Monday, July 31, 2006

The "Big Eye" has bigger offspring

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, astronomy

I am a science junkie. I haunt the 500 section of the local library, and the corresponding section of bookstores. While a few scientists write their own books, a larger number work with more literary collaborators. By far the largest number of books in the section are by popularizers, those who studied enough science at some point to write about it intelligently, and can communicate for scientists who can't write (frequently because they're too busy!). But there is nothing like the writing of an involved scientist who can also write very well, and is willing to take/make the time to write for the public.

J. B. Zirker is one of these gems. As the former director of the National Solar Observatory, with a forty-year career as a solar researcher, he has written three books about the sun and solar research. In An Acre of Glass: a History and Forecast of the Telescope he writes about telescopes in general, their development over the past three centuries, and his expectations of the near future in telescope development.

For much of the 20th Century, the two largest telescopes in the world were the 200 inch (5 meter) Hale telescope at Palomar, and the 100 inch (2.5 meter) Hooker telescope at Mt. Wilson. I used to live in the foothill area of Pasadena, CA, and more than once I hiked up the trail over which the 100-inch mirror—and many tons of associated equipment—was borne to the summit. On occasion, I hiked over to the Hooker instrument's dome and peeked inside. In the 1970s, when this picture was taken (not by me), there was a short viewer's platform and viewing window. I was awed by a telescope the size of a Greyhound bus. I haven't seen Hale at Palomar, but I'd love to.

Now, since the late 1970s, new technologies have allowed the production of telescopes as large as 400 inches (the 10 meter Keck telescopes). Larger instruments are being planned, right up to one called OWL, for OverWhelmingly Large telescope: 4,000 inches, or 100 meters (328 feet). Think of a mirror the size of ten suburban lots (2 acres), polished to an accuracy of 15-20 nanometers (less than a millionth of an inch), held in a mounting that won't let it sag by more than this amount, that can be pointed at any part of the sky.

Dr. Zirker brings us the background story behind many large instruments astromers have crafted, and those to come. He dwells on the incredible scientific discoveries each new instrument enables, and those that'll have to await the next big mirror.

Some may ask, "Why do you only mention mirrors? I thought telescopes had a big lens in front." Many do. The most common small telescope actually comes in a set of two: a pair of binoculars. Also, many folks have a stovepipe-size bargain telescope with a lens two or three inches across, and have had a look at the Moon or Saturn through it. But there is a problem with lenses. They don't focus all colors to the same point. Binoculars and other lens-type telescopes have two or three lenses bonded together at the front, each of a different kind of glass. They compensate for each other's deficiencies, so you can see a clear image without too much "secondary color." Also, the pieces of glass you need for a big lens, let's say four feet across, are very thick and heavy. The biggest practical refractor (lens-type) telescope is 44 inches in diameter and weighs a couple of tons.

Mirrors focus all colors to the same point. There are other issues that need to be addressed, but basically you just need to find a way to hold a few micrograms of aluminum or silver in place on a curved surface. A typical "first mirror" for an amateur telescope maker is six or eight inches across (15-20 cm), and weighs a few pounds. However, if you were to scale down the Palomar mirror from 200 inches to eight, it would be eggshell-thin, with an egg-crate hollow back, weighing about two pounds. This construction couples the great rigidity needed, with lighter weight (the 200-inch mirror weighs almost 20 tons; a 20-ton lens would be only 80-90 inches across). Larger telescopes use even more innovative techniques to reduce weight still further, but keep that thin metal surface in just the right configuration.

Even with modern detectors that can record nearly every photon, you need a lot of glass to record very distant objects with reasonable exposure times. The orbiting Hubble telescope, with its 2.4 meter mirror (just a little smaller than the Hooker orbiting Greyhound bus), spent twelve days collecting the Ultra Deep Field image that shows galaxies and proto-galaxies that were among those earliest formed in the universe. If OWL gets built, and advanced optical correction gives it sufficient acuity, it could collect the same image in about ten minutes.

