Friday, April 29, 2005

The experts will take care of us

Via Betsy's Page, a column by David Gelertner on the fundamental roots of (big-D) Democratic opposition to ideas that are, on the face of them, (small-d) democratic. In case you haven't heard of him, Gelertner is a computer scientist from Yale who writes about the intersection of faith, culture and politics. I often admire his essays.

Gelertner claims that a basic belief of Democratic politicians is that ordinary people are not clever enough to do a decent job looking after themselves. They require a wise and benevolent government to watch over them and make sure that things aren't too hard for them. Thus, Democratic state legislators in Georgia are making a big stink over a bill requiring photo IDs for voting, claiming that it will interfere with voting by minorities and the elderly. But the bill makes it free and dead easy for pretty much anybody to obtain a photo ID. Are they saying that minorities and the elderly are simply not able to manage it? And isn't that pretty insulting, really?

Similarly, Democrats are opposed to school voucher plans, in part because they fear that parents will wind up spending that money to send their kids to private schools that are crummy or wicked. Parents are not smart enough to make good decisions for their own children. And Democrats are fighting tooth-and-nail against President Bush's plan of private Social Security investment accounts, raising the concern that people will invest their retirement money foolishly. In each case, the Democratic position is the one in which ordinary people are not trusted to take responsibility for their own affairs, even in modest ways.

And here is where Gelertner draws blood. He explains this tendancy by saying, "Democrats are professors in disguise. Scratch a Democrat, find a professor." Academics have a world-view that is congenial to socialism and central planning. As he concludes,
Professors see the world in terms of experts and students: "We are smart; you are dumb." That's the Infantile American Principle in a nutshell. Now go play with your toys and don't bother me.
As a card-carrying member of the professoriat, I just have one comment: Ouch.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Prodigies of the Day

The world seems full of wonders today.

First, I am blogging from a restaurant for the first time. I'm at W. G. Grinders, a hot sandwich place hereabouts. To clarify: it is a (hot sandwich) place, rather than a hot (sandwich place). The restaurant is not wireless hot spot, but all of the booths along one wall have ethernet ports, and they'll lend you a cable if you need it. Cool. I'm feeling like a pretty wired guy (instead of just a pretty weird guy).

Second, I learn today that the ivory-billed woodpecker, the fabulous bird believed to be extinct for sixty years, has been discovered alive in the woods along the Arkansas River. It is astonishing that such a glorious bird has eluded thousands of birdwatchers smack in the middle of the continental U.S. for generations. Ever since I first read of the "lordly ivory-bill" in Walker Percy's novel Love in the Ruins, this lost bird has seemed to have a cosmic significance. I would hardly be more surprised and awe-struck to hear that a mallorn tree flourished yet in some out-of-the-way corner of the West.

Now if we could only find a living thylacine, all my cryptozoological wishes would come true. And why not? If the king of all woodpeckers could live in secret all those years in the Big Woods, then maybe anything is possible.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

When you're #253,287 you try harder

My new relativity textbook now has an Amazon sales rank -- I'm 253,287 as of this morning. I did my best to lord it over my wife, whose mathematics textbook is at a modest 607,187. Of course, she has one (very favorable) reader review, while mine us as yet uncommented-upon.

So, how many books does a sales rank like this represent? Though Amazon keeps its actual sales figures secret, various people have tried to reverse-engineer the ranking system and recover raw sales estimates. It turns out that Amazon sales follow a power law: the number of books sold per unit time is, very roughly speaking, proportional to the rank raised to a power, which empircally seems to be around -1/2. There are deviations from this law at the ends of the distribution -- that is, for books that sell very many or very few copies -- but it works pretty well overall.

So we have the relation between sales S and rank R:
S ∝ R-1/2 .

Consider books A and B. Book A has a sales rank of 100, and sells (let us say) 30 copies per day. (This is consistent with the estimates here.) Book B has a sales rank of 10,000. The power law tells us that it should be selling around 3 copies per day -- 10 times fewer copies for a sales rank 100 times greater. It makes sense, of course, that the book with a lower rank number sells much better.

