on one big sequence of inter-related events. In a micro-sense, you can see if similar things happen in different times and places, but the overall development of life on earth, or the development of the earth itself, only happened once, and we lack the capacity to conduct meaningful experiments about such things. Of course, the universe itself, the subject of the grandest of all theories in science, also falls in this category. Perhaps that explains the need to invoke the multiverse.

I don't have any complaints about the way these sciences have been pursuing, it just strikes me as funny that some really big scientific ideas aren't actually amenable to experiment. We can conduct experimental programs that build up the foundations of such ideas, but we can't wind the universe back up and set it down and see what happens the second time, which is the foundation of all experimental philosophies of science. Maybe that is why I like alternative history and science fiction: this is how we try to acknowledge our weaknesses here.


The Years of Rice and Salt
By Kim Stanley Robinson
Bantam Paperback 2003
(Hardcover 2002)
763 Pages, US$7.99

 

This review appeared in the
Spring 2006 issue of
Comparative Civilizations Review

 

Once upon a time, a course in science-fiction writing was offered at Rutgers University. The grade was based on stories written by the students, but the instructor offered an exam option as a joke. It included this memorable question: “Describe the influence of the papacy on medieval Europe.” The question posed by this novel is actually more ambitious: what was the effect of post-medieval Europe on world history; or more precisely, what would the world be like if there had never been a European modernity? In the course of answering this question, Kim Stanley Robinson has written what may be the finest example thus far of Alternative History: historiographically sophisticated, with plausible characters, the book is essentially world history made readable as a series of biographies. Best of all, at least from the prospective of an admiring reviewer, the book presents a model of history that is both demonstrably and instructively false.

The premise of the story is that the outbreaks of plague in 14th century Europe were far more deadly than they historically were. The whole continent, from Britain to Constantinople, and from Gibraltar to Moscovy, is wholly depopulated. The action starts around 1400, when a deserter from the horde of Timur the Lame gets an inkling of the disaster as he wanders through the deserted landscapes of Hungary and the Balkans. He is enslaved by Turks; he is sold to the treasure fleet of Zheng He, who happened to be in East Africa on one of his famous oceanic expeditions. Eventually, the deserter dies as an innocent bystander at a court intrigue of the early Ming Dynasty.

In the course of this man’s adventures we meet pretty much all the people we will be meeting for the next 700 years. The conceit that holds the book together is that people are reincarnated, in much the way contemplated by Tibetan Buddhism, and that they normally progress through time with the same companions. In “The Years of Rice and Salt,” the principal companions are the Revolutionary, the Pious Man, and the Scientist; the Idiot Sultan puts in several appearances, too. Some of the most interesting passages in the book are set in the bardo state, between incarnations. Depending on the period in which they most recently lived, the companions take these interludes more or less seriously. During one such incident, the Revolutionary becomes exasperated with the Pious Man’s spiritual and historical optimism: “We may be in a hallucination here, but that is no excuse for being delusional.”

Macrohistory in this scenario differs from that of the real world more in detail than in broad outline. The 15th century discovery of the Americas is cancelled, for obvious reasons. Less than a century later, however, a Chinese fleet sent out to establish a base in Japan discovers the Inca Empire. Not long thereafter, the oceanic explorers from Firanja, a Europe resettled from North Africa, discover the east coast of the western continents. These penetrations from Eurasia are slow enough, however, to allow the politically ingenious people around the northern continent’s great freshwater lakes to adapt to the new diseases and to organize defenses. In later years, their model of democratically representative federal government would become the best hope of mankind.

The parallels continue. In Samarqand, in what would have been the late 17th century if anyone were using that reckoning, an alchemist notes that different weights of the same material fall at the same speed; soon there is a mathematics to express acceleration. Move forward another century, and we see scholars in the fracture area between China and Islam trying to reconcile the intellectual traditions of the two. The result is the beginning of a secular, enlightened science of humanity. A noble passage from their work runs thus:

“History can be seen as a series of collisions of civilizations, and it is these collisions that create progress and new things. It may not happen at the actual point of contact, which is often wracked by disruption and war, but behind the lines of conflict, where the two cultures are most trying to define themselves and prevail, great progress is often made very swiftly, with works of permanent distinction in arts and technique. Ideas flourish as people try to cope, and over time the competition yields to the stronger ideas, the more flexible, more generous ideas. Thus Fulan, India, and Yinzhou are prospering in their disarray, while China grows weak from its monolithic nature, despite the enormous infusion of gold from across the Dahai. No single civilization could ever progress; it is always a matter of two or more colliding. Thus the waves on the shore never rise higher than when the backwash of some earlier wave falls back into the next one incoming, and a white line of water jets to a startling height. History may not resemble so much the seasons of the year, as waves in the sea, running this way and that, crossing, making patterns, sometimes to a triple peak, a very Diamond Mountain of cultural energy, for a time.”

The hopes of this period for universal reconciliation are shattered by power politics; the power in this case coming from the steam engines of the trains and warships of southern India, whose Hindu regions were the first to master mechanical industrialization. These techniques soon spread universally, however. In the earlier parts of the book, it sometimes seemed to the characters that China would take over the world. This fear performed the minor miracle of uniting the huge and fractious Islamic world, which in turn posed a threat to China and India. Thus, in the closing decades of the decrepit Qing Dynasty, the Long War began, which essentially pitted eastern and southern Asia against the Middle East, Firanja, and northern Africa. It went on for 67 years, killing perhaps a billion people all told. Even in the middle of what would have been the 21st century, the world had still not recovered from it psychologically, however much social and technological progress had occurred.

In some ways, the postwar parts of the book are the most fun. In western Firanja, disgruntled intellectuals chatter in cafes about the history of everyday life and the perennial oppression of women. A musician takes the name “Tristan” and becomes a sort of one-man Solesmes, resurrecting the plainchant of the vanished Franks. There is a subplot about how physicists collude to avoid building an atomic bomb. There are conferences of historians in which the author gets to critique his own devices. A panel on the nature of the plague that destroyed Europe comes no closer to explaining what happened, perhaps for the excellent reason that the real Black Death was probably the worst that could have happened. We get a discussion of reincarnation as a narrative device and, better still, of narrative structures in historical writing, particularly in narratives of historical progress.

The book ends peacefully, with an elderly historian, the Pious Man, settling into semi-retirement at a small college in a region that is not called California. In a way, he had achieved the era of perpetual Light that people like him had always hoped for, but the eschaton is more like that of Francis Fukuyama than of any of the great religions. There was really only one way that history could go, we are led to believe. In the closing sections, children in his campus village hunt for Easter eggs in springtime, but of course they don’t call them Easter eggs.

The speculation in "The Years of Rice and Salt” presents the same sort of issue that Stephen Jay Gould addressed in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In the latter work, Gould considered what would happen if biological history were begun again. Would it follow the course of the history we know, and arrive at something like our world? Gould answered “no.” His principal evidence, an interpretation of the Burgess Shales, collapsed a few years later when better preserved fossils from the same period were discovered. His larger contention is still open to debate; the matter can be decided only when we can compare the evolutionary history of Earth to that of another earth-like planet. At this point, it seems to me that Gould was probably wrong: evolution does tend toward certain solutions. I would say the same about human history, and so, apparently, would Kim Stanley Robinson. In this novel, however, the most remarkable effect of the deletion of the West is that there is no effect. This is almost surely wrong.

Consider a few of the notable figures in this alternative history: a Chinese Columbus, an Uzbek Newton, an Indian Florence Nightingale. They not only perform roughly the same historical functions as their real-world counterparts; except for the Columbus figure, they each do so at roughly the same time as each of their real-world counterparts. It is hard to see why this should be. The West did not decisively influence the internal affairs of the two greatest non-Western imperia, China and the Ottoman Empire, until well into the 19th century. There is no particular reason why sailors from Ming China could not have discovered America. For all we know, maybe a few did. Even if that discovery had become well-known, however, it would have made little difference. For internal reasons of cultural evolution, China was no longer looking for adventures. Similarly, there is no reason why the physics of Galileo and Newton could not have been discovered in Central Asia in the 17th century, if all that was necessary was cultural cross-fertilization and a frustrated interest in alchemy.

There are in fact good reasons for making India the site of an alternative industrial revolution. Its patchwork of states, so reminiscent of Baroque Europe, might well have offered both the intellectual sophistication and the political license to develop a machine economy. The problem is that no such thing seems to have been happening when the English acquired control over most of the subcontinent in the 18th century. There was considerable Indian industry, of course, but it was not progressive in the way that European industry was in the same period. It was not just a question of technique; industrial development requires financial sophistication and acceptable political risk quite as much as it requires engineering. India was kept from developing by the government of the Idiot Sultan, and he was wholly indigenous.

Toynbee defined civilization to be a class of society that affords an intelligible unit of historical study. The nations or other units that comprise a civilization could not be understood in isolation from each other; the larger ensembles to which a civilization might belong are accidental or not constant in their effects. Toynbee modified his ideas in later life, but this definition is helpful here.

We see even in the dates in this book that something literally does not compute. Most numerical dates are given in the Muslim reckoning; actually, it is easiest to find your way around if you keep a chronological list of Chinese emperors handy. Even though there is a very sketchy timeline at the beginning of the book, there are still occasions for confusion. Because of the difference between the lengths of the lunar and solar years, a Muslim century is (if memory serves) only about 97 Gregorian years. The omission of the Christian calendar, however necessary because of the book’s premise, makes the world history the book seeks to describe almost inconceivable.

There is a sense in which Columbus, and Newton, and Florence Nightingale were world-historical figures, but if we are to discuss them as a group, we must start with the fact they were all products, indeed characteristic products, of Western civilization. The line of development that led from one to the other (or from the social milieu that produced one to the social milieu that produced the other) was a process within Western civilization. There had, perhaps, been figures parallel to these great names during the pasts of other civilizations, but the parallels were not chronologically simultaneous.

This does not mean that there is no such thing as world history. Another of Toynbee’s notions is helpful: the idea that civilizations appear in generations. The most ancient civilizations, those of the river valleys, were local affairs, however widely their influence spread. The “classical” civilizations of the next generation, of Rome and the Han and the Gupta, were regional. The third generation, including the Islamic cultures, post-Tang China, and the West after the Dark Age, are all third generation, as indeed are other societies, notably Japan and Hindu India. What Islam, the West, and China, have in common is that they are all, in principle, universal. During their great ages, Islam and China both reached just shy of global influence before consolidating their activities to certain broad regions. The West finally did achieve global scale, in the 15th century, and so created the possibility of a genuinely ecumenical society.

