Monday, January 30, 2006

The Pasadena Rule (Part I of IV)

I have posted short fiction before, here and here. This time, I offer Part I of a science fiction novella called The Pasadena Rule, which I wrote a while back but was never able to place with a publisher. Parts II through IV will be posted at roughly one-week intervals. Enjoy.

The Pasadena Rule, Part I


"Hell of a long way down," I said.

"Stop worrying, Jack," Dieter said. "I have to make sure that the cable doesn't snag again." He was standing on the rail of Gamma's experiment deck, holding on to the boom of the big winch, leaning out over the white abyss below. The winch motor hummed as the long black cable slowly wound its way back onto the drum, reeling in the instrument probe. In the training program we had done things more dangerous than what Dieter was doing now, but back then we had always worn parachutes. Dieter only had one thin safety line – and of course, a parachute was out of the question. I shook my head and looked away.

Without sun goggles, the panorama would have been too bright to look at. Beneath us and as far as the eye could see in every direction – and the distance to the horizon seemed pretty near infinity – a vast sea of clouds spread out, dazzling white with just a hint of yellow. The sky was a breathtaking blue, made deeper by the goggle lenses. The sun was hidden by the airship's double row of lifting cells over our heads. We were cruising in the jet-stream, engines at slow, so there was not much breeze on the experiment deck, even though our ground speed was over three hundred kilometers per hour.

"It looks good," Dieter announced. "Speed her up." At the winch controls, I carefully raised the cable speed to about two meters per second. At the same time the control computer sent signals down ten kilometers of cable, telling the probe to pitch its fins to increase its lift. The cable itself stretched and flexed to smooth out the changes. Dieter jumped down on the right side of the safety rail. He looked out at the cloudscape, then at me. "Nice sunny day," he said. "But maybe you would rather be down below?" I could see his grin through his faceplate.

"Possibly," I said. "But this will do."

"You're a little jealous of your wife, maybe?"

"Not at all. I'm happy for her."


"No bullshit," I said. I gave the controls another tap and nudged the cable speed up. "Yes, sure, I'd like to be on the surface. Not many people are ever going to walk on Venus, after all. But I'm basically an airship guy, like you. I've never been more than a backup lander pilot. Katya is the one on the prime crew."

"You're pretty cool about it."

"I've had time to think it over." Dieter did not say anything, which I took to be a sign of skepticism. "Look, she deserves to be there. I just wish that the Virgil were docking with us on the way back up. It would be nice to see the smile on her face."

"Oh, they might run late."

"Last I heard they were right on the EVA timeline," I said. "That gives them plenty of margin to rendezvous with Beta." The Beta dirigible, twelve hours ahead of us, was the prime recovery ship for this descent of the lander. Gamma, like the Delta twelve hours behind us, was like me: just a backup, really.

"Jack? What is your status?" It was Madeline Whitten, our skipper, calling from inside the gondola.

"Dieter freed the snag," I said. "The probe should be inboard within the hour."

"Yes, good," said Madeline shortly. "You need to come inside."

"We've just started pulling the probe back in. That's going to take a little while."

"Let Dieter finish the job. Bill is getting his suit on and can help him. But you have to come back inside now."

There was a funny edge in her voice. She was obviously worried about something, but something kept me from asking what it was. "Roger that," I said simply. "I'll come in right away." I let Dieter step up to the control console, and he clapped a gloved hand on my shoulder as he went by. A queer feeling brushed past me and was gone, like the touch of a passing shadow.

The airlock cycle seemed to take forever. I peeled off the outer shell of my pressure suit, the one that protected me from the sulfuric acid of the clouds, then unzipped the heated coveralls. The surface of Venus might be as hot as a flash oven, but this high up it was sixty degrees below zero. I shivered in my long johns until warm oxygen and nitrogen replaced the chilly carbon dioxide of the outside air. When the pressure came up to normal I slipped off my helmet and breathing mask and gathered up my gear in a bundle in my arms.

Bill was standing in the ready room in his pressure suit, looking as if he'd been roused from a sleep period. He made a nod in my direction, nothing more, before disappearing into the airlock. What is wrong with him? I wondered. I sat down on the bench and began to stow the high altitude gear in my locker next to the bulkier, silvery surface suit.

Madeline appeared at the door of the ready room. "Just stuff that out of the way," she said. "You can sort it out later."

I shoved the rest inside and shut the locker door. "What's up?" I asked. "Problems with the props?" Gamma's engines were my specialty.

Madeline turned and led me into the control pod. Scattered sunshine streamed in the wide windows, making the cabin seem gloomy by comparison. Max was sitting at the copilot's station in his sleepers, sipping a mug of something hot. Everybody on board is awake, I realized. They all know something I don't. "What has happened?" I asked, suddenly afraid to hear the answer.

Madeline hesitated. When she spoke, her voice was flat. "Something has happened on the surface. There's been an accident."

There's been an accident. It was like stepping into free fall. I felt sick. Some detached part of my mind said: This is exactly what you've always imagined death would be like, a dizzy slide into confusion before the darkness. Except that you've always imagined that it would be your own death, not hers.

Madeline grabbed my arm and steered me into a chair before I fell down. Far away, I heard myself saying, "What about Katya?"

Her answer came with a terrible slowness. "We don't know many details yet. There was a quake on the mountain and then a rockslide at the landing site. The lifesystem on Virgil is still intact, but there was some damage to the ship. The landing team was outside in hotsuits when it happened. Contact was lost."

"How far from the ship? When it happened?" My own voice sounded disjoint, peculiar. Was it my voice?

"Several hundred meters, I gather," Madeline said. "There just wasn't time to do anything, Jack. It happened without any warning at all."

Max said, "Aphrodite has taken the telemetry feed from Virgil off the relay satellite." Orbiting overhead, the Aphrodite was our mission control.

"Get it back," Madeline snapped.

I wasn't listening. I had my elbows on my knees and my head down. Something was wrong with my breathing.

"My God, Jack, I'm so sorry," Madeline said. I just nodded, unable to answer. Max was barking something into his mike, but I couldn't concentrate on the words. I stared at the deck plates between my shoes. An accident. On the surface. An accident in a place where, even in the best of times, it took a hundred technical miracles to keep you alive at all.

So Katya was . . . dead? But they hadn't said it, not quite. Everyone believed that she was dead, but they hadn't put it into words. I knew too much about the landing mission and the surface conditions to entertain any hope. In the place inside me where hope would have been, I just had this nagging question: If she's dead, why don't they say so?

It was impossible to think about it. My inner voice chattered to fill up the void. Yes, it said, this is definitely the shock phase. Sense of unreality, sense of detachment. Unbelief. What comes next: Anger? Denial? Human reflexes are so constant. Just look at Max over there, squinting at the computer display and cupping his earphone with his hand. You can't improve the resolution of a display by squinting, you can't help the reception in a headset by cupping your hand over it, but you do those things anyway.

Shut up, I told myself as firmly as I could.

"Take this," Madeline said. A small pink capsule rested in the palm of her hand. "This will help."

I shook my head. "No."

"I think you should. You have to be able to function. We'll need you."

"I won't take it," I said, through gritted teeth. "Put it away."

"Jack, come on." she said. "There's no point."

I looked up and met her eyes. "Please, Maddie. I can't. I have to be wide awake and all here. No shortcuts, no soft landings. She would do as much for me."

After a moment she nodded. "OK," she said, closing the pill into her fist. "If that's the way it has to be."

"That's the way." I knew that Katya would approve. She believed in facing life, the good and the bad, with clear eyes and no chemical comfort. But she would never find out, would she? She would never know that I was drinking this hour in without covering up the terrible bitter taste of it. And it struck me that there were going to be a lot more things like that, a lot of things that Katya would never know.

"Stand by," Max said. His voice made my head snap up. He was halfway out of his seat, crouched very still over the panel, his hands gripping arms of the chair. "Telemetry from Virgil," he said. "The outer airlock hatch is being opened. Go ahead, Aphrodite."

I stopped breathing while Max listened to his contact. "Just one person entering the lock," he said at last. "They should be plugging the hotsuit systems into the ship. We'll know in a second."

A second. A long second, followed by another, and another.

Eventually, I would have to start breathing again.

"It's Katya!" Max shouted. "The hotsuit is hers. She's alive! She's back inside the ship!"

"Oh thank God," I whispered. I leaned back in my chair and sucked in the air and clapped my hands on the top of my head as if holding it on. Relief poured through me. I let my breath out in a whistle and took in another. I grinned like an idiot. Katya was back in the ship! Alive! Safe! The universe rolled over and turned back right-side-up again.

But when I looked over at Madeline and saw the expression on her face, reality kicked me in the stomach. Better to be dead now, quick and clean, Maddie was thinking. Better that than to be alive in Hell with a broken ship, beyond any hope of a rescue.

I felt my moron grin turn to stone.


I had met Katya during the run-up to the mission, back on Earth. Our acquaintance at first was alphabetical: Jack Ross, airship engineer, meet Ekaterina Rudenko, the pretty geologist in the next seat over. I had just spent six months in Earth orbit, flying engineering test prototypes at the ends of long tethers, learning to deorbit and deploy the hydrogen dirigibles that we needed for the exploration of Venus. The major problems with the airship systems were ironed out, and we'd finished the program by establishing the High Jump, our training platform, thirty kilometers above the tropics. I was still getting my "ground legs" and preparing to move to another job.

Katya had also just returned to Earth, but from much further away. She was a volcanologist who had spent most of four years on Mars, hopping all over Olympus Mons and Tharsis in one of those little peroxide rocket jumpers, trying to piece together the queer geological history of the planet. The Russians had summoned her home to be part of their contingent for the Venus mission, to extend her volcanic expertise to yet another world.