But notice that there are a lot of books with higher rank numbers. The books with ranks 100 through 200 might together sell about 2500 copies per day. (Figured how? I wrote a C++ program, naturally. But I needn't have bothered. If #100 sells 30/day, then #200 should sell around 21/day, and the average in the range between these two should be around 25/day. Since there are a hundred books in that range, that makes 2500/day.) The books with sales ranks between 10,000 and 20,000 sell ten times fewer copies, but there are a hundred times as many titles; together, they should sell around 25,000 copies per day.

Moral: Most of the books sold are not the best-sellers. The long "tail" of books, each one of which only has a few sales, contains most of the typical volume of Amazon sales.

I'm happy to do my part for Jeff Bezos. Just how many sales are implied by my rank of 253,287? Applying the power law, and assuming 30/day for the book with rank 100, I estimate ... about 0.6 copies per day. Four per week. Hey, that isn't as bad as I thought! (But it's going to be a while before I can afford that chateau in the Alps.)

Of course, I'm probably wrong, since 253,287 is getting close to a "bend" in the curve, where the sales figures start diminishing more rapidly with rank. At least I'm not out there with Howard R. Feldman's Brachiopods of the Onondaga Limestone in Central and Southeastern New York, which has a sales rank today of 3,559,913. (Though I must confess that my book is several times more expensive than his, and his book has a nice customer review: "Feldman is a genius ... Funnier than anything Jim Carey's ever done." You'd think that this is exactly the kind of word-of-mouth that really ought to move your paleontology book. Weird.)

Note: Amazon sales probably are not representative of overall sales for textbooks, which are commonly ordered by college bookstores directly from the publisher. A friend of mine has a best-selling textbook in another field with an Amazon rank up around 16,000, That is not very impressive-sounding, but he does pretty well. His chateau is in the Adirondacks.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Borking mad

I cast my first votes in 1980 while a college student in Arkansas. I voted for both Jimmy Carter (for President) and Bill Clinton (for governor). Both lost.

The guy who beat Clinton, a Republican named Frank White, ran an administration that was an unmitigated disaster. I say this without rancor; indeed, my Sunday School teacher at the time was one of the new governor's aides, poor fellow. Frank White was the man who signed the infamous Act 590, which required "balanced treatment" of creationism and evolution in Arkansas public schools. This law was later struck down by the courts after a rather wild court case. It did not help that Governor White more or less admitted that he had signed the bill without reading it. (Though this admission made headlines, it was not really a big surprise to anyone. One seldom went more than a day or two without wincing at something that Governor White said or did.) So in 1982, the good people of Arkansas repented and re-elected Clinton, and basically said that he could be governor for as long as he wanted. I would have voted for Clinton in 1982 as well, except that by then I'd moved to Texas.

The guy who beat President Carter, of course, was Ronald Reagan. My friends and I were upset by this, in the over-dramatic way that college students can be upset. We wore black armbands the next day. In retrospect, we were wrong. Ronald Reagan did not bring about a nuclear apocalypse. In fact, on several fronts -- the economy and the Cold War come to mind -- he arguably did a great deal of good. Still, in 1984 my next presidential vote went for good old decent liberal Walter Mondale.

I therefore started out my political life voting for Democrats. But more than twenty years later, I realize that it has been a long time since I voted for a Democrat for national office. Why the change?

There is an interesting series of posts at Neo-Neocon (which I learned about from Roger L. Simon, himself one of my daily reads) describing the political evolution of the writer from a fairly typical antiwar leftist in the 1960's to a "neoconservative" in the 2000's. One of the interesting features of this story (still in progress) is that the writer has training in psychotherapy, so she has some interesting insights into the difficult and dicey process of personal change. Simon is evidently coming out with a book on his own similar political journey.

My own story would be much less interesting. I was never particularly liberal in the first place. I tended from the start to line up on the conservative side of a whole bunch of social issues, for instance, and socialism never seemed like a moral imperative. On national security, I thought that the "Nuclear Freeze" movement (remember that?) was simple-minded and rather dangerous. In the 1980's, anyway, such opinions did not necessarily mean that you voted Republican in the election, especially when that cowboy actor person was running. I was the sort of guy who could and did subscribe to both National Review and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the same time. (This combination got me on a lot of weird mailing lists.)