I can't do much astronomy, but I love reading about it, and I love this book.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Grasped by the essence of things

kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, anthologies

In a post on July 14, I reviewed Matthew Hughes's book Black Brillion. The human "collective unconscious" or Commons plays a large part in the book. Three of the stories in Hughes's 2005 collection The Gist Hunter & Other Stories develop the background of Guth Bandar, who helps Baro Harkness use the Commons to unravel a mystery and foil an ancient plot. In the novel, Bandar is rather timid and fussy, though he exhibits surprising pluck in a crisis. These stories explore his younger days, when it seems he had considerably more pluck, or perhaps dumb luck.

Henghis Hapthorn, discriminator extraordinaire (that means he's a lot like a far-future Sherlock Holmes), is featured in six other stories, also set in the Archonate milieu of Guth Bandar and Baro Harkness. This is one of the farthest-future settings one can have, the Sun being quite close to bloating into a red giant and engulfing Old Earth. Fortunately, humans have spread to a number of other star systems, and star travel is within the means of at least the well-to-do. Hapthorne wrestles with the implications of a cusp in the cycles of essential laws, with logic soon to give way to magic; indeed, it is doing so—in fits and starts—as these stories progress.

Four final stories give the author a chance to kick up his heels in a few other arenas. My favorite is "Go Tell the Phoenicians," set in a more repressive version of the Archonate, perhaps pre-Archonate...and explores the turn of the worm that will end the repression.

I rejoiced in the focus of Black Brillion on things less violent or sexual than is the norm today. In a couple of the Guth Bandar stories, Hughes shows he's as prone to adolescent fantasy as any, and has an arena in which to take it to extremes few others might dream of. He manages to make one tale hilarious rather than scurrilous, in which our hero returns from misadventures in the Commons with elephantine ears and nose...and "other nose". Oh, well, it'll take a while to get some of that out of my memory!

I've scared up copies of another couple of the author's books. Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Big Brother has a Bigger Brother

kw: book reviews, science fiction, political fiction, rfid

In a previous post (Big Brother in Your Pocket... ), I reviewed a book warning about the risks of proliferating RFID devices, such as toolroad pass tokens, smart cards, and trackable clothing tags. Now I find that, just about a year ago, a novel that illustrates the same premise appeared: The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks. After a bit of searching, I read that the book is the first of a planned trilogy. Will the final denouement be tragic, as is 1984? We'll have to wait and see.

The author claims to live "off the Grid." The Grid is the web of technology that tracks us: financial transactions such as our use of personal checks and ATMs; use of electronic convenience tokens such as EZ-Pass and Speedpass; purchases with credit cards. Recently I showed my wife how to look through the traffic system's surveillance cameras. I use them sometimes to look ahead on a planned trip, where congestion is likely. As we watched an intersection near our home, the camera's view suddenly slewed around, and it zoomed in on one car waiting for the light. The angle didn't allow reading the plate, but it would have been possible. However, the make and color of the car were evident. I told her, "The police just took control of that camera to look for something or someone. We're along for the ride."

Project the trends forward a few years, maybe ten at most. What will life be like? John Twelve Hawks shows us one possibility. While there is a mystical element to the story—it is a fantasy about Travelers who can roam free of their bodies—the dystopian background is all to possible.

There are dozens of Web pages with speculation about who Mr. Twelve Hawks really is. If his novel has the appropriate effect, we'll never find out. If instead the violent reaction of the public to recent attempts to spread RFID tracking becomes complacency, we'll know who the author is in just a few years, at the point it has become both physically impossible and a criminal offense to live off the Grid.

A few points to ponder:

  • Most electronically operated doors use a fail-safe mechanism: they open when power is removed. The ones where I work use a strong electromagnet. Others use a latch held in place by a solenoid that drops out when the current is cut off. All such doors can be opened by a HERF device, a High-Energy Radio Frequency pulse generator that burns out electronics from a distance. You don't harm the electromagnet or solenoid, just the tiny transister that controls it. At present, public safety laws don't allow the sale of door latches that would lock someone inside a building if they fail. That just means Big Brother paranoids will have to make their own...
  • A Traveler who is one personality of a Dissociator or Multiple Personality won't have to leave his/her body unattended.
  • Any RFID device cannot communicate from inside a metal shield, a foil wrapping, metal-mesh lining of a glove on the hand for an implantable type, or a conductive plastic bag such as the gray or black bags delicate electronic parts are sold in.
  • A smaller version of the HERF device should disable any tag, particularly if you know the RFID tag's resonant frequency. It wouldn't do the damage a microwave oven does to smart cards and clothing tags.
  • Finally, do keep up-to-date by bookmarking Caspian and check in from time to time.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Suffering Lebanon