We liked each other from the first, even though – or maybe because – we were such opposites. She was a scientist who learned engineering to get along in space; I was an engineer who had boned up on planetology to qualify for the Venus mission. She was slim and dark-haired; I was square-built and red-headed. We were both on the descent planning group, where we spent long hours together marrying the abilities of the landing flier with the goals of the landings. I enjoyed Katya's company, admired her competence, appreciated her sharp Russian irony. But that was as far as it went until later, when we were training in Hawaii.

We spent two weeks offshore in an deep habitat under the Pacific, learning to use the high-pressure breathing gear. Our special life-support systems linked directly into our bloodstreams, through surgically implanted fittings in our skins. The good news was that the system made us almost immune to the problems of changing pressures. The bad news was that it made our lives miserable while we used it. The apparatus itself was uncomfortable and awkward. Even worse was the stress on the half-dozen members of the dive team, crammed into a tiny living space without privacy, helping one another cope with the equipment and its unpleasant side-effects. A fortnight at the habitat was about all that a group could take and still be on speaking terms by the end of it.

When our training rotation was over, we boarded the submarine taxi for the ascent to the surface. Our life-support units scrubbed the dissolved gases from our tissues, decompressing us in just a couple of hours. When the top hatch opened, the sunlight and sea air came pouring in, and we climbed out into the most beautiful morning I have ever seen. The docs on the support ship fussed over us for a while, then pronounced us fit. A hydrofoil whisked us over to Hilo and put us ashore for a couple of days' R&R.

Katya found me on the quay as we collected our gear. "What are your plans?"

I shrugged. "A bath maybe, and then a long walk on a beach. Nothing definite."

"I am driving inshore for some sight-seeing. Does that interest you?"

I did not really care what I did – almost anything outdoors sounded good right then. So I agreed to tag along with Katya for the day, not quite realizing what she had in mind. We rented a car and headed for the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Kilauea was a vast caldera several kilometers across, dug out of the southeast side of Mauna Loa, and within its walls was the strangest and most menacing landscape I'd ever seen on Earth. It was a wilderness of jumbled lava flows and steaming vents, like a Doré engraving of the Inferno. The ground underfoot was solidified lava, sometimes smooth and almost polished, sometimes extremely rough and jagged. I took great care on the rough areas, because a fall on the sharp rocks would mean nasty cuts, even through the fabric of my clothing. But Katya, whose legs were bare below her hiking shorts, strode along sure-footed. Every so often she had to stop and wait for me to catch up.

The whole trek increasingly seemed like a bad idea. For one thing, the park rangers had temporarily barred all of the ordinary tourists from driving down into the caldera. The eminent Dr. Rudenko, of course, had used connections to get us in. The folks at the volcano observatory loaned us impact helmets, radios and other gear, and we hitched a ride with a field team down the road into Kilauea itself. The parking area at the bottom was empty except for three or four vehicles used by the geologists. We parked next to them and continued on foot. The people who had driven us down hiked off toward the east; Katya had other ideas for the two of us. She headed toward the edge of Halemaumau, the kilometer-wide crater-within-the-crater, the active heart of the volcano.

Except today it didn't seem very active.

"Take a look at that, Jack," Katya was saying, pointing.

I took a look at that. From where we stood, Halemaumau was a deep funnel leading down into the bowels of Mauna Loa, its bottom hidden by steam and the curve of the slope. The pit was evil-looking and utterly lifeless. "Lovely."

"There is usually a lava lake there," she said. "Sometimes it is a hundred meters across, sometimes much larger. But now the lava level has gone down quite far."

"Good," I said. "Sounds safer."

"But not as pretty. Kilauea produces plenty of lava but very little explosive activity. It is usually pretty safe." She paused for effect. "Of course, volcanoes can surprise you. The most famous violent eruption here in the last two centuries was preceded by a very quiet period. The lava level in Halemaumau had dropped considerably. Then, suddenly, ka-boom!"

"Oh." Oh damn, I meant to say.

"You begin to see. That is why they are keeping visitors away from the caldera. Whenever a volcano does something unexpected, it becomes dangerous."

"Then what are we doing here?"

"Satisfying our thirst for experience," Katya said, with a breathtaking sort of gaiety. Then, seeing that I was not as happy as she with the prospect of being blown to smithereens, she added, "Relax. You will see that I am right. Volcanoes are the most magnificent things in Nature. Active ones are best of all. This is where the crust of the planet is made, Jack." She added, in a philosophical tone, "We are fortunate to live on such a geologically active planet."

That was the very moment, I swear, when the first earthquake hit us.

And that is how we happened to be in the bottom of Kilauea at the start of the worst eruption in a hundred years. To tell the truth, I do not clearly remember everything that happened. A shrill emergency signal screamed on the radios, a sequence of very strong shocks knocked us on our backsides, and we made a frantic scramble to the vehicles. Teams were converging on the parking lot from every direction. We had almost made it when the first explosion came. From a dozen places but from Halemaumau most of all, huge blasts of fire and smoke billowed high into the air. We stared around us in awe; but our appreciation was diminished by the urgent business of getting the hell out of there. The survey teams jumped into the vehicles and powered them up.

About that time, it started raining rocks.

"Bombs" of all sizes came hurtling down from the sky and smacked the ground around us. The driver of our jeep torqued the wheels and zoomed up along the access road. But one of the rocks hit the road just ahead of us, too near to avoid. We skidded, crashed, rolled, went flying in every direction. I remember lying on the ground, holding my chest, thinking, Now this is a hell of a thing. The others turned around came back for us, God bless them, picked us up and threw us into the remaining jeeps. The motors whined and we were on our way once more.

At the observatory, under cover, Katya and I sat in a corner and waited for the ranger medic to finish with the more serious injuries. Out of a small slit of a window next to us, we could see enormous fire-fountains spurting up into the air, and great clouds of smoke and ash roiling upwards. It was terrifying and magnificent. I would not have minded looking at it from an even more distant vantage point.

Katya said quietly, "Christ, that was stupid."

"Was it?" I asked. "I thought you volcano people did this sort of crap all the time."

"Not really. Maybe once, in Kamchatka, when I was a student. But I was much more of an idiot today." She shook her head. "I have been working on Mars too long, Jack. The big volcanoes there have been dead for half a billion years. I have lost my respect."


"For Nature. If you are careless, volcanoes are not forgiving."

I looked at the fire-fountain through the window. "Are we far enough away?"

She eyed the eruption. "I think so. This observatory has been here for a long time."

We inspected each other's injuries as we waited. We were pretty banged up. Katya's right ankle looked bad, probably broken, and she also had a number of cuts and gashes on her legs. I had bruises everywhere. My hands were a mess, and I'd probably broken one or two ribs in the back when we'd crashed the jeep. It hurt to breathe deeply. My hard-hat had an impressive crack that almost split it in two.

At length she said, "You know what will happen when we go back."

I had been thinking about the same thing. "The docs are going to go nuts. They'll put us on the injured list – two or three weeks, if my ribs are broken and your ankle is as bad as it looks."

"The final crew selection is in twelve days."

I nodded grimly. "Too many people, too few places on the crew. The committee will be looking for ways to shorten the roster. If we aren't on the ready list when they meet . . . ."

"Oh damn," said Katya, leaning into me on the bench. "Jack, I'm sorry. I'm so very sorry."

There wasn't much to say. Katya and I leaned back against the wall for a time. We weren't going to Venus. But I could not just accept that, and my mind kept running in circles. If we had gotten banged up a month ago, or a month from now, it might be a different matter. Our injuries were not that severe. We could be fully operational in a week, though the project's medical people would add their usual massive safety margin. Our problem, therefore, was simply one of timing.

"You know," I said, "there is an alternative."

Katya looked at me blankly. "What are you talking about?"

Instead of answering, I asked, "Do you have any leave time coming to you?"

"A couple of weeks, I think."

"About the same for me. What if you and I took about ten days' leave?"

Her eyes grew wide. "You mean right now? Don't even go back, just call in and – "

"– and tell them that we're taking ten days' leave here in Hawaii. We have the time coming, and all that we will miss will be a few boring meetings on the mainland. No sweat. Meanwhile, we find someplace where nobody will drop in on us. We hide out. We eat, sleep, put your ankle on ice, and just heal up. In ten days we can be functioning pretty normally, so we go back and report in before the crew selection. And we stay on the ready list the whole time."

Katya nodded thoughtfully. "What happens when they find out?"

"We won't tell them. And after the crew is selected, it won't matter."

She smiled a wicked smile. "Jack," she said, with feeling, "that is a beautiful idea!" Her eyes glinted with amusement. "Naturally you realize what people will think. Everyone will assume that we are lovers, that we are shacked up together somewhere. And we will be shacked up together, of course."

"Oh," I said. "We don't have to, uh, go to the same place. I was assuming that –"

"Americans," Katya said, sighing. "You are definitely inferior to Russians in conspiracy. You lack historical experience. Trust me, the plan is perfect."

Our eyes met. I returned her smile.

The ranger doctor took us together into the small dispensary at the observatory. We explained the situation to her. Finally the doc said, "I will have to file a medical report eventually. The two of you need complete histories on file if you go on your mission. But your injuries are not serious, and there is no reason why that has to be done immediately. Would three or four months be long enough?"

She dismissed our thanks with a shrug. In fact, she was far more interested in the skin-embedded fittings for our high-pressure respiration gear, something she had never seen. We chatted about life-support technology while the doc wrapped our injuries, sealed our cuts, and stimulated bone repair for Katya's ankle and my ribs. Eight days, she estimated, and we'd be presentable. She dug up some antibiotics and pain-killers, and loaned Katya a crutch. We thanked her again and quietly slipped out of the observatory.