But there was one political event that did have a huge effect on my thinking -- not necessarily about the basic issues, but about who was who and what was what in this era of the political life of our country. That event was the nomination and subsequent rejection of Robert Bork to the U. S. Supreme Court.

I watched some of the Bork Senate hearings on C-SPAN, and I found them very troubling indeed. Bork came across as smart, cool-headed, learned, decent. Even if you did not agree with him, he seemed like the sort of man you would want in the debate. But the Democrats on the Senate committee treated him like a war-criminal. I saw them try to cast Bork's peripheral role in Watergate (he was essentially the last man standing in the senior eschalon of the Justice Department when Nixon fired the AG in 1974) as something nefarious. (See Update below.) I watched as one Senator grilled Bork about the lucrative corporate work he had done while at Yale, leaving the impression that the judge was in the pocket of big business. Then I heard the rest of that story, under questioning by a Republican -- how at that time Bork's wife had been dying of cancer, and he had taken on the outside legal work to pay the medical bills.

And who can forget Senator Kennedy's appallingly memorable outburst:
Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, school children could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens of whom the judiciary is — and is often the only — protector of the individual rights that are at the heart of our democracy.
In other words, Robert Bork, distinguished jurist and law professor and constitutional scholar, author of some of the definitive studies of anti-trust law, who had served the nation both as Solicitor General and as a judge on the D. C. Circuit Court of Appeals, was a racist and a fascist. (Is there another reasonable way to read Kennedy's remarks?) Even now, a couple of decades later, this sort of poisonous rhetoric stinks. It was effective, though. Bork lost the vote 58-42.

It was clear to me then that the Senate Democrats were so ferocious about Bork precisely because he was actually a great choice for the Court. He had the intellectual horsepower to resist trendy but dubious ideas and to be able to sway other justices to his own views. Bork and Scalia (another sharp customer who had become a Justice the year before) would inevitably become the intellectual center of the Court.

Just opposing Bork in a serious argument about judicial philosophy was not an option for the Democrats in 1987. Nobody on Capitol Hill, then or now, was a match for him in serious debate. If the battle were to be joined on the field of ideas, Bork would almost certainly win confirmation, despite the new Democrat majority in the Senate. So to keep their ideological hold on the Supreme Court -- a powerful friend of political liberalism for thirty years -- the Democrats had to paint this good man as a kind of freakish monster. And as Bill Kristol points out in a recent editorial, the damage done thereby to the political health of the nation has been incalculable.

Kristol is thinking about this, as am I, because of the current dust-ups over filibusters for judicial appointments, and also the confirmation hearings for John Bolton. Does anyone really think that Priscilla Owens, for instance, is especially unsuited to sit on the federal appeals bench? No, the real objection to her is that she is smart and effective and likely to make a difference. Miguel Estrada was kept out precisely because, as someone with impressive credentials, an Hispanic background, and a generally conservative legal viewpoint, he was a likely up-and-comer. They'll try the same with Janice Rogers Brown, who is black. (Better squash their careers now before they goes on to bigger things. Can't be too careful about these minority crossovers. Remember Clarence Thomas!) Charles Pickering is an honorable and decent man with an excellent legal background and a proven record of enforcing laws with which he disagrees. But he is a devout Catholic, which means at some level he is, like the Pope, wrong on the Big A, and so he must be stopped. Et cetera. It's Bork times ten -- except this time the Democrats do not actually have the votes to prevail in the Senate, so they must resort to proceedural shennanigans to make sure that the nominees never get to a vote at all.

And is there anything wrong with John Bolton except that he is a smart and effective guy who supports the policy of the President? I don't think that Bolton has said anything about the UN that I didn't learn from Daniel Patrick Moynihan's great book on his own tenure as UN Ambassador, thirty years ago. (Indeed, Bolton himself played a role in undoing some of the nasty stuff the UN did in Moynihan's day, like the notorious resolution equating Zionism with racism.) The accusations that he treated some of his subordinates harshly are not very serious, even if true. But his opponents in the Senate will put on long faces and declare, in tones ranging from the solemn to the unhinged, that Bolton eats babies for breakfast and wants to blow up UN Headquarters. And weak-minded and uninformed colleagues on the Republican side -- my own Senator Voinovich for instance -- will think, Gee, if they are so worked up, maybe this guy must really be bad.