This is the gospel according to Toynbee, and you can take it or leave it; as we have noted, “The Years of Rice and Salt” includes a quite sophisticated discussion of metahistory. Nonetheless, the incontestable fact is that, whatever malign influence you might want to ascribe to European imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, the other great civilizations during early modern times were simply not efflorescent in the way the West was. Without too much speculation, we can make a good estimate of the course of the world’s major civilizations in the absence of the West.

China was winding down from its Song climax; the Ming and Qing Dynasties would have followed much the same course with or without Western influence. The result would have been another minor dark age in the 20th century, as after the Latter Han in antiquity. Similarly, the Ottoman Empire, the greatest of Islamic states, was losing control of North Africa and the hinterland of the Middle East before the Europeans ever became a factor. The empire would probably have unraveled in pretty much the way it did in our timeline, perhaps with the exception that the caliphate might have survived as a venerable anachronism. As for India, it is a commonplace that the English stepped into a vacuum left by the decline of the Mughal Empire. Doubtless other forces would have stepped in if the English had not been available, but there is no particular reason to suppose that the new situation would have been discontinuous with earlier Indian history.

There would still have been dynamic societies in the world, of course. Japan’s social evolution has its own internal logic; Western contact in the mid-19th century was an opportunity that Japanese elites chose to exploit. During the same period, Burma was literate, mechanically ingenious, and of an imperial turn of mind; only annexation by the British Empire prevented what might have been a new Buddhist civilization from forming. Anything at all might have happened in the Americas, but for the time being, it would have been of only local significance. The “classical” generation of American civilizations would still have been in the future.

On the whole, Earth by the middle of the 20th century might have seemed like a planet with a great future behind it. However, there have been general breakdowns of civilization before, notably at the end of the Bronze Age. Even in the barbarous early Iron Age that followed, however, techniques and ideas spread from land to land. Similarly, in the third millennium, it would have been just a matter of time before one or more societies wove the new ideas into a civilization with universal potential.

That history would have taken another 500 to 1000 years to reach the state of things that we see from the college in the land that is not Calfornia. A book about it would have to be very good indeed to compare to “The Years of Rice and Salt.”

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Years of Rice and Salt
By Kim Stanley Robinson

The Long View: Is Mathematics Constitutional?

A recent popular [well, as popular as a massive book full of equations can be] exposition of mathematical Platonism is Roger Penrose's The Road to Reality. It even has practice problems in it with devoted communities of amateurs trading tips on how to solve them. Mathematical Platonism, or something much like it, really is something like the default position of many mathematicians and physicists.

Since I ended up an engineer, perhaps it isn't really surprising that I always found the moderate realism of Aristotle and Aquinas more appealing. 

There is a good quote in this short essay that I've used to good effect:

"Because the whole point of science is to explain the universe without invoking the supernatural, the failure to explain rationally the 'unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics,' as the physicist Eugene Wigner once put it, is something of a scandal, an enormous gap in human understanding."
I, for one, was a little taken aback by the proposition that science had any "point" other than to describe the physical world as it actually is, but let that pass.

Philosophy of science is a field in fine shape, but many fans of science try to use it as a cudgel upon religious believers. Insofar as that attempt is mostly ignorant of both science and philosophy, it isn't particularly illuminating.


Is Mathematics Constitutional?

 

The New York Times remains our paper of record, even in matters of metaphysics. For proof, you need only consult the article by George Johnson that appeared in the Science Section on February 16, 1998, entitled: "Useful Invention or Absolute Truth: What Is Math?" The piece was occasioned by a flurry of recent books challenging mathematical Platonism. This is the belief, shared by most mathematicians and many physicists, that mathematical ideas are "discovered" rather than constructed by the mathematicians who articulate them. Consider the following sentence:

"Because the whole point of science is to explain the universe without invoking the supernatural, the failure to explain rationally the 'unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics,' as the physicist Eugene Wigner once put it, is something of a scandal, an enormous gap in human understanding."

I, for one, was a little taken aback by the proposition that science had any "point" other than to describe the physical world as it actually is, but let that pass. The immediate philosophical peril to the world of the Times is more narrow. That is, it is hard to be a thoroughgoing secular materialist if you have to acknowledge that there are aspects of reality that cannot be explained as either products of blind chance or of human invention. Supreme Court Justice William Kennedy has even suggested that systems of ethics claiming an extra-human origin are per se unconstitutional. Judging by some of the arguments against mathematical Platonism presented by the Times piece, however, we may soon see Establishment Clause challenges to federal aid for mathematical education.

The best-known of the books that try to de-Platonize mathematics is "The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics," by the cognitive scientist Stanislas Dehaene. His argument is that the rudiments of mathematics are hardwired into the human brain, and so that mathematics is foundationally a product of neurology. The evidence is various. There are studies of accident victims suggesting there may be a specific area of the brain concerned with counting, as well as stimulus-response studies showing that some animals can be trained to distinguish small-number sequences. (Remember the rabbits in "Watership Down," who had the same name for all numbers from five to infinity?) Relying on even more subtle arguments is a recent article by George Lakoff and Rafael E. Núñez, "Mathematical Reasoning: Analogies, Metaphors and Images." [BE: the actual article is titled The Metaphorical Structure of Mathematics: Sketching Out Cognitive Foundations for a Mind-Based Mathematics] The authors suggest that numbers are simply extrapolated from the structure of the body and mathematical operations from movement. (The article is part of an upcoming book to be called "The Mathematical Body.")

I have not read these works, so it is entirely possible I am missing something. Still, it seems to me that there are two major problems with analyses of this sort. First, if the proposition is that mathematical entities are metaphysical universals that are reflected in the physical world, it is no argument against this proposition to point to specific physical instances of them. In other words, if numbers are everywhere, then it stands to reason that they would be inherent in the structure of the brain and body, too.

If Dr. Dehaene has really found a "math-box" in the head, has he found a fantasy-gland or an organ of perception? The Times article paraphrases him as saying that numbers are "artifacts of the way the brain parses the world...like colors. Red apples are not inherently red. They reflect light at wavelengths that the brain...interprets as red." The distinction between things that are "really red" and those that "just look like red" has always escaped me, even in languages with different verbs for adjectival predicates and the copula. Doesn't a perfectly objective spectral signature identify any red object? In order to avoid writing the Monty Python skit that arguments about perception usually become, let me just note here that the experience of qualia (such as "redness") has nothing to do with the cognitive understanding of number. Like the numbers distinguishing the wavelengths of colors, for instance.

There is a more basic objection to the physicalistic reductionism at work here, however. Consider what it would mean if it worked. Suppose that proofs were presented so compelling as to convince any honest person that mathematics was indeed nothing more than an extrapolation of the structure of the nervous system, or of the fingers on the hand, or of the spacing of heartbeats. We would then have a situation where we would have to explain the "unreasonable effectiveness" of the human neocortex, or even the universal explanatory power of the human anatomy. This would be anthropocentrism come home to roost. You could, I suppose, argue that we only imagine that the human neurological activity called mathematics lets us explain everything; the reality is that we only know about the things that our brains let us explain. Well, maybe, but then that suggests that there are other things that we don't know about because our brains are not hardwired to explain them. Maybe those are the things that are really red?

There are indeed problems with mathematical Platonism, the chief of which is that it is hard to see how the physical world could interact with the non-sensuous ideal forms. (John Barrow's delightful "Pi in the Sky" will take interested readers on a fair-minded tour of the philosophy and intellectual history of this perennial question.) The most workable solution is probably the "moderate Realism" of Aquinas. He held that, yes, there are universals, but that we can know about them only through the senses. This seems reasonable enough. In fact, this epistemological optimism is probably the reason science developed in the West in the first place. There may even be a place for Dr. Dehaene's math-box in all this, if its function is regarded as perceiving numbers rather than making them up. What there can be no place for is the bigotry of those who believe that science exists only to support certain metaphysical prejudices.

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-03-18: Extinctions: Periodic & Deserved

As far as I know, nothing serious ever came out of Rohde and Muller's 2005 on cyclical extinctions, but I linked the image above to a copy of the original paper. I think is usually a mistake to look for alternative explanations for the Cretaceous extinction.


Extinctions: Periodic & Deserved

 

Just when you thought it was safe to read the paleontological journals again, this story appears:

BERKELEY, CA -- A detailed and extensive new analysis of the fossil records of marine animals over the past 542 million years has yielded a stunning surprise. Biodiversity appears to rise and fall in mysterious cycles of 62 million years for which science has no satisfactory explanation...For their study, Muller and Rohde defined fossil diversity as the number of distinct genera alive at any given time...Muller suspects there is an astrophysical driving mechanism behind the 62 million year periodicity...[On the other hand] "My hunch, far from proven," Rohde said, "is that every 62 million years the earth is releasing a burst of heat in the form of a plume formation event..."

That asteroid impact on the boundary between the Cretaceous and the Tertiary, the one that is supposed to have exterminated the dinosaurs, is pretty well established. On the other hand, there have always been paleontologists who insist that extinctions were already underway when the asteroid (or asteroids, in some accounts) struck the Earth. Perhaps the impact simply worsened a bad situation. Conversely, maybe a similar impact at another time would not have such serious effects.

Oh, and by the way: if that last big die-off was about 65-million years ago, and the period of diversity collapse is about 62-million years, then...OH MY GOD!!!

* * *

As another example of an aggravating factor, consider the lead opinion piece in the Weekly Standard of March 21, entitled "Let 'er Rip." Written by Fred Barnes, who suffers from the delusion he is doing the Administration a favor, the piece encourages President Bush to ignore all those reports he has been hearing that his privatization plan for Social Security makes the national gorge rise. Rather, Barnes advises, the president should promote his proposal in season and out, until the public awakes to the splendor of the concept. Barnes concludes with this flourish:

The Washington Times checked what would have happened if individual accounts, invested in market index funds, had been established in 1978. The Dow since then has soared from 820 to nearly 11,000, the S&P 500 from 96 to more than 1,220, and Nasdaq from 118 to roughly 2,050. Retirees would be living in high style. So, Mr. President, let 'er rip on individual accounts. You've got nothing to lose and momentous reform and a booming Republican Party to gain.

