Sunday, February 27, 2005

That eldritch power

Let me briefly note this review essay in The Weekly Standard about the work of H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was the author of numerous strange tales in the 1920's and 30's, and he has retained a devoted following. The writer of this piece, Michael Dirda, says:
But it now seems beyond dispute that H.P. Lovecraft is the most important American writer of weird fiction in the twentieth century--and one of the century's most influential writers of any kind of fiction. His admirers range from the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges to such contemporary masters of darkness as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. Each year winners of the "World Fantasy Award" take home a trophy modeled on Lovecraft's gaunt, lantern-jawed face. Nearly every author of supernatural fiction and dark fantasy sooner or later tries his hand at a Lovecraftian homage or pastiche.
When reading Lovecraft -- particularly, as a friend of mine noted to me, when reading several Lovecraft stories in a row -- it is sometimes hard not to smile at some of the vocabulary he uses. "Nacreous" and "eldritch" are two of his favorites words. But these words do have their effect, helping to lead the reader outside the bubble of normality into the weird and terrifying spaces beyond. And Dirda points out that Lovecraft had finer instruments as well:
To convey this pervasive uneasiness, his most powerful word is often nothing more fancy than "too": "The trees grew too quickly, and their trunks were too big for any healthy New England wood. There was too much silence in the dim alleys between them, and the floor was too soft with the dank moss and mattings of infinite years of decay."
I have never thought of Lovecraft as a really great writer, yet he is a memorable one and has a large place in my own imagination. He is probably not for everyone, but I am not surprised that he has influenced writers as disparate as Stephen King and Jorge Luis Borges. My own favorite Lovecraft stories are longer, later ones like "The Call of Cthulhu" and "At the Mountains of Madness", which I re-read every couple of years. Though I would not like to live in the Lovecraft cosmos, I do pay it an occasional visit, to draw a few breaths of that cold, queerly perfumed and unsettling air.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Piss and vinegar

Betsy Newmark this morning links to a story from the Weekly Standard about a new fad in Belgium.
WHEN JOHAN VANDE LANOTTE, Belgium's Vice Prime Minister, goes to the toilets today, he finds the urinals in the offices of his ministry decorated with stickers. They show an American flag and the head of George W. Bush. "Go ahead. Piss on me," the caption says. Vande Lanotte is one of Bush's hosts in Brussels. Is peeing on your guest's head appropriate? In Belgium it is. After all, Brussels' best known statue is that of "Manneken Pis," a peeing boy.
The piss stickers, specially made to be used in urinals, can be seen these days in the public toilets of Belgian schools, youth clubs, and pubs. They were designed by Laurent Winnock, president of the Young Socialists, the youth branch of Vande Lanotte's Socialist party. Winnock did his creative work during his office hours, which would not be worth mentioning if Winnock did not work in the offices of Vice Prime Minister Vande Lanotte, as one of his press spokesmen.
Last Friday, Belgian television asked Robert "Steve" Stevaert, the Socialist party leader, what he thought of the stickers. It had not been his idea, he stressed, but he refused to distance himself from it. He hardly could, seeing as the stickers can be ordered for free through the party's official website. For Belgian television viewers the message was clear: Bush may be our government's guest, the ministers will greet him, smile and tell him that he is most welcome, but we all know what they think of the bastard.
Betsy, who is a genteel soul, does not quote the last sentence. But she does draw an amusing parallel to Benjamin Franklin, which she appears to quote from a law review article entitled "Private Ownership of Public Image: Popular Culture and Publicity Rights":
Benjamin Franklin's experience while ambassador to France is quite instructive in this regard. Shortly after his arrival in France in 1776, Franklin's likeness began to appear "on medallions, snuffboxes, rings, clocks, vases, handkerchiefs, and pocket knives." Louis XVI found this iconization of Franklin so excessive that he presented one of Franklin's devoted female admirers with a "chamber pot adorned with [Franklin's] picture."
What does President Bush think about this, if he has heard of it? I suspect that he is amused. He can laugh at himself, and he has a streak of crude, rough-edged humor that occasionally slips out. And also this morning, from Jay Nordlinger we get a quote from the speech that the President gave in Brussels on Monday.
You know, on this journey to Europe, I follow in some large footsteps. More than two centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin arrived on this continent to great acclaim. An observer wrote, "His reputation was more universal than Liebniz or Newton, Frederick or Voltaire, and his character more beloved and esteemed than any or all of them." The observer went on to say, "There was scarcely a peasant or citizen who did not consider him as a friend to humankind."
I've been hoping for a similar reception. But Secretary Rice told me I should be a realist.
As you might imagine, that got quite a laugh. Was he thinking about Franklin's chamber pot? Perhaps not; but I would not bet against it.