kw: opinion, world affairs, mideast, lebanon, hezbollah, hizbollah

World War 3 is heating up. The news continues full of the growing war between Israel and Syria/Iran, through their proxy Hezbollah. Syria provides money and logistical support, and Iran most of the weapons. These two countries and one organization lead, by far, those who are devoted to eliminate Israel.

Let's be clear. They don't want to "beat" Israel, or subjugate it, but to destroy it. They would, if they could, kill every Jew.

Suppose Israel is defeated, and destroyed. These folks know that there are more Jews living in New York City than in the nation of Israel. That there are millions more Jews, mainly concentrated in major cities worldwide. They won't stop with Israel. And now they have, or soon will have, nuclear weapons.

A military man I know once defined peace thus: "Peace means you have no living enemies."

As an organization, I believe Hezbollah will cease to exist in my lifetime. Sooner or later the present leaders of Iran and Syria will also pass away, but probably not before they lose a war or two. Just as the present Iranian leaders are more moderate than the Ayatollah Khomeini, the next generation might also be more moderate yet. If not, WW3 will continue.

A lot depends on continued American support for Israel.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Sharing a body

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, mpd, dissociative identity disorder

In 1972, about the time my first wife divorced me, my uncle divorced my aunt. This aunt, my mother's sister, came to talk with me. She talked about the deep emotional connection she and her husband had had, almost like telepathy in the early years; and about his extreme volatility, particularly later on. She said something that amazed me. When he was upset with himself, he would beat himself to unconsciousness with his own fists. I couldn't understand how it was possible. I recalled a verse from the book of Ephesians: "No man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it..."

Reading A Fractured Mind: My Life with Multiple Personality Disorder by Robert B. Oxnam, someone who also beat himself, but apparently not to the point of concussion, I understand that my uncle was probably a multiple, someone whose mind housed several personalities, including at least one who was a hateful abuser of my uncle's body.

As understood by many psychiatrists, MPD—now more frequently called DID, for dissociative identity disorder—results from child abuse on a truly horrific scale. One or more personalities are split off that carry the original innocence, having no memory of the abuse. Yet there is usually at least one personality created that assumes the attitude and behavior of the abuser(s), and one that takes all the abuse, whether or not it manifests in self-beating. The dissociation is the disconnect between the memories of the various internal persons; some may have access to all memories, but at least one is usually walled off from the rest, and can carry on daily activities with seeming aplomb...except that at least some of the others occasionally "get out" and control the body at various times. The dominant personality is typically in denial that there are blank spots in his/her memory.

Dr. Oxnam, a very successful specialist on Asia, became an alcoholic and was burning out. About six months into psychiatric analysis, one of the "others" took over and spoke with (mostly cursed at) the psychiatrist. Dr. Jeffrey Smith, who wrote a fascinating epilogue to the book, realized that Dr. Oxnam suffered from MPD/DID, and set about helping him recover. As of the writing of the book, eight of eleven "alters" have been integrated into three, who at present cooperate, and may not further integrate.

One point brought out several times is that integration of one personality with another is not like death for one of them. The memories, skills, and attitudes of both are joined into a more rounded whole. The hard part is to get the two to agree on a set of values and beliefs. If I understand correctly, the three current alters in Dr. Oxnam, Robert, Bobby, and Wanda, have widely differing beliefs that lead them to remain separate at present. Of course, I am oversimplifying!

The narrative in A Fractured Mind is told in at least eight voices, as each alter that can, is allowed to speak for him/herself. I found this fascinating. The only other author I've observed who can write in divergent voices, convincingly, is Theodore Sturgeon (I wonder...?).