This is like an incident in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: the captain of the C Ship that crashes on the primitive Earth decides to jumpstart the new colony's economy, so he declares the leaves on all the trees to be currency. That does make everyone on the C Ship a multi-trillionaire, but it means that a single peanut from ship's stores will cost three deciduous forests.

Look, all those corporations listed in the securities exchanges are worth only so much. You can't make them worth more by pouring the savings of tens of millions of people into the markets in which their securities are traded. At best, you would get a much lower return on capital. At worst, and more likely, you would get a bubble bigger than the South Sea, followed by a bust big enough to scare a dinosaur to death. That is in fact what happened to the private-account systems in Britain and Sweden, to the great consternation of all concerned.

Would someone please put this wounded Grendel of an idea out of its misery?

* * *

And speaking of bad ideas, here's the worst idea for a new performance genre since cold-water mud-wrestling:

"Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog From Iraq" is not a very good play, but it's worth your attention for two reasons. It's the only political drama in New York written from the point of view of an Iraqi who lived through the American invasion, and, for better or worse, it inaugurates an entirely new (and seemingly inevitable) theatrical genre - the blog play...

The blog in question is Riverbend, by the way. And what exactly happens on stage?

Instead of building a character, the show includes readings of her words from three women and one man, which adds to the muddled feel...When not speaking, the actors pace in a triangle or perform synchronized gestures that make them look like backup singers to a 1960's pop band.

It might be better to put laptops on the stage, linked to big flat-panel screens, on which the text of the blog and of the reader comments scrolls down. That way, the actors could be absent as well as the audience.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Obvious Proof

I think there are better arguments for classical theism than the Argument from Design, but as eminent a philosopher as Antony Flew was eventually convinced by it. Philosophical atheism is a respectable position, but many of atheism's most vocal defenders are not actually espousing that position, but rather a juvenile and reactive atheism that does them no credit. For those individuals, a psychological explanation may have merit.


The Obvious Proof: A Presentation of the Classic Proof of Universal Design
by Gershon Robinson and Mordechai Steinman
CIS Publishers, 1993
$13.95 Hardcover, $10.95 Paper
141 Pages

 

Is there such a thing as an honest atheist? Maybe not, according to Gershon Robinson and Mordechai Steinman (both of whom are writers, the latter with a physics degree). This short book (really an extended essay) does not add much new to the Design debate. What it does do is try to turn the intellectual tables by interpreting atheism as a species of willful irrationality.

The thesis of "The Obvious Proof" is that the scientific evidence for intelligent design in nature is at least as great as the evidence that would normally persuade us that something is artificial. The authors' benchmark for common sense in this matter is the black obelisk buried beneath the surface of the Moon in the film "2001," which audiences around the world immediately intuited to be a product of intelligence. (This argument is set out more briefly at the website The 2001 Principle, where you can also order the book.) The authors present a useful summary of several popular treatments of the Anthropic Principle in cosmology and the extraterrestrial "seeding theory" of the origin of life on Earth. However, the book does not attempt a comprehensive presentation of the Argument from Design. (Among other things, such a presentation would require a discussion of the evidence from chaos and complexity studies that the natural world is in large measure self-organizing.) Rather, the authors assume that Design is such an obvious explanation for order in nature that the reluctance of certain scientists to accept it can have only a psychological explanation.

The explanation that the authors favor is the Gestalt psychology principle of "cognitive dissonance," which causes people to reject empirical information that does not fit into their mental categories. The authors sometimes seem to equate intellectual cognitive dissonance with Freudian repression. (Perhaps the distinction may not be hard and fast. In any case, a more purely Freudian explanation for atheism was developed a few years ago by the psychologist Paul Vitz.) What the authors are talking about here is not a failure of the imagination among scientists, which is what cognitive dissonance normally implies in a scientific context. Rather, they seek to define the reasons for the emotional reluctance found among at least some scientists to accept the theistic implications of empirical research.

The five emotional grounds the authors present for this reluctance are rather intriguing. Three are things you might expect: the desire for complete moral autonomy, outraged intellectual pride faced with the unknowable, and mere intellectual habit. One of the others, however, is the ontological anxiety that might occur should you accept that you are a product of another will. It's an interesting point: a meaningless universe is less threatening than an arbitrary one. The most engaging reason for atheism, though, is almost a kind of shyness. If God exists, then He must have abandoned us, since otherwise He would not be so enigmatic. Do you really want someone to exist who probably does not like you?

"The Obvious Proof" could be taken as a commentary on Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman's commentary on Maimonides' commentary on the beginning of the Decalogue. Maimonides concluded from the words "I am G-d, your Lord, Who took you out of the land of Egypt," that there is an actual duty under Jewish Law to believe in God. Such a commandment is reasonable, according to Rabbi Wasserman, because the existence of God should be obvious even to a boy by the time of his Bar Mitzvah. Those who deny the evidence for God, according to this view, do so because they have intellectual or emotional "investments" in a non-theistic universe.

It is certainly true that some scientists have a psychological ax to grind on the question of the existence of God. (My suspicion is that a disproportionate number of these people write popular science for just this reason.) It is probably also true that the perception of design in nature is a matter of intuitive common sense. However, intuitive common sense, even when it is correct, is not the same thing as a rigorous philosophical proof.

 

End

Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly

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LinkFest 2016-12-09

Venezuela's currency value depends largely on one guy at an Alabama Home Depot

Venezuela is a messed up place, and it always amazes me what ordinary people can do.

Mesmerizing Commute Maps Reveal We All Live in Mega-Regions, Not Cities

Most US time zones follow state lines, but exceptions do exist. For example, Couer d'Alene Idaho, and Spokane Washington share a time zone. My dad explained to me when I was a child that this is because they are so close, and not much else is. I think this is fundamentally the same thing this article is getting at.

Respect All Builds — This Needs to Stop

I am not a car guy, but I understand where this guy is coming from. Not everything you can do to a car is worthy of praise, and you can never get really good at something without competition and challenge.

Art Of Atari – A Hardcover Trip Down Video Game Memory Lane

I flipped through this book, and it really brought me back. So much of the appeal of Atari 2600 games came from the manual and box art.

Greg Cochran's book recommendations for 2016

Greg's recommendations are always good, and he likes Tim Powers too!

11 twisted facts about 'The Far Side'

The Far Side as a formative influence on me, and I have the collection sitting on my shelf.

To Mars in 70 days: Expert discusses NASA's study of paradoxical EM propulsion drive

I would love if this were true, but I remain very skeptical. That being said, I think that a better way to prove the critics wrong would be to make something that unambiguously thrusts in space.

The Long View 2004-06-04: Art Imitates Death

The Two Cultures

The Two Cultures

John references C. P. Snow's famous essay The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution in this post. While much has changed in the last sixty-seven years, much has also stayed the same.

Most politicians in the English-speaking world continue to come from law, poli sci, and the social sciences, although some exceptions, such as Margaret Thatcher, exist. For the most part, scientists and engineers do not have easy access to the levers of power. This isn't true everywhere, however. The nomenklatura of the USSR often had technical backgrounds, and the current government of Mexico, heavily dependent on the oil revenues from PEMEX, is largely composed of engineers.

Oddly, the support base of Communism in the West largely came from the same literary classes as the rest of the politicians, despite the more scientific bent of the Soviets. Maybe that explains why the Soviets held their Western fellow-travelers in such contempt.

Also, look at this paragraph written by Mark Steyn in 2004:

In much of western Europe, on all the issues that matter, competitive politics decayed to a rotation of arrogant co-regents of an insular elite, with predictable consequences: if the political culture forbids respectable politicians from raising certain issues, then the electorate will turn to unrespectable ones.
America turns to an unrespectable politician, as predicted by Mark Steyn in 2004

America turns to an unrespectable politician, as predicted by Mark Steyn in 2004

You can't say you weren't warned.


Art Imitates Death

 

The custom of referring to death as a "final journey" is so common that the expression has lost power as a metaphor. So why do we keep using it? Perhaps because it is also a common experience.

That may be one way to take the observations by Valerie Reitman, which recently appeared in the Los Angeles Times in a piece entitled Taking Life's Final Exit. She was not talking about "near-death experiences," which is what people report who have been clinically dead but then revived, but "nearing death awareness," which is what terminally ill people dream or imagine or just talk about. According to Reitman:

[T]hose dying slowly often talk of preparing for a trip or of trying to finish something, Kelley and Callanan found, perhaps using language pertaining to their professions or hobbies. One dying man who liked to sail, for instance, talked about the ebbing of the tides; a watchmaker mentioned that the clock was not ticking fast enough; a carpenter described details of completing an imaginary house...Why dying people speak of taking journeys is anyone's guess. Drugs don't seem to play much of a role, hospice workers say, because the phenomenon occurs both in those who are taking painkillers and those who aren't. If anything, they say, the more drugs one takes, the less likely any conversations.

Reitman cautions that this behavior should not be confused with the desire many dying people express in their last days to go home or to be transferred to another facility; I have seen that, but this final-journey business is new to me. I wonder: does this also have something to do with the motif of the Quest?

* * *

Speaking of near-death experiences and the Quest, there are several things that might be said about the decision by the US Supreme Court earlier this week to throw out the Newdow case. That was, of course, the suit by the noncustodial biological father of a girl in the California school system to have the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance declared unconstitutional, at least for use in the public schools. The Supreme Court said the father did not have standing to bring the suit; the surprising thing was that any of the lower courts had held otherwise. On the other hand, it was also surprising that the Supreme Court had agreed to hear the case. It was surprising that the Court heard oral arguments in a case decided on a technicality. It was surprising that three of the justices wrote separately, giving their views on the merits of a case they had voted not to decide.

Perhaps what happened here is that the Court realized there was a majority for overturning "under God" in an election year, and understood it was looking into the abyss. They met this challenge in a way recalling Sir Robin's Song in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Brave Sir Robin,
He ran away,
He ran away,
He turned his tail
And he scuppered off
And he hit the road;
And brave Sir Robin,
He bravely, bravely
Ran away!

Monty Python was not as good as the Simpsons, but they were close.