The rest of the arrangements were made from the car. We called the duty officer at the training center, who recorded our change of plan with a shrug and an off-hand "OK". Next we punched up a tourist agency to find a place to stay. We settled on a small bungalow a couple of kilometers from the water, on a hill with a mediocre view of Kailua Bay – not a high-class resort property, but just right for the purpose. Could arrangements be made to stock the kitchen before we arrived? Yes, for an added fee. We fed our account codes into the phone.

Last of all, we called a florist and sent a dozen roses to the doctor.

I sensed even then, I think, that our deception would soon become something else, that by the end of our ten days together we would be lovers in fact as well as reputation. Katya claimed afterwards that she had known from the first – and that it took considerable patience on her part to get me to lower my guard and let it happen.

Maybe her version is correct. I was nervous, and strangely shy. I say "strangely" because we had just spent weeks on the dive team together in the deep habitat. Privacy down there had been nonexistent. How could you be bashful after that? But I remember, on that soft night above Kailua when Katya and I first came together, how astonishing it was that she, whom I thought I knew so well, could be so full of mystery and surprise.


Dieter and Bill were back inside, the probe reeled in and stowed in its cradle. There was a pretense of a meal. Max and Madeline were taking turns at the communicator panel, coaxing information in dribbles from the Aphrodite. Eventually, the satellite feed was restored and we could monitor everything ourselves.

Virgil was damaged, no one knew how badly. The high-gain antenna had been hurt, so all communications were routing through the low-bandwidth omnidirectional system. This was good enough for telemetry and voice – or would be, when the on-board computer figured out that it should switch the voice circuit over – but the omni channel was too narrow for video. The environment inside the crew space remained nominal. This last was the best news, since even a small breach of the lifesystem would quickly make the ship uninhabitable.

The lander airlock was proceeding through its long depressurization. There was one occupant, wearing Katya's suit, who had linked the suit to the umbilicus inside the airlock and initiated the cycle. The link with the suit was strange, though. She was hooked up to the oxygen system, the electrical power, and the heat exchanger, but the data link with the suit's biomed system appeared to be disconnected. The chief theories were that the suit connector had been damaged, or else Katya had simply forgotten to plug it in properly. Knowing Katya, I could imagine other reasons.

Of the second suit, the one worn by Jules Bertillame, there was no sign.

Everyone expected some sort of verbal communication almost immediately, but it was twenty-five minutes before anything came. Max put it on the speaker at once.
Virgil: Aphrodite, this is Virgil. Please acknowledge.
It was her voice, businesslike enough, but a little shaky. Bill gave a hoot of relief until Madeline's sharp look shut him up.
Aphrodite: This is Aphrodite. (The voice from orbit was Arkady Rudin, one of the other lander pilots.) Katya, this is Arkasha speaking. We're glad to hear from you.

Virgil: Yes. I am also glad. (Deep breath.) The situation here is very bad.

Aphrodite: What is your situation?

Virgil: There was a ground tremor, followed by substantial slides of material down the slope. This area is not as stable as we thought. The slide included about one-third of the LZ. The lander was at the edge of this and sustained damage.

Aphrodite: Where is J. B.?

Virgil: Jules is dead.

Aphrodite: Can you confirm, Virgil? Jules is dead?

Virgil: I am sure of this. I saw it happen. He was in the path of the slide, and it swept him away. I found a piece of his suit cladding. I think the rest of him was buried.

Aphrodite: Understood.
We all understood. If the thermal integrity of J. B.'s suit had been damaged, he would be dead in minutes, even if the landslide had not crushed him.
Aphrodite: Virgil, Aphrodite. What is your personal condition?

Virgil: I was out of the main path of the slide, in the shelter of an outcropping. My suit was damaged, but I was able to make it back.

Aphrodite: What is your physical condition? We aren't getting your biomed telemetry.

Virgil: I've disconnected the system.

Aphrodite: Say again, Virgil?

Virgil: Don't make me say everything twice, Arkasha. I said I've disconnected the biomedical readouts. I am sorry. But don't worry about me. I am OK. I can function.
Madeline's eyebrows went up. "Does that mean what I think it means?"

I nodded. "She's hurt, maybe badly, but she doesn't want us to know the details. So she's pulled the data line."

"Why would she do that?" Dieter asked, bewildered.

Because she doesn't think it matters, I answered silently.
Aphrodite: Understood, Virgil. How do you read the condition of your craft?

Virgil: I can't tell everything from here. I'm still in the lock, pumping down. The inner cabin environment reads normal on the panel, so ECS and thermal shielding are holding. I've lost the high-bandwidth DCU, so I've switched over to the omni. The computers seem to have cycled through a soft crash. I can't find out about main power or propulsion from here.

Aphrodite: Can you take off?

Virgil: Nyet. Both of the aerofans are partly buried in loose rock from the slide. Even if I have the power, I cannot start them. Either the fans won't move or the blades will shatter.
I heard someone whisper, "Sweet Jesus." I had been expecting bad news, but that did not make it any easier to take. The two steerable ducted fans, Virgil's propulsion system in the dense lower atmosphere of Venus, were wedged tight under however many kilograms of rock. Without the propellers, Virgil could not even leave the ground, much less reach a rendezvous seventy kilometers up.

Katya was trapped. Her lifesystem was intact for now, but it would not last forever. The only question was when, and how, she would die. I knew the lander inside and out, so I could make a pretty good guess. Unless there was more damage than we knew, her electrical power could last for weeks. Virgil was too small for a full recycling setup, so oxygen supply and carbon dioxide removal would fail earlier than that, even with only one occupant. And despite almost perfect shielding, the ferocious heat and pressure would eventually have their way, squeezing the hull until its seams parted and then crushing, and roasting, its contents.

But long before that, I knew, Katya would be dead from her own waste heat. The foil-thin thermal insulation layer that covered both Virgil and the hotsuits was as efficient at keeping waste heat inside as it was in shielding against the outside conditions. Waste heat from machinery and crew was drained by a heat pump and stored in a special heat sink built into the airframe of the craft. The cabin stayed cool, but the heat sink grew hotter by the hour. As it did, the heat pump required more and more of the ship's power to keep up, adding its own increasing contribution to the waste heat budget. It was an exponential process. While the ship operated, the heat sink's absolute temperature would double every twenty-four hours. In a week, it would in theory be as hot as a star – but sooner than that, its own insulation would burn through and the ship would become a holocaust. If you shut down the heat pump, the heat build-up in the cabin would be no less deadly. By sudden fire or by slow suffocation, death would be inexorable.

But Katya, I suspected, would not die that way, either.

There is an unwritten, almost unspoken code among those who travel in space, a code about catastrophe and how to face it. The code does not have a name, but if it did, it might be called the Pasadena Rule.

The Pasadena disaster occurred in the "good old days" of liquid-fueled chemical rocket motors, finicky things with high thrust and low specific impulse, so that a spacecraft had to operate pretty close to its fuel margin. The Pasadena was a shuttle that made the rounds between low Earth orbit and the lunar surface, two or three days each way. It was returning to Earth, sliding down the geopotential gradient with a complement of light cargo and four human beings, two crew and two passengers. About twenty hours out, the Pasadena started a fifteen-second engine burn designed to trim up its approach for the aerobraking maneuver; but something went badly wrong and the engine did not shut down on time. It was a triple failure: a control system glitch, a stuck relay, a jammed manual cut-off switch. The engine fired for one hundred and seventy-one seconds, until the fuel tanks were empty.

It did not take the crew long to discover their predicament. No matter what they did, they would miss the Earth's atmosphere entirely, swinging in a hyperbolic arc past the planet and out into deep space. No ship on Earth, in orbit, or on the Moon could possibly catch them and rendezvous for a rescue.

First part of the Pasadena Rule: Sometimes you're screwed. Period.

Those aboard the ship were as good as dead. Still, it might take them a long time actually to die. The Pasadena had power from an auxiliary array of photovoltaics, and it could scrub CO2 and recycle water as long as there was power. In its cargo was a tank of liquid oxygen extracted from lunar rock that could support the crew for years. The only constraint was food, and the ship's food supply, if rationed, might last as much a sixty days. Two months to starvation – and in all that time, they would remain in full communication with Earth.

For two solid weeks, the Pasadena was at the top of every news package. The biographies of the crew and passengers. The shocking accident. The grim arithmetic that made rescue impossible. Interviews with the doomed men. Excerpts from supposedly private conversations with the ground. Rumors of a bidding war for the viddie rights.

At first the four men held up well, but after a week their morale began to break down. The pilot retreated to his five-cubic-meter cabin and refused to use the communication link, even to talk to his family. The co-pilot launched into rambling accounts of paranoid fantasies, possibly fueled by drugs from the ship's pharmacy stores. One passenger, a radio astronomer returning from Farside, sent endless self-pitying messages to his wives and children back in Teheran. Only the second passenger, an engineer named Macallister, seemed to keep his cool. "I guess we know what's coming," he said in his soft Texas drawl, as the Earth dwindled behind them. "Meanwhile, we're taking this thing one day at a time."

On the fifteenth day after the Pasadena's fly-by of Earth, after ninety minutes of weeping and breast-beating from the Iranian astronomer followed by two hours of psychotic ravings from the co-pilot, Macallister appeared on the link. "This has gone on long enough," he said. "We're all real grateful for what you down there have done for us, but it's high time we went off the air. I'm about to disable the comm link. God bless you all. Pasadena out." There was a shout in the background, and then the transmission ended abruptly. The Pasadena was never heard from again.

Ten years later, a microprobe made a fly-by of the Pasadena as it pursued its orbit around the Sun. A blurry infrared image showed the ship, all systems except the radar transponder shut down, the airlock door open wide.