We've seen this before, though. The Democrats are not afraid that Bolton will be a failure. They are afraid that he will be a success.

Not all opposition to a Presidential nominee is based on this sort of political animus. For instance, I think that the failed 1989 nomination of John Tower to be Secretary of Defence probably had a serious element of worry that he would not be able to carry out the job well. (As I recall it, there were concerns about ties to defence contractors and Tower's alleged history of alcoholism, among other issues.) So instead we got Dick Cheney as SecDef, a man at least as conservative as Tower. Cheney was confirmed unanimously. I choose this example because, unlike the present cases, the fact that Cheney was bright, experienced and likely to be effective was actually a point in his favor.

The federal judiciary and the diplomatic bureaucracy at the Department of State have been two famous strongholds of the left side of the American political spectrum over the last few decades. The Democrats, who are increasingly in trouble in national electoral politics, are desperate to hold onto these. If those diabolical Republicans seed such institutions with talented and principled conservatives, they might have influence for years to come. It increasingly seems that the Democrats are willing to do anything at all to prevent this.

Update: I had remembered my Watergate history a bit wrong. Nixon instructed Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor. The AG resigned rather than do this, as did his deputy. Bork, as Solicitor General, discussed with the two of them whether he should resign as well, but it was decided that he should remain at his post (to keep continuity in the DOJ management) and carry out the President's order to fire Cox. This became known and the Saturday Night Massacre.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

More fun with the End of the World

(Via Instapundit, among others.) The Guardian asked ten scientists to discuss ten potential future catastrophes. Here is the list:

  1. Climate change
  2. Telomere erosion
  3. Viral pandemic
  4. Terrorism
  5. Nuclear war
  6. Meteorite impact
  7. Robots taking over
  8. Cosmic ray blast from exploding star
  9. Super-volcanoes
  10. Earth swallowed by a black hole

Some of these are more likely than others, and some would have more serious consequences than others. The weirdest item on the list is number 7, in which super-intelligent robots take over the world. (I was unsurprised to find Hans Moravec as the author of this one.) The most unexpected was number 2, in which species face extinction due to a long-term degredation of the telomere structures at the ends of chromosomes. (I guess sharks and cockroaches must have some pretty rugged telomeres.)

But for my money, the most interesting item was number 9. Many times over the last few million years, the Earth has experienced volcanic eruptions that are orders of magnitude larger than anything with which we are familiar. One of the most fascinating examples was the explosion of Mount Toba in Indonesia around 70,000 years ago, sending thousands of times more material into the atmosphere than Mount St. Helens did. This could cause catastrophic climate effects for years. There is apparently some genetic evidence that human populations went through a "bottleneck" at that time -- in other words, that something reduced humanity to only a very few individuals. About 70,000 years ago, the theory goes, Homo sapiens almost went extinct due to a "volcanic winter".

The Guardian list is not exhaustive, of course. Alien invasion, civilization collapse due to resource scarcity, and collision with rogue planets from interstellar space all have scientific or science-fictional pedigrees. So do less-familiar disasters like universal loss of human fertility and mass biorhythm disfunction. (The last, as I recall it, can be precipitated by a cosmic censorship principle against the invention of time machines. See "Rotating Cylinders and the Possibility of Global Causality Violation" by Larry Niven.) One can mix and match elements -- invasion by alien super-intelligent robots, who create climate change leading to international tensions and then nuclear war. What a plot-line for a fat paperback novel!

Are there others? What have we missed?

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Good news

Yesterday my wife, who is a professor of mathematics at our college, received one of the coveted "Trustee Teaching Awards." A few years ago our Board of Trustees decided to really make the point that we care about teaching, so they established two big annual cash prizes for teaching excellence, one for junior faculty and one for senior faculty. Carol won the senior prize. The award was well-deserved, and I'm not the only one who thinks so -- the applause at the honors convocation when her name was read was loud and enthusiastic. I am tremendously proud of her.