* * *

Before there was Monty Python, there was the scientist-turned-novelist, C.P. Snow. A collection of his lectures, published in 1959 as the book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, was also once a reference that all sophisticated people were supposed to recognize. His argument was that, particularly in Britain, the elites were divided between those with a literary education and those with a scientific education. Though sometimes exasperated by the cultural illiteracy of scientists, his argued that only people who understand science and engineering would be able to direct public policy intelligently. He contrasts the British political class, populated by a raft of Oxbridge graduates who read Classics or Modern Literature at school, to the nomenclatura in the USSR, most of whom have been trained as engineers, or in the useful humanities, such as foreign languages. Surely, he says, the West will be able to hold its own in the Cold War only if its educational system can be brought up to Soviet standards.

Now comes social-science-fiction writer David Brooks, with a structurally similar model of a cultural divide among American elites. In a column in The New York Times entitled Bitter at the Top, Brooks puts the matter thus:

Knowledge-class types are more likely to value leaders who possess what may be called university skills: the ability to read and digest large amounts of information and discuss their way through to a nuanced solution. Democratic administrations tend to value self-expression over self-discipline. Democratic candidates — from Clinton to Kerry — often run late...Managers are more likely to value leaders whom they see as simple, straight-talking men and women of faith. They prize leaders who are good at managing people, not just ideas. They are more likely to distrust those who seem overly intellectual or narcissistically self-reflective.

Note the declension here. Snow's Classicists, who at least knew Latin and Greek, have been replaced by people who studied political science and sociology, and so know nothing. Similarly, the physicists and chemists have been replaced by "managers," who in my experience are people who never, under any circumstances, learn the substance of what the organization they manage is supposed to do.

Alas.

* * *

On the other hand, if you believe Mark Steyn, the problem in the United Kingdom, and in Europe as a whole, is that the elites have arrived at a consensus that their electorates find increasingly repulsive. Speaking with reference to the recent elections, in which euroskeptics embarrassed the establishment throughout the EU:

[T]he real problem in Britain would seem to be a lunatic mainstream, set on a course of profound change for which there is no popular mandate whatsoever.

In the late 20th century sur le Continent, politics evolved to the point where almost any issue worth talking about was ruled beneath discussion, beyond the bounds of polite society.

In much of western Europe, on all the issues that matter, competitive politics decayed to a rotation of arrogant co-regents of an insular elite, with predictable consequences: if the political culture forbids respectable politicians from raising certain issues, then the electorate will turn to unrespectable ones.

Most of these alternatives are unrespectable only in the sense that the establishment refuses to give their ideas a hearing. Others, of course, should be hanged or arrested.

* * *

Here's a final instance of the widespread sense that something is missing: 'Faux mitzvahs' a rising trend with non-Jews. As the headline suggests, the story deals with the rising demand among young American teens of all religious affiliations for the sort of initiation rite that bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs provide for Jews. Actually, the belief that something has to be done to civilize 13-year-olds is universal. East Germany devised a secular coming-of-age ceremony like this, and I believe it survived the Wende of 1989.

The wonder is that the report does not mention the term confirmation. What can the churches that maintain this rite be thinking of?   

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

LinkFest 2015-09-30

Wow, it has been a long time since I did a LinkFest, so here is one delayed 7 weeks.

48 Hours on the Dark Side of Vegas

This reminds me of the hidden desperation in Tim Power's Last Call.

Is the U.S. behind Fethullah Gulen?

Not as newsworthy as it used to be, but a very interesting take from a Turk living in the US.

Why Trump Supporters Think He'll Win

Still very newsworthy.

Could Trump Be the 'Man's Man' America Wants?

After the popularity of the above article, David Frum wrote another on the same subject. Part of the appeal of Trump is that he hasn't got even a hint of the Ned Flanders vibe that turns many people away from other Republican candidates.

Surprises of the Faraday Cage

It turns out a famous explanation of the phenomenon may not be correct. Which hasn't stopped the engineers who design them.

Internaut day: The world's first public website went online 25 years ago today

Also out of date. I fondly remember the early days of the internet. Everything was more innocent then. No, really.

No Matter Who Wins The Presidency, The ‘Deep State’ Will Run Things

I'm not sure I believe this, but I think the argument is interesting.

America's birth rate is now a national emergency

PEG says there is no good reason the US, an empty country that grows lots of food and exports oil, should have a birth rate below replacement. I am inclined to agree with him.

Terry v. Ohio. Happy 50th Anniverary, Detective McFadden!

I enjoyed learning the history of the 'frisk'. 

The Tesla Effect: How the cutting edge company became the most powerful engine in Bay Area manufacturing

People forget how much of the money any company pulls in as revenue goes to its suppliers, which go to its suppliers, and so on. 

What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists

In my opinion, the current trend of crank amateur physicists is entirely the fault of the direction that physics as a whole has taken. Lots of great progress has been made by applying mathematical theories in elegant ways, but the data that support those theories comes from a messy reality that is often obscured in the tales told about science [usually by science journalists and popularizers]. This is the story of a physicist who tried to bring a little reality to the amateurs.

Giving up alcohol opened my eyes to the infuriating truth about why women drink

The author seems like she lives in world that I've heard about, but never experienced. Getting sloshed sounds like an entirely human response to living that kind of life, but the bigger question is why would you want to? A good companion piece to the Jezebel article about binge drinking and how it contributes to women's dissatisfaction with their sex lives. There is a common thread here, and it isn't alcohol.

DEVOODOOIFYING PSYCHOLOGY

Psychologists have been trying to devoodoofy psychology for a long time.

What U. of Chicago Activists Are Complaining About

Trigger warnings are grossly overused, but this is a sympathetic look at the environment in an actual elite school. I still think Neal Stephenson got this all right thirty years ago.

In Defense of Prince Hans

I said the same thing the first time I watched Frozen.

Pondering Miracles, Medical and Religious

A breath of fresh air after all the nastiness from the atheist community before and during the canonization of Mother Theresa.

 

A brilliant series of Tweets from Ross Douthat on why Trumpism matters, no matter how much you hate Trump.

And of course, the essay that occasioned that Tweetstorm.

LinkFest 2016-07-05

England's Hour: A Review of 'The English and their History' by Robert Tombs

An idea I've seen from writers across the political and ideological spectrum is that England developed a distinctive culture and position in the world due to *just enough* isolation. This book review delves into the latest exploration of that idea.

Can we survive technology?

A 1955 essay from John von Neumann, the most remarkable intellect of the twentieth century. This is an exploration of the first episode of globalization, and its relation to the development of science and technology. Regrettably, this article on the Fortune website appears to be incomplete.

Why Brexit voters are the world's financial losers

When libertarian economists like Tyler Cowen say that open borders and free trade are worth it, this graph is the best evidence I can find for their position:

Clearly the modern world is doing something right for the world's poorest. I'm not certain that it had to involve the relative pain of the working classes in the developed world, but it did, and I am definitely certain that it is a bad idea to just write them off.

What kind of driverless cars do people want?

Apparently, not the kind that will drive you into a brick wall to avoid a jaywalker.

Looking behind the Brexit anger

One story about Brexit was the relative immiseration of the working classes in the developed world. Another story is the degree to which Labor voters in England [and white Democrats in America] remain socially conservative, and are increasingly ill-served by their parties.

Debuncification

An aside in the previous article led me to this investigation of the economic effects of better management and more effective-theft prevention measures: mostly more profits for business owners and improved economic statistics as underground economic activities were re-directed into official channels. I find this idea plausible, although I would want to look into it a lot more before investing too much in it. 

How Brexit shattered progressives' dearest illusions

And finally, a political look at how Brexit is intertwined with various global political projects, including what John J. Reilly used to call "transnationalism".

Zootopia deleted scene would have made the racial allegory a lot more disturbing

Steve Sailer helpfully points to more evidence that Zootopia is far more than the straightforward diversity tale it appears on the surface. I'll admit to a bit of schadenfreude at the linked article's annoyance that Zootopia doesn't map cleanly to current American racial problems.

 

The Long View 2004-03-26: Other Paths to Power

When it comes to energy, I am as interested as the next guy in new technologies, but I have boundless skepticism, nay cynicism, about them all. As it turns out, the oil market predictions John copied here from the National Interest seemed pretty plausible for most of the last 15 years, and then fracking finally dropped the bottom out of the market. However, it sure didn't look that way for a long time.


Other Paths to Power

Once again, I want to thank those readers who are buying books through this site. I maintain the blog, and the rest of the site, in large part for the intelligent feedback. Nonetheless, the commission fees from Amazon are also good evidence that someone is listening.

* * *

Speaking of gratuities, The National Interest recently sent its readers a "Special Energy Supplement." The National Interest are the folks who gave us Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" thesis, which many people disagreed with, but which no one concerned with foreign affairs escaped talking about. It could quickly be the same with the issues raised by the four articles in this supplementary pamphlet. There are three points you should keep in mind:

(1) For the first time, the demand for oil soon really will exceed supply;

(2) The chief sources of new oil that we know about are in Russia;

(3) The chief market for new oil, and the reason for point (1), is the explosive economic growth of China.

The rise of the Chinese economy means that the US and associated developed countries will lose leverage over the suppliers. The US and Saudi Arabia, for instance, traditionally had each other over a barrel. The US and Europe needed the Kingdom as a supplier, but then the Saudis needed the US and Europe as customers. The same has been true of Russia since the mid-1980s: the supplier-consumer relationship ensured a measure of cooperation on all issues. However, China (and soon India) are enormous alternative consumers. This will give the suppliers much more room to maneuver on other issues.

* * *

Perhaps you think that fossil fuels are just too tacky for words. Well, somewhat to my surprise, I recently had occasion to link to a legitimate story about cold fusion. At the time, I did not know the half of the continuing research in this area. Now The New York Times reports that the US Department of Energy is giving the question a second look:

Despite being pushed to the fringes of physics, cold fusion has continued to be worked on by a small group of scientists, and they say their figures unambiguously verify the original report, that energy can be generated simply by running an electrical current through a jar of water.

Last fall, cold fusion scientists asked the Energy Department to take a second look at the process, and last week, the department agreed...

Some cold fusion scientists now say they can produce as much as two to three times more energy than in the electric current. The results are also more reproducible, they say. They add that they have definitely seen fusion byproducts, particularly helium in quantities proportional to the heat generated.

Things have reached the point where there is even a language issue. Some people prefer the term "low-energy fusion," since these table-top reactions are not really cold. If you ask me, though, "cold fusion" should be used if we can get away with it. Cold fusion sounds like it has something to do with wrap-around sunglasses. Low-energy fusion smacks of malingering.

The place to start if you want to familiarize yourself with all this is Infinite Energy magazine. I would be more reassured, however, if the top page on that site did not also mention anti-gravity.