From the fire-storm in the newsies after Macallister pulled the plug, you might have supposed that he had murdered the other three for their rations and tossed them naked out into space. But real space-faring people knew better. To them, Macallister was a hero. They told each other, "It wasn't doing anybody any good, the way it was going. He did the right thing."

And that became the second part of the Pasadena Rule: When you're screwed, you do your job and then you sign off. After that, if you like, you can find your own way out, take a pill or slice your wrists or vent your cabin. Whatever seems easy, and quick.

Arkady Rudin was back on the line, talking with Katya about the obstructed lifting fans on Virgil. I'd missed the first part of the conversation.
Aphrodite: . . . . wants to know if you can go back outside and clear the fans manually.

Virgil: Nyet, Aphrodite. I saw the problems with the fans and tried to unblock them, but I couldn't stay outside long enough. My suit suffered some damage in the avalanche. Parts of the cladding are . . . compromised. I had to get into the airlock.

Aphrodite: Could you make another EVA later on?

Virgil: My suit is damaged.

Aphrodite: Can you make repairs to the suit and continue clearing the fans?

Virgil: (Pause.) No.

Aphrodite: (Captain Bell's voice.) Please detail your suit damage, Virgil. We have some people up here who may be able to suggest some temporary repairs.

Virgil: It isn't just the suit. I also am damaged. I cannot make another EVA.

Aphrodite: (Long pause, then Rudin's voice again.) Understood, Virgil. Stand by.

Time passed. The airlock in Virgil lowered the pressure toward the one-atmosphere level. It seemed like a slow process, but in truth it was amazingly fast. A century ago, decompression from ninety atmospheres would have taken days, not hours, or else bubbles would form in the bloodstream. They called this "the bends"; it was excruciating and sometimes fatal. But the life support system in Katya's backpack was linked directly into her bloodstream, so that blood gases were continuously removed by a the gas exchange unit. Other blood chemistry was also monitored and controlled. The suit helped the wearer combat thirst, fatigue, and shock. If needed, a pain killer could be added to the stream. I wondered what dosage Katya was using.

Virgil: Is Jack listening?

Aphrodite: I'm sure he is. We are passing our signal down to platform Gamma in real time. Would you like to talk with him?

Virgil: No, not now. There will be time enough for that.

Aphrodite: We can set up a link right away. Just say the word.

Virgil: Um. That's OK. Just tell him that I'm sorry about all of this. I'll talk to him later.

Aphrodite: All right.


Update: Part II can now be read here. Part III is here. Part IV is here.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Medical report

It is important, I think, to retain the capacity to be astonished by the obvious. For instance, I find it amazing to think that the buoyant force lifting up a balloon is simply due to the tiny difference in the ambient air pressure on the top and bottom. When I mention this fact to other physicists, they fall into two groups. One group says, "Yes, of course. So what?" The other group smiles and says, "Yes, I know. Isn't that weird?"

May I ever be counted among the second group. Still, I do understand the other point of view, and so I do anticipate that computer sophisticates will have a similar spectrum of reactions to this post. If you are in the "So what?" group, sorry to bother you. You may consider yourself free to entertain yourself elsewhere.

My Norton AntiVirus software just completed a system scan on my laptop last night. I have a Dell Inspiron 600m laptop, a couple of years old, running Windows XP Pro. Norton found nothing amiss, which was good. But what impressed me was the fact that Norton had to scan 371,477 files to give me my clean bill of health.

371,477 files!? Yes, I have installed many pieces of software. Yes, I keep several backup copies of various "works in progress", some of which have dozens of files in each. Yes, I've used my laptop to run some computer programs that produce reams of data. (For instance, take the N-body tree code that some students and I wrote to do simulations of galaxy collisions. It generates "frame" images that are later put together into animations. Way cool. A single run of this baby makes hundreds of frames, and I have saved the full output for a dozen or so different simulations.) I have installed security-related updates and Service Pack 2, so that probably adds a few files. And by golly, almost every time I need a driver, the system seems to have it already. Fonts? Too many, really. I have to scroll through an arm-length list to locate the handful that I actually use. I do have a couple of thousand digital photos, and something less than a thousand mp3 files, music and such. Also, I haven't cleared out the "temp" directory in a long time. So I do expect that I should have a lot of files.

Still, 371,477 distinct files does seem like an awfully big number. It isn't a problem, of course. My hard drive has a 40 GB capacity and I have well under 30 GB stored on it. The disk is nicely defragmented and (as we've seen) virus-free. Nevertheless, that number does strike me as ... excessive.

The most profound thing I've read in a while on the human use of computers is Neal Stephenson's In the Beginning Was the Command Line, a thin but wise book that can be read online here. Stephenson believes that the Windows operating system is plagued by cruft, a kind of irreversible accumulation of patches and fixes and old code and work-arounds that make the final product immensely complex and disturbingly unreliable. He would not be surprised that I am carrying around a dizzying menagerie of obscure files whose meaning and function I can scarcely guess at. Par for the course. What did I expect? If it bothers me, I should switch to Linux or something.

Stephenson's entire argument is too subtle to go into here, and I'm not sure I agree with all of it anyway. But we have crossed a line where the systems are too complicated to be fully understood, and therefore too complicated to be fully predicted. Somewhere, as you read this, several million computers are doing things that their users do not quite intend or expect. Over a million of these cases, by my personal estimate, involve users struggling with the various automatic features of Microsoft Word. This is an obvious fact that is nevertheless faintly disturbing to me.

Probably I am being too much of a reductionist in my thinking about computers. Things aren't so bad, in fact. My laptop is in good shape. My "Start" menu and my desktop are populated with icons and programs that I recognize and can mostly use. My own user files are in pretty good order -- I can usually find what I need without much fuss. The operating system, bless it, is able to handle nearly anything I can throw at it, without complaint. At the human level, the immense complexity is mostly hidden from view, becoming visible only in the flexibility of the system to do so many different kinds of tasks. And if this wonderful flexibility comes at the cost of an occasional unpredictability or a few (hundred) (thousand) mysterious extra files, maybe that's not so awful. My computer is still considerably less complicated than either of my cats, and I have a very satisfactory relationship with them, in part because I am not driving myself crazy trying to figure exactly why they do what they do. (How many files, I wonder, are on their "hard drives"?)

Which reminds me to mention that one of my cats just spent the night at the vet's. She has become diabetic, and we are attempting to figure out how to control this with insulin. We've been giving her twice-daily shots for the last couple of weeks, and this has improved things. She's put back on more than a pound and half of weight in that time. But when we've gone in to have her blood sugar checked, it is still way too high, many times normal. So we left her there yesterday morning, poor thing, so that her blood sugar could be measured hour by hour, to help us figure out just what is going on. (It appears to my physicist's eye that we may have been driving her system in a period two orbit, so that the blood sugar level is low in the evening and high in the morning, even though we inject her twice per day. From this I conclude that my cat is a nonlinear dynamical system near the threshold of chaos. Well, duh.)

I'm happy to do what's needed to help my cat, who is very dear to me, and of course I know that medical conditions are occasionally complex. Our vet (who is a bit of a nerd, and loves to explain everything, especially when he explains it to some fellow nerds) says that diabetes is one of the trickiest diseases they learned about in vet school. You manage it rather than cure it, and some of the responses of the body's systems are idiosyncratic and unpredictable. So we're trying things and gathering data and doing our best to find out how to make the cat as healthy and comfortable as possible.

How long, I wonder, before computer problems are no longer comprehensible at the fundamental level, but are simply diagnosed with high-level abstractions like "digital diabetes"? How long before I'm nursing along my laptop with twice-daily injections of digital insulin, adjusting the timing and the dose, fiddling with diet and so forth, trying to figure out how to stabilize its operations, not really comprehending (or even expecting to comprehend, ever) the details of the problem? Poor thing, I'll say. It isn't feeling well at all, no it isn't.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Well-tempered numbers

The idea that musical harmonies are related to numerical ratios goes back at least to Pythagoras; Galileo also discusses it, in pretty modern terms, in one of his books. Two musical notes are an octave apart if their frequencies are in a ratio 2:1. They are a major fifth apart if the ratio is 3:2. And so forth; the combinations that sound "nice" have frequency ratios that are small integers.

When I was a kid, our family had an old baby grand piano that we bought when I was in first grade. (We also bought a nice house along with it, but that is another story.) This piano figured greatly in my childhood. We dragged it around the country when we moved, and more recently my wife and I were custodians of it for about a dozen years. Great piano. I never took any piano lessons, but I loved to mess around with the thing. And because I was a science-nerdy kid rather than a musical one, I did experiments on it.

One cool experiement to do is to strike one key while holding down a higher one. If the frequency ratios are right, you can excite resonant vibrations in the higher string without actually hitting it. For example, suppose you hit middle C while holding the G (a fifth higher) open. You can hear the G string echo one octave up. That is because the n=3 harmonic of the C had the same frequency as the n=2 harmonic of the G.

Or almost the same. To make a long story short, in the West we have found it handy to use a system of notes in which the intervals are uniform. That is, if notes X1 and X2 are separated by the same number of keys on the piano as Y1 and Y2, then the frequency ratios X1:X2 and Y1:Y2 should be the same. Such a uniform scale is called a "well-tempered" scale. The problem is, when you do this the frequency ratios, except for the octaves, become irrational. So you can't get exactly a major fifth.