Nordlinger sees in the President, as I do, a shrewd wit. He [GWB] often uses jokes to admit to a painful truth -- in this case, the low ebb of his popularity in western Europe -- and thereby rob it of its power. His humor is invariably self-depricating, which puts his listeners at ease; and because it is based on truth, it helps to open their minds to what he has to say. As a rhetorical strategy it is funny, humane, effective -- and highly intelligent.

I am a bit baffled at the idea (common among my peers) that George W. Bush is some sort of moron. Indeed, I can already hear the objections to my assessment of his use of humor. "Bush is just saying what his speechwriters give him to say." Well, yes, he does have really good speechwriters. But that misses the point a bit, doesn't it? Probably the best account we have of the relation of this President to this speechwriters comes from David Frum's book. Over time, it is the President who says, "This isn't right -- change it," or "This works -- give me more of this." And over time, the speechwriters learn to adapt themselves to what the President wants to say and how he wants to say it. This is not a man who just witlessly reads whatever script is given to him. (The same lie was told of Ronald Reagan.) This is someone who understands what words do, who treats his audience with disarming candor and respect, and who has a slightly wicked sense of fun. And in these ways, perhaps, he isn't so far from Franklin after all.

It is reasonable to disagree with the President, to think that he is wrong about a great many things. You can call him misguided, or arrogant, or wicked. But stupid? That seems a rather desperate theory.

Hacking at the ivy

In a couple of weeks I will be traveling to New Mexico, where I'll give several physics talks. I'm speaking at University of New Mexico, the Santa Fe Institute, and Los Alamos National Lab. So this week I sent off a bunch of titles and abstracts of my talks to the folks there, so that they can post announcements and so forth.

I can give a good talk, but I hate writing abstracts, and this time I was rushed and a little tired. So by the time I got around to abstracting Friday's colloquium at UNM, it wound up like this:
Local dynamics and information flow
Dynamics is local. In order to predict the future state of a system, we do not need to know the past state of the entire universe, but only a local neighborhood of the system. This general fact is most easily expressed as a restriction on how information "flows" between systems. The interaction of two classical systems can result in a one-way information transfer, but for quantum systems the transfer of information must always proceed in both directions. In this talk I will describe some recent work about the structure of local quantum dynamics that sheds light on how interacting quantum systems exchange information.
Yes, it does sound pretty technical. The mathematical results that I'll be describing are not too hard to understand, actually, and I think it might turn out to be a fun talk, in a physics-geeky sort of way. When I was done, I shipped off my abstract. After a while, I got an email back from my good friend Carl, who will be my host at UNM.
Any way you can jazz up the title and abstract for your colloq. I'm a little worried that it won't attract the audience that you really deserve to get, which would be a pity.
I looked back over what I had sent him, and sheesh, he was 100% right. Something had to be done. I paced around our living room for a bit (which unnerves our cat) and rewrote the thing as follows:
Local rules for the quantum web
We can analyze the world as a complex web of forces by which matter and energy are moved about. But at a more fundamental level, the world is nothing but a vast network of information exchange. Classical and quantum laws of physics lead to very different rules for such a network. For example, the interaction of two classical systems can result in one-way information flow, but quantum interactions always transfer information in both directions -- a kind of "action and reaction" principle for quantum information.
The dynamical laws we observe in nature are local. To predict the trajectory of a particle in the lab, we only need to know the fields and interactions within the lab -- and not, say, the exact conditions in the Andromeda galaxy. This is really a statement about how information is transferred between parts of the universe. In my talk I will apply tools and ideas from quantum information science to explore the implications of locality and discover what sort of quantum dynamics is possible in a local world.
Without vanity -- or anyway, without much -- I think I can confidently state that this version is much improved. I sent it to Carl. A little while later I got an email back from him, accepting the new version (with relief, I imagine). Then he concluded:
. . . you are perhaps unique in not flying off the handle when asked to rewrite an abstract. Thanks.
Which was, when you think about it, just about the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me.

But you know, so much of academic writing is bad. It is banal, orotund, unmusical, and stuffed with wads of unnecessary jargon. It is the sort of writing that does more to obscure meaning than to convey it. I see this stuff almost every day. I swim in it. OK, maybe I do exaggerate, a little. After all, I teach at a liberal arts college that is moderately well-known for teaching people how to write. Our faculty is full of novelists and poets and whatnot. But let me tell you, it's here, too. It's everywhere. It is like a fungus growing over all things, blurring their shapes -- the verbal equivalent, maybe, of the ivy on academic buildings. And like the ivy, I guess, its main purpose is to conceal the shabby edifices beneath.

I live in fear that one day I will write ponderous, weedy, soporific academic prose. And worse, I fear that a day will come when I will simply not know the difference.