Dr. Oxnam and Dr. Smith consider MPD to be entirely a product of experience, with no genetic basis. I wonder, though, if some folks are more disposed to dissociate than others; perhaps much more so (see the last URL below). They particularly point out that Bipolar Disorder (manic-depression) is genetic again, I wonder. In the Introduction, the phrase is used, " experience may be an extreme exaggeration of what is normal human behavior."

This statement mirrors almost exactly my own statement, as a Bipolar individual. Everyone has higher and lower moods that seem to occur on a schedule that does not always relate to external events that might cause happiness or sadness. With Bipolar 2, as I have, the highest and lowest moods can become disruptive of one's life, and with Bipolar 1, they require medication for any semblance of "ordinary" life to be possible.

And, I've had experiences that may be closer to dissociation than usual. Primarily, in my teenage years I purposely constructed a personality to handle human interaction. I realized I was a hopeless nerd, more at home with machines than with people. I couldn't read body language with anything like the facility of my younger brothers. I purposely gave away a handful of IQ points to develop processing habits to make up some of the lack. Many years later, taking a 2-week leadership training course at a nice ranch, I had to take a personality assessment. This was one of those big deals, where you answer hundreds of questions about yourself and your work, with instructions to answer quickly, with little thought. Three customer plus three colleagues answer the same questions about you. You also answer the same set of questions, answering as you imagine a perfect employee fitting your job description would answer them.

The result was a huge shock. My colleagues, my customers, and my "ideal employee" all lined up very, very well, but my personal reaction results were almost perfectly opposite. As I said to a trusted friend later, "I have them all fooled. But 'the machine' was revealed, unchanged after all these decades!" I call my original self, that doesn't know how to relate to people, "the machine." I was not the only person who was shaken by their results. Our group called that day "suicide Tuesday."

I guess I have tremendous will power. I came up with a new slogan a few days later: "You cannot build a tree." On my own, over the next five months, I sought within myself any traces of "normal" human abilities, and gradually discarded my home-brew personality. I found I was able to assume the skills I'd constructed, melded with decades of human experience, to make myself a more balanced person. Now, nearing 60 years of age, I suppose, in 60s terminology, I "have it together."

Well, not completely. A couple years after "suicide Tuesday" I found I am Bipolar. To this day, I am almost like two different people. However, there is no dissociation. Reading Dr. Oxnam's book has greatly helped my own journey of self-discovery. One thing in particular, I know I am not MPD/DID. I have continuous memories back to age 2, and my brothers' stories to cross-check. What I do have is a lot more sympathy for multiples, and a bit of curiosity, whether there are any multiples who didn't get abused into the condition.

Useful URLs:

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

This may be Kansas, Toto, but it isn't the SAME Kansas

kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, anthologies

Landscapes is Kevin J. Anderson's show-off collection. A writer of great range, he stretches his muscles here (sometimes, quite literally) to present stories from all over the map...a big map, megaparsecs across. Actually, few of the SciFi stories here are space opera. He likes to mess with time even more, and other stories are sideways "what-if" that could happen anywhere, or straight, hard-SF near-future extrapolations.

Fourteen stories are billed as Science Fiction, seven as fantasy, and his "The Great Outdoors" section consists of two essays and a "backpacking on a new planet" mini-epic. Two of the fantasy pieces are really horror. "Santa Claus is Coming to Get You" shows how to leave just enough to the reader's imagination...including the ending.

I'll skip my traditional ideas list, and let two examples suffice (too many of the core ideas also give away the point).

"The Bistro of Alternate Realities" is the cream of the time travel stories. A researcher who travels to "nearby" parallel worlds has learned to hook up with a number of her alternate selves. But the truism that we often give ourselves the worst advice is even truer when there are a handful of "ourselves".

"TechnoMagic" takes Clarke's dictum—"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"—to make an end run around the Alien Among Us theme.

I've just added Anderson to the list of authors whose books I look for.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Is NYC your cup of tea?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, essays

When I read in the publisher's blurb that Colson Whitehead had "won critical acclaim for his literary novels" I counted it a big negative. The more "literary" a novel is, the less substance it typically has. However, this was a book of essays, and it was quite short, even in the Large Print edition.