* * *

There is an old theory on the reactionary right (the real reactionary right, not to be confused with conservatives or libertarians). It holds that liberal democracies are doomed, because, in international affairs, they necessarily lacked the persistence and focus of autocracies. Sometimes, when I listen to John Kerry or Howard Dean, I start to think this too, but it's nonsense: the historical record is clear that liberal societies beat every other kind of society hollow. A clue to why this should be may be found in Peggy Noonan's March 25 column on the recent 911 hearings:

One summer day in the late 1990s I had a long talk with an elected official who was a friend and longtime political supporter of President Clinton. I asked him why, if Bill Clinton cared so much about his legacy, he didn't take steps to make America safer from terrorism. Why didn't he make it one of his big issues? We were at lunch in a New York restaurant, and I gestured toward the tables of happy people drinking golden-colored wine in gleaming glasses. They're all going to get sick when we get nuked, I said; they'd honor your guy for having warned and prepared. Yes, the official said, but you have to understand that Clinton is purely a poll driven politician, and if the numbers aren't there he won't move.

Too bad, I thought, because the numbers will someday be there.

The strength of democracy is that sometimes the numbers are there. That is more than even the most fearsome totalitarian state can say. The Soviet Union collapsed because its rulers never really thought of themselves as legitimate, and so never dared asked their people for anything more than submission. Nazi Germany lost the Second World War because the leadership feared to risk unpopularity by putting the economy on a war footing. Britain, in contrast, was the most thoroughly mobilized of all the combatants; even more so than Stalin's USSR. The very qualities that enabled Britain to do that, however, also made it possible for the country to entertain the self-delusion and evasion that prevailed in the 1930s. Sometimes, what looks like a fatal weakness is really a latent strength.

* * *

Through the miracle of quantum tunneling, I have obtained the following excerpt from a parallel-universe edition of The New York Times:

WASHINGTON, March 24--President Bush's former counterterrorism chief, Richard A. Clarke, testified on Wednesday to the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks that the Bush administration systematically discounted long-standing evidence of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda in order to pursue a fast, politically popular war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. "It was a case of the drunk looking for his lost wallet under the street lamp," Mr. Clarke told the commission. "The drunk has no reason to believe what he seeks is there. He looks there because that's the only place he can see."

The accusations come in the wake of Monday's suicide bombing against the US Air Force base at Al Hila, Saudi Arabia, in which the bomber and 20 Air Force personnel were killed. The number of deaths of US military personnel from terrorist acts in the Middle East since the invasion of Afghanistan in December 2001 have now reached 150.

Mr. Clarke's dramatic testimony overshadowed the earlier appearance of George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, who emphasized the continuity of the Clinton and Bush administrations' policy. "Both the presidents I have served recognize the greatest danger threatening the American homeland today to be the confluence of the development of weapons of mass destruction by hostile states and the existence of terrorist groups willing to deliver them," Mr. Tenet remarked. "However, we can do only so much at once."

Mr. Tenet could not confirm reports that Iran and Libya had secretly developed a nuclear capability, but rejected the assertion that those countries' nuclear programs might have been encouraged by the failure of the US to take decisive action against Iraq.

The hearings are being held in at atmosphere dominated by Democratic complaints that the Bush administration has taken the path of least resistence against the terrorist threat. Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry told the annual meeting of the National Psycho-Social Service Workers Union yesterday, "When I am president, you can be sure, I will not allow dangers to gather until they pose an imminent threat."

At the hearings, Mr. Clarke had this to say about whether the Bush team had enough new information about Iraq after the September 11 attacks to justify an attempt to remove the government by force:

"We haven't known what has been happening in Iraq since the UN inspectors left in 1998. All we know for sure is that it's worse."   

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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LinkFest 2016-06-10

A review on Night Enhancement Eyedrops using Chlorin e6

This is pretty nutty, but really interesting. Self-experimentation involving a photosensitizer compound to enhance night vision.

Heavy Boots

I came across this physics teaching post about the effect of gravity, and how a philosophy grad student misinterpreted it. Possibly apocryphal, but it sounds about right. The author of the post tried to be generous, but I think the philosophy TA wasn't dumb, he just didn't know anything, which is a separate problem.

Who Benefited From North American Slavery?

Not who you think.

What is neo-reaction|?

A damn good question. Tyler gives a decent answer to a question that is inherently hard to answer, because this movement is still inchoate. The comments are pretty interesting too.

The Pro-National Suicide Argument

James Chastek gives a pretty good summary of the bad things nationalism has wrought, and why you might seek to get rid of it.

The Soviet Union Series

Pseudoerasmus retweeted one of the entries in this series, and it caught my eye because the inability of the CIA, or anyone else really, to understand the economy of the Soviet Union played a big part in the Cold War. 

Gattaca: Utopia or Dystopia

An older blog post by Razib Khan. Khan rightly notes that genetic engineering could give us the opportunity to help those who have unfairly lost the genetic lottery. I commend this line of thinking, while at the same time suspecting that it won't actually work out that way.

There is no exception in Islam

A more recent post by Razib. He talks about the role of religion, and views of religion, in shaping the world. Razib is not a believer himself, but he takes religion seriously, and knows a lot about it.

The 2016 election will be horrible for America. But also, endlessly entertaining

My thoughts exactly.

The Three Ages of Pixar

I have strong disagreements with Steven Greydanus' assessments of the relative merits of Pixar movies, but I like this piece anyways.

 

The Long View 2004-03-05: Power; Decadence; Blackmun & the Terror War

Cold fusion is one of those ideas that just won't die. Sure, I'd love it to be real too, but when something seems too good to be true, it usually is. Especially in a field that has failed so spectacularly so many times.

Sonoluminescence, the phenomenon mentioned in John's post here, at least has interesting physics. Other kinds of cold fusion, like LENR, are outright scams. It is possible for hobbyists to build machines capable of nuclear fusion, but this apparently isn't sexy enough for scam artists, who insist on coming up with machines that can't even produce neutrons.

Genetic engineering still isn't real, although CRISPR/cas9 is a more promising technology than anything so far. Much like nuclear fusion, it has been just around the corner for a long time. I suspect genetic engineering is far easier to do, so I think it will eventually get here. I don't believe practical genetic engineering will change the world in a heartbeat, as some of its proponents seem to think, but it will cause real changes in the world. I also think that the impact will largely be limited by cost. Genetic engineering is one thing; all of the ancillary technologies that would make it cheap and ubiquitous are quite another.

Turning to European politics, Niall Ferguson gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in 2004 pointing out that Germany was [and is] the fiscal and political center of the EU, despite a nominal equality of influence of all member nations in the organs of the EU. If you use defacto German dominance as a starting point, and then combine that with the notion that lots of people probably aren't fans of the idea of German dominance, then the politics of the EU make a lot more sense.

For American politics, here is a rather stark prediction. John suggested here that preventing a fascist revolution in the West required the defeat the cultural Left. The cultural Left is at present ascendant, and not particularly generous to the losers in the Culture War. One might argue the that unlikely candidacy of Donald Trump for President of the United States is the form taken by the inevitable backlash against the victors' lack of mercy or compromise.

I do not think Donald Trump is particularly fascist, in any meaningful sense of the word. Authoritarian, yes. Fascist, no. By which I really mean, if think this is bad: just wait, it can get far, far worse.

What far worse looks like

What far worse looks like


Power; Decadence; Blackmun & the Terror War

Cold fusion is back, at least if you believe the Rensselaer Institute. Look:

The research team used a standing ultrasonic wave to help form and then implode the cavitation bubbles of deuterated acetone vapor. The oscillating sound waves caused the bubbles to expand and then violently collapse, creating strong compression shock waves around and inside the bubbles. Moving at about the speed of sound, the internal shock waves impacted at the center of the bubbles causing very high compression and accompanying temperatures of about 100 million Kelvin...Other fusion techniques, such as those that use strong magnetic fields or lasers to contain the plasma, cannot easily achieve the necessary compression....In the approach to be published in Physical Review E, spherical compression of the plasma was achieved due to the inertia of the liquid surrounding the imploding bubbles.

Results this dramatic have a tendency not to be replicated; and even if they can be, the effect in question may have no practical applications. Nonetheless, I was happy to see this story, because cold fusion has long been a running gag for me. I was deeply impressed by the claims for cold fusion made by Fleischman & Pons over a decade ago, though I knew no more about the physics than a pig knows about Sunday. In the aftermath, when people made merry at my expense, I told them, "Just you wait!" In fact, I rubbed it in. When people pointed out other things I was wrong about, I would say, "Yeah, well, I haven't given up on cold fusion yet." Now, at least for a while, I can say, "I told you so!"

Practical cold-fusion is one of the few speculative technologies that would really make everything different. Genetic engineering is starting to look like a real-estate investment scam, and nanotechnology is probably a category mistake. An inexhaustible source of energy that you can use without covering the entire surface of the Earth with windmills and solar panels would be something else again. That really would mean a new industrial revolution. As we say in New Jersey: "Nice work, if you can get it."

* * *

On the downside, we have this talk that Niall Ferguson recently gave at the the American Enterprise Institute:

I want to speak this evening about what may seem a rather dramatic subject--the end of Europe, by which I don't mean its disappearance from the map, but a fundamental transformation in the political and economic institutions of the European Union...

Europe will turn out to be not an empire in the sense that I think the United States is today--that is to say, an expansive geopolitical entity--not a rival or a competitor or even a counterweight to the United States, but almost its antithesis, something that is drawing political energies into it, that is perhaps even being colonized by exogenous forces...

My suggestion is not that the European Union will vanish, but simply that its institutions are in danger of atrophying and that it, too, may one day be no more than a humble data-gathering agency with expensive but impotent offices in the City of Brussels and elsewhere.

Ferguson gives a number of reasons for this. The chief economic reason is that the EU was possible only because the Germans were willing to subsidize it. Today Germany contributes about two-thirds of the Union's budget, even though it has only about 10% of the votes in the Council of Europe. Germany can no longer afford this, especially with the accession of the new states to the Union this year. Germany will be able to afford it less in the future, because its population is actually shrinking. Ferguson is not an economic determinist, however. He attributes these changes to a larger cultural decadence. He says that there is something about Europe's post-Christian condition that is literally morbid:

Increasingly, European politics is dominated by a kind of dance of death as politicians and voters try desperately and vainly to prop up the moribund welfare states of the post-Second World War era, but above all to prop up what little remains of their traditional cultures.