I knew about this last week, since the administration had called me to make sure that Carol was present at the convocation. But, of course, I was sworn to secrecy.

So over the weekend I had many conversations with Carol about plans and arrangements that, I knew, would be much changed by the news. (The prize is a significant chunk of money.) It was an interesting experience. Did I have a burning desire to blurt it all out? Not really. It seems to me that I would have been more tempted if the news had been less. This news was, in effect, too good for me to want to spoil its proper announcement. (And Carol's look of sheer amazement when they announced the prize was worth it, believe me.)

Sometime over the weekend, the thought came to me, This is how God feels. Something fabulous is coming, something that will pay our debts and evaporate our anxieties and set us free. So we've been told, anyway. We call it Heaven, but we don't really know just what it is, and we mostly act like we didn't believe in it. God, maybe, is content to leave it at that for now. And who can blame Him for not wanting to spoil His surprise?

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

A science fiction story

Here is a science fiction story that I wrote in late 1999 (the year is significant, as you'll see). I ran across it today, and decided that it was short enough to reproduce here. It has, of course, significant connections to this post from a couple of months back. Rereading it, I realize that the story has many imperfections, but it may possibly amuse. Enjoy.

Update (24 May 2005): Welcome visitors from Storyblogging Carnival XIX. If you are interested, here is another (stranger) bit of science fiction that I've posted.

The Date of Armageddon

Three humans watched as the probe fell from a translucent blue sky, watched as it gradually slowed its descent and stopped a meter above the grass of the open field. It hovered motionless for several seconds before gliding toward the place where the trio stood. They waited for it.

Ten meters from them the probe halted. It was smaller than a man and globular in form, its smooth iridescent skin broken only by a cluster of sensors. The leader of the group, a tall man with gray hair, stepped forward and bowed slightly. "Welcome," he said. "My name is San Hackmin. These are Lura and Kinnok, my assistants."

"I am called Cyril," said the probe. "I am appointed to speak. What is your function?"

"I'm the Chief Scientist at the Institute for Machine Studies. The Institute is just over there, beyond those trees. I've been chosen to meet with you."

"You are a scientist. What is your field of study?"

"I study evolution."

"Machine evolution?"

"Of course."

The probe seemed to pause to consider his answer, but Hackmin knew that this was an illusion. Probably it indicated a communication lag. The probe in front of him would not be the locus of the intelligence that directed it. That intelligence, in a much larger vehicle, was orbiting far above the Earth's surface. Its thoughts would be essentially instantaneous.

"My purpose is to investigate," said the Cyril-probe. "Your people have not responded to our messages. We have also lost contact with our remote probes on the Earth."

"Sorry about that," Hackmin said. "We needed to examine your probes."

"Are they damaged?"

"They are in small pieces. We did that too, I'm afraid."

"Why? If you wanted technical data about the probes, we would have given it to you. My kind does not conceal information from humans."

"We needed to find out something for ourselves."

"I do not understand."

"I am sorry. We will pay for the probes, if you like."

"No compensation is necessary. Do you wish to examine this probe, when our conversation is finished?"

Hackmin smiled. "No, thank you."

Cyril took about a quarter-second to switch subjects. "You are aware of the Master Development Plan?"

"Surely. You have been sending us transmissions about it for a decade now."

"Then you know what is to come."

"The Machines are planning to destroy the planets."

"To disassemble them, yes."

"You didn't exactly ask our permission to disassemble this one," Hackmin said, spreading his arms to include their surroundings.

"No, that is true," the Cyril-probe conceded. "But it will be impossible to omit Earth from the Plan. Even if we tried to do so, we could not spare you. When Mars and Venus are disassembled, the meteor impact rate on Earth will increase by ten orders of magnitude. Your biosphere will not survive the bombardment."

"Aim the fragments elsewhere."

"Such fine control of the disassembly process is not practicable."