But, as Aragorn said before the Black Gate, it is not this day. I can still tell the difference, and I'm not ready to give up trying to write like it meant something. I'm grateful to Carl for giving me the chance to go back this time and get my abstract right. Fly off the handle? Not likely. On the contrary, I am much in his debt.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Traffic analysis

I am no blog expert, but I have been reading blogs for a few years now. This blog has been active for just about three months. Some of my readers, it turns out, know even less about this blogging business than I do, so I thought I'd take a second to say a little about how it's going.

Zeroth Order Approximation is hosted by the good folks at They provide space for a blog and a web-based tool for creating and maintaining posts. I use the basic service that is offered free of charge; but more advanced services (including greater bandwidth allowances) can be had for a fee. hosts thousands upon thousands of blogs, and although many more advanced bloggers may speak of it with disdain, for a regular person like me this is a great way to get started.

So far I have had few readers. How do I know? Check out the little icon marked "Site Meter" at the bottom of the page. Site Meter is a service that keeps track of the number of times a page is viewed; it also collects certain information about each viewer (e.g., the time zone, operating system, and type of web browser of the person accessing the page). This is really interesting, because it gives a kind of detailed, close-to-the-ground view of how the Internet works.

No one will read your blog unless they know about it. So in each case, it is interesting to try to imagine how a particular reader got here.
  • Every time I load this blog myself, I get counted by by the Site Meter. Since I come here to check for comments and make sure the posts read okay, I am my own most frequent visitor.
  • Some readers, of course, are friends of mine to whom I have mentioned the blog. Hi, guys!
  • My friends appear to have mentioned the blog to others. These friends-of-friends are recognizable because their IP addresses can be identified. At least one of these secondary contacts has a blog, and he very generously added a link to me on his blogroll there. (A blogroll is a list of links to favorite blogs. This often appears to one side of the text of a blog. I do not have a blogroll at the moment, in part because I haven't figured out how to do it. I'm still learning this stuff!) Someone who reads this guy's blog might click through to me, and this has happened a few times.
  • has a place where you can see a list of about ten randomly-selected blogs, and also a list of the most recently updated blogs. Some people like to check these out, just to see what is going on. I have had some visitors from this, I think.
  • Occasionally, someone will find this blog from a search engine like Google. The word "zeroth" seems to be a popular inbound keyword for this page. Google is not omniscient, by the way; this blog had been going for two months before I got my first search engine hit. Since then I've had several.
  • The most important source of readers is the inbound link from another, more popular blog. One way to create this yourself is to visit that blog and leave a comment that contains a link back to your own page. Folks who read the comments there may decide to visit your blog to see where you are coming from. I am betting that some bloggers spend a considerable amount of time and effort planting inbound links in this way. I've probably done this a half-dozen times myself, with one or two visitors here in each instance.
  • This blog is also listed under "Ohio blogs" on (This is distinct from, by the way.) This happened very early in the game. I get a few visitors from this link, and a fairly regular one about every week or so. I suspect that someone is routinely checking the links to make sure they are still good. All of this shows some admirable alertness and organization on the part of Michael Meckler, the proprietor of
  • A few weeks ago my blog was listed with several score others in one of Hugh Hewitt's "Vox Blogoli" sessions. Hewitt is definitely a big fish in the blogosphere, but he likes to draw attention to the "long tail" of the blogosphere -- in other words, the small fry like me. So he sometimes invites his readers to post comments about a particular issue on their own blogs and send him links that he posts on his own far more popular page. Several readers arrived here by this route.
  • At the moment, most of my readers are coming via a link on John Scalzi's page. I commented briefly on his novel Old Man's War (which I mostly liked), and he put a link in one of his posts sending his readers over here. Thank you, Mr. Scalzi -- and greetings to all his readers.
  • There is also a residue of visitors whom I cannot quite categorize. Either Site Meter cannot provide information on them, or their points of origin are somehow hidden, or there just is not enough data to go on. Spies? Hackers? Men in black? Internet mavens who know how to work the privacy systems? Well, don't worry, O shadowy blog-viewers: we serve everybody around here, no questions asked.
While you are reading what I'm writing, I am finding out a little about all of you. I do not know your names (except for a few nearby friends), but you do seem to come from a fairly wide section of the planet -- eight or nine time zones so far out of only a couple of hundred visits. Isn't that cool? Welcome all! I'm glad you stopped by.

(Updated and corrected slightly at about 8 am on 2/19/2005.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The fog of discovery

According to a report at, two NASA researchers are making a strong case that microbial life exists today benath the Martian surface. The evidence is indirect, and seems to include three major threads. First, the European Mars Express orbiter, along with ground-based telescopes, have detected fluctuating levels of methane in the Martian atmosphere. Second, the two researchers have finished a study of an analogue subsurface ecosystem in Spain, and their findings indicate that similar places beneath the Martian surface should be able to support life as well. Finally, the U.S. Opportunity rover made observations of minerals (such as jarosite) that confirm the geological similarities with sites like the one in Spain. This is, at least, my admittedly inexpert interpretation of the report.