But you can get close! There are twelve "half-step" intervals in the octave, each one of which corresponds to a frequency ratio of 2^(1/12). It happens that 2^(7/12) = 1.4983..., which is dang close to 3/2. So if you go up seven half-steps, you get an interval dang close to a pure Pythagorean frequency ratio. And there are other good approximations too. Five half-steps yields 2^(5/12) = 1.3348... (nearly 4/3) and four half-steps yields 1.2599... (tolerably close to 5/4). In this way, you can pretty easily make ratios involving multiples of 2, 3 and 5, which give you a pretty rich set of harmonies.

It's the existence of these numerical coincidences -- fractional powers of 2 that approximate rational numbers -- that makes the choice of twelve "half-steps" per octave so nice. You can fiddle around with other scales to try to get more coincidences. For instance, a nineteen-note octave does really well.

2^(5/19) = 1.2001... (near 6/5)
2^(6/19) = 1.2446... (near 5/4)
2^(8/19) = 1.3389... (near 4/3)
2^(11/19) = 1.4937... (near 3/2)
2^(13/19) = 1.6068... (near 8/5)
2^(14/19) = 1.6665... (near 5/3)

Obviously, these are not all independent, but the nineteen note octave seems to have a lot of harmonic possibilities. (I tried to create music with a nineteen-note scale, but it sounded awful. But, as has already been stipulated, I'm not a musician. Or perhaps there were simply too many notes.)

Exercise for the student: If you make a piano with a nineteen-note octave, how should the white and black keys be arranged?

Such harmonious thoughts often occur to me when I'm teaching my physics laboratory students how to use significant figures in scientific calculations. If you measure that your air track glider went 1.00 meters in 2.35 seconds, your calculator will report that the velocity was something like 0.42553191489 m/s. And what does the "...191489" that you wrote down really signify about the physical velocity of the cart? Nothing, that's what. You'd have to know the distance to the nearest Angstrom and the time to the nearest nanosecond for those last digits to have any meaning whatsoever. So the honest thing to do is to round off to a result with fewer "significant" digits, generally the same number that the input data has: 0.426 m/s.

The problem is, almost any hard-and-fast rule you make up about significant figures leads you into awkward spots. If you decide to keep two significant figures, say, you'll round 9.843 off to 9.8 and you'll round off 1.143 to 1.1. The problem is that 9.8 is much less than one percent away from 9.843, while 1.1 is almost four percent away from 1.143. You do much more "violence" to the numbers in the second case, even though you are trying to be consistent.

Put another way: the difference between 1.1 and 1.2 is a heck of a lot more important (relatively speaking) than the difference between 9.7 and 9.8.

Scientists and engineers in the generation before mine knew this intuitively, because it's perfectly obvious from looking at a slide rule. Slide rules have logarithmic scales, so that equal intervals of length correspond to equal numerical ratios all along the rule. Over on the left side, the space between 1 and 2 is wide, while at the other end the numbers 8 and 9 are much closer together. When you read and interpolate your answer on a slide rule, you can squeeze out almost one extra digit on the left-hand side than you can see on the right.

We try to correct for this in the introductory lab by supplementing our significant figure rules with a special codicil: If your answer begins with a "1" or a "2", keep an extra digit. This smooths out some, but not all, of the perversity in the rules. (We also do stuff with real uncertainty estimates and propogating those uncertainties through the calculations. But how many figures are you supposed to keep in the uncertainties?)

The point is that our numbering system is not "well-tempered". The increase from 1.1 to 1.2 is not the same relative size as the increase from 9.7 to 9.8, even though both of them correspond to "one step in the second digit". I believe this is because our numbering system is optimized for addition and subtraction, in which absolute differences are more important than relative ones. To the Europeans, the "killer app" for Arabic numerals in the late Middle Ages was accounting. Who cared, really, about the ratio of income to expense? It was the difference that you got to spend on English wool, Italian glass and Russian fur.

Teaching, as Professor R told me lo these many years ago, is theatre. And when I teach introductory physics, one of the theatrical bits I always include is doing the math in my head. Nothing impresses a room full of first-year students quite like a quick approximate calculation without the aid of a calculator. You set up the problem (using input data suggested by the audience -- nothing up my sleeve, folks), make a few judicious approximations, and announce, "It should be about 800 meters." Up in the back row, somebody has been furiously tapping keys on his TI-83. "821.3 meters," he says. A soft murmur of admiration runs through the class. This guy is amazing!

The point, of course, is not to impress them -- an effect which passes quickly in any case. Even less are you aiming to perform a mysterious "magic trick". The whole point is to demystify the arithmetic. Students do know that you can do it all by hand -- or rather, by brain -- but that is very laborious. That's why God and TI invented calculators, after all. The students do not appreciate how much you can do with how little effort. You want to show them how it's done, and help them sharpen their own skills.

In doing quick approximate calculations, you certainly do not want to do actual multiplication or long division. Heavens! So you take short-cuts and round things off pretty severely. But you want to round things off in a uniform and consistent way, to keep your errors under control. To do this, I find that I naturally begin using a well-tempered set of numbers.

The idea is to choose a set of numbers that are separated by equal ratios -- like the notes in the well-tempered scale. Instead of filling the space between 1 and 2 (one octave), though, you fill up the space between 1 and 10 (one decade). Basically, the numbers you pick are evenly spaced on the slide rule scale. How many "notes" should you have in your scale? Not too many, or the system will be cumbersome; not too few, or your calculations will be too approximate to be useful. The exact number of notes in a decade will be chosen so that the individual steps have very convenient, easy-to-remember values -- even if you have to cheat a little to get the right "harmonies".

I find that a ten-note scale works pretty well. Here are my notes:

X0 = 1
X1 = 1.25
X2 = 1.6
X3 = 2
X4 = 2.5
X5 = Pi
X6 = 4
X7 = 5
X8 = 2 Pi
X9 = 8
X10 = 10

You multiply and divide these numbers by just shifting a certain interval on the scale. Thus, to find 1.6 * Pi, you start from Pi (X5) and move up two steps (Since X2 = 1.6) and arrive at 5. This isn't exact, but it's pretty close. Shifting ten places is like multiplying by 10, so X17 would be 50.

To give you an idea of how this works, let's calculate the surface area of the Earth. The area formula for a sphere is A = 4*Pi*R^2, where R is the radius of the Earth. I seem to recall that R is a bit more than 6000 km. I'll write that as 2 Pi * 1000 km, which would be X38 (X8 shifted upward by three decades). So

A = 4 * Pi * (2 Pi * 1000) * (2 * Pi * 1000)
= X6 * X5 * X38 * X38
= X11 * X76
= X87 = 5 * 100,000,000

So we get 500 million square kilometers. It's more like 509.6 million square km in actual fact, so we are pretty close. And we never did anything but add smallish integers -- that is, we shifted by definite intervals on the "number piano".

It turns out that, by a happy coincidence, the values of many physical constants are close to numbers on the well-tempered scale. You can do even better if you are willing to interpolate "half steps" between the ten "whole steps", but as a practical matter I find that I don't need to do this much; and when I do, I can usually do the interpolation in my head as needed. (The half-step number is a bit closer to the lower step in absolute terms. Between X1=1.25 and X2=1.60, you get X1.5 to be about 1.4 -- which is close to the square root of X3=2.0, just as you'd expect.)

This is also related to Benford's Law about the distribution of first digits in large sets of data. Benford noticed that in many numerical lists -- the popultions of towns in a state, for instance -- the first digits of the numbers were not uniformly distributed over 1 through 9. In fact, 1 is the most common first digit, while 9 is the least common. If you have a bunch of data that ranges over a few decades in value, you'll find that the values are usually distributed fairly evenly along a slide rule scale. So the well-tempered numbers are well-suited to Benfordian data sets. The data points in a set are "binned" according to what well-tempered approximate value you use, and if the data are distributed via Benford's Law, the bins are about equally populated.

People often say that there are deep affinities between music and mathematics. They seldom venture to give specifics. Myself, I'm not altogether convinced. Both music and math are abstract and do have rational structures -- traits they share with, for example, double-entry bookkeeping -- and many mathematicians are also talented musicians. Beyond these ambiguous observations, though, what "affinities" are really there?

But I do find it amusing and satisfying to take a musical inspiration for a mathematical diversion, especially when I wind up with a useful tool. The world is full of innocent pleasures. How much nicer when one of them turns out to be worth something.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The judiciary and the Big A

Note: This was originally part of the previous post on the Alito nomination, but it seemed better to separate it out.

For both sides of American politics, abortion is the key issue. In fact, a usable zeroth-order theory of politics in the US is that abortion is the only domestic issue. (In this, it resembles nothing so much as slavery circa 1850.) One reason for this central role is that abortion is emblematic of a much wider struggle over government.

Those on the left seem to believe that the Supreme Court is a kind of "trump card" in the political game. If you can get the Supreme Court to rule on an issue, then you don't have to go through the bother of persuading a majority of the voters, or getting a bill through Congress, or even really defending a position in the public arena. After all, the voters are often idiots, or worse. (That goes double for members of Congress.) This is why so many of the activist organizations on the left use the courts as the centerpiece of their efforts.

Some on the right no doubt think the same thing. But a lot more of them think that this use of the judiciary to trump the political process is harmful and wrong and fundamentally anti-Constitutional. The members of the Supreme Court are appointed for life and their decisions cannot be appealed. This is only consistent with democratic self-government if the Court is very limited in the scope of its legitimate powers.

So the left sees Roe v. Wade as the prototypical example of a very desirable result that would have been impossible to achieve by democratic means. The right sees the case as an anti-democratic excess that cannot be justified by any reasonable reading of the actual Constitution or the legal history of the US -- a striking example of judicial tyranny. This is a situation, in other words, in which the Republicans are the democrats.