There are people who sense that this trend is not merely tragic, but uncanny. Consider this report from an American in Brussels:

Reverend Alan Baker is an American pastor at [the local] Christian Center. He said, "Something I hear a lot is an "ancient spirit of hopelessness."

Baker added, "I've had people tell me, when they come off the plane getting into Belgium, it's as if there are spiritual hands around their throat. They just can't seem to breathe. It's a very heavy, heavy thing, a hopelessness."

In a way, these assessments are a good sign. When decadence reaches the point of palpable spiritual oppression, people will act to save themselves. The problem is that multicultural postmodernism has so discredited liberal institutions that, when the time comes, people may throw out the baby with the bathwater. It is, I think, the role of the United States to work out a model for post-postmodern society that is both religious and democratic; that maintains traditional family structures without being coercive; that is ethnically tolerant while favoring assimilation and keeping immigration to frictional levels. In other words, it is still possible to avoid the world of Imperium. That, however requires the defeat of the cultural Left in the United States.

* * *

This is what we should keep in mind when we read accounts of the recently released papers of Harry Blackmun, the Supreme Court justice who wrote the infamous Roe v. Wade decision in 1971, and who helped affirm it in the Casey decision in 1992. There had actually been a majority on the court to overturn Roe. The chief factors in defeating that attempt were the folly of Justice Kennedy, who had the bizarre notion that voting to overturn Roe would "tarnish his career," and the characteristic stupidity of Justice O'Connor, who has never taken on board the idea that the decisions of a court of last instance must make some sense.

I can only repeat that Roe is going to go, either through being specifically overturned or by a general rejection of the institution of judicial review. Still, how much simpler it would be if this issue had been disposed of before the Terror War started. Though the United States would not have become a kingdom of virtue from sea to shining sea, we would at least have an unambiguously human political ideology. The transnational class would still have come into being, but its evolution would have been nudged in a less morbid direction.

Again, old-fashioned liberal democracy has intrinsic universal appeal. Antinatalism, perversion, and the right to suicide, all of which are implied by the Roe decision, do not. If these things become part of the American message, then the war will fail.     

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-11-20: Incongruous Elements

John guessed correctly in 2003 that the War on Terror postponed culture war issues like gay marriage for the duration of the emergency.


Incongruous Elements

President Bush gave another one of his remarkable set-speeches at White Hall in London yesterday. As he has been doing since 911, he put the war on terror in the context of a strategy to bring democracy and the rule of law to the Middle East, a strategy in which the war in Iraq is only a campaign. As with his other major addresses, the speech was nuanced and historically informed. As is also typical, the style was entirely unlike the way the man normally talks, except for the humor. Nonetheless, the Whitehall address really does represent what George Bush believes and what he is trying to do. Few of his critics, I notice, spend much time analyzing what he actually says.

What struck me on this occasion was the collision of Bush's moral and farsighted foreign policy with the quite different approach to public life being expressed by influential groups in the US at about the same time. Consider this snipet from Bush's speech, regarding what he hopes are shared features of the political cultures of the UK and US:

The deepest beliefs of our nations set the direction of our foreign policy. We value our own civil rights, so we stand for the human rights of others. We affirm the God-given dignity of every person, so we're moved to action by poverty and oppression and famine and disease.

Contrast that with this excerpt from the majority opinion of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, in the case which determined that marriage defined in heterosexual terms violates the state constitution:

We are mindful that our decision marks a change in the history of our marriage law. Many people hold deep-seated religious, moral, and ethical convictions that marriage should be limited to the union of one man and one woman, and that homosexual conduct is immoral. Many hold equally strong religious, moral, and ethical convictions that same-sex couples are entitled to be married, and that homosexual persons should be treated no differently than their heterosexual neighbors. Neither view answers the question before us. Our concern is with the Massachusetts Constitution as a charter of governance for every person properly within its reach.

Note that the Court here does not argue that the content of human rights is different from what we thought formerly, and that we now know human rights must include marriage between purposes of the same sex. Rather, the Court says that all questions of morality and religion are irrelevant to the interpretation of the state constitution. Now try to square that with a national foreign policy framed in moral terms. If you don't like the Iraq War, try to square it with money to control AIDS in Africa, or the promotion of education for Muslim women.

What we have here is not a conflict between religion and the disinterested rule of law, but between two moralities. The reality is that the Massachusetts Court was disingenuous. Of course there is a moral system behind their decision; the cultural Left is an order of magnitude more moralizing than the Right. As with slavery and democracy in the 19th century, these moralities really cannot exist indefinitely in the same body politic. The Terror War has so far had the effect of putting this implicit civil war on hold, but that will not be the case forever.

* * *

The final proposals for the 911 memorial at the World Trade Center site were presented to the public this week. The public was unimpressed, for good reason. Some were too sentimental, marking each victim with a separate little sculpture. Some were too high-concept: Zen gardens with turf. Altogether, as one critic noted, they generally relied too much on elaborate lighting and complicated fountains. Frankly, I thought this was one occasion where the Minimalist Version of Occam's Law should have been applied: "If you don't have anything to say, don't say it."

For that reason, my choice among the proposals would be Toshio Sasaki's Inversion of Light. For one thing, the artist has the sense to commemorate the dead with only their names. These are arranged by where the people lived, thus avoiding the problem of multiple "John Smiths." Inversion of Light would be a quiet, contemplative place in the city, where people can touch a little of the foundations of the great buildings. That's all that anyone can ask.

In contrast, consider Michael Arad's Reflecting Absence. Among other things, it features a vortex of water that disappears into apparent nothingness. The commentary also says:

The names of the deceased appear to be in no discernible order. The apparent randomness reflects the haphazard brutality of the deaths and allows for flexibility in the placement of names of friends and relatives in ways that permit for meaningful adjacencies; for example, siblings who perished together at the site could have their names listed side by side. Family members seeking out the name of a loved one are guided by on-site staff or a printed directory to their specific location. The location of the name marks a spot that is their own.

This reminded me of a proposal for a memorial to the whole of Earth in Joe Haldeman's story, "For White Hill," which appears in the anthology, Far Futures. In that deeply depressing tale, the premise is that Earth had been sterilized by nanobots created by hostile aliens. Some centuries later, surviving human beings decide to hold a contest for a memorial. Here is the description of one entry:

Inspiration is where you find it. We'd played with an orrey in the museum in Rome, a miniature solar system that had been built of clockwork centuries before the Information Age. There was a wistful, humorous kind of comfort in its jerky regularity.

My mental processes always turn things inside out. Find the terror and hopelessness in that comfort. I had in mind a massive but delicately balanced assemblage that would be viewed by small groups; their presence would cause it to teeter and turn ponderously. It would seem both fragile and huge (though of course the fragility would be an illusion), like the ecosystem that the Fwndyrosi abruptly destroyed.

The assemblage would be mounted in such a way that it would seem always in danger of toppling off its base, but hidden weights would make that impossible. The sound of the rolling weights ought to produce a nice anxiety. Whenever a part tapped the floor, the tap would be amplified to a hollow boom.

If the viewers stood absolutely still, it would swing to a halt. As they left, they would disturb it again. I hoped it would disturb them as well.

No: I think that, considering the purpose of the memorial, the visitors would have been disturbed enough already.

* * *

Speaking of sterilizing Earth, PBS recently aired a Nova program that seemed designed to cause public unrest on this score. The program, entitled Magnetic Storm, notes the well-known fact that the Earth's magnetic field occasionally weakens and reverses polarity. As far as I know, these events have never been accompanied by any great disaster, even though background radiation on the Earth's surface would almost certainly increase during such times. The show did say something I had not known: Earth's magnetic field has been weakening dramatically in just the last three centuries. There is some reason to suppose it will fall to zero by the fourth millennium, and then probably reverse. Fair enough.

The mischief is that the show linked the disappearance of the Martian atmosphere with that planet's lack of an intrinsic magnetic field for most of its history. This is not a new idea. At NASA, apparently, the party line is that Mars's atmosphere was eroded away over time by the solar wind, something that did not happen to Earth because Earth's magnetic field deflected the wind.

To give Nova credit, they did say that the coming collapse of Earth's magnetic field is not likely to last long enough to do the atmosphere much harm. However, they did not point out that the whole idea of solar-wind erosion is problematical. Venus is a third of the distance from the sun that Mars is, and its atmosphere is 100 times as dense as Earth's, yet Venus has no intrinsic magnet field.

How can that be, I ask you?  

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Martian Book Review

The Martian
by Andy Weir
Broadway Books, 2014
$15.00; 387 pages
ISBN 978-0-553-41802-6

This is a book for nerds. Clearly written by a big fat nerd, for other big fat nerds. I mean that in the best possible way, since I absolutely loved reading it. From his dust jacket portrait, Weir is obviously not fat, but the accompanying bio does use the word "nerd". For me, this is a term of endearment rather than abuse.

Weir did a really amazing job making this book appeal to a broader audience than your typical hard sci-fi. And this is the hardest of hard sci-fi. There weren't any equations in the text [I have heard anecdotally each one you include reduces the audience by half], but for those of us in the know could easily imagine them in the appropriate places. Just so, there were no wiring diagrams, chemical formulae, or orbital diagrams, but I knew where they would go if they were there. I think it was a good call to leave them out. This book has broad appeal.

It helps that Mark Watney is genuinely funny and likable. He is a big joker, but he is so good-natured about it that you couldn't hate him even if he were ribbing you. Which he is. I can be funny, but if I got stranded on Mars people might be tempted to just leave me there. His sense of humor is important, because someone more serious might have lost their mind alone on Mars. 

In this, like in so many things, Watney is the luckiest-unluckiest son of a mother to ever visit Mars. From the very beginning of the book Watney manages to survive several things that easily could have been fatal accidents. The genius of the book, as Weir admits, is that the events in the book follow a simple formula: each solution produces the next problem. Each event is dictated by the science and engineering realities of being on a hostile and distant planet, which is exactly why science nerds love this book.

Even the cast of supporting characters rings true to me. I wouldn't be surprised if Weir just based them off people he knows, because I feel like I've met some of them in real life. This is an exaggeration, but I think Weir nails the kind of people who work for places like NASA and JPL. 

For all this scientific accuracy, this book is just plain fun. I laughed, I cried, I was enthralled. Thanks for the ride, Andy Weir, and the best of luck in whatever you try next.