When I first heard about the methane observations a while back, I thought they were pretty amazing. I could not figure out why people were not making a bigger deal out of the story. In fact it is hard to imagine another possible methane source besides living organisms like terrestrial methanogenic bacteria. (On the other hand, our failure of imagination is no proof that Mars has not thought up an alternate, wholly non-biological process to produce it!)

So, is there life on Mars? It is maddeningly hard to say, even now! I had always imagined that if life did indeed exist there, then there would be a particular moment, a revelation, a "Eureka!" But maybe it won't happen that way at all. Maybe we will later realize that we've been seeing the growing evidence for years:
One day, all of these may be remembered in retrospect as the chapters of a single exciting story. But not yet, alas. We are too close to see the shape of that story, or to determine which pieces of evidence are most crucial, or to guess the significance that it will bear. For a while yet we will struggle along, stumbling through the fog of discovery.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

My science project

A former student sends a link to an entertaining page discussing the possibilities for completely destroying the Earth. Note that the idea is not just to extinguish humanity or even all life, or do superficial damage to the outer surface. No, the goal is: "by any means necessary, to render the Earth into a form in which it may no longer be considered a planet". This is an ambitious goal:
The Earth was built to last. It is a 4,550,000,000-year-old, 5,973,600,000,000,000,000,000-tonne ball of iron. It has taken more devastating asteroid hits in its lifetime than you've had hot dinners, and lo, it still orbits merrily. So my first piece of advice to you, dear would-be Earth-destroyer, is: do NOT think this will be easy.
The page considers alternatives ranging from arranging for the Earth to be swallowed by a black hole to just waiting around five billion years for the Sun to swell up to a red giant and engulf the planet. Some are more practical than others. The "wait till the Sun goes red giant" plan is almost 100% guaranteed to work, but isn't very useful if you are in a hurry.

I actually looked into this once, a few years ago. The big obstacle to overcome is that the Earth's is held together pretty tightly by its own gravity. Imagine that we start to take the Earth apart. We dig up a piece of the crust and then accelerate it to escape velocity, flinging it into space. Then we dig up another piece and repeat. The biggest difficulty is launching the fragments fast enough to escape the Earth. That takes a lot of energy. In fact, this is going to take more energy than would be needed to melt the whole Earth, even if the inside of the Earth were not molten to begin with.

Here's the math. The energy we have to add to the Earth to overcome gravity and disperse its parts is called the Earth's gravitational binding energy. A fair estimate of this is GM2/R, where G is Newton's constant, M is the mass of the Earth, and R is the radius of the Earth. (The exact value depends on how the mass is distributed within the Earth, but this estimate is close enough to go on with.) Using tabulated values for the various factors, we come up with about 3.7 × 1032 Joules. Where the heck are we going to get 370 thousand million billion trillion Joules?

The best thought is nuclear energy, perhaps hydrogen fusion. We'd like to use a local source for the fuel, and the most obvious source of hydrogen is the oceans. So the question is whether there is enough hydrogen in the Earth's oceans to dismantle (pardon the pun) the Earth.

The total mass of the oceans is about 1.4 × 1021 kilograms, but of course only about 10% of this is hydrogen, the rest being oxygen and dissolved salts and stuff. When hydrogen is fused into helium, about 0.7% of the mass is converted to energy. That's a conversion of almost 1017 kg into energy. Using E = mc2 , we find that 8.8 × 1034 Joules are available from the fusion of hydrogen from the Earth's oceans. That is more than enough; indeed, that is enough energy to disassemble the Earth over 200 times.

Compare this to the energy available from solar energy. Sunlight has an intensity of about 1400 Watts per square meter, or about 1.8 × 1017 Watts over the area of the Earth. (We use the cross-section area for the Earth, of course, since that is the amount of sunlight that is actually intercepted by the planet.) We would need to use the Earth's solar input for about two trillion seconds to get enough energy to take the Earth apart -- about 66 million years. Plainly, fusion of oceanic hydrogen is the quicker energy source!

As an aside, I note that, if we somehow lost the Sun, the hydrogen in the oceans would provide us with an alternative way to keep the Earth warm. It would take about 90 billion kilograms of water per year to generate the same amount of energy that the Sun provides, but that really isn't so bad. It's a tiny amount, comparatively: less than one micron of water depth over the whole ocean, with a correspondingly tiny increase in atmospheric oxygen and helium. I do not expect the Sun to become unavailable any time soon, of course, but it is nice to know that we have a potential back-up system, just in case.