Whitehead's The Colossus of New York: a City in Thirteen Parts does consist of essays, but they're my first exposure to "essays" in stream-of-consciousness mode. Took a little getting used to. Another word I don't like to see in a blurb is "evocative." In this case, however, the essays do evoke the New York City experience, quite well.

It isn't quite true that every sentence has a different person's viewpoint, but it is close. I suppose it is one way to get across that there are eight million New Yorkers, and as the author says, each has a personal NYC inside. This seems to be the theme of the book. Your NYC is not my NYC, even if "you" and "I" live on the same block, or next door.

A history teacher I once had said most of us live a "dumbbell life": there is a cluster of places near our home, a cluster of places near our job, and the road between them. We seldom get outside that dumbbell. Most of the time that is our world. Author Whitehead's NYC is bigger than that, because he expresses quite a tendency to get around the city. Perhaps a better simile for his inner map of NYC is a still shot of one of Calder's mobiles: a cluster of amorphous shapes with paths between.

I've visited Queens a lot, because of church connections. I've been to Manhattan twice, and I don't care for it, any of it. I am not an anthill kind of guy. I left Los Angeles (and I lived inside LA city limits for about a year) because it is an anthill. I like small cities and towns better. The nearest city to where I live now has 70,000 residents, and I hate to go downtown.

Thanks to Colson Whitehead, I get a taste of New York experience without having to go there.

Friday, July 14, 2006

That which answers all answers none...fortunately

kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, crime fiction

At last! An author capable of writing a book with an engaging style, compelling plot, interesting characters, and exciting new ideas, who doesn't bother cluttering up the story with oversexed or wantonly vicious characters or scenes.

Matthew Hughes is relatively new to the Science Fiction/Fantasy scene, but is an established writer and journalist and speechwriter. He writes crime/suspense fiction as Matt Hughes. His new book Black Brillion combines both. I am glad he refers to this work as Fantasy, for it is set in a time so far future—the Sun is close to going Red Giant—that one could not hope to imagine the technology.

This is a story of transformation, on many levels. The protagonist, one Baro Harkness, a policeman or "scroot" (the police enterprise is named "The Bureau of Scrutiny"), forced to work alongside a criminal he recently arrested, learns a few things about himself, humanity, and existence. A most welcome lesson: any unique tool or skill can be used as a weapon.

The plot revolves about a particularly dreadful alien species, apparently extinguished millennia earlier. Yet the viewpoint is not unitary, and one comes to realize that the common practices of one culture may seem irredemably evil to another...and vice versa. Hughes does not give us much from the Dree viewpoint, just enough to elicit the tiniest twinge of pity that they had to be expunged, though the book ends with a bit of doubt, whether they really are extinct.

The concept of "the commons," an ancient, corporate store of archetypical memories, drags one along, hoping for more. We'd all like to gain control of our dreams (as someone who begins dreaming whenever my eyes close, even when awake, I've been trying to learn such control for decades). The vivid descriptions of the waking dreamscape doubled my desire.

The title material, a type of Philosopher's Stone, along with its blue, red, and other-colored siblings, is supposedly a distillation of ancient industrial waste from our time. This I find the least plausible of the ideas...I am too much the Geologist and Chemist!

I'll be looking for more of this author's titles, scouring out existing ones, and awaiting future offerings.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A stable of stable staples

kw: book reviews, science fiction, anthologies

Writer after editor after fan bemoans the modest quantity of Eileen Gunn's fiction. As one editor put it, her normal pace is two or three stories per decade. For Gunn, quality trumps quantity. We might wish for more...what we have is what we get.

The 2004 collection of her short stories, Stable Strategies and others, shows just how diverse her mind is. Their publication dates ranging over thirty years, these twelve gems range from a very, very generic and adaptable recipe, to the barely fictional, to as far out as you care to go. As a bonus, in the introduction, she offers "the secret of writing" which is a friend's advice: "You must learn to overcom your...revulsion for your own work." Perhaps she took it, and increased her output to three, rather than two, stories per decade.