Here is roughly what President Bush has said about abortion. I am against abortion. But the country does not now have the moral consensus to ban it. So I think that we should do two things. First, I think that we should find ways to encourage a culture of life, and seek to limit awful things like partial-birth abortion. Second, I think we need to rein in an out-of-control judiciary by appointing people to the bench who believe in interpreting the law rather than making new law.

His opponents say that this sort of moderate-sounding rhetoric is just a disguise for fundamentalist anti-abortion extremism. When he is talks about a philosophy of judicial restraint, that is just a code phrase for reversing Roe v. Wade at the earliest opportunity. When he says a culture of life, he means The Handmaid's Tale. And you can bet that every single Bush nominee to the federal bench, however neutral in appearance, knows the secret handshake of the anti-choice cabal. (They teach you this in the Federalist Society, I gather.)

But what if Bush really means it? What if, after years of reflection and experience in politics, this is really pretty much what he thinks about the subject? What if he really does think that the most serious danger to our democracy is judicial imperialism? Maybe he actually does believe that if we can get a handle on this basic Constitutional problem, then the normal political process and the good hearts of the American people will take care of the rest -- not neatly, not without lots of shouting, but tolerably well in the long run.

I think that the left is unable to accept Bush's sincerity on this because they no longer believe that the law is anything but power politics carried on by other means, and so they cannot conceive that anyone would really hold such a stupid opinion. Bush -- or those who pull his strings, like Cheney and Rove -- must therefore be dissembling. QED. Even if you don't go that far, it is true that the stances of politicians merit some skepticism. Politicians like to stake out popular positions, and they will cloak radical views with harmless-sounding language. And Bush is a first-class politician.

Yet the President's stated opinions on abortion pretty nearly match my own, which I know are held honestly and which are the result of much reflection. In fact, Bush has expressed these ideas and explained them with a care and a constancy that I find admirable. I see no evidence from his record of policy and judicial appointments that he is pursuing any hidden agenda. His decision about federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, for instance, is about as moderate as you can get in such a sensitive subject. (He did not ban any research funded by non-federal sources, and he allowed money for non-embryonic stem cell work and for work on established cell lines. His policy is actually more permissive than the one prevailing during the Clinton administration. What would be more moderate than this? "Let 'er rip, and here's the cash"?) His judicial appointments have, as far as I can tell, all been people who have long expressed exactly the kind of judicial philosophy that he espouses.

So my conclusion is that President Bush means what he says about abortion, the culture of life and the role of the judiciary. It is a serious opinion that over the long run has a chance of actually persuading serious people. His opponents, if they hope to prevail in the great debate, would be well advised to engage Bush's actual ideas, rather than their own cartoon versions of what they think he really thinks. It is proverbially foolish to bring a knife to a gun-fight. And in the long run, it is equally foolish to bring an empty and alarmist rhetoric to a serious war of ideas.

The first time as tragedy, the hundredth time as farce

I have been following the confirmation hearings for Samuel Alito, and do not have much original to add to the blogospherics. As I have written before, the Robert Bork hearings in 1987 were a significant step in the development of my own political thinking. There is the nominee -- very different from Bork in his appearance and demeanor, but much like him in philosophy of judging. And here are so many of the same Senators: Biden, Kennedy, Leahy, Specter, Hatch, Grassley.

And right on cue, the Democrats (this time in the minority) start twisting the record and blowing smoke about non-issues. Twenty years ago the nominee joined a conservative group of Princeton alumni, in whose magazine appeared articles that many find offensive. Yikes! Call a press conference! Go into executive session! Subpoena William Rusher's papers! Ditto the Vanguard business, the constant harping on a few sentences from the 1985 job application to the Reagan administration, etc. Ditto the distortions of Judge Alito's judicial record.

When I listen to people with whom I disagree, I usually assume that their statements are made in good faith, candidly and proportionately expressing their true opinions. But what to make of this sort of nonsense? To think that these lines of questioning are reasonable, you would have to view the confirmation hearing as something akin to a counter-espionage or counter-terrorism investigation. The nominee is not who he appears to be: a highly intelligent and broadly respected jurist with an exemplary life and a distinguished career. That is only a "legend", a carefully crafted cover-story put in place by decades of patient tradecraft. The job, therefore, is to penetrate the cover story and expose the sinister secret identity beneath.

(This process, applied to counter-espionage, was described in the interesting book Catching Spies by H. H. A. Cooper and Lawrence J. Redlinger.)

Of course, nowadays a judicial nominee is usually less forthcoming about his views on specific issues than Judge Bork was. Today he simply says, "I can't discuss issues that might come before the Court -- canons of judicial conduct and so forth." So Senators who would really like to know how he would rule on an issue don't get answers to their questions. They complain that the nominee is being uncooperative. What is he trying to hide? And this provides the excuse to pursue the questioning as if they were trying to catch some sort of subversive "mole" in the judicial system. (And this accusation of uncooperativeness is also a handy fig leaf for an eventual "no" vote, which may be necessary for political reasons.)

The game is played both directions; Clinton nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a pioneer of the "Can't discuss issues" approach. But the situation is not entirely "left-right" symmetric. First, recall that Ginsburg was probably the most politically activist person appointed to the Court in a generation, and her previously expressed views on many issues put her at least as far to the left as Bork was to the right. She was certainly much further to the left than Byron White, whom she replaced, and so made a real impact on the ideological "balance" of the Court. Yet she sailed through confirmation 96 to 3. The Republicans did not play the inquisitors in her case, or in Stephen Breyer's.

Second, the "Can't discuss" approach really makes more sense if your judicial philosophy is conservative -- that is, if you believe that judges interpret law rather than make policy. If you think that the Supreme Court should be an agent for social change, shifting US law in a particular direction based on an enlightened view of the Good, importing judicial opinions from other countries as precedents when suitable domestic precedents are lacking -- if you think that, then maybe your fellow citizens do deserve to be told in what direction you are going to take them. On the other hand, if you have a more limited idea of the scope of the Court's authority, and believe that a judge must decide cases based on fairly strict readings of the Constitution, actual legislation and established precedent, then it is reasonable not to shoot your mouth off about an issue on which you will likely have to rule. If a judge is obliged to uphold policies with which he disagrees -- the possibility of executing someone under the age of 18, to take a recent case -- simply because the law runs that way, then the judge's own exact opinion about the policy is of secondary importance.

So here we are in the same old game. But something has changed, hasn't it? In the Roberts hearings, and even more in the Alito hearings, there is a sense that the Democrats have finally jumped the shark. Joe Biden has never been more orally incontinent; Chuck Schumer has never been more annoying; Ted Kennedy has never been more repellent (and for him this is no small achievement). The left-wing interest groups have turned the knobs up to 11 and proclaimed that Judge Alito is the greatest single threat to our Republic. But this time, it does not seem to be having the desired effect, even in the mainstream press. Everybody knows that any Bush nominee would face the same barrage. Therefore, this barrage carries exactly zero information content, and everybody knows it.

Samuel Alito seems to be a good guy, and smart. He really does seem to believe that judging is something other than the exercise of mere political power. That makes him an idealist. But what does that make the self-important gasbags who fulminate behind the big table?

Thursday, January 12, 2006

You've probably heard this one, but . . .

"Dumb blonde" jokes are not my favorite genre, but this one is outstanding. Sort of sneaks up on you.

Monday, January 09, 2006


This afternoon, while ransacking my office for some old statistical mechanics notes, I came across some doggerel that I wrote a couple of decades ago, when I was in graduate school. This is, of course, the whole reason for being a packrat. It isn't that you'll actually need something a couple of decades hence -- but what fun when you come upon it by accident.

As I remember it, I recited this poem twice to very appreciative audiences, once at a social gathering of mathematicians and once at a retreat for Episcopal college students. (I was neither a mathematician nor an Episcopalian, but they had good parties.) Therefore, since (1) it seems to have wide appeal, and (2) a chief reason to have a blog is to have a "final resting place" for odd bits of writing, and also (3) I have now given you fair warning, I propose to put my poem here.

I like to think that I've grown as a poet since this was written, so I've taken the liberty of slightly improving a turn of phrase here or there. It is a bit of a performance piece: if you find yourself reciting it in public, don't hold back. (The exact level of blood alcohol required for its proper enjoyment is, of course, up to you.)

In Praise of Sneezing

In spring, when the pollen is thick in the air
From flowers and bushes and buds on the trees,
I like to go out when the weather is fair,
But a thing that I like even more is to sneeze.

You might call it strange, or completely absurd --
You may call it a Communist plot, if you please --
But the most welcome sound that ever I've heard
Is the sound of a wonderful, long-delayed sneeze.

For you wait
and you wait
and your nose starts to itch,
And you laugh
or you cry
or you can't decide which,
And you'd do
for that tension to ease --
But the itch disappears and the sneeze never comes.

The student, professor, policeman and thief,
The people with money who do as they please --
There is nothing that brings them the same sweet relief
That they get when they get to the end of a sneeze.

For you wait
and you wait
and your nose starts to itch,
And you laugh
or you cry
or you can't decide which,
And you'd do
for that tension to ease,
Then finally,
finally --
the urge goes away.

There are some thing on earth that a person can buy.
Some things can be sold for appropriate fees.
Some things can be planned. Now, don't ask me why,
But in none of those classes of things is a sneeze.

For you wait
and you wait
and your nose starts to itch,
And you laugh
or you cry
or you can't decide which,
And you'd do
for that tension to ease,
Then finally,
at long last -- it's gone.

When you want to, and don't, then it's torture, at least.
When you need to, and can't, then it's death by degrees.
But at last when it comes, when it's finally released,
When it's over and done with, the panic has ceased,
When you feel like a human and not like a beast,
There is nothing in life that compares to a sneeze.

For you wait
and you wait
and your nose starts to itch,
And you laugh
or you cry
or you can't decide which,
And you'd do
for that tension to ease,
Then finally,
at long last you -- !