Why do physicists like me find such playful calculations so amusing? This is a kind of humor that is hard to explain to non-science types. To them, working a physics problem could not possibly be a source of amusement. Well, I guess you either get it or you don't. Do economists, say, have the same sort of fun with their own "dismal science"? (OK, maybe they do.) In any case, at the moment I can't help but grin when I learn that the Earth's oceans represent an energy source capable of (a) replacing the Sun's energy input for several billion years, or (b) taking the Earth completely apart, as required. (The details of either enterprise, of course, are left as an exercise for the student.)

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Light reading, sort of

I've just finished two books, both of which I heard about from blogs. One is Old Man's War by John Scalzi, which was recommended here and here. This is a science fiction military "coming-of-age" story in the tradition of Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Haldeman's The Forever War, with the twist that the characters are already 75 years old when they join up. It was pretty good, but I think it suffered from the protagonist being too lucky and successful. One of the great things about Heinlein's novel is that Rico screws up along the way, and his mistakes are costly. His growth is therefore more believable and has greater moral significance because he and others pay for it. Scalzi's protagonist is too smart or too lucky. Indeed, for a while I thought that the hero's luck would turn out to have a hidden significance within the story. (Think about Teela Brown in Ringworld.) But no such, um, luck. But I enjoyed the book

The other book was Wolf Time by Lars Walker, which was recommended here. This is a book that was published by Baen Books, but is now offered by them freely on the web. In fact, there are quite a few Baen titles available in this way, and many others available for a fee. Though I prefer paper books, I'm quite happy reading a book online. (Some years ago I spent several weeks at the university in Innsbruck, and the books that I had brought with me ran out within a few days. This was distressing until I realized how much there was available over the Web. Project Gutenberg, the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, and the Gaslight site provided everything I could want. I could put a solid weekend of reading, compressed, on a single floppy. What delight!)

Anyway, Wolf Time is a remarkable mulligan stew of a book, a wild combination of Lutheran theology, rural Minnesota culture, Viking history, Norse mythology and magic, campus politics, social satire, etc. I tried to describe it to a friend by saying that, if Charles Williams had grown up in Lake Wobegon, he might have written this book. Amid all this wonderful and entertaining stuff is a fairly serious meditation about keeping faith and living the truth in a world that seems to have gone off the rails, together with a rather bleak picture of the ruinous state of institutions that once served that faith and that truth.

Do I recommend it? Yes -- with the warning that my own tastes are known to be a bit peculiar. I am not sure that Wolf Time is a really good book, exactly. Yet for me, it was a stimulating entertainment and also, in an odd way, a kind of spiritual preparation for Lent. Caveat lector; but also, just possibly, tolle lege.

Friday, February 11, 2005

From language to thought

Rand Simberg has a thought-provoking (and, as he points out, rather non-PC) post about how language structures shape our thinking. Evidently, tribes of people who do not have words for large numbers (e.g., "five") have trouble doing tasks that involve numerical concepts. Suppose you put down half a dozen nuts and ask a tribe member to put down the same number of rocks. If his language system does not reach that high, he is surprisingly likely to get it wrong.

The idea that Simberg pursues is that this is relevant to the merits of "Ebonics" and so forth. Some languages are just better -- not morally better, but better at preparing the mind for rigorous logic and mathematical abstraction.

This reminds me of discussions I've had about whether all thought was language-based. As I understand it, a basic premise of contemporary critical theory is that our thought is so enmeshed in our language that we are unable to think "outside" of language. Thus, language controls us in ways that we cannot even detect. The deconstructionists aim to try to expose this by demonstrating subversive secondary and tertiary meanings in texts, undermining the idea of a univalent "meaning".

I have very little sympathy with this project. To my outsider's eye, it either seems obvious ("Whatever we say, we're using words!") or wrong-headed ("This means whatever I want it to mean.") I don't mind saying that our minds do not have a direct, angelic access to Truth; but I do mind very much saying that our thinking can have no discernible relation to it.

Aside: I was once in a conversation about the Big Picture in academia and someone said that Women's and Gender Studies was crucially important because everything connected to it. I was incautious enough to remark that by the same logic Physics was crucially important, because everything was made of matter and energy, and Physics was about matter and energy. To which she said, "Physics is about matter and energy as seen by white European males." I held my tongue at that point, not wishing to cause a scene, but her remark serves as a fair example of the point of view. If all our thinking is simply conditioned by forces outside our perception or control, then no body of knowledge is "priviliged" by being, say, objectively right.