The stories, ideas and my comments:

  • Stable Strategies for Middle Management - take Kafka's "Metamorphosis" and put it in a business setting where people gradually morph (she really shouldn't use the word mutate) into insects that reflect their characteristics.
  • Fellow Americans - Dick Nixon got out of politics and went into television; the Presidency took a different turn in his absence. Make it wildly hilarious...
  • Computer Friendly - Revolutions restore the diversity of society that bureaucracy seeks to eliminate. The genesis of a revolutionary or two.
  • The Sock Story - Surreal sock steals soul!
  • Coming to Terms - Packing up the belongings of one's dead searches the soul. A deft story of such a search, with touch of the fantastic.
  • Lichen and Rock - As we grow, we realize that the world changes us. What if we could change—i.e. switch—worlds?
  • Contact - A beautiful rendering of an old idea: the (literal) meeting of minds with an alien. So many stories, this included, rely on telepathy, I wonder if most SciFi writers are wise enough to despair that we'll ever learn to communicate with aliens once we find some. After all, we are no smarter than dolphins, and haven't got very far in generations of trying.
  • What Are Friends For? - The destruction of Earth and most of humanity, and the forced removal of a very few, awaits only the cultural recording of an alien ethologist. How do you slow it down?
  • Ideologically Labile Fruit Crisp - Philosophically deconstructed, generic recipe.
  • Spring Conditions - A piece of amorphous horror that won praise from Stephen King.
  • Nirvana High (with Leslie What) - Telepaths and others with "special talents" are likely to pose a discipline problem in public schools. Is putting them all in one school system likely to make things any better? By the way, in my opinion, if there is a mechanism of telepathy, it'll work only between two brains of exquisitely similar construction. Two telepaths could read each others' minds, but nobody else's.
  • Green Fire (with Andy Duncan, Pat Murphy, & Michael Swanwick) - This was a round-robin story, so wrenching twists are the norm. Mix a Tesla coil with other experimental circuitry, all mounted in a battleship...could it affect the structure or properties of matter...or of spacetime? (not really, but it's a fun read)

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

What price Utopia?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, utopias, dystopias

Should you inherit a half billion, or win it in a State lottery, what would you do with it? The two folks I know who won millions in the lottery say they are heartily sorry they every bought the Lotto ticket...but I don't notice them giving it back. The one near-billionaire I know, who happens to have earned it, building a huge fortune from a merely large family fortune, is a modest fellow, having no utopian pretensions.

In his 1879 classic Les Cinq cents millions de la B├ęgum Jules Verne contrives to endow two men, both scientists but one French, the other German, with equal shares in a half-billion-franc fortune. Each decides to build a city. So far, so good.

The French doctor Sarrasin, a student of hygiene, obtains a large tract of land in Oregon and establishes France-Ville as a healthful, industrious place, and example to the world. The German chemist Schultze, seemingly in a piece of me-too-ism, obtains a similar plot ten leagues (about 30 English miles) distant, where he establishes Stahlstadt (Steel City), where his workers make superior cannons; he jump-starts the international weapons trade, mid-Victorian style. His passion is to first show up the French city, then to destroy it, with an enormous new weapon of his invention. To give away a portion of the ending: a laboratory accident results in Dr. Schultze being flash-frozen, bringing Stahlstadt to a halt. I guess Verne found this a simpler solution than having the French rapidly invent a counter-weapon.

The English title is The Begum's Millions. This 2005 re-translation by Stanford L. Luce is published by Wesleyan University Press, in their "early classics of science fiction" series. Reading the apparatus (Arthur B. Evans, ed.), the value of a more accurate translation is clear. The earlier English edition by Kingston is more of an overly-colloquial paraphrase.

The editor makes much of the actual oppressiveness of both cities. Though France-Ville is intended as a happy, healthful place, the hygienic environment is attained at the expense of numerous rules most folks would find intrusive. However, this aspect doesn't really come out in the text. There is but one chapter that describes France-Ville, in the form of a newspaper article told from a German viewpoint. Most of the book is taken up with the story of a young Frenchman (an Alsatian) who infiltrates Stahlstadt to learn of the secret weapons and plans. He poses as a Swiss engineer (to explain his accent), and gains Schultze's confidence. As Verne states in his correspondence, Schulteze's city is "more interesting" than Sarrasin's.