My other book reviews

The Martian
By Andy Weir

The Long View 2003-02-05: Powell at the UN; Columbia; Impossibilities

In a followup to Sunday's repost of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, here is a newsgroup post detailing why you couldn't have possibly matched the orbit of the shuttle to the ISS, among other things.

John wasn't a physicist or an aerospace engineer, so not knowing this bit of orbital mechanics is excusable. Providing a fast answer on almost any topic is what the internet is best at, after all.

Here is a prediction John did pretty well on:

This is a slim silver lining on a very dark cloud, but manned space flight will probably be accelerated by Columbia. There is more political will to create a serious launch system than there was after the Challenger disaster. There is also much more economic and military incentive; it is intolerable that billion-dollar satellites are still rendered useless by small assembly errors, things which could be fixed by a man with a screwdriver. The key to making space accessible is to keep NASA as far away as possible.

Private space companies like Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites, and of course SpaceX have come a long way towards making spaceflight cheaper, faster, and safer. We can only wish them further success.

Powell at the UN; Columbia; Impossibilities
This morning, US Secretary of State Colin Powell gave the detailed presentation of evidence against Iraq that had to be given. President Bush, wisely, did not try to fit this list of details into his State of the Union Address last week. The UN was the proper venue, and Powell gave a solid, factual briefing. In the context of the Security Council, it was gripping. The recordings of Iraqi officers conspiring to hide evidence of weapons programs was particularly effective. The images of material being moved from important sites just ahead of the UN inspectors were a worthy homage to Adlai Stevenson's famous Cuban missile photos. Unlike Stevenson, Powell is not a windbag, so his narrative account of Iraq's links to Al-Qaeda also carried great weight.
Effective though the presentation was, it remained theater. The fact is that the claims the Secretary of State presented can be verified only through occupation. Everybody knows that by now. It is interesting to note that the French representative did not respond to Powell's address by advising that the inspections be allowed to take their "natural course." Rather, he said that the inspections need to be doubled, tripled, augmented in depth and sophistication. Maybe a permanent UN "High Commissioner for Disarmament" should be installed in Baghdad. The German representative, Joschka Fischer, seemed to second these meaningless evasions.
As Daniel Schorr noted after the session, the responses that the Security Council representatives gave had been prepared beforehand. Even though the Council's members were represented for this session by their foreign ministers, the foreign ministers had no power to make policy on the spot. That is the difference between a legislature and a convention of ambassadors; the latter is what the UN remains. In any case, maybe the governments will think better of the matter, after they have had the opportunity to analyze Powell's speech. Those with an open mind may be in a position to verify some of his intelligence reports. To me, it seems unlikely that any of the governments in question really entertain doubts on the matter. The good office of Powell's speech will be its effect on American public opinion.
* * *
The Columbia disaster is the sort of public event that the Internet handles well. As soon as the ship went down, suggestions began to appear online about what NASA should or should not have done. Here is a newsgroup post that addresses some of my own bright ideas from Monday, particularly the widespread proposal that the shuttle astronauts might have gone to the space station. I have yet to see numbers on this, but here is a reasonable answer:
The shuttle might, perhaps, have had enough maneuvering fuel to go as high as the station's orbit. The problem was that the orbits were in different planes. Shifting the plane of the Columbia's orbit to match the space station's would have needed almost as much fuel as it took to launch.
Astronauts on extravehicular activity are supposed to stay within line-of-sight of the shuttle's crew compartment. It was unthinkable that an astronaut might have gone underneath the ship to look for damage. Therefore, it was unthinkable to send a tile-repair kit on the mission. It could still turn out that the disaster was not connected with the tiles. Nonetheless, the disaster has reminded us that NASA engineers still think of humans in space as spam in a can.
This is a slim silver lining on a very dark cloud, but manned space flight will probably be accelerated by Columbia. There is more political will to create a serious launch system than there was after the Challenger disaster. There is also much more economic and military incentive; it is intolerable that billion-dollar satellites are still rendered useless by small assembly errors, things which could be fixed by a man with a screwdriver. The key to making space accessible is to keep NASA as far away as possible.
* * *
Doubtless you have seen the gloating by the Iraqi government over the destruction of the Columbia, and the claims by Islamicists that the incident was the judgment of God. If you are looking for unlucky omens, you could not have found a better collection: on what is probably the eve of a war against the the ancient capital of Islam, a prime symbol of American prowess falls apart over the president's home state, bearing an Israeli fighter pilot who had helped derail Iraq's nuclear program in1981, plus an immigrant from India, that other civilization which annoys the Islamicists so much.
Thinking about omens rarely does any good. Still, anyone requiring reassurance might take a look at G.K. Chesterton's famous poem, Lepanto. It's about the naval battle of 1571, in which the Ottoman fleet was driven from the western Mediterranean, and Italy saved from invasion. The poem contains this odd passage, in which "Mahound" calls on supernatural forces to aid the Moslem cause:
Black Azrael and Ariel and Ammon on the wing.
Giants and the Genii,
Multiplex of wing and eye,
Whose strong obedience broke the sky
When Solomon was king.
If these entities did attend the battle, they did not do the Turks a lick of good.
* * *
Speaking of things that aren't supposed to exist, I go through life finding that physical effects I had always assumed to be impossible really aren't. There is an example in one of the first books I ever read, Arthur C. Clarke's Against the Fall of Night. The faster-than-light space ships made sense to me. So did the computer that could manufacture things by thinking about them. What made me gag was a description of moss whose heredity had been modified to make turf luminous. The very term "genetic engineering" had not been coined when I read the book.
A more common science-fiction notion I also recoiled from was invisibility. Well, take a look at (or through) this! A cloak of invisibility! Well, it will be a cloak of pretty good camouflage, once they get the bugs out.
A time machine would be the last straw.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-02-03: The Columbia Disaster

It isn't hard to be critical of NASA for the Columbia disaster, no one is going to make a movie about how well the space agency handled the situation. However, the bit about spending lots of money to design a pen that worked in space is half-true. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at NASA before giving up, and then a pen manufacturer developed one that he sold for a modest price, a few dollars. [$4 at the time, about $30 now adjusted for inflation]

The Columbia Disaster
 
Ron Dittemore, the space-shuttle project manager, gave an obviously stressful press conference yesterday. At several points, he addressed the question of why NASA did not determine with certainty the condition of the heat-shield tiles, even though NASA was aware they might have been damaged on lift-off by insulation foam from the fuel tank. He explained that large telescopes on Earth could not have taken satisfactory images of the area in question. He did not make clear whether the crew had the equipment to go outside and look for themselves. He did say the crew could not have fixed damage to the tiles even if they had discovered any. Here is a characteristic passage from the news conference:
"The predominant team will be the engineering teams related to the orbiter vehicle itself. And the types of disciplines are structures and mechanics, integration teams that understand the environment and the transport mechanisms between the external tank and the wing orbiter. You have thermal experts, tile experts and it goes on and on...[W]e also engage the operational functional areas: the astronaut corps, our operations flight control arena, our safety and quality and mission assurance experts...And all these people were engaged. All of them heard the story. All of them reviewed it to their satisfaction.. And the consensus, unanimous consensus was as I represented to you earlier, it was not a significant event."
Now consider this excerpt from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, about Gulliver's visit to the flying island of Laputa:
"Those to whom the king had entrusted me, observing how ill I was clad, ordered a tailor to come next morning, and take measure for a suit of clothes. This operator did his office after a different manner from those of his trade in Europe. He first took my altitude by a quadrant, and then, with a rule and compasses, described the dimensions and outlines of my whole body, all which he entered upon paper; and in six days brought my clothes very ill made, and quite out of shape, by happening to mistake a figure in the calculation. But my comfort was, that I observed such accidents very frequent, and little regarded."
Would that all accidents were so trivial.
* * *
How shall I put this? The point of having human beings in space is that they can handle the unexpected. Sending out a crewman to check the hull for damage is precisely the kind of thing that crewmen are for. It must take years of miseducation to reach a point where the obvious way to examine the skin of a ship is to use a telescope 300 miles away. Even if the crew could not have fixed the tiles, was it really impossible to prolong the flight until relief or resupply could be arranged? If the resources of the shuttle were really so close to exhaustion, then could the shuttle have docked at the International Space Station? Again, isn't that sort of improvisation what human space-flight is supposed to be about?
[After I posted this, a friendly reader, Brett Thomas, emailed to point out that the Columbia did not have suits for extravehicular activity, and it did not have a docking hatch to use with the space station. As he also pointed out, they might have used the suits at the station to ferry the Columbia's crew. The station crew could, of course, have also checked the tiles. Fuel to get to the station would have been the only decisive question.]
NASA is a blocked and damned organization, the kind of institution that Northcote Parkinson used to skewer. These are the people who spent $25 billion to build expendable skyscrapers to fly to the moon so that fighter pilots could "explore" it for a few hours. These are the people who spent tens of thousands of dollars to design a ballpoint pen that could work in space, until someone mentioned that the Russians used pencils.
And then there is the shuttle itself: the horse designed by a committee. It was supposed to be a taxi for quick manned access to space. It was supposed to be simple, modest in size, completely reusable. Most important of all, it was supposed to require only a small ground crew. After years of demands from institutional science and the military, it grew in size and number of functions until it was nearly as unstable as an early version of Windows. A small city is needed to keep the shuttle flying, at long intervals, and at some risk.
* * *
NASA does for manned space travel what the UN does for world order: the result of all the activity is to ensure that there will be less of the desired product.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The World at the End of Time Book Review

Hertzsprung–Russell diagram

Hertzsprung–Russell diagram

The World at the End of Time

by Frederik Pohl

Del Rey 1990

$12.95; 393 pages

ISBN 978-0345339768

I was lent this book by a friend. I had never read anything by Frederik Pohl before, but I knew of him because he wrote the introduction to the collection of Cyril Kornbluth's short stories that I read recently.

This was a cracking good read. Hard scifi, mildly didactic regarding stellar astrophysics, along with some reasonable speculations about setting up colony ships that cannot travel faster than light. Pohl played around with General Relativity and some of the proposals that have been floated to unify gravity with the electroweak forces.

I found the main character thought-provoking. Viktor Sorricaine is perhaps a bit of an anti-hero; it takes him until the end of time to stop being a selfish bastard. Nonetheless, I found Viktor likeable, and I could easily get inside his head even when he did things that made me cringe [perhaps in self-recognition?]