Back to language: A key point for me has been my own experience of thinking about mathematics. When I'm sorting out a mathematical idea, my thinking seems highly visual or kinesthetic. Later, after I have already understood the thing, comes the long difficult process of translating it all into words and symbols so that I can communicate it with other people. So my personal experience leads me to believe that not all thinking is based on words. But Simberg's post is an extremely interesting, and slightly disturbing, piece of evidence otherwise.

NorKs and Nukes

North Korea now claims that it has the Bomb.

Arguably, this is (a) not really news, and (b) not necessarily true. (See below.) Nevertheless, it is a bit scary.

In Cold War days, only a few nations could obtain nuclear weapons. Since such weapons require a fairly sophisticated scientific and industrial establishment, it follows that any possessor of such a weapon must have a lot to lose. But technological progress and economic globablization mean that much more marginal states can aspire to this sort of weaponry. Pakistan is a country whose central government has no real authority in large parts of its territory -- the places where remnants of Al Qaeda (including Bin Laden) are likely hiding. Nevertheless, Pakistan has nukes.

You know, I used to laugh at old science fiction stories in which you'd have both super-science and sword-play. Think Edgar Rice Burroughs! Typically these stories would show highly advanced technological societies cheek-by-jowl with lawless, barbarian-filled wilderness, and that seemed like an unlikely combination to me. It would be as if, when you left Chicago, the paved road stopped at the city limits and beyond that was a patchwork of feudal estates. However much fun it was, such a world didn't make much sense. But isn't that a little like Pakistan, a place where tribal warlords and a nuclear arsensal are both potent political factors?

And then there is North Korea, a nightmare of a country, ruled by thugs, many of whose people are literally starving. And they have nukes, or say they do, and are also pretty far along in missile technology.

I think that the North Korean regime, which takes the concept of "paranoid" to a whole new level, has long seen its own existence threatened. The shocking economic imbalance between North and South has grown decade by decade, giving the lie to any propoganda about the superiority of hardline Communism as a social system. Then the Berlin Wall fell, along with dictators like Ceaucescu and Honecker. The North Korean leadership must have looked at them and thought, We're next.

My theory, which is hardly original with me, is that the North Koreans are building nukes as a kind of blackmail/insurance scheme. The idea is to make themselves so dangerous and unbalanced that the rest of the world would not dare to allow the regime to be in peril. Faced with an existential threat, who knows what Pyongyang might do? To avoid catastrophe, they reason, the South Koreans and the Chinese and the Japanese and the Americans would be willing to prop up the NK's.indefinitely. Think of it as a new wrinkle on Mutually Assured Destruction.

And I have to admit, this strategy, or something like it, seemed to work in 1994 when the North Koreans first made a crisis out of the nuclear issue. President Clinton and former President Carter stepped in and negotiated a deal that provided security guarantees and economic benefits in the form of fuel supplies. From this point of view, a lot of the really crazy and scary behavior of North Korea makes a horrible kind of sense. They want to make sure that the rest of us believe that they are capable of anything. (During the Cold War, Richard Nixon once posited the "crazy man in the White House" theory, the idea that it would be a good idea if the Soviets did not quite know how far an American president was willing to go in a confrontation. As far as I can tell, the North Koreans have turned this into their main strategic doctrine.)

So I am not quite convinced that the North Koreans are telling the truth this time. They may not need actually to build a deployable nuclear weapon; they simply need for the rest of the world to fear that they might have. (The existence of a thing that can make a nuclear explosion is not the key issue. An explodable piece of apparatus is not necessarily a usable weapon. Exactly what can the NK's blow up? Pyongyang? Seoul? Tokyo or Seattle?)

Of course, the threat is only credible because the NK's might actually have something usable. It does not have to be pretty to be a dangerous capability. And since North Korea is one of the most closed societies on Earth, it will be very difficult to assess precisely to what extent they are bluffing. And what if the "crazy man at the top" really is a lunatic?

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Things I'm having trouble getting worked up about

There are a number of things buzzing around in the current-affairs blogosphere these days, but I'm having trouble getting excited about any of them.

First, there's the Eason Jordan story. In case you are blind, deaf and illiterate (or are reading nothing but the mainstream press, which in this case amounts to the same thing), Jordan is the CNN nabob who made some very peculiar remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Apparently, he said or implied that the American forces in Iraq are killing reporters on purpose, or some such nonsense. Some of those in the room were happy that a prince of the American journalistic establishment was courageously telling the truth about the satanic Americans. Others, notably Congressman Barney Frank, challenged Jordan and essentially asked him whether he was out of his mind. Jordan walked himself back a couple of steps and has generally been doing his best to defuse this particular public-relations bomb. (Hard to defuse a bomb when it has already exploded, though.)

Jordan has evidently said similar things before, and of course you'll recall that he was the same guy who censored CNN's coverage of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, in order to maintain CNN's access to Baghdad. Lovely.