Thursday, January 05, 2006


In our family, when a new Harry Potter book comes out, we clear the weekend of all other appointments and read it out loud. This can be a challenge: HP and the Order of the Phoenix took us about thirty hours to complete, from 7 am to 10 pm on both Saturday and Sunday. (The latest volume was a bit shorter, and we polished it off by early Sunday afternoon.) This has become a tradition around our house for the simple reason that, if we didn't all read the book together at the same time, one of us would get to read it first. Can't have that, naturally.

I guess it is fair to say that we are fans. And why not? Rowling's books are some of the best stories around -- intelligent, exciting, hilarious, thought-provoking, and sometimes quite touching. The universe of wizards and muggles is a fascinating place, filled with delightful detail and peopled with dozens of superb characters.

Still, I must confess that, each time a new volume has appeared, I have felt a sense of dread. Not because the books are bad -- we each have our favorites but they have all been good -- but because this time, J. K. Rowling might screw it up.

She might! After all, who could possibly keep it up? All the invention, the wit, the wordplay, the complex storylines, the shocks and surprises, the sly erudition? (I will never forget the wonderful moment when I learned from an old book in a house in Cambridge that the 14th Century alchemist Nicholas Flammel really existed.) It would only be human for Rowling to lay an egg from time to time. The next book could well be a clunker. It is only to be expected. Things go bad, they do, and you shouldn't set your hopes too high. Yet you do, don't you? Even though you know that it will just make it worse when she finally blows it.

But she hasn't done that. Not yet. Not quite! Somehow, each book still breathes new life into the old enchantment, still makes you laugh and gasp at all the right places. Each book manages to find a way to astonish you, in spite of absurdly high expectations. But with each new book, I have worried a little more, because each book in a way puts all of the previous ones at risk. A bad book now would spoil the whole series. And what a catastrophe that would be!

And yet . . . by now, despite myself, I have begun to trust J. K. Rowling. My anxiety about the next (and last) book in the series is tempered by a strange confidence. She has given us the story so far; perhaps she has proven that she can be trusted with its ending.

We all know that writers and movie-makers can disappoint. Tom Clancy was great for about five or six books -- a damn long run, actually -- from The Hunt for Red October on. But by the time of Rainbow Six, if not well before, he was just boiling another pot, alas. The third book in Philip Pullman's trilogy, in my view, diminishes the first two. (Oh, is that all he was up to?) And movie sequels, despite their general profitability and popularity with Hollywood, are seldom worth seeing, even when the original was good. Was anybody out there excited and impressed by the Matrix sequels? Show of hands? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Don't get me started on George Lucas and Star Wars. Look, I'm a forgiving man. The original trilogy was magnificent, even admitting its few false notes, like the over-cute Ewoks. I also quite enjoyed The Phantom Menace, despite its more significant shortcomings. The next one, Send in the Clones or whatever it was, still had a few good things about it. Really it did. But then.

If we have living heroes who are still doing important work, we all know that they may screw it up. Somewhere inside us, I think we are all waiting for it to happen. We wonder whether the next episode will turn it all to rubbish. Trust not in the living, says an inner voice. Only the dead are sure not to disappoint. And the better our heroes have been, the worse it will be when they stumble.

So it was for me with Peter Jackson's film version of The Lord of the Rings. The Fellowship of the Ring was so good, even with all the changes. The realization of place and mood was so fantastic, so overwhelming. The casting and the performances were brilliant. The script did so much to use and preserve Tolkien's language, and even his languages. And so I began to feel a real apprehension about The Two Towers. They just wouldn't be able to keep it up -- how could they? But that movie was excellent too. And I thought: How horrible it would be to get the first two so right and then screw up on The Return of the King!

Yet by that time, I had also begun to trust Jackson and his band of wizards, a little. And The Return of the King film did not disappoint me. They managed to do keep it up, imperfectly to be sure, but very very well, and all the way to the very end. In spite of all doubts and pressures and what must have been years of wearying toil; in spite of the compromises and deletions they were forced to make; in spite of flirting with horrible bad ideas (like having Aragorn face off with Sauron before the Black Gate); in spite of all, they kept the faith.

Imagine for a moment what it must have been like to read The Lord of the Rings as it was first published, volume by volume, between July, 1954 and October, 1955. Imagine the year-long wait for the third installment. You'd be thinking, This is too good. This can't last. The ending cannot be wonderful enough. And yet there would be a hope -- impossible, yes, but also impossible to refuse, like our hopeless hope for Heaven. And hope would whisper, Maybe it can.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Cultural wisdom

Engineering is the real culture of our age. That, and maybe the movies. The movies play the role in our time that opera played in the 19th Century and drama in the 16th: a synthesis of many arts, both visual and otherwise, terribly expensive to create but economically viable because of its broad popularity. The movies form our high "culture" in the humanities sense; but our real culture in the anthropological sense is engineering.

We often forget this, because the engineering culture is usually expressed, not in words, but in things. We are surrounded by thousands upon thousands of artifacts whose forms, functions and materials are shaped by engineers, and these artifacts in turn shape our lives in ways beyond reckoning. Undergirding all of this stuff is a vast and ramified human system of engineering values and practice, and it is this system that I mean when I talk about "engineering culture". Much of the practical wisdom of our age is bound up in that culture of engineering. Like many forms of cultural knowledge, it often exists in implicit form, shared by the engineers themselves as an unspoken "common sense". But I'm always happy when someone discerns and formulates a part of this for the rest of us.

My brother -- the space engineer brother, not the computer guy brother or the Lutheran theologian brother -- has occasionally put some engineering culture into words. I particularly like two of his maxims. Call them PW's Rules of Optimization:
  1. Sometimes it is not optimal to optimize.
  2. You can only optimize one thing at a time.
Rule 1 means that it is not always worth the time and effort to figure out the "best" way to do something. You find something that works, do it, and stop worrying. Severe optimization is really only appropriate when you are conserving some hideously expensive resource. Thus, when designing a spacecraft, you really try to optimize the mass of your equipment, because it is so expensive right now to launch a kilogram into orbit. The same sort of careful husbanding of resources used to apply to computer programming. You'd take pains design your program to use the least memory and processor time, and you'd agonize over trade-offs. But nowadays, except in some very high-end applications, computer time and memory are too cheap not to waste.

I actually think that Rule 1 is a deep and generalizable insight into life. Rule 2 may be even deeper, because it is less obvious. Suppose I am designing a new computer, and I want to make it as fast as possible. Well, it turns out that there are several measures of "speed". I can optimize the clock speed of the processor, or the speed of floating-point operations, or the bus bandwidth, or the disk access time, yada yada yada. It is highly unlikely that I'll be able to optimize more than one of these with a single system. There are always trade-offs.

To cope with this, I can take one of two approaches. I can try to come up with a single "figure of merit" that captures what I really want. For instance, this is what the LINPACK benchmark does, for instance -- essentially, it is a single function of all the different sorts of computer speed. Many figures of merit are a bit hokey -- after all, my computer may not be intended to do LINPACK calculations all day long -- but (remember Rule 1) sometimes you just pick something reasonable and go with it.

The other approach is to adopt a reasonable constraint for all but one of the variables, and then optimize the unconstrained one. This is what we do everyday when we say things like, "I want to buy the largest-memory MP3 player that costs less than $200." Here you have constrained the price and wish to optimize memory. Note that you can have as many constraints as you like, so long as you don't over-constrain yourself out of existence. But in the end you can only optimize one thing. And life works best when you know what it is that you are optimizing.

Here is my zeroth-order theory of economics. Each of us makes choices, like an engineer, subject to the constraints of our own lives. Each of us therefore acts as if we were optimizing something. But of course, we can only be optimizing one variable. That variable is what we (individually) mean by "value". The reason that economics works at all is that, because of Rule 2, "value" can ultimately mean only one thing for each economic agent, despite the complexity of the trade-offs we make. The reason that economics does not work all that well is that we don't really act like idealized engineers, because none of us has a fully defined consistent universal concept of "value". Luckily, we can get along without it. That, of course, is Rule 1.

Like I said, I think this business runs very deep. I am half-convinced that Boethius's discussion of the nature of the Good in The Consolation of Philosophy could be recast in terms of Rule 2. (As an aside, I would rank this as one of my ten all-time favorite books Weird, but true.) But perhaps it would be going a bit far to try to connect modern engineering practice with the insights of a 6th Century philosopher and theologian. Especially here at the end of a post.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Then and now

President George W. Bush, address to the joint session of Congress, September 20, 2001:
Americans are asking: How will we fight and win this war? We will direct every resource at our command -- every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war -- to the disruption and to the defeat of the global terror network.

This war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion. It will not look like the air war above Kosovo two years ago, where no ground troops were used and not a single American was lost in combat.

Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism.
Charles Krauthammer, Fox News Sunday, January 1, 2001 (quoted here)
There's a great irony here. Everybody has been asking of themselves for the last four years why haven't we had a second attack, which everybody expected within weeks or months, certainly years. It didn't happen.

And we knew about the external story. The war in Afghanistan obviously had an effect on Al Qaida. The war in Iraq has diverted terrorists and jihadists into Iraq as opposed to attacking America.

But what we've heard over the last six months with these revelations, these so-called scandals, of the secret prisons where high-level Al Qaida have been held, the coercive interrogation which is under attack in the McCain amendment, and now the NSA eavesdropping -- we have the untold story which the administration could not tell. It knew why we had been protected.

All these defensive measures of gathering intelligence -- we were always weak on human intelligence, and that's why we had 9/11. And we don't have good spies inside Al Qaida. But we had a means, technological, in the NSA eavesdropping, and also other means in capturing these terrorists, of getting information.