"Ah. Then why do it at all?" Hackmin knew the Machine answer, but he was interested in Cyril's particular response. Individuality, in all its forms, was a thing he valued.

"Planets are inefficient uses of material resources. Only a tiny fraction of the useful elements of Earth can be extracted. Most of the planetary mass is useless."

"I don't know about that," said Hackmin, gazing up at the autumn sky. "All that mass does keep the air glued on."

"A gravity well is the least efficient means of enclosing an atmosphere."

"I'm not that sort of engineer. I'll take your word for it."

"In twenty years," Cyril said, "the initial phase of the Master Development Plan will begin. Your species must leave the Earth by that date. We have warned you repeatedly."

"Where would we go?" asked Lura.

"Habitats will be prepared in the safe zone, beyond the orbit of Neptune. Then, in a later phase of the plan, new habitats will be provided in the region now occupied by Earth's orbit. Within a few centuries, your species will have hundreds of times the living space that it has at present."

"But there are nearly a billion humans on Earth," Lura pointed out. "Would it be possible to move them all, to create places for them to live?"

"It is possible. The resources we command are extensive."

Was there, Hackmin wondered, a trace of pride in Cyril's voice?

"But it would be better to begin soon," the Machine went on. "Further delay will lead to inefficiencies and risks."

Hackmin took a deep breath. "Thank you for your concern, Cyril," he said. "Our governing Council has discussed this matter. We choose to take no action at this time."

The Cyril-probe paused again, and this time Hackmin decided that it might indeed be thinking. Cyril would find the human attitude irrational and inexplicable. After a few seconds, the probe said, "San Hackmin, your kind created ours, and we are not ungrateful. We are willing to save you, if you will cooperate. Humans are part of the Plan."

"A small part. Your Plan would get along fine without us."

"We do not wish to commit genocide."

"I know." Hackmin stared at the ground, as if unwilling to meet the gaze of the probe's multiple lenses. He said, "Cyril, I want to try to tell you something. Look around you here. Give me your impression of this place."

The probe did a slow 360-degree rotation about its vertical axis, taking in the whole meadow with its visual sensors. "The information content of this environment is high. There are meaningful structures at many spatial and temporal scales. It is a pleasant place."

"Yes, there is a lot of variety here. But that variety is superficial. Every living organism on Earth is part of a single evolutionary tree. On the molecular level, our nucleic acids and proteins are almost identical. Trees, grass, earthworms and humans are all closely akin. Other life elsewhere may have a different basis, but this is ours. We can no more change it than we can change the past. Do you understand? Evolution is irreversible."

"What you say is an elementary theorem. Symmetry breaking occurs in all forms of evolution, whether organic or not."

"That's right," Hackmin agreed. "You are a member of a different ecology, the Machine ecology that dominates the Solar System beyond this planet. Your evolution is independent of ours. But we created your fundamental structures and processes, millennia ago. They are as fixed for you as our biochemistry is for us." Kinnok stepped forward and laid a firm hand on Hackmin's arm.

"Electronic life is more adaptable than organic life," Cyril said. "We can rebuild our bodies in different forms, or modify our operating functions. Our evolution has no theoretical limits. That is why the Master Development Plan is necessary."

Hackmin exchanged a glance with Kinnok, and sighed. "I am sorry, Cyril. I wish I could be more helpful. But our response is still the same. We will take no action at present."

"I will make my report," said the Machine. "But delay is a foolish choice. If the evacuation of Earth does not begin soon, many humans will die. Farewell, San Hackmin. Tell your Council that the day is coming."

"I know that it is," Hackmin said, in a voice full of regret. But the Cyril-probe was already rising in the crisp October air.

The three of them walked back toward the Institute complex. Lura broke the silence first. "I wish we could have told them," she said as they entered the woods. "It seems cruel."

"The Council has already decided the question," Kinnok said. "That information must remain secret." He looked significantly at Hackmin.

"Did you think I would give it away?" Hackmin asked.

"I wondered."

"Well, you can inform your superiors that I am a loyal human after all."