Hugh Hewitt thinks this is worse than Dan Rather and the forged TANG memos. I don't quite see that, and I just can't muster the recommended level of indignation. OK, Eason Jordan is a weasel and an idiot, who is apparently willing to trade in unsupported slander of American soldiers just to impress anti-American audiences. Granted. So why am I not moved to righteous outrage? Perhaps the situation simply lacks the necessary elements of shock and surprise.

Also on the radar screen is a weird speech by Bill Moyers, who claimed that fundamentalist Christians want to destroy the environment because Jesus is coming soon. Or something like that. This just leaves me at a loss for words. I used to think that Bill Moyers was a serious guy, who really cared about serious ideas. I did not always agree with him but I once had the impression that it would be cool to talk things over with him. But now he has evidently signed on with the tinfoil-hat brigade. Jeez. A slow shake of the head on this one.

Jonah Goldberg at NRO is having a squabble with Juan Cole, the eminent scholar and academic who is the president-elect of the Middle East Studies Association. Here is how I read the situation. Goldberg says that Cole is wrong and silly in some things he has said about the Iraqi elections. Cole says Goldberg is an evil ignoramus who doesn't even speak Arabic. Goldberg confirms that he does not speak Arabic, but maintains that he is right anyway, and that Cole isn't helping his own case by resorting to ad hominem attacks. Cole says Goldberg is a despicable evil ignoramus who is being paid by wicked rich men to degrade the poor and villify honest progressive thinkers like, well, Cole. Goldberg . . . well, you get the idea.

Let me say it plainly: Juan Cole has conducted his part of the exchange with an arrogance and dishonesty that stinks to high heaven, and that brings shame on the academic calling that he and I share. Goldberg, on the other hand, has been his usual interesting self, though a little put out by Cole's venom. But I am not really upset by any of this. Cole's rhetoric is transparently vicious, and Goldberg can obviously take care of himself in a scrap.

What seems to be going on here is that one side of the political debate is collectively taking leave of their senses. Jordan, Moyers, Cole -- these are not marginal figures, but pillars of the media and academic establishment. Yet they are the ones who are insisting that American soldiers, Christian fundamentalists, and conservative commentators are moral monsters. It is hard to avoid the idea that the successes of their opponents -- in the American electorate, and most recently in the hopeful developments in Iraq and elsewhere -- are driving them crazy. They are, not to put too fine a point on it, wandering over toward Ward Churchill territory. No wonder Howard Dean will be the next DNC chair. We are in ugly times, my friends.

To be fair, I should add one more storm from a different quarter, one that also fails to rattle my windows very much. Marine Lt. General James Mattis recently made some remarks about fighting in Afghanistan:
You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil . . . it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.
This was rather brutally put, I admit. My wife was quite incensed with what she took to be Mattis's cavalier attitude about taking human life. But I think that we are hearing the voice of an authentic warrior, telling a truth about what war is like -- not what we think it should be, but what it really is. Those of us who depend on the prowess of those soldiers and marines should be slow to condemn, eager to understand, and grateful that we have fighting men like Mattis whose satisfaction comes from the rightness of the cause. And we should not insist that the twenty-year-olds who are sent into harm's way must do their hard and bloody duty with long faces and heavy hearts.

Go get 'em, fellas. Just be damn sure you are shooting at the bad guys.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Movies, movies

Instead of tuning into the Super Bowl -- and to tell the truth, I had forgotten that it was going on, which probably says a great deal about me -- anyway, instead of that, my daughters and I watched a couple of movies. These were from our dusty shelves of VHS tapes, and my girls had seen neither of them before.

The first was Roxanne, the Steve Martin version of Cyrano de Bergerac. This movie does have its flaws. Let's face it, Darryl Hannah is not convincing as a graduate student in astrophysics. But Steve Martin is just stupendous, and it has some of the best lines ever. ("Worms, Roxanne! I'm afraid of worms!" Or "It isn't like she's a rocket scientist." "Actually, she is.") So, even with the lovely Ms. Hannah standing in for someone who should be brilliant and witty, this one is on my list of great movies.

The second movie was Big Trouble in Little China, in which truck driver Kurt Russell gets involved in ancient Chinese sorcery while making a produce delivery to Chinatown. My wife and I saw this in graduate school. It isn't a good movie, let alone a great movie, but it's a hoot, and the movie makers are smart enough not to take things too seriously. This one goes on the list of movies that I like a lot, but know in my heart aren't really good.

The distinction is interesting to me. The categories of "movies I think are good" and "movies I like a lot" are quite distinct. Neither is a subset of the other. Thus, there are no-good movies that I dislike and good movies that I like, but also no-good movies that I like (e.g., Big Trouble in Little China) as well as movies that I think are good but which I do not like. An example of that last category might be Sunset Boulevard. Not only is this reputed to be a great movie -- number twelve on the AFI's "top 100" list -- but even I can see why it is included in a list of great movies. And I love William Holden in just about everything. So why do I not like it?

