The Long View 2004-01-05: Duk Soop

Babylon 5

Babylon 5

I greatly enjoyed Babylon 5 when it was on television, and I appreciated John's allusion to it here.

Duk Soop

At this point in the Democratic primary campaign, I suppose that Howard Dean must be feeling a little like Ambassador Londo in the first season of the Babylon 5 space opera:

Pir: Like what, your excellency?

Londo: It's like being nibbled to death by those little animals they have on Earth...what are they called, the ones with the beaks?"

Pir: Ah...cats!

Londo: That's it! It's like being nibbled to death by cats!

The moral to this story is that the Londo character stole the show. (I suspect he was based on Baron Jacobi in Henry Adams's novel Democracy, but I have not looked into the question.) Though I can understand why Dr. Dean has become the man the other Democratic candidates have to beat, I am at a loss to see what they hope to accomplish by ganging up on him at these nine-sided debates. Their questions do not sway those voters who already support Dean, and they do not incite any new affection for the questioners. Insinuations that Dean is Neville Chamberlain in a leisure suit are better left to one's staff.

* * *

What then should the candidates be talking about? Consider the latest news from Iran:

Bahram Akasheh, professor of geophysics at Tehran university, has said a quake in [Teheran] of similar magnitude of that in Bam would kill over 700,000 people. Government buildings would be destroyed, leaving the state powerless to respond.

Akasheh has written to President Mohammad Khatami to propose moving the capital to the central city of Isfahan, which was the country's capital in the late 16th century under monarch Shah Abbas the Great. The capital was moved to Tehran in 1788.

This is not the way to respond to the danger of earthquakes, by the way. The populations of Tokyo and Yokohama are comparable to that of Teheran, and Japan is at least as quake-prone as Iran, but Japanese building codes allow people to live in high risk areas with some equanimity. In any case, I mention this item not because of the disaster-preparedness angle, but because of the notion of moving the national capital.

Has anyone noticed that the capitals of the UK and US are in the wrong places? London made sense as the capital of England and Normandy after the Norman Conquest; it's off at the far end of nowhere as far as the modern United Kingdom is concerned. Similarly, the middle of the East Coast was a reasonable place to put Washington DC at the end of the 18th century, since the US was then a littoral country. That position has made less sense every year thereafter, as the population spread west.

After the Civil War, there was some serious talk about moving the capital to St. Louis, Missouri, which was already both a rail hub and a major Mississippi port. In science fiction, the capital is routinely moved someplace out West in the aftermath of a nuclear war. If someone did a count, I think that Denver would prove to have been chosen most often for this honor.

It would be a bad idea to move the capital to Denver, or indeed anywhere in Colorado, which is already too trendy and overpriced. However, there is some sense in using relocation to staunch the continuing depopulation of the rectangular states. Wyoming is one possibility. North Dakota, which is losing people at a great rate, would be even better. Aside from regional economic development, one advantage would be that the civil servants relocated from Washington would, finally, be forced to learn how to drive in the snow.

* * *

There are some subjects that should be off limits to a presidential debate: the people would panic, and demand that their leaders DO SOMETHING. Among this class of issues better left unraised, I see that there is yet another report abut declining sperm counts from Europe. Reports like this have been circulating for some time; the last presentation I read of the alleged phenomenon was in a book called Our Stolen Future. That book has a foreword by then Vice President Al Gore, so that puts it back a bit.

I am surprised to be reading about this again, because I thought that the declines turned out to be a sampling error. The reports came from a variety of European and Asian sources, but no such phenomenon was apparent in the US, even when the same ethnic groups were involved. Note, by the way, that even if the reports were true, they don't seem to correlate with fertility rates or sexual dysfunction.

Altogether, this sounds more than a little like the late-19th century reports of a general rise in the level of feeblemindedness. There was absolutely nothing to it, but influential elites were persuaded. This was one of the factors behind the passage of eugenics laws. This time around, the collateral damage would be uselessly vexatious environmental legislation.

* * *

Something that would be perfectly safe for the candidates to talk about is spelling reform. I am on the Advisory Board of the American Literacy Council. We just held our annual meeting, by teleconference. That organization is small, but in surprisingly good shape. That's because the SoundSpel system, which was actually developed as a reformed orthography for English, is also pretty useful as a tool for teaching reading. Especially for people already literate in another language, it lets them work on English vocabulary and pronunciation in a system that looks enough like traditional spelling so that the transition is not difficult.

I have been rather neglecting the Spelling Reform section of my site. There is in fact some news to report, so I hope to do an update in the near future. Hereafter, I will use that space to evangelize for SoundSpel more. Like Wagner's music, it's much better than it sounds.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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