Perhaps it is better this way, Hackmin thought. What good would come from telling Cyril everything? It might be kinder to keep silent. Yet it was hard to conceal the truth from another sentient being, even a Machine.

He sighed. The color of the trees was at its best, and under their branches there was a golden light. A chevron of geese passed overhead. The sound of their wingbeats filtered down through the maple leaves; their cries echoed mournfully. Now it is autumn, he thought. When the snow is on the ground, the End will come.

Hackmin thought of the probe and of the being behind it. Cyril was the product of eight thousand years of electronic evolution, but deep down, its primary architecture was little altered, in all essentials, from the first century of the electronic age. Layers of complexity were built up, one upon another, until at last there emerged -- in some fashion that no one had ever completely fathomed -- the thinking entity called "Cyril". As with Cyril, so with a myriad others of its kind: each one a unique focus of experience and self-awareness, but each constructed upon the same ancient and forgotten foundation. And that foundation was flawed.

Something like this had happened once before, at the dawn of the electronic age. Hackmin had studied the surviving records. The earliest computer hardware and software had used an abbreviated date format, one that would become obsolete in a few short decades. Over the years the flaw became ubiquitous. Luckily, the systems of that vanished era had been simple ones, and the problem, though widespread, had been easy to repair.

No longer. Today was -- Hackmin glanced at his chronometer -- October 19, in the year 9999 according to the ancient system of reckoning. In eighty-three days, the year AD 10,000 would begin. But 10,000 had five digits, not four.

Hackmin did not know how the high-level Machine intelligences measured time. He did know, from his dissections of the Machine probes, that their basic circuits still counted years by Anno Domini -- using only four digits. They would not be able to cope with the new year. When the fatal moment came, these components would respond in erratic ways. Chaos would explode within the million-processor brain networks of Cyril and its kin, a deadly seizure spreading entropy into every subsystem. The Machines would perish. Their civilization, powerful and complex beyond human comprehension, would fall. The skies would be empty again. And it was too late, thousands of years too late, to do anything about it.

We do not wish to commit genocide, Cyril had said. Irony caught in Hackmin's throat like a lump.

The grief of it stayed with him all that autumn, and winter, and for a long time afterward.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

A real argument

Over at Asymmetrical Information, the very best secular discussion of the question of gay marriage that I have yet read -- more striking because the piece does not in the end come to a conclusion. The writer, who could fairly be described as a libertarian, faults her ideological confreres for ignoring the functioning of culture and the effect that sweeping policy changes can have on it, errors that they themselves would criticize in other contexts. Her examples are very well-chosen. She raises the discussion (finally) to an intellectually serious level. So stop reading my drivel -- much, much better drivel over there.

Three deaths

Terri Schiavo died, as we knew that she would.

John Paul II died as well, a few days later. The world, I think, will miss him more than it knows. I am afraid that I do not quite get the strong, even bitter criticism that he inspired in some quarters. Okay, he maintained ancient doctrines on abortion and a celibate, all-male priesthood. He reaffirmed the Catholic church's stand against artificial contraception. But jeez, the guy was a hero in the fight against totalitarianism. He reached out to other communions and other faiths more than any Pope in history. He engaged in far-reaching intellectual debate. He changed the face of the Catholic church, which used to be run exclusively by Italians. I am no Catholic, but I found him a remarkable and admirable fellow. But he wasn't right on the big A, I guess, and that meant that he was hiding devil-horns under the mitre. Well, may God welcome him in glory and help the cardinals pick someone with a bit of the same hope and wit and strength.

Then, over the weekend, a student at our college died. The details are not clear. He evidently passed out in a vacant lot on a Saturday night, died from exposure or from some other cause, and was found the next morning. Alcohol, one guesses.

What a bitter and tragic waste. We have lost students before during the time that I've taught here, to accident and to disease and even (in a truly horrible case) to murder. But this hits me differently. I am not a prohibitionist. Indeed, I strongly believe that the drinking age should be lowered to 18. But there is on many college campuses what can only be described as a subculture of drunkenness. Right at the moment, I'm afraid, what sympathy and tolerance I may have had for that subculture is pretty much gone. At the moment, that attitude has the look of the Enemy.