Part of it may be related to genre. I like movies that go BANG and have a fast pace and a bit of humor. I prefer intellectual complexity to emotional angst, when offered the choice. But my appreciation of movies is highly visual. I like seeing things and thinking about things that open wide vistas in my imagination. Gloria Swanson may be ready for her close-up, Mr. DeMille, but I want a movie that pulls back and shows me something bigger.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Loose ends

When I was a kid, my family bought a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica. (This was near the end of the run of the fine old 14th edition, before the bizarre innovations of the 15th edition. But I digress.) I loved those beautiful, heavy books. Some sections, like the long article on Space Travel, I would read time and again. Kids at school would try to tease me by saying that I probably sat around at home reading the encyclopedia. Well, yeah. Your point?

The best thing was just to sit on the floor by the bookcase and flip through the index, looking up whatever caught my eye, following any cross-references that seemed interesting. It was, I realize now, much like wandering the Web. Sometimes I would stumble across a brief entry that somehow suggested a wide unknown vista beyond. Gyges the tyrant was king of Lydia; but where exactly, and when, was Lydia? The answers were easy to find, of course, in other entries in other volumes; but sometimes I would hesitate, savoring the faint scent of mystery.

Later, when I read Borges's story "Tlon, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius", I felt a queer stir of recognition. That story, you may recall, concerns the discovery of an encyclopedia article, then a whole volume of an encyclopedia, describing countries in a strange, apparently fictional world. And I loved Milorad Pavic's The Dictionary of the Khazars, a novel in the form of an encyclopedia (or really three different encyclopedias). There is something about the labyrinth of an encyclopedia that has an aura of magic about it. Some innocent-looking cross-reference, some obscure entry about a place that you can't quite pinpoint on a map, might lead to wonders. Maybe, even now, there is some chain of hyperlinks that would take you to worlds beyond the reach of Google.

Along with the Encyclopedia Britannica, over the next few years, came two series of yearbooks. One series, the ordinary yearbooks, were pretty dull; but the volumes of the other series were about "Science and the Future", and they included Scientific American-type articles on rockets and robotics and all sorts of neat things. I read these again and again, too. One article, a long-time favorite of mine, was about codes and cryptography. And one whole page of that article was given over to a color illustration of the Voynich manuscript.

The Voynich manuscript, in case you have not heard, is a codex of a couple of hundred vellum pages, written at least five hundred years ago but possibly more. It was discovered in 1912 by a collector named Voynich, from whom it got its common name. Some pages of the manuscript have elaborate botantical drawings, while others have astronomical diagrams or sketches of medicinal herbs. There are pictures of nymphs swimming through systems of basins and pipes -- weird images that for me have something of Heironymous Bosch and something of Dr. Seuss. All of these drawings are annotated by thousands and thousands of words of text. But the text is written in a script unlike any other on Earth, in a language that no one has ever deciphered.

There is actually quite a lot about the Voynich manuscript on the Web, and I recommend that you follow some links to get a taste of it. It is an elegant mystery. There are a great many theories about it, of course. Some argue that it was a fraud from the start, that the writing is meaningless. The statistical properties of the script are queer, but there are some indications -- like the fact that the "words" of the text are distributed according to Zipf's Law -- that hint that some real language is being concealed.

Why do I bring this up? I ran across the Voynich manuscript on the Web this morning, following a link from a link from a page about something else. I realized that, ever since I first saw it in the encyclopedia yearbook all those years ago, the Voynich manuscript has been noodling around in the back of my mind. It has always represented to me a kind of Loose End of the world, something that is not quite figured out and tidied up in the Standard Model of Everything. It is uncanny. But it is more than a ghost story or a queer experience: it is a disturbing artifact, a piece of the objective world that does not appear to fit. Even if it is a fraud, as is likely, it is a fraud with remarkable properties that would not be easy to reproduce. (The Shroud of Turin is another such.)

What do we do with such loose ends? Well, mostly we ignore them, and rightly so. The world is wide and various; there will inevitably be things that do not quite seem to fit. This would be true even if there were no supernatural forces or unknown dimensions of reality. Our powers of explanation are finite, and certain key clues have been lost forever. Some things will simply remain loose ends. Get used to it and move on.

Nevertheless, the loose ends continue to fascinate us, and I think it is good to give into that fascination. Over the next weeks and months I think I may take a closer look at the Voynich manuscript, learn about its history and study its properties, evaluate the theories that have been proposed, maybe spin a few of my own.

A loose end is, after all, the obvious place to begin a thread. I'll let you know if come up with something interesting.