The other main character, whose life unexpectedly parallels Viktor's, is Wan-To. Wan-To lives inside a star, possesses immense power, has a lifespan measured in very large exponents, and has the ethics of a toddler. I actually find this plausible. Wan-To's life, which spans nearly the whole interval from the Big Bang to the heat death of the Universe, is remarkably static. What Wan-To reminds me of is an angel, albeit a fallen one.

St. Thomas Aquinas is known as the Angelic Doctor because he spent a great deal of time speculating about what what angels are like. This is primarily of interest because Thomas used angels as a thought-experiment: he tried to discern how a mind worked by thinking about things that are nothing but a mind, and deducing what properties they must have. One of the properties of an angel is that they are immaterial, minds without bodies.

Pohl describes Wan-To as something very much like Aquinas' disembodied intelligences, except that Wan-To very much has a body, albeit one composed of plasma. What is similar is that Wan-To largely lacks the capacity to change. Part of what makes the material material is the ability to change from one form to another. Immaterial things, by definition, lack this ability.

Since Wan-To is actually material, he can change a bit, but his life history is so slow that it takes him a very long time to do so. Unlike humans, who are so very fragile and perishable, but who possess a remarkable ability to change very much over their short lifespan. There is a venerable conceit in literature that our transitory nature is really our greatest strength. Dante and Milton suggested that the fallen angels in particular, envy us, because a human being can make an entire lifetime of mistakes, and yet be redeemed at the end by a singular act of contrition, whereas an angel only ever gets one choice, without any possibility of redemption.

A more recent example from the same tradition is J.R.R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. The relatively eternal and blessed elves lose the world to the raucous and fecund men, precisely because Tolkien's elves lack the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. A similar idea is at work in Pohl's book, but is only implied. Like the elves, Wan-To's long life, and the very few creatures like himself that he encounters, render his conceptual universe small and fixed. Despite the unspeakable eternities that Wan-To experiences, nothing happens to him. Accordingly, he has few opportunities to learn from his mistakes, or see that someone else has done it different and better.

Wan-To lacks socialization: he completely lacks the common human experience of being raised by someone older and more experienced. All he has are his [admittedly ample] wits and native powers. Against any mere human, or human-like creature, Wan-To is clearly superior. However, in a Providential occurrence, Wan-To's destructive attempts at self-preservation purify a remnant of humanity of the Thanatos impulse by accidentally flinging them to the end of time. Conflict is created thereby, because the nuclear energy of the suns the humans enjoy is unique in the dissipated universe at the end of time, and Wan-To, being material, needs energy to survive. Pohl leaves us with an inevitable future collision between Wan-To and the sons of man. Strongly implied, I think, is that Wan-To will be tested, and found wanting, when this lesser Day of Judgment arrives.

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Mistborn Book Review

MistbornMistborn: The Final Empire
by Brandon Sanderson
Tor Fantasy 2007
$7.99; 658 pages
ISBN 978-0-7653-5038-1

Sometimes, I worry that I'm not the hero everyone thinks I am.
The philosophers assure me that this is the time, that the signs have been met. But I still wonder if they have the wrong man. So many people depend on me. They say I will hold the future of the entire world on my arms.
What would they think if they knew that their champion—the Hero of the Ages, their savior—doubted himself? Perhaps they wouldn't be shocked at all. In a way, this is what worries me most. Maybe, in their hearts, they wonder—just as I do.
When they see me, do they see a liar?

The Final Empire is not a happy place. The teeming masses of the Empire, known as skaa, are used to clear the brown fields of the ash that falls from the sky without cease. Their unending toil brings only meager sustenance from the scorched and blighted land. When their labor is done, night falls, and the mists come. Each and every night, the world is wrapped anew in terror and mystery. Even the stout-hearted quail before the creeping tendrils. Few willingly venture outside after dark.

The life of the skaa is nasty, brutish, and hopefully short. Skaa labor provides what few luxuries the land can provide to the hereditary aristocracy. Despite their relative paucity, the aristocracy find their entertainment inadequate. Bloodsport and sexual exploitation fill the gap.

The nobility are themselves watched by the obligators, the omnipresent Imperial bureaucrats who must witness all agreements, financial or otherwise, between the nobility. The obligators are in turn watched by the terrifying Steel Inquisitors, creatures of flesh and metal who report directly to the Lord Ruler himself. None dare resist their power. One thousand years after the Hero of Ages traveled to the Well of Ascension to save the world, all is not well. Society shambles on, but it is dead, feigning the symptoms of life.

It is the time of the final cultural forms, of petrified urban-dominated society (the part of the cycle to which Spengler gave the name “Civilization” as a technical term). There is no theme to the events in the Winter: there is a lot of art and politics, but it is powerdriven, market-driven, fashion-driven. All these events simply toy with traditions and motifs which the culture created when it was alive. Usually something ghastly happens to civilizations which reach this fossil state, but according to Spengler, this something comes from outside.

-The Perennial Apocalypse, John J. Reilly

A friend recommended this book to me as something similar to Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind. I had been waiting for a copy to show up at my local used bookstore, and I finally found one just before Thanksgiving. 

That is an apt comparison, the books have somewhat similar magic systems, were published about the same time, and they were both a blast to read. Other than that, these books are completely different.

This is a good thing. I really enjoy seeing similar ideas worked out in very different ways, by authors with entirely different styles. The Name of the Wind and it's sequels have a laser like focus on Kvothe; which is appropriate, since these books are the story of his life. Other characters appear, but they are always secondary to Kvothe. This fits, since Kvothe is a narcissist. Everyone else really is secondary. Sanderson, on the other hand, has an ensemble cast who all are fully part of the story, with their own plausible motivations and desires. They are not simply part of the scenery, but rather provide a richness of detail that makes the story seem more real. Sanderson also does a really good job with politics and applied psychology in this book. Deceit, manipulation, and Machiavellian politics are a major part of the story, and I loved it all.

Actually, there is one other way these books are alike; they are both about the end of the world. I know, there he goes again.

Mistborn is the tale of the brave and doomed skaa resistance to the reign of the Lord Ruler. Following the introductory apocalypse at the Well of Ascension, the Lord Ruler consolidated his dominion over the entire world. This really is the end of history, for in the Final Empire, nothing every changes, including the immortal Emperor. The Lord Ruler's grasp may grow somewhat weaker as you travel further away from his capital, Luthadel, but there are none who do not acknowledge his sovereignty.

In typical usage, a millennium is a thousand year period of peace and prosperity after the constraints of the human experience, such as war, death, and poverty, have been overcome.  Sanderson has turned the concept on its head, positing a millennium where the forces of evil have triumphed instead. The Three Horsemen run rampant in the Final Empire [only War has been vanquished; War against the Emperor is inconceivable]. This kind of millennium poses as the end of history, but it is really a pregnant pause.

A millennium of this kind implies a nameless war to follow, a revolution after the revolution. The Final Empire reaps this in plenitude. In the book of Revelation, the thousand year reign of Christ comes to an end when Satan, who has been bound, but not destroyed, rises again. He will be defeated in a nameless war after the end of the world, after which the cosmos will be consumed. 

Sanderson fulfills the archetype completely; the paradigm will out, even when you start out to subvert the idea. What Sanderson does maintain, the reason why I enjoyed the book so much, is the identity of good and evil. Good still wins out in the end. What remains the same is that the cosmos is consumed in the resulting conflagration. Only now, a new cosmos needs to be constructed to replace the old. This is the task the protagonists find they have created for themselves. It should prove to be most interesting.

I enjoyed this book so much that I am eagerly awaiting my next trip to the bookstore to buy the rest of the books in the series. If you have a hankering for more, you are in luck. The other two books in this trilogy are already written, and Sanderson has even greater plans for extending his ideas into a grand overarching story with more than thirty volumes. This is a venerable conceit. Writing stories that fit into the same universe is a mental savings, and fun for your fans as well. I look forward to exploring Sanderson's creations.

 

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His Share of Glory Book Review

His Share of Glory:
The Complete Short Science Fiction of C. M. Kornbluth
NESFA Press 1997
$27.00; 670 pages
ISBN 0-915368-60-9

I picked up this volume because I had read the [almost] titular short story "That Share of Glory" in Jerry Pournelle's Imperial Stars: The Stars at War. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked just about every story contained within. I suppose I shouldn't be. Jerry Pournelle remains among my all time favorite writers, and I trust his judgment about other interesting authors.

This book comes in at 670 pages, and it only represents the scfi short fiction of Kornbluth. Not his novels, and not short fiction in any other genre. That is an impressive corpus of writing for a man who only lived to be 34. As Tom Lehrer almost said, by the time Kornbluth was my age he was dead.

Some of Kornbluth's short stories are famous. "That Share of Glory", "The Little Black Bag", and "The Marching Morons" are his best, and best known works. Another in this collection that I especially liked was "Gomez", the tale of an unlikely nuclear physicist who finds and then loses great power. The stories I didn't like as much, I still liked a lot. I even liked the stories the in back, set in a smaller font, that came with a warning that they were early works written quickly to fill space in pulp magazines. You have to be damn good to write stories that way that anyone wants to read 75 years later, and Kornbluth was.

While most of these stories are scifi, there were a couple that reminded me a bit of Lovecraft and Howard: uncanny and disturbing. Judging by their frequency, this wasn't his specialty, but I enjoyed them nonetheless. His speciality seemed to be journalism. Stories like "The Silly Season" and "Make Mine Mars" show marks of Kornbluth's time as a wire-service reporter in Chicago. This is important, since I'm always interested in what makes a given author's work "hard" scifi.

While Kornbluth wrote some space opera featuring technology nigh unto magic, most of the works in this volume focused on reasonable extrapolations from Kornbluth's encyclopedic knowledge. I mean that literally, since Kornbluth acquired his facts by reading an encyclopedia front to back. However, it isn't really the technology that makes this hard scifi. Kornbluth displayed a keen insight into human motivations, combined with a reporter's cynicism for the tawdriness of ordinary life. Sometimes scifi can be rightly castigated for incomplete or wooden characterization. This is not true of Kornbluth; he understood the human condition, and wrote about it with the authority of a jaded confessor.

Kornbluth was taken from us too soon; he might have been a yet more remarkable author had he lived longer. What might have been is a fit subject for another story. In the meanwhile, you just need to read Kornbluth. This is what the golden age of science fiction is all about.

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