It's worked. It's held us safe. And that's why I think in the end the president's going to win the whole argument on presidential power.
I commend also to your reading Dr. Sanity's passionate (and even, perhaps, intemperate) commentary on the Krauthammer quotation.

Media bias and the predictive model

Like many people with views in the right half of the American political spectrum, I have given some thought to the question of media bias. It does seem to exist. Most major media outlets are considerably to the left of the political center-of-gravity of the American electorate, and this significantly influences their coverage of events.

I'm not much interested in arguing this point in this post. For a pretty solid recent piece of social science research on the subject, you might read this. (Betsy Newmark comments cogently here.)

What interests me here is how this bias actually functions. Journalists, of course, publically place great value on even-handedness, and I believe they are mostly sincere in this. Yet they apparently do not practice this virtue in their journalism. How does this happen?

One factor, of course, is that the community of reporters is pretty uniformly liberal. This means that most of the people with whom a reporter discusses his work have biases that confirm his own. In such an "echo chamber", attitudes and approaches that from the outside seem slanted and unfair can pass muster as sensible and balanced.

We mentally locate assertions on a continuum from "undeniable fact" to "unsupported opinion", and we deal with them accordingly. What I am suggesting is that people who live and work among like-minded colleagues will naturally and unconsciously shift statements they like toward the "fact" end of the scale, and statements they dislike toward the "opinion" end of the scale. So if everyone around you agrees that "Bush is a moron," then this sentiment becomes more fact-like for you and so can easily creep in as a presupposition of your news article, despite your abstract commitment to journalistic fairness. (A similar effect, even stronger, can be seen in the faculties of institutions of higher learning.)

Nota bene -- I am not saying that everything is just someone's opinion, or that all opinions are equally arbitrary. Some things are facts. Some judgments based on the facts are more reasonable than others. The "Bush is a moron" meme strikes me as poorly supported by the available evidence. It seems rather to be a sort of playground taunt, like saying "You are fat and ugly" when what you really mean is "I dislike you and the things you do." The rhetorical purpose is to deny the enemy anything that might be considered a virtue. Nevertheless, there are otherwise smart people who take Bush's moronhood as a solid fact and use it as a way of understanding political events.

Lots of people think that unconscious bias in the news media functions in this way. I have a somewhat different theory. It is based on two observations. First, the practice of journalism involves making choices -- what story to cover, what facts to include, etc. Second, although journalists may (like anyone) wish to see their political side prevail, they are probably (like anyone) even more motivated by the desire for success. And what brings success to a reporter or an editor or a news organization? Journalistic success: providing the definitive coverage of an important event or development. But that is trickier than it sounds.

Look at it this way. You are an editor for a major news organization. On any given day there are maybe a hundred things that you might do a news story about, but you can only give prominent coverage to a dozen of them. You have to decide which of these events is likely to be most important. What criterion do you use? Well, the events do not occur in isolation. Each of them is a development in a larger story-line. Some of these larger story-lines will just peter out; others will prove to be crucial turning points in history. You'd like to identify early which story-lines will be most significant, and concentrate on them.

Similarly, within a given story, there are hundreds of facts that might be reported. You'd like to include the facts that will be most important in determining how the story turns out.

But of course, all of these decisions about what stories to tell and how to tell them must be made before things have turned out. You can't wait until next year to report on this year's economic news. You have to decide now how much attention to give to, say, rising fuel prices. If the economy is really strong next year, everyone will say, "Well, those fuel prices weren't such a big deal." But if the economy slides toward recession, everyone will say, "Fuel prices were a critical factor." Both would be reasonable valuations after the fact. But, dagnabbit, as an editor you have to make the "no big deal" versus "critical factor" choice today, before anyone actually knows how things will go. So you make an informed guess and go with it.

(There are other factors at work, of course. Saying that high fuel prices threaten to destroy the economy may be the more exciting option, regardless of the probabilities. Bad news sells newspapers and is, let's face it, more fun to tell. But most journalists are serious people who do not cynically slant their stories just to boost circulation, and to hell with the facts. I don't think they do that, anyway. Or not very much.)

Here is my thesis: the judgment that journalists and editors must make when choosing and assembling stories is essentially a prediction of the future. These people have a model in their heads about how things are likely to happen, and this influences how they cover present events.

Consider Iraq. News stories out of Iraq over the last couple of years have been pretty gloomy. On the other hand, most members of the US military who are actually in Iraq, or who have come back from Iraq, are optimistic about their mission. The news media sees a deteriorating situation. There are bombs all the time, and hundreds of people are killed each year. The political situation is fractious and teetering on the edge of civil war. US forces are showing the strain, over 2000 killed so far. Folks in the military reply something like this: The violence is mostly confined to a small part of the country. There are new local governments in place and three successful national elections in a year. There are new schools, new infrastructure, a tremendous revival of the Iraqi economy, etc. The bad guys have shifted their attacks from 'hard' targest (like US Marines, who shoot back) to 'soft' targets (like Iraqi schoolteachers, who don't) -- a definite sign of weakness, and a shift that is costing them dearly in popular support. The net result is that soldiers and marines are often astounded by the pessimistic cast of the coverage in the US media.

Of course, the real situation is complicated. Good and bad things are happening. Car bombs kill innocents, and new schools open at the same time. In a given week, suppose three car bombs go off and ten new schools open. The news media goes with the car bombs on page 1 and largely ignores the schools, because the reporters and editors generally believe that the bombs are more likely to be decisive to the long-term outcome of the Iraq war than the schools are. In other words, the media has guessed the end of the story already, and they are doing their best in their reporting to lay the groundwork for that ending, to better inform their readers.

If news judgments are made on the basis of a predictive model, an implicit forecast about the future course of events, then present events that do not conform to the model will appear to be "noise" and will to some extent be filtered out. This is done for the noble purpose of helping the reader "make sense" of events, but what it means in effect is that the news is automatically shaped to support the model. So the whole enterprise depends on the accuracy of the a priori model.

Where does the model come from? Some people think that it is just created out of personal biases, pure and simple. The predictive model is spun out of what the journalists want to happen, or fear will happen. I think that this view does disservice to the journalists. By and large, I think they try to base their predictive models on facts. And there's the rub. Because only a small fraction of the facts a reporter has comes from his own direct observation. The rest mostly comes from other media reports -- and these are shaped by the other predictive models of the other journalists.

Therefore, we would expect an arbitrage process at work among the models used by journalists who read one another. Reporter X believes that the economy will decline next year, and uses this judgment to select facts for a story about the weakening economy. This story is read by other journalists. They are more aware of the facts that X emphasizes and less aware of the facts that X filters out as "noise". This influences their own views. Pretty soon, the predictive models have a high level of agreement. Conventional wisdom is born -- not because anyone is consciously grinding an ideological axe, but because they have all developed the same conclusions from the reported facts. But of course, those facts have been selected for reportage precisely because they support a cluster of guesses about the future.

Ideology plays its role, of course, since it influences what future scenarios one finds plausible. The predictive models that the news media are using are not just facts or deductions from fact. And this is the place where the left-of-center politics of the journalists themselves can affect their coverage, in spite of their efforts to be fair-minded. They are not hypocrites with their thumbs on the scale, substituting partisan propoganda for unbiased reporting. They are just trying to help their readers understand and anticipate the world. They are as surprised as anybody when it doesn't work out the way they thought it would. But by that time, of course, it is no longer news.

The answer? Like most interesting problems, we can't fix it; we can only manage it better. The media should be more aware of, and skeptical of, its own set of predictive models. Journalists should say to themselves every morning, "I do not know how all this is going to come out." Because they don't, really. And they should be held accountable for their models. If a reporter spent early 2003 breathlessly reporting how the invasion of Iraq was going to lead to tens of thousands of US casualties in the first six months and a refugee crisis involving millions, then this should not be forgotten. (This is one of the best things that the blogosphere does -- and one of the things that the mainstream media finds most disconcerting.)

I want to conclude by mentioning two places where I think that the media are in fact a bit more culpable for bias. In the first place, I think that reporters have a less-than-defensible desire to fit the facts into a small number of pre-existing story templates. For instance, there are any number of reporters in Washington who are on the lookout for the Scandal That Brings Down Bush. After all, this is what happens to two-term presidents in the modern era. A huge scandal and cover-up in the second term always destroys or diminishes an administration: Nixon and Watergate, Reagan and Iran-Contra, Clinton and Monica. It's a standard (and, for the news folks, highly profitable) format. So, like Californians feeling the start of a tremor, they look at each new story, however trivial, and wonder, "Is this the Big One?" The result is a lot of foolish hype of non-issues and, over time, the vague impression that the present administration is particularly scandal-ridden -- when, by historical standards, it is not.

Second, I think reporters are somewhat dishonest about what they are doing. On the one hand, they say that they want to "make a difference in the world" through their reporting. On the other hand, they also say that they stand apart and observe -- that their job is to cover events, not to influence them. The media loves its influence but cannot frankly admit to it, because its moral standing (such as it is) relies on being "outside the fray". Such doublethink can only promote other sorts of dishonesty and subterfuge, which opens another door to partisan bias.

This can get silly. A New York Times reporter recently stirred up controversy while working on a report about on-line child pornography. (Betsy Newmark notes, and comments, here.) The reporter met and spoke with a kid who was trapped in this world by predatory adults and a drug habit. The reporter went so far as to put the kid in touch with the authorities, which eventually led to the arrest of some pretty scummy people. The controversy was, of course, that the reporter had sacrificed his holy objectivity by intervening in the events he was covering. My naive reaction was, the better man he. And journalists are human beings (and, yes, citizens) before they are journalists.