With this novel, Jules Verne began to express his political fears. His first, unpublished novel Paris in the Twentieth Century was very negative, and he had to publish a number of more cheerful books to attain the stature that allowed him to present cautionary material later in his career. From his correspondence, he also grew more pessimistic with age. I find his career similar to Mark Twain's, in the growing pessimism and black humor of his later days (and I find even the relatively early work "A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" quite appalling, in the "hero's" annihilation of some 30,000 armored knights).

Verne was as prescient in his fears as he was in his science. The German-French antipathy filled the world with war for fifty years. Though a side effect was to effectively force the U.S. to become a superpower, it also did so for the Russia of Lenin and Stalin. I find the juxtaposition of the US and USSR too uncomfortably close to that of France-Ville with Stahlstadt! And the end of the "Cold War" and destruction of the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall came about as a denouement nearly as fanciful as the sudden freezing of Schultze.

I have to say it: the Berlin Wall came down on my birthday...I was on my way to work, driving alone instead of in the pool van. When the announcement came over the radio, I pulled off the road and cried a long time. I could still taste the sense of immense betrayal I'd felt at age 14 when the Wall was built. The tremendous relief I felt that day still makes me teary.

Makes me wonder if Verne got hold of Wells's time machine...

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Implausible Deniability

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, politics, terrorism, statecraft

I lived about a year in East Los Angeles in the 1970s, in the Barrio...don't ask me why! I got to know a kid named Tony who was the leader of a gang of youngsters all under 16 years old. All the older kids were already in jail or prison, so these kids pretty much ran the place. I lived with nine others. We were college students, renting two houses. We suffered a little petty trespassing and thievery, then one day a more major theft from our premises. We went looking for Tony.

Tony usually ran with a couple guys, bodyguards I suppose, but that day there were eight of us. Tony of course denied any of "his guys" were responsible. But we simply told him, we didn't care who did it, we knew all the kids for a half mile around were under him. Anything more happened, we were coming after him. We made it clear we could "take" any number of "his guys" he cared to throw at us, but that we would be sure he, personally, suffered, very much. End of story.

Would that it were so easy to deal with a nation like Syria that trains, supports, and offers sanctuary to several groups of terrorists, perhaps numbering a thousand or so. After the Twin Towers attack of 9/11/01, we couldn't just make the Taliban leaders suffer. They seemed to welcome that. We had to annihilate their military capability. I'd say we did just that, about 95%. A small number of Taliban fighters are still waging a guerilla war against us.

In Deadly Connections: States that Sponsor Terrorism, Daniel Byman analyzes for the general reader (i.e., political innocents like me) the connections between several of today's more important sponsors of terrorism, including the rather unique case of the Taliban with Al Q'aida (there are so many ways to spell this, I just picked one). Here is what I take away from the book.

  • Terrorism is the warfare of the weak.
  • Sponsoring terrorist groups is typically (not always) the foreign policy of a state too weak to affect events directly.
  • "Passive sponsorship," usually turning a blind eye, is a result either of being too weak to drive the group out, or of political naivety, thinking they pose little threat.
  • States that sponsor terrorists often claim they are not responsible for their depredations. Nobody is fooled.

States that sponsor terrorism for ideological reasons (Syria, Iran, and the Taliban are the sharpest modern examples) are the least likely to change their ways, because they think they are doing God's work (I discuss the question "Does the Devil know he is evil?" in a post of about ten days ago). The only state to seemingly about-face on the issue, that formerly was an ideological sponsor, was Libya, just in the past couple of years. It took Qaddafi some thirty years to come to such a point, and even the minor changes in stance we have seen in Iran since the mid-1980s took thirty years and the passing on of the earlier, more radical leaders.

Modern religious terrorism is not a simple problem, and in my opinion, the current crop of terrorist organizations will be defeated only over one to two centuries of effort...if at all! But they most likely will die away over that time, even if they are not militarily eliminated, just because later generations have less fire than their forefathers, and later zealots don't join old groups, they